09 April 2012

Ninjas, Vikings, and Celtic Fancy

Those of you with long memories may recall how last summer I enlightened you both by exploring a remarkable episode of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in which the viridian foursome visited the Emerald Isle, there to stroll inconspicuously through a Dublin as empty as though the Queen were visiting, before shacking up in a castle that had somehow evaded the tender cares of An Taisce and thwarting an assault on my home city by the denizens of Dublin Zoo's pets corner.

No, really. Go and look.

Anyway, early in the lads' adventures Splinter takes them through Fusiliers' Arch -- that's Traitors' Gate to the more unreconstructedly nationalist among you -- into Stephen's Green, there to tell them of Ireland's history, with the aid of the many statues in the park. He homes in straight onto a statue of Ireland's principle patron saint, there to tell the boys that Ireland is a land of magical legends, including that of Saint Patrick, who drove all the snakes and other reptiles out of Ireland.

No, really, that's what Splinter says. 

Now, there are at least four things wrong with this. First, although there's legendary accretion around the character of Patrick, he was a real historical figure, rather than a magical legend. Second, Patrick supposedly drove the snakes -- and only the snakes -- out of Ireland, with the few lizards we have being left to roam freely. Third, there is no statue of Patrick in St Stephen's Green. Fourth, if there were, it probably wouldn't look like this:

So, anyway, I was reminded of this recently after reading a letter in the Irish Times a few weeks back.

I would have loved this when I was in primary school...
Seemingly the American O'Brien Clan Foundation has decided that there ought to be a statue to Brian Boru, the victor of Clontarf, in Dublin; in principle this is a nice idea, and one that I espoused myself in school when I was eleven years old. The letter begins:
'The Victorian ambiance of St Stephen’s Green seems perfect for a classical equestrian statue of Ireland’s greatest High King, Brian Boru, the millennium of whose death is fast approaching. 
We believe Brian Boru deserves the place at the centre of the park, where the statue of King George once stood. Once in place, it would appear to visitors as though the park was designed around the likeness of an Irish leader, rather than a foreign colonial ruler, or bed of flowers. 
In his address to the assembled troops before the Battle of Clontarf, Brian Boru spoke of Irishmen fighting for their country, surely the first ever mention of the notion of Irish nationality? Brian Boru was the first and only High King to unite the warring tribes of Irish into a nation. His was the greatest Irish life ever lived. Were the Office of Public Works to permit a monument to be erected, people would have the chance to pause and reflect about the sublime achievements of Brian Boru, and drawing inspiration from it, enrich their own lives.'
And it concludes:
'Texas Pastor Terrell O’Brien, who is also an accomplished monumental sculptor, famous for his statue of Rev Billy Graham, in front of the university he founded, has been chosen by the O’Briens to carry out the project. 
A photograph of a rough model he is working on is viewable at obrienclan.com/raising-a-monument-to-brian-boru. The scheme is simple: We will pay for the statue, and its erection, and hopefully the Office of Public Works, and the art adviser can help with the proper permits and approvals.'

Now, call me old-fashioned, but remarkably aquiline features aside, isn't this statue of Brian just a bit similar to the fictitious statue of Patrick in the Ninja Turtles cartoon? I'm not suggesting for even one moment that Terrell O'Brien copied his maquette from the cartoon's take on our patron saint, but it seems to me that it might be a bad idea to have a statue so similar to the cartoon Patrick in the very spot where the cartoon Patrick is supposedly located. It could confuse tourists, after all. Especially the sort who like to wear Hawaiian shirts and play frisbee in cities so desolate that Cillian Murphy could show up any minute.

Seriously, look how similar the statues are: you'll note that Brian appears to have inherited Patrick's clothes, and is brandishing two cruciform shapes just as Britain's greatest son is portrayed as doing. The horses are a mirror image of each other, once you correct for the fact that only a miracle could explain how Patrick's horse is balancing so elegantly on its left legs.

What might have inspired this pose, you might ask, other than that mounted Prima Porta rip off we know as the Marcus Aurelius statue on the Capitoline? 

Ah, folklore...
Well, the centrepiece of the Irish Times letter reads as follows, quoting, it says, from the Annals of Innisfallen to describe the 73-year-old High King engaging in a fine piece of battlefield exhortation:
'Their ranks had been formed before daylight, and as the sun rose, Brian rode through the lines of his soldiers with a crucifix in one hand, and a drawn sword in the other; he reminded them of the day selected by the pagan invader to offer battle, and exhorted them to conquer or die. Standing in the centre of his army, and raising his powerful voice, his speech was worthy of so great a king and so good a man:  
"Be not dismayed my soldiers, because my son Donough is avenging our wrongs in Leinster; he will return victorious, and in the glory of his conquests you shall share. 
On your valor rests the hopes of your country today; and what surer grounds can they rest upon? Oppression now attempts to bend you down to servility; will you burst its chains and rise to the independence of Irish freemen? Your cause is one approved by Heaven. You seek not the oppression of others; you fight for your country and sacred altars. It is a cause that claims heavenly protection. In this day’s battle the interposition of that God who can give victory will be singly manifested in your favour. 
Let every heart, then, be the throne of confidence and courage. You know that the Danes are strangers to religion and humanity; they are inflamed with the desire of violating the fairest daughters of this land of beauty, and enriching themselves with the spoils of sacrilege and plunder. The barbarians have impiously fixed, for their struggle, to enslave us, upon the very day on which the Redeemer of the world was crucified. Victory they shall not have! from such brave soldiers as you they can never wrest it; for you fight in defence of honor, liberty and religion – in defence of the sacred temples of the true God, and of your sisters, wives and daughters. 
Such a holy cause must be the cause of God, who will deliver your enemies this day into your hands. Onward, then, for your country and your sacred altars!".'
Stirring stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. Still, without wanting to be a party pooper, I think it mightn't be a bad idea to inject some reality into this narrative.

A touch of history...
Firstly, I'm far from convinced this is from the Annals of Innisfallen. It might be from the eighteenth-century farrago of fact, folklore, and full-blown mythologising that's known as the Dublin Annals of Innisfallen, but if you look at the year 1014 in the actual Annals of Innisfallen, you'll find the following passage:
'Great warfare between Brian and the foreigners of Áth Cliath, and Brian then brought a great muster of the men of Ireland to Áth Cliath. After that the foreigners of Áth Cliath gave battle to Brian, son of Cennétig, and he was slain, with his son Murchad, royal heir of Ireland, and Murchad's son, namely, Tairdelbach, as also the princes of Mumu round Conaing, son of Donn Cúán, and round Domnall son of Diarmait, king of Corcu Bascinn, and round Mac Bethad son of Muiredach, king of Ciarraige Luachra, and also Tadc Ua Cellaig, king of Uí Maine, and many others. There were also slain in that battle Mael Mórda son of Murchad, king of Laigin, together with the princes of the Laigin round him, and the foreigners of the western world were slaughtered in the same battle.'
It's a bit dry, isn't it? It's certainly not the Mel Gibson-esque patriotic fantasy that the O'Brien's are quoting.

Here's the thing. Clontarf, contrary to popular belief, wasn't what we think it was, and it didn't really matter all that much.

The Vikings had been a spent force in Ireland for decades before Clontarf. Under Olaf Sigtryggsson, Dublin had ruled over a big chunk of north Leinster in the mid-tenth century, but at the battle of Tara, fought in 980, Máel Sechnaill II, King of Meath, defeated Olaf, forcing the Dubliners to pay tribute to the Irish henceforth; it was Tara, not Clontarf, that had decisively ensured that Vikings would not rule in Ireland.

Clontarf, on the other hand, is best understood as a battle between rival Irish kings. Máel Mórda, king of Leinster, had rebelled against Brian Boru, the High King of the day, and although Vikings made up a large part of his army, the Vikings of Dublin did not take part in the battle on their doorstep; indeed, although Sigtrygg Silkenbeard, king of Dublin, was Máel Mórda's son-in-law, he remained neutral in the conflict between the two Irish kings. And well he might, for Vikings served in Brian's army too, and Brian had been the third husband of Sigtrygg's mother!

The tale of Clontarf grew with the telling. Vikings remembered it as a heroic encounter between champions, while as time went by Dubliners grew embarrassed about their Viking heritage and recast the battle as a clash of nations. The reality is that the Vikings were an important presence in medieval Ireland following their defeat at Tara. Though they remained an important -- if decreasingly distinctive -- element in Irish life right up to the arrival of the Normans in 1169, after Tara they would never again threaten to be an dominant one; the Irish and Norse nobility were deeply intermingled, and it's schoolboy nonsense to think of Clontarf as a heroic Irish victory against sinister foreigners. 

Then again, schoolboy nonsense has its charms. I suspect Chesterton would have said that there's truth buried there, the kind of truth that academics too often forget. 

1 comment:

Shane said...

I agree that he has been overly romanticized but if they knocked down the statue of the Duke of Wellington and replaced it with this, I certainly would not be unhappy.