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Emperor of the Irish


April 7, 2015 by jeldredge1

For my digital site review, I first thought about looking at Trinity College’s online presentation of The Book of Kells, since it is the presentation of a well-known manuscript in a more accessible format.  However, I was drawn to looking at the other offerings by the college, mostly by their eye catching graphics.  Emperor of the Irish: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, 1014 piqued my interest.  

This series of web pages bring an online life to a previous exhibit that took place in the library from April to October of 2014.  The creators meant for the exhibit to be a part of the thousand year anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, and a way to specifically exhibit Trinity’s holding of the Book of Armagh, a ninth century manuscript that not only chronicles some of Brian Boru’s life history, but also is supposedly the only object that can be authenticated as having been in his presence.  The exhibition creators (of which there is no listing) also designed the exhibit to look at the history and the legends that have accumulated about Boru and the battle.  They state that the popular view, among the Irish today one can only assume, is that “the battle was the culmination of a long war between Viking invaders/settlers and the most powerful of all Irish kings, Brian Boru.”

The introductory information, which I had to search for on the library’s other web pages, also lists the creators of the striking graphics for the exhibit, Cartoon Saloon, as the producers of the award-winning animated movie, The Secret of Kells.  The graphics are fantastic, and higlight the symbolism and action of the life stages and mythology of Brian Boru.  I felt that they were like a cross between traditional Celtic and Norse ornamentation styles, and graphic novel illustrations that are produced today.  Information in the exhibit later explained why I might have made this mental connection.

The exhibit is laid out in eight pages that feature a graphic on the right side, and two or three other images of artifacts from Trinity’s archives that illustrate the Boru saga.  The pages generally follow a chronological format, with some background information on Viking and Irish relations, the rise of Brian Boru and his family, the Battle of Clontarf, and his death and legacy.  I do feel that the audience for this exhibit is geared towards native Irish, or those who already have some knowledge of Irish culture and history.  I have long been a Celtophile and scholar of all things Irish, but there were facts in the exhibit that were enlightening to me.  As the exhibit introduction stated, the popular understanding is that the Viking/Irish conflicts that led up to the battle were of a long war campaign, with clearly divided sides.  However, the exhibit relies on genealogy and marriage alliances to show that Brian Boru and his Viking counterparts were members of an elite class that intermarried to cement alliances.  The exhibit could do a better job of explaining what the historic motivators were for the breakdown of these alliances, and the eventual Battle of Clontarf.  People unfamiliar with this time period can only conclude that each side was trying to gain territory and wealth.  The image of Viking raiders terrifying and plundering the Irish coasts and ecclesiastic centers is well know, but in fact, permanent Viking settlements had been established during this period in Ireland.  Dublin was founded by Vikings and not native Irish.  The exhibit pays lip service to the historic contradictions of such widely believed myths, but I feel that it could go farther.  The exhibit could have hyperlinks to other pages that detail Viking history and culture during this period and within the broader context of Irish history.

In the exhibit’s goal of illustrating the intertwined familial relations of Boru and his enemies, the exhibit highlights Gormlaith, Brian Boru’s wife.  A page of the Book of Leinster is shown, which has a listing of Gormlaith’s three husbands, two of which were Viking, as was she.  The exhibit passage explains,
“Gormlaith was married several times. The red box in these genealogies contains the names of her three husbands: Amlaíb (king of Dublin), Máel Sechnaill (king of Tara) and Brian himself (king of Cashel/Munster and later king of Ireland). A satirical poem next to it declares:

Three leaps Gormlaith performed
which no other woman shall until Doomsday,
a leap into Dublin,
a leap into Tara,
a leap into Cashel,
the plain with the mound which surpasses all.”

The exhibit authors fail to explain the literary background and significance that can be found in this passage.  Irish history was for a great period, oral.  Professional historians, performers and musicians called bards would travel and recite the histories of the elites before clan gatherings and elite residences.  A great and revered tradition that grew amongst the bardic poems and recitations was satire.  Kings and other leaders feared satire above all else as it was said that a satire against a ruler would doom them to be repeatedly dealt a never ending ignominious death in the recitations of the bards.  The words of bards held great weight and were highly respected.  Understanding this, the satire recorded in the Book of Leinster against Gormlaith now holds greater meaning in the context of the exhibit.

The exhibit could also further elucidate the position of the women mentioned, Gormlaith and Brian Boru’s daughter, in the culture of the Irish and Viking during this period.  Women in early Irish history enjoyed greater legal freedoms, such as the right to divorce and retain their own property and children.  In this regard, the fact that Gormlaith married three times would not be a case for satire.  However, these societal freedoms for women were being eroded, and perhaps the monks who created the Ecclesiastical books like those of Armagh and Leinster found Gormlaith’s multiple marriages or her Viking heritage ripe for satire.  I would have appreciated more of a cultural background for these literary sources.  From the exhibit, Gormlaith and especially Brian Boru’s daughter, whom he married off to the Viking King of Dublin, Sitriuc, are shorn of agency and seem to be political pawns to secure alliances.  The illustration accompanying the page entitled “Viking-Irish Alliances” is full of action and symbolism, where the depictions of Gormlaith and Brian Boru’s daughter loom large; however, there isn’t any description accompanying it, and the viewer is left trying to decipher it from the clues and context of the page.  Gormlaith and her probable Viking relatives are depicted as dark, villainous-like characters, who are seen holding and wielding weapons.  At the bottom, Brian and his daughter are shown as lighter completed red-heads.  Brian’s visage is determined and grim as it seems he is offering his daughter, who looks to be filled with resigned sorrow, up for marriage.

The other images in the exhibit are well chosen, and it is a treat to see some of the pages from famous illuminated, early Irish written works such as the Book of Armagh and the Book of Leinster.  The works were executed in Old Irish and Latin, so perhaps a translation of the entire image would be preferable.  Other period objects presented are coins featuring the rulers, a ritual bell believed to be from the same period (8-10th cent.) found in a church context, and jewelry and weapons found in similar archaeology contexts.  Illuminating to me, two of the images are of graphic novels that have been produced about the Brain Boru legend.  One is of a Mexican publication, Epopeya (Epic) from 1961, and a contemporary Irish publication, Brian Boru: Ireland’s Warrior King by Damien Goodfellow in 2011.  It seems my initial visual reaction to the exhibit’s illustrations were well founded, and the saga of Brian Boru has often given inspiration to the medium of graphic novels.

While reading this week’s articles on public production and consumption of history, I was drawn to the quote by Madsen-Brooks, “Professional historians might take an active interest, then, in how digital archival and communication resources affect the spread or containment of particular historical myths.”   As so much of the history surrounding Brian Boru and the Viking incursions into Ireland have been bound up in myth, it would be an insightful addition to the Trinity exhibit to have an online feedback and sharing component to the exhibit.  More examples of visual representations of the Brian Boru saga could be collected and studied; rarely do historians have an opportunity to study written and visual depictions of a historic person and events that took place a thousand years ago.  So many of the objects that are displayed in the exhibit were likely found by laypeople in Ireland.  Farmers, amateur historians, amateur archaeologists and metal detectorists often find amazing Bronze Age and early medieval hoards, coins, and other archaeological objects in Ireland and the British Isles.  I think it would further enhance the exhibit to provide the background information on the discovery of the artifacts and their larger archaeological context.  This would draw people into the conversation about the production of history, the sources used, and the importance of all citizens in the ownership of cultural heritage and history.  The objects shown in the exhibit are given a little bit of context, and their accession labels per Trinity’s cataloguing schematic, however this information doesn’t mean much to most audiences.  Additional information on each object, or a link to a side gallery or exhibit could illuminate the fact that many artifacts that Irish historians have relied on as evidence were accidental finds.  The importance of sharing such finds for all to learn from and enjoy could be illustrated in such a format.  Venerated and long standing institutions like Trinity College could bring in more public involvement and understanding of history by opening up their archives to more digital publication and illumination of the public’s involvement in the building of their archives and library.


1 comment »

  1. Julie says:

    What I appreciate about this site from your description is its ability to tie Brian Boru and the Book of Armagh into more popular cultural references, such as The Book of Kells movie or graphic novels. (We know from our understanding as public historians that this makes information relevant and creates more concrete connections.) Taking a look at the website, I find the visual layout to be incredibly stunning. It is interesting that the site also tries to give women of the time more of a voice by the describing the historical role they played in securing alliances and I agree that more background could have been given to understanding the rights of women and how those rights were changing during this time period. However, I do think the narrative, being focused on the events of Brian Boru, is not necessarily hurt by this lack of information. I also agree that some additional insight into the literary culture of Ireland could have been incredibly helpful. But perhaps if the intended audience of this site is native Irish, perhaps that is less necessary? But certainly, the site could expand its target audience with the addition of more information, even if to provide the site with supplement links, as you suggested.

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