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Social Network Analysis Weighs in on Debate Surrounding One of Ireland’s Most Famous Battles

Researchers test it out on a medieval epic to investigate whether the Battle of Clontarf was fought against the Vikings or was part of an Irish civil war

Battle of Clontarf, Hugh Frazer, 1826 (Wikimedia Commons)
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In 1014, the famous high king of all Ireland and founder of the O’Brien dynasty, Brian Boru— Brian of Béal Bóraimhe Bóraimhe, near Killaloe in Co Clare —fought Viking forces that controlled Leinster and Dublin at the Battle of Clontarf. Boru’s victory finally broke the power of the Norsemen on the island and united the nation. Supposedly.

As Michael Price at Science reports, over the centuries, some historians have suggested the battle may have been fought as more of a civil war between Boru’s forces and opposing Irish factions instead, and that the Norsemen were bit players.

Now, a new study in the journal Royal Society Open uses social network analysis to weigh in on the debate and see if the battle, remembered across generations as a fight between the Vikings and the Irish, might not have been about that at all. 

According to a press release, lead author Ralph Kenna, a theoretical physicist at Coventry University and other researchers from Coventry, Oxford and Sheffield Universities conducted the social science analysis—which draws inferences based on inspecting a network of relations—on a translation of a 217-page medieval text. Called Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, or The War of the Irish with the Foreigners, it chronicles 50 years of skirmishes between the Irish and Vikings, including the climactic Battle of Clontarf.

After the researchers formulated a way to measure hostility between the 315 characters in the sprawling epic, they quantified 1,100 interactions as positive (Irish versus Irish) or negative (Irish versus Viking). Crunching the numbers, the analysis overall was negative, suggesting that the hostility was mainly between the Irish and Vikings, though the result is not clear-cut, indicating that the relationships all around were mixed.

As the researchers write in the paper, their findings do not support "clear-cut traditionalist or revisionist depictions of the Viking Age in Ireland." Instead, they conclude, their analysis suggests "a moderate traditionalist picture of conflict which is mostly between Irish and Viking characters, but with significant amounts of hostilities between both sides as well." 

Kenna tells Price that the team is highly aware that the source material they are drawing from may not be completely accurate. Today, there is sparse archaeological evidence from the reign of Boru and Contarf to pull from and there are no contemporary historical accounts of the battle. Additionally, researchers do not know when the Cogadh was written, and its timeline is out of whack.

The text itself is also a pretty blatant piece of propaganda against the Vikings. It’s believed the work was a way to strengthen the O’Brien clans claim to Ireland’s throne. Instead of focusing on the real battle between anti-Boru Irish in Leinster and Dublin, some historians believe it casts the battles as a noble fight to drive out the Vikings and unite Ireland.

But regardless of the intent of the book, Kenna tells Price that he thinks the relationships described in it might be more or less accurate. “There’s an art to propaganda,” he says. “You can’t falsify too much or else people won’t accept it.”

Søren Michael Sindbæk, a Viking archaeologist at Aarhus University not involved in the study, tells Price that he agrees that the analysis may be a way to cut through the layers of propaganda and get at something that might not have been consciously constructed by the author. He points out that similar analysis has been used recently in anthropology. For instance, in a recent study researchers used social network theory to compare the similarity of pottery decorations and map regional networks and discern the role played by Jefferson County Iroquoians in the 16th century.

Though we’ll likely never know exactly how the Battle of Clontarf went down, we do at least know King Boru’s fate. He was killed during the battle, either in hand-to-hand combat or when his tent was overrun by foes fleeing the battlefield. Ireland did not stay united for long after his death and soon the island fell back into regional conflict. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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