Breifne king’s role in battle doesn’t add up
A new analysis of an ancient Irish text on the Viking age in Ireland and the Battle of Clontarf have further called into question the role of king of West Bréifne, Fergal Ó Ruairc (O’Rourke).
Using modern mathematical techniques, the type used to support algorithms behind social-networking websites, the interdisciplinary team have shed new light on a centuries’ old debate.
Athlone-native Ralph Kenna, a specialist in critical phenomena and sociophysics, is among those to re-examine Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (“The War of the Gaedhil with the Gail”) and concluded that O’Rourke’s participation in the battle was likely to have been fabricated for propaganda purposes.
The text details how Brian Boru challenged Viking invaders, culminating with the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Traditionally the Battle of Clontarf is remembered for breaking Viking power in Ireland, but it is now increasingly considered in the context of a domestic feud or civil war.
Taking stock of the near 300 characters referenced in the three rewritings of the ancient text through history, Ralph and his fellow team members explored how each interacted with each other.
“We found something close to over 1,000 links between the 300 characters. So we studied how those links appeared, and how they interacted, either aggressively or perhaps more cordially.”
Having begun their study four-years-ago, in the year marking the anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, Ralph says most interactions appeared as “structurally balanced”.
They faced siginificant challenges posed by the density of the text, and he usage of now defunct old gaelic wording. The team operated from the hypothesis of the age old proverb suggesting two opposing parties should work together against a common enemy - ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
“What we were looking at were for these triangular interactions. From that we found the vast majority, or 92% to be exact adhere to this. So the others then stand out. That’s where the Cavan connection comes in and Fergal ua Ruairc, King of Bréifne,” explains Ralph, who previously used quantitative approaches to track the evolution of ancient narratives such as Homer’s ‘Iliad’.
The Kingdom of Breifne constituted counties Cavan and Leitrim, along with parts of Co Sligo, an area roughly equivalent to the modern Catholic Diocese of Kilmore. The O’Rourkes maintained lordship over western portion of the Kingdom, while the Ó Raghallaigh kings governed to the east.
The team’s work aligned with previous theories that O’Rourke, who is claimed to have died at the Battle of Clontarf, was only actually included in the retelling almost 100-years later.
The O’Rourkes ruled Breifne for over 700 years, vying with the O’Connors for rule of Connaught. At the Battle of Clontarf it is claimed that they stood among Boru’s allies on the left flank against the Vikings.
Their leader’s inclusion as dying at the battle, in modern parlance, would be considered medieval ‘Fake News’.
“People have suspected that already about the individual, there are inconsistencies in the text, a lot of propaganda. So outlying theory is that when you consider the role of Fergal O’Rourke, he was probably added to the text after the first writing of the text if you like.
“What the text does is it frames [O’Rourke] as a friend of Boru, which considering now, is very clever politics for the day. It makes it look as if he was on the winning side.”
Ralph’s team put their eventual findings of their mathematical and statistical analysis to the test, by removing O’Rourke and setting the same historical train in motion as that which occurred a little over 1000-years-ago. Unsurprisingly, providing a buttress to their suspicions, very little changed despite O’Rourke’s omission.
“It goes to show that very little in politics has changed. People are people, and politicians remain politicians. Be careful what they’re telling you,” laughs Ralph.
“What can we do,” adds Ralph with a mischievous chuckle, when put to him that rewriting the historic annals is bound to upset some people. But he adds: “Credit should be give to how clever it was to have [O’Rourkes] written in afterwards. It’s not as if this wasn’t out there already. What’s interesting from our point of view is that our statistical approach could pick up on something like that,” Ralph tells the Celt.
“You can analyse any text from a mathematical point of view, or a complexity science point of view without ever knowing very much anything about the characters. But in this case we all came up with the same conclusion.”