Gormlaith: A Case Study

(image above, The Lewis Chessmen, © Trustees of the British Museum)

A prominent medieval Irish queen of Munster living in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Gormlaith has acquired an infamous repute as the jealous ex-wife of Brian Boru. It is alleged that Gormlaith incited men to such a degree that she caused the battle of Clontarf.

But this perception is based on the narrative sources, which were written some time after her death. In reality, Gormlaith is probably the innocent victim of a common early medieval Irish literary motif: inciting women.

Often portrayed in later sources as a twisted divorcee hell bent on her ex-spouse’s destruction, the negative perceptions of Gormlaith stem from the potential misinterpretation her depiction in the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, composed circa 1103 to 1111, detailing the ascent to power of Brian Boru and his lineage, the Dál Cais, and their wars against the Vikings and their allies.

Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh

For more information on Gormlaith and to learn more about the Battle of Clontarf in general please check out her entry in the Battle of Clontarf website found here. For further resources on Gormlaith herself see Howard Clarke, ‘The Mother’s Tale’ in Sparky Booker and Cherie N. Peters (eds), Tales of Medieval Dublin (Dublin, 2014), pp 52-62.