Jealous Divorcee or Literary Victim?

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.

 

 

Table from Seán Duffy, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, (Dublin, 2014), p. 100.

It is alleged that Gormlaith incited men to such a degree that she caused the battle of Clontarf.

She was the fairest of all women, and best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did all things ill over which she had any power."

George Webbe Dasent, Njál's Saga, p. 318.

© Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Gormlaith's notorious reputation has its origins in a singular, brief appearance in the Cogadh. Gormlaith's brother, Máel Mórda, King of Leinster, has broken a button off a tunic given to him by Brian Boru; the implication being that he has submitted to king Brian.

Now, when they arrived at Cenn Coradh, the king took off his tunic, and it was carried to his sister to put a silver button on it, viz., to Gormlaith, daughter of Murchad, Brian's wife; and she was the mother of Donnchadh, son of Brian. The queen took the tunic and cast it into the fire; and she began to reproach and incite her brother, because she thought it ill that he should yield service and vassalage, and suffer oppression from any one, or yield that which his father or grandfather never yielded; and she said that his [Brian's] son would require the same thing from his son."

James H. Todd, Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, p. 143.

To which her brother and a king of Leinster, Máel Mórda, makes no reply. This goading motif is prevalent throughout the Cogadh; Brian Boru and his daughter Sláine are both depicted inciting other characters. In fact, Brian's goading of his brother, Mathgamhain, is practically identical in nature to Gormlaith's. The critical potential difference is that Máel Mórda didn't respond to her words, whereas Mathgamhain is motivated by Brian to go to war.

Since her death in 1030 CE Gormlaith has been portrayed in a variety of texts, both literary and scholarly. This speaks to the degree with which her persona has captivated authors throughout history.

However, very little is known about the real Gormlaith

Gormlaith was the daughter of Murchad mac Finn, a king of Leinster of the Uí Fhaelain line, and sister to Máel Mórda also a Leinster king.

The Annals of Inisfallen, the most contemporary and geographically proximate as it was written in Munster is the utmost reliable source. Her obituary in this source named her as Queen of Munster, implying that perhaps she was still the widow of Brian Boru upon her death, and not, in fact, a jealous ex-wife at all ...

The Daughter of Murchad son of Finn, queen of Mumu, dies.

Annals of Inisfallen, s.a. 1030 AD.

From entries of her death in 1030 found in the Annals of Tigernach it is possible to glean that she was the wife of Brian Boru, king of Munster, and mother to his son and later king of Munster, Donnchadh, and wife to Amlaíb Cuarán, king of Dublin, and mother to his son and later king of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard.

Since her depiction in the Cogadh, portrayals of Gormlaith took on a decidedly negative tone in later works, notably, in the late thirteenth-century Icelandic Njál's saga, as well as early modern sources such as Geoffery Keating's Foras Feasa Ar Eirinn, and Cath Cluna Tarbh.

Sources: 

Lisa Bitel. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (New York, 1996).

Francis John Byrne. Irish Kings and High Kings (Dublin, 2001).

Joan Cadden. The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge, 1993). 

Anne Connon. “The Banshenchas and the Uí Néill queens of Tara.” In Alfred P. Smyth (ed), Seanchas: Studies in Early and Medieval Irish Archaeology, History and Literature in honour of Francis J. Byrne (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), pp. 98-108.

Fergus Kelly. A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1988).

Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin. “The Banshenchas Revisited.” In  Mary O'Dowd and Sabine Wichert (eds), Chattel, Servant or Citizen : Women's Status in Church, State and Society: Papers read before the XXIst Irish Conference of Historians, held at Queen's University of Belfast, 27-30 May 1993 (Belfast, 1995), pp.70-79.

Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha. “Gormlaith and Her Sisters c. 750-1400.” In Angela Bourke et al (eds) The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume 4: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (Cork, 2002), pp.188-190.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh.  “Tales of Three Gormlaiths in Medieval Irish Literature.” Ériu Vol. 52 (2002), 1-24.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin. “Women and the Law in Early Ireland” In Mary O’Dowd and Sabine Wichert (eds), Chattel, Servant or Citizen : Women's Status in Church, State and Society: Papers read before the XXIst Irish Conference of Historians, held at Queen's University of Belfast, 27-30 May 1993 (Belfast, 1995), 45-57. 

Phillip O'Leary. “The Honour of Women in Early Irish Literature.” Ériu Vol. 38 (Jan 01, 1987), 27-44

G.C. Stacpoole. “Gormflaith and the Northmen of Dublin.” Dublin Historical Record Vol. 20 No. 1 (December 1964), 4-16.

James Henthorn Todd. ed, intro. and trans. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh = The war of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, or, The invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen. (London, 1867).

Christina Wade. Contextualizing Gormlaith: Portrayals and Perceptions of a Medieval Irish Queen (Unpublished MPhil Dissertation. 2012). 

Trivia: 
According to the author of Njal's Saga, Gormlaith orchestrated the battle of Clontarf.