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Blood, swords and Iceland: A new way of looking at the Battle of Clontarf

Blood, battle cries and graphic art.

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IT’S THE BATTLE of Clontarf – but not as you know it.

The millennium of the Battle of Clontarf is this year, and one Irish museum has gone about marking it in a particularly interesting way.

The Little Museum of Dublin is taking on the story of the battle by using the talents of an acclaimed Irish artist in a way that appeals to even the youngest of history buffs.

Fergal McCarthy

Visual artist Fergal McCarthy has created a specially commissioned graphic installation at the Little Museum of Dublin, depicting the fate of Brian Boru as he battled the Viking invaders in 1014.

The striking black and white images cover the walls of the downstairs gallery at the Little Museum, and continue across the floor in vinyl cutouts.

Curator Simon O’Connor explained that they really wanted to commemorate the event. but there isn’t a lot of material culture relating to the battle available – and the Little Museum of Dublin deals with this type of material.

So what was there to do?

Try a completely new approach.

We had wanted for quite a while to partner with a visual artist on a history exhibition. To maybe take a step into kind of an interpretation of history through contemporary art.


That led to a collaboration with McCarthy, whose practice “has always been very focused on the city itself, in particular on the Liffey”.

O’Connor described the battle as “quite a divisive historical event”.

“Various historians have a very different perspective on what happened compared to the received narrative of the battle. So we thought that was an interesting starting point,” said O’Connor.

“You had this major chapter in the life of the city, that actually is entirely mythologised.”

Fergal McCarthy Clontarf (1)

Alongside this, they saw the opportunity to create something that would engage children.

Beyond these points – looking at history through the prism of art, and engaging children in the process – they gave McCarthy a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate as an artist.

He read the principal historical texts to do with the topic, and consulted with experts.

What came out of this is truly an interesting and unusual way of looking at the battle.


It involves the walls of ground floor of the Georgian building that houses the Little Museum being papered in giant art pieces depicting the battle.

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“Fergal’s approach with all his work is always so playful and serious,” said O’Connor.

He always has an irreverence and bit of a subversion but it never dilutes the seriousness of the gaze, either.

The exhibition reads like a kids book and it looks like a kids book  – it “uses the room in a really unusual way”.

There’s an audiovisual aspect to the exhibition that involves children from Ireland and Iceland. McCarthy is a teacher, and had pupils in his own school reenact the battle as gaeilge.

He then made contact with a school in Iceland and had its pupils reenact the battle from their side, and send the recordings to him.

Why did he chose Iceland? Because the language is the closest in sound to to the ancient Norse languages. At the museum, you can hear the battle in the background as you look at the panels.

“It’s playful but it’s serious,” said O’Connor. “It’s an experiment, in a way, to see will the public here engage with a history exhibition that is using the medium of contemporary visual art.”

Children are invited to create their own art at the museum, inspired by what they see.

“In a lot of ways we can present history exhibitions as history books that are 3D, whereas personally I think there is a lot more potential if we allow ourselves to look outside those confines,” said O’Connor.

The exhibition runs until 31 May at the Little Museum at Stephen’s Green.

Read: History experts descend on Trinity College to discover the truth about the Battle of Clontarf>

Read: “Extraordinary” – Visitors to Dublin’s Little Museum up 114 per cent>

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