The Comb-makers Tale

There is a tale to tell. The Comb-Maker’s Tale – A tale of Viking Dublin – or Dyflinn.

Iain Barber presents the viking story for the Heritage in Schools scheme. Google Translate

It tells of hardworking prosperity    -   threatened by greed and a need for revenge.

When Ireland was old and Dublin was yet young. There was a combmaker. His name was Ragnar. He was born in the year of 950 AD,  third generation Dublin Viking. This short story describes some of his life and times.

Ragnar is living in Dublin exactly 1,000 years before the modern year that you live in.

From whence did he come?

Well, it’s a long story!

At the beginning of time, out of the melting ice in the far north of Scandiavia, the giant Ymir emerged, the first being to emerge out of the vast Ginnungagap.


Much later, from Finland, there was a King called Thorri. He had two sons and a daughter, Nor and Gor went west to search for their kidnapped sister, Goi. Nor found her and stayed as King, giving his name to Norway.

Around 800, the Swedes explored to the east, the Danes conquered the east of England, the Danelaw, and the Norwegians headed to the west, the Orkneys, eventually to Iceland and to Greenland and finally to North America. It is the Norwegian and Irish way that we follow.

Viking Power Music item

The Icelandic historian Ólafia Einarsdóttir concluded that the Hafersfjord battle took place somewhere between 870 and 875. This civil war sea battle of Hafersfjord was fought off the coast of Rogaland in south-west Norway. It was won by King Harald I. This brought unity to Norway.

Some like Rollo – Hrolf the Walker – left Norway to settle in Normandy.

Viking Warrior tribute [Wardruna Viking music] Music item

Now we Vikings were so-called after the sea pirates who lurked around the islands, viks, off the west coast of Norway. We began our explorations, the locals called them raids, on the coasts of Ireland about 800. The Irish people being out-landers were of no value and their existence served only to enhance our farming income in Norway. 

We roved round their coast, and up their rivers and established our presence. After some years of harvesting the unused gold and silver from the monasteries, and anywhere else we could find it, we began to settle, and build proto-towns, a new phenomenon to the Irish. Trade grew as our settlements grew. With the discovery and settlement of Iceland after about 860, things got quieter in Ireland. Our settlement in Dublin was besieged and overrun in 902 and we had to leave – for some time.

Vikings – warriors from Scandinavia

Returning in 917, we defeated the Irish High King, Niall Glundubh, and rebuilt  our settlement more securely. Our settlements grew along the sea corridors, Dublin, Wicklow, Arklow, Wexford, Waterford, Dungarvin Cork and Limerick, to mention a few. We avoided settling in the northern parts of the island due to the unsettled and unfriendly – and er, dangerous – nature of the Northern Ui Neill.

Our settlements became wealthy due to our hard work and steadfast nature. The native Irish could not abide this and started to bite the hand that would order them and train them to the nature of contented cattle.

The Ui Neill – O’Neills – began to further harry our settlements. Our arms and battling ways they admired, so much so that they copied them, to our ultimate detriment.

As the 900′s drew to a close, Brian Boru, due to some unfortunate experiences in his wayward youth, rose to prominence and defeated our cousins in Limerick. He became overlord of Munster, defeated us in Dublin and went on by devious means to become Uncontested High King of the Irish.


Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in the eighth (dark red), ninth (red), tenth (orange) and eleventh (yellow) centuries. Green denotes areas subjected to frequent Viking raids.

And so, on to Ragnar’s family and background.

What is Ragnar’s background?

His great-grandfather left Norway after the Battle of Hafrsfjord

 Still disputed, most scholars will agree that the battle took place during the 880s.

The civil war sea battle of Hafersfjord was fought off the coast of Rogaland in south-west Norway. It was won by King Harald I,   Harald Fairhair. This brought unity to Norway.

Some like Rollo – Hrolf the Walker – left Norway.


Bjorn Erikson, Ragnar’s great-grandfather, left Rogaland to live in the Orkney Islands. Sigurd Bjornson was born there. When Sigurd was a young man, a great opportunity came his way. In 917, a fleet of ships was to set sail for Dublin to reestablish the Viking town there. The Battle of Islandbridge was fought, and won by our forces. To complete the satisfaction of the day, the Irish High King from Tara, Niall Glúndubh, was killed.

So Dublin was rebuilt in 917 ad centred around the area of modernday Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral. Sigurd built his house within the settlement.  The great victory was celebrated and within the year, Olaf was born. Seeing that the future lay in trade, Sigurd found the making of combs to his liking.

As the settlement grew, there was a regular supply of cowhorn and bone available from the flesh shambles, the meat market. The living was part-time at first,

but as he learned more, and the traders came, he ended up making his living in what was now becoming a town. From rural ancestry, he was now becoming an urban man.

As the years passed, Olaf Sigurdson followed tradition, he learned his father’s trade. The red deer shed their antlers in early summer, and Olaf would go out of the town to collect them. The antler was hard to work, but it made fine combs. He also made toggles, buttons and anything else that was required. Cows horn spoons and decorative pieces for pouches. Occasionally, they could buy walrus ivory from the ships. Hard to work, but you could get a very good price if you made something nice. It could take a day to make a comb. No point in spending two days, unless they will pay for it.

Olaf Sigurdson prospered and in 950, Ragnar was born. King Olaf Kvaren was the ruler. He was a convert to Christianity. He allowed the Columban missionaries to preach the word of the Christian God in the town. He reigned for 35 years, until defeat, exile and death in 980.

Ragnar’s youth was spent working with his father, hanging around the waterfront and talking with the traders. He would explore with his friends the routes out of the town. His favourite was to go out on the Sli Cualann, the route that led west of the mountains towards Waterford. They explored up the mountains where they were accepted by the Ui Faolann, the Byrnes. There were viking farms and they visited those they knew.

Ragnar’s eye was caught by one of the young Ui Faolann girls, Saidbh. They had often met when Saidbh’s father would bring in cattle for slaughter to the flesh shambels. Brendan wanted a foot inside the viking town, so it came to pass, at the Althing in 970, he attended and a marriage was arranged between Ragnar and Saidbh. Ragnar was 20 and Saidbh was 15. The house off Winetavern Street was rebuilt, but a bit longer. The Ui Faolan, the Byrnes, are allies. Sadbh is Ui Faolan, and wife of Ragnar. She brought with her a dowry worth 20 milk cattle. Ragnar, like his father Olaf, is a combmaker.

With the king, Olaf Kvaren, being Christian, the Christian God entered Dublin. Not everyone was an instant convert. Many held the old ways. Olaf Sigurdson was such a man. His son Ragnar viewed the taint of the native God as a loyal son should.

But now, in 1011, the two Olafs, King and comb-maker, were dead this many a year. Sigtrygg (Sitric) Silkbeard Olafsson was king of Dublin, to reign until 1036. And the world was changing.

The Icelanders had voted to be a Christian island in the year 1,000. Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark, a Christian monarch, was long dead. His son Sweyn Forkbeard, having burned the churches and strengthened defenses against the south, was considering the advantages of the Christian way.

But the Irish Christian men would not like to trade with so-called heathen. They required some committment from us. It was for this reason, mainly, that Ragnar became prime-signed. It was a business decision. The Christians cared more about ‘religion’ than we did. We had our Gods, they came and went, and we remembered them when we were in the mood. But the Christians ‘prayed’ regularly, and they all did it together as well, in a building rather than in a wild place in the rocks or in the woods.

There were other advantages, the Christians didn’t like you to bury grave goods. This could mean that you could leave them after your death and gain favour before the said death.

Being a comb-maker, Ragnar is not a trained warrior. He wears a sword because that is the law. The Ui Neill of Tara, and Boru of the Dal gCash, Killaloe, are the everpresent danger. You can never know when they may attack, so every man above the age of 14 years must wear a sword at all times.

Which brings us on to the threat of our times.

The growing problem in recent years has been the rise of Brian Boru.

In order to defeat him, we must understand his rise to power.

Brian Boru was born in Kincora in 941. In 964 his brother Mahon became king of all Munster.

Brian was the son of Kennedy, of the Dalgas race.

Our forces controlled the main points in Munster, Waterford , Cork and Limerick.

Due to our power, their people were confined to the forests and badlands of Clare and adjoining. From these parts, they waged an ongoing warfare against our realms. Together with Molloy king of Desmond and Donovan king of Hy Carbery, under the lead of Ivar of Limerick, our forces set out to destroy the Dalcash. But they moved to Sulcoit and battle was set. It was a bad day and Mahon and Brian were victorious. Mahon went on his winning ways and became King of all Munster. He had to be killed. And he was.

Brian was now King of Thomond.

He had vengeance in his heart and one by one he killed his enemies. Now he was King of Munster.

Malachy, Maol Seachnaill II, rising to High Kingship in 980, could not abide this and invaded the lands of the Dalcash. He destroyed Magh-Adhair, the sacred oak tree of the Dalcash in 982 and sowed the seeds of his fall from High Kingship.

Malachy continued his attacks on our town of Dublin.

After his successful attack on Dublin in 996, he stole the Sword of Karlus and also Thors Ring – ‘when Malachy stole the Collar of Gold‘ – and divided the countryside between himself and Boru.

This made our excellent ally, Maolmorda King of Leinster, in tribute to Brian. He was not at all pleased with this.

He made common cause with Harald the Dane of Dublin to oppose the Irish upstart. Regrettably, at Glenmama near Dunlavin, Brian and his forces were victorious.

The cunning and untrustworthy Boru now added insult to injury and married Gormlaith,  mother of our own dear King, Sitric, as a devious way of strengthening his hand. Gormlaith was mother of Sitric of the Silken Beard and sister of Maol Morda king of Leinster; Brian gave his own daughter in marriage to Sitric; and he took Maol Morda into favour and friendship  He then further defied previous agreements and confronted Malachy in his own den. The outcome was that Brian Boru was the undisputed High King of the Irish, holding our people in thrall.

Boru now set out to ingratiate himself with the simple Irish tribes by building and rebuilding Christian churches. To further his own secret ends, he built bridges and fortresses throughout the land. Under the guise of controlling ‘crime’ he increased his influence throughout the land.

Our great hope lies with Brodir, King of the Isle of Man, brave warrior, great sorcerer and mighty magician. Our King Sitric has arranged for further support from Sigurd the Stout, King of the Orkneys, and our many friends travelling by boat from all over the world.

And so the scene is set to reveal our fate.

Nothing lives on after a man’s death except his reputation.


It is with huge regret that the hopes I have expressed up to now have been dashed. I am alive thanks only to my loyalty to my King, and my wise decision not to volunteer to go out to the field of battle.

Both sides knew that a reckoning was due. Boru had improved the travel routes throughout the land, and had specified round forts and other places as gathering spots for when the word went out.

Our people also had made our preparations. Sitric had strengthened the defences. Sigurd the Stout from the Orkneys had pledged his support and we all knew that he would have his black magical Raven Flag as our banner. Brodir from the Isle of Man and his powerful force would be with us. I have, for some years now, been his ‘eyes and ears’ in Dublin. He has always been generous. Gormlaith, the most beautiful, the utterly wicked; onetime wife to Olaf Kvaren, king of Dublin till 980; wife to Malachy, High King at the time; wife to Brian Boru, High King, later discredited and kicked out; Gormlaith sister of Maol Morda king of Leinster, mother of Sitric Silkenbeard, king of Dublin; Gormlaith promised marriage spearately to Brodir and also to Sigurd as she stirred her mighty and poisonous pot.

All is fair in love and in war, and so it was that our allies, Brodir and Sigurd loaded their men into the boats and headed out to sea on the Thursday evening. We knew that Boru would not like to do battle on the sacred day of Good Friday. We thought that, seeing our boats head out to sea, some of their troops would head for home. It did not happen. The next morning, our troops were on land in battle positions, and so were theirs.

The sides were evenly matched. Perhaps 8,000 0n the Irish side, perhaps 7,000 on ours. We had more heavily armoured battle-hardened veterans against their greater number of more lightly armed levies.

We had the stronghold of Dublin at our backs. A town of about 6,000 souls. Sitric for some strategic reason, retained his personal bodyguard of 1,000 troops inside the town.



On the morning of Good Friday, the two armies advanced on each other.

With their backs to the sea, on the right flank, Brodir’s 1,200 battle-hardened veterans guarded the boats on the beach, with Sigurd the Stout’s 1,200 veterans to their left. To their left again were Maol Morda’s 3,000 lightly armed Leinstermen. On the south of their line were 1,000 Dublin Vikings who elected to fight.

On the Irish lines, to the north, were the Royal regiment, the sons of Kings and Chiefs, facing Brodir. Next in line to the south were the veteran Munstermen. Next, facing the Leinstermen, were 2,500 men of Connaght. And on the southern flank, facing the Dublin Vikings, were 1,000 Viking mercenaries from the Isle of Man.


The Munstermen shown as red, all Vikings on both sides shown as blue.

Battle of Clontarf

The battle opened with individual combats. Old scores settled, boasting rights sought.

Then it was hand-to-hand combat on a battlefield wide scale.

Leaders led from the front, and it was a massacre of leaders and royalty on both sides.

Malachy held his 1,200 Meathmen back until the afternoon, when he committed his fresh troops onto an exhausted battlefied.

King Sitric remained within his walls.

Brodir’s men were decimated, but Brodir escaped.

As the battle was being won by the Irish side, Boru’s bodyguard had moved forward to see if they could join in the action.

”Not all of the defeated Vikings would be killed, however.  Thorstein, the Viking who had wisely refused to carry Sigurd’s raven banner, was exhausted and resigned to his fate.  He had paused to tie his shoelace when the Munstermen caught him and asked why he had not continued to run.  Thorstein replied, “Because I can’t get home tonight, since I am at home out in Iceland.”  The Irish, generous in their victory, allowed the Icelander to live.” Doyle.

Brodir came upon Boru, on his knees giving thanks to Almighty God.  He swung his great Daneaxe towards Boru’s head to sunder him in half, from the top down, as it were.

Boru, at 73, grabbed his sword and cut one of Brodir’s legs off, the barest second before he was divided by the Daneaxe.

The bodyguard rushed back to behold their dead High King.

The punishment meted out to Brodir for High Regicide was severe.

His belly was opened, his intestine was nailed to a tree, and he was forced to hop round the tree on his remaining leg, garlanding the bark with his guts.

The Irish won, our Pan Viking force was broken.

Malachy became High King again, to less effect.

Sitric lived until 1036, another 22 years. He was baptised a Christian in Rome in 1028 by the Pope. On his return, the Sword of Karlus was returned to him, but Thor’s ‘heathen’ ring was not.

Dunan became the first Bishop of Dublin, establishing the ecclesiastical  link between Dublin and Canterbury, which was to endure beyond the Reformation hundreds of years later, with consequences for Ireland.

Ragnar survived to grow old with his King.


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