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Battle of Sulcoit (968 AD)
Brian Boru and the Limerick Vikings

By Tim Donovan

This is the first of three battles that highlight the career of Brian Boru, the greatest national hero of Medieval Ireland. Brian was born in 942 as the last of twelve sons, of whom ten would fall in battle, to a minor local King in Southern Ireland. His career would see him fight incessantly for fifty years and rise slowly from obscurity until usurping the throne of High King and being proclaimed "Emperor of the Irish." His reign. like his rise to power, would never see peace as the endless power struggles and blood feuds would draw Brian once again, at the age of seventy two, to the field of battle at Clontarf. For additional background, also see the army notes for Norse Irish (#112).

The Historical Battle

This battle was Boru's first great victory. He and his brother, King Murrough of Munster, were consolidating their hold on their province by directly opposing the Vikings of Limerick and the local Irish lords allied to the Norse. Their success forced Ivar, King of Limerick, into a hasty coalition with Murrough¹s rivals for the throne, notably Molly of Desmond and Donovan of Hy Carberry (one of my ancestors!). In the summer of 968 Ivar and his Irish allies gathered in a large host and set about ravaging the ancestral lands of Murrough and Brian. The brothers called in their supporters and marched north from Cashel and met their enemies at the woods and plain of Sulcoit.

The battle was hard fought and bloody, with the fighting lasting from dawn until dusk, till the Viking army broke. The Irish pursued the broken Viking army "beheading many along the way" back to Limerick and stormed into the city ruthlessly sacking it and massacring most of the inhabitants.

The Scenario

I have always preferred is to play BB DBA either with double or triple size DBA armies or armies of roughly 100-150 points as per DBM. The board should be expanded to 2 x 4 for 15mm or 4 x 6 for 25mm. For this battle I will use modified double size DBA armies while in the sister scenario of Glenmamma, Boru¹s second major pitched battle, I will use the 100 point system so players can get a feel for which system suits their tastes.

For players wishing to fight the scenario as a standard 12 element DBA battle I have also included appropriate army lists while modifications for rerrain and deployment should be simple and straightforward.

The Armies

The Irish:

  • Big Battle DBA -- 2 Wb or Ax Generals (Murrough and Brian), 1 Wb or Bd General (Cahal), 12 Ax (Bonnachts), 3 Bd or Wb (mercenaries), 4 Ps (Kern), 2 Ps or LH (skirmishers).

  • Standard DBA -- 1 General (Wb or Ax), 3 Wb or Bd, 5 Ax, 2 Ps, 1 Ps or LH.

The Irish nobles are known to have adopted some armor, larger shields and the axe by this time. They fought by making an impetuous charge following a shower of javelins and darts and therefore I give the general elements the option to fight as warbands or light infantry. Brian is known for his extensive use of light cavalry and the chronicles mention mounted troops for both armies. Cahal and his followers were renowned "champions" of unknown origin who joined Brian's host just prior to the battle. I have portrayed them as the most likely "mercenaries" under a Gaelic leader as either Gael Gaedhil (Norse Irish half-breeds) or Highland Scots.

The Vikings

  • Big Battle DBA -- 2 Bd General (Ivar and Harold), 1 Wb or Ax General (Rebel Irish, Molloy and Donovan), 10 Bd (Hird), 4 Bw or Ps (Viking Archers), 2 Wb (Berserks), 2 Cv (Mounted Contingent) plus 4 Ax, 2 Ps (Rebel Irish Bonnachts and Kern).

  • Standard DBA -- 1 Bd General, 5 Bd, 2 Ps or Bw, 1 Wb or Cv plus 2 Ax, 1Ps (Irish rebels)

The Vikings are known to have fielded close to 1000 mail clad warriors. There is no mention of berserkers but a contingent of "champions" were noted as fighting from horseback so I give this as an opposed option to the berserkers. The rebel Irish, held in reserve, were swept away with the Viking rout after having played little or no part in the battle. Their leaders were later hunted down and killed by Brian in subsequent campaigns.

Terrain & Deployment: One flank should be anchored by 2 large woods while a gentle hill extends from the middle of the opposite flank to nearly the middle of the battlefield. The rest of the battlefield should be lightly sprinkled with rough ground (swamps or bogs of course) and woods so nearly half of the battlefield is hills, gentle or steep, and rough going.

The Vikings deploy half of their elements first, then the Irish deploy half. The Vikings finish deploying the rest of their command, then the Irish, then the Vikings take the first bound.

Or, since the battle was a meeting engagement, players can roll for attacker and defender as usual. The defender places compulsory terrain of 1 hill, 2 woods, and 1 bog (rough ground) and then 0-3 additional terrain pieces of terrain. After the defender places the compulsory and optional terrain the attacker chooses the edge to invade from . The defender now deploys his camp and half of his command followed by the attacker. The defender finishes deployment followed by the attacker, then dice for the initiative, high score has the option of moving first or second.

Command and Control: Both sides have three generals but should divide the armies into two separate commands of 10-14 elements.

Brian and Cahal or reputed to be superior leaders so the Irish roll three pip die, choosing any two to utilize. The Vikings roll one pip die for each command and may not exchange or lend pips.

Victory Conditions: Standard, 8 elements destroyed with generals and camps counting as 2 elements lost.

Background Resources

Historical Atlas of the Vikings, John Haywood, 1995, Penguin
Arthur and the Anglo Saxon Wars. David Nicolle, 1984 Osprey (#154)
Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: Middle Ages, Hooper & Bennet, 1996
Conquest of England, Eric Linklater, 1966, Doubleday & Company
Early Medieval Ireland, Daibhi Oí Croinin, 1995, Longman History of Ireland
The Fury of the Northmen, John Marsden, 1993, St. Martinís Press
History of the Vikings, Gwyn Jones, 1968, Oxford
Irish Battles, Hayes-McCoy, 1969, Barnes & Nobles
Kings and Vikings, P.H. Sawyer, 1994, Barnes & Nobles
Lion Of Ireland, Morgan LLywellyn, 1981, Tor
Medieval Historical Battles 732 to 1485, Peter Sides, 1993, Gosling
Medieval Ireland, Michael Richter, 1995, St. Martinís press
Medieval Warfare Sourcebook, David Nicolle, 1995, Arms and Armour
Neglected Heroes, Terry Gore, 1995, Praeger
Njals Saga, Magnus Magnusson translated by Hermann Palson, 1960, Penguin
Stern Sudden Thunder Motion, Guy Halsall, Miniature Wargames 1986
The Viking art of War, Paddy Griffith, 1995, Greenhill Books

Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome, Phil Barker
Armies of the Dark Ages, Ian Heath,
Army Lists, Book Two, 55bc -1000 AD (for WRG Rules)
DBM Army Lists, Book 3 : 476 AD to 1071 Ad

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Last Update: March 17, 2000

My thanks to Tim Donovan for this scenario. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. Send them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.