Olaf Cuarán (Amlaíb Cuarán), King of Dublin by M. N. Stroh
As a lover of medieval history, it’s my pleasure to share with you today about a striking figure whom I’ve enjoyed bringing to life in my historical fiction series, Tale of the Clans, which is set during the tumultuous Viking era of Ireland.
Ireland during the tenth century saw its fair share of Scandinavian kings rule from ports originally established by Viking invaders. One such “foreign king” as the native Irish called them, was Olaf Cuarán, who ruled as King of Dublin from 941-981 AD.
King Olaf’s history is obscured, due in part to his many names referenced from historical contemporaries throughout the ages and alternate spellings derived from both original and anglicized sources. Some of these include:
- Amlaíb Cuarán
- Amhlaeibh Cuaran
- Olaf Sitricson
- Ólafr Kvaran (from Norse sources)
- Anlaf Cwiran (in English sources)
- “Olaf of the scandal”
Incidentally, “Cuarán” is an Irish nickname meaning “sandal”.
Olaf Cuarán, like many of Dublin’s rulers, claimed descent from the grandsons of Ivar the Boneless. As indicated by his name, Olaf was the son of Sitric grandson of Ivar. Sitric, at the time of his death, ruled Northumbria, Dublin, and a good majority of the Irish Sea. But his throne passed to Olaf mac Gofraid (Olafr Guthfrithsson), Olaf Cuarán’s cousin, whose exploits were often confounded as acts of Olaf Cuarán himself, due to confusion from earlier sources penned by English chroniclers and the Irish Annals of the Four Masters.
Olaf Cuarán is first mentioned as ruler of Northumbria in 941 after his cousin was killed following a raid. It’s believed that Olaf left control of Dublin to his kinsmen while he pursued more appealing prospects in Northumbria.
However, the rule of Dublin proved unstable. In 942, it fluctuated between the hands of Gofraid’s living sons, Blacaire and Ragnall. More specifically, Ragnall’s unnamed son, who through the sacking of Downpatrick, earned the wrath of the King of Ulaid and was ultimately driven away to be slain during his escape.
While some believed Olaf’s cousins to be his allies, their actions proved their intent to overthrow him. Blacaire seized control of Dublin while Ragnall rivalled Olaf for Northumbria.
Shortly after the English king, Edmund I, stood sponsor over Olaf Cuarán’s Christian baptism in 943, the Northumbrians drove Olaf out of their kingdom and claimed Ragnall as his successor. The baptism itself likely held more political significance than it did matters of faith. Though historians presume Olaf Cuarán practiced the pagan faith of his Scandinavian counterparts prior to this, it’s entirely possible he leaned toward Christianity from an early age. His own father was a baptized Christian.
Though Ragnall eventually gave way to baptism as well, King Edmund I annexed Northumbria in 944 and expelled him along with Olaf Cuarán. Meanwhile, Blacaire mac Gofraid enjoyed some success as Dublin’s ruler by slaying the famous Irish King of Ailech, Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks, heir of the high king of Ireland.
Later that year, Blacaire slew the king of Leinster, proving himself formidable enough to earn opposition from the new high king, Congalach of Brega. King Congalach allied with Leinster’s successor to oppose Blacaire and sack Dublin.
To this turmoil, Olaf Cuarán returned and promptly reclaimed Dublin after Blacaire fled. In a decisive move, Olaf formed an alliance with King Congalach and aided him in an uprising against his rule at the Battle of Slane.
The Irish annalists make no mention of what occurred during Olaf’s rule in the years following. We do know that in 948, Blacaire returned to snatch Dublin’s throne for himself again. Olaf’s ally, King Congalach, quickly killed Blacaire in retaliation. Curiously, Olaf appears in Northumbria shortly after the death of King Edmund I in 946, and succeeded in reclaiming the Northumbrian kingship from 947-950. Unfortunately for Olaf, the Northumbrians drove him off for the final time and established Erik Blood Axe, son of Haladr Hárfagr, as their new king.
During Olaf’s second absence, Dublin’s rule fluctuated. This time between Blacaire’s nephew, Gofraid mac Olaf, and possibly Cuarán’s brother, Gofraid mac Sitric. It’s unknown whether Olaf’s brother was also allied with King Congalach. His brother ruled less than a year and perished after an outbreak of leprosy and dysentery that devastated Dublin in 951.
Olaf Cuarán arose once again in 964 to reclaim Dublin’s throne and sack the monastic community of Kildare. By that time King Congalach was dead and a new high king, Donaill Ui Neill, ruled in northern Ireland. Olaf wasted no time opposing this king by reestablishing old ties with Congalach’s family, and arranging a marriage between his daughter, Ragnailt, and Congalach’s son, Domnall.
Despite Olaf’s second marriage to High King Donaill Ui Neill’s sister, Olaf remained one of Donaill’s resolute enemies throughout most of his reign. Donaill’s sister, Dúnlaith, was previously married to the king of Meath, who died in 952, leaving her widowed with two young sons. It is unknown whether King Donaill arranged his sister’s second marriage to Olaf Cuarán or whether the union was orchestrated by a member of her dead husband’s kin, the Clan Colmain. However, Dunlaith’s son, Mael Sechnaill, was one of the designated heirs to Meath’s throne, so one can hardly doubt the appeal such power and influence might have held for Olaf. It meant that his own stepson was a contender for the high kingship of Ireland. Though nothing is mentioned of King Olaf’s influences on young Mael Sechnaill, we do know that Olaf’s union with Mael Sechnaill’s mother produced a son, Glún Iairn, who remained close to his half-brother throughout his life.
Meanwhile, Olaf and King Donaill carried on campaigns against one another. In 970, after Olaf and his allies defeated King Donaill in the battle of Cello Móna, Donaill and his son countered by attacking the religious sites of Louth, Dromiskin, Monasterboice, and Dunleer. He also destroyed Skreen in 976.
Conflict escalated soon after when Olaf’s son-in-law, Domnall mac Congalach died. This left a void in the line of those qualified for Ireland’s high kingship. Olaf appeared to have his sights set upon it, despite the successful exclusion of all Dublin’s foreign kings from the throne in past years. Olaf succeeded in killing King Donaill Ui Neill’s son, Muirchertach, as well as other contenders. Olaf also gained another powerful ally in King Murchad of Leinster.
Somewhere during the years of their alliance from 966-972, Olaf married King Murchad’s daughter, Gormflaith. The fact that Gormflaith, a child bride, became Olaf’s primary queen at this time seems to indicate that Olaf’s two previous wives had passed away prior to their union. Gormflaith produced a son, Sitric Silkenbeard. After the death of his father and half-brother, Sitric assumed Dublin’s kingship and began the first coin mint in Ireland.
By the year 980, King Donaill Ui Neill retired to Armagh and died. Upon these events, Mael Sechnaill, now King of Meath, contended against Olaf Cuarán for Ireland’s high kingship at the Battle of Tara. Mael Sechnaill arose the victor. Included among Olaf’s devastating losses was the slaying of his son Ragnall (from his first marriage).
King Mael Sechnaill swiftly marched on Dublin and forced Olaf to give his kingship over to his son, Glún Iairn. No further hostilities occurred between them. In all likelihood, Mael Sechnaill desired none, for apart from his kinship with Glún Iairn, he was also married to Olaf’s daughter, Maelmuire, who appeared to be among the youngest of Olaf’s children from his first marriage. Undoubtedly, a complicated family arrangement.
The family dynamics convoluted further. King Olaf retired in penance at Hi Coluim-Cille, now known as Iona, putting away his queen, Gormflaith. He died in the monastery in 981. Gormflaith promptly urged her son, Sitric, to arrange her marriage as a secondary wife to King Mael Sechnaill. The marriage ended in divorce in 1002, for Gormflaith possessed a reputation of being beautiful but terribly shrewish in nature. The infamous princess of Leinster became immortalized for her “three leaps”, those being her marriage to King Olaf, then to Mael Sechnaill, and finally to the great high king, Brian Boru. Consequentially, Brian also divorced Gormflaith. The ancient text, The War of Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, a piece considered largely propaganda, details how Gormflaith’s ensuing wrath resulted in events that spurred the battle of Clontarf where Brian Boru met his untimely end.
Though considered a foreign king, Olaf Cuarán ruled Dublin like an Irish ruler. He was a patron of Irish churches and even commissioned a poem from one of the exalted poets of Ireland at that time, Cináed ua hArtacáin, paying him a well-bred horse in exchange.
In all, Olaf Cuarán proved intriguing to research and incorporating him in my novels enriched them. The first four books of my series are currently under contract with Olivia Kimbrell Press. For publication updates on their impending release, you can visit https://mnstroh.com/ and sign up for the Clan Newsletter. Those who join will also receive the free PDF: 7 Virtual Tours of Ancient Irish Sites Featured in Tale of the Clans.
- Amlaíb Cuarán and the Gail, 941-981. By Alex Woolf
- Famous Cemeteries of Medieval Ireland extracted from Kelly Kilpatrick, ‘The Historical Interpretation of Early Medieval Insular Place-Names’ (University of Oxford, unpublished DPhil. Thesis, 2012).
- Religious and Cultural Boundaries between Vikings and Irish: The Evidence of Conversion. By Clare Downham
- The Vikings in Ireland. By Donnchadh Ó Corráin. Editor, Anne-Christine Larsen
- The literature of Medieval Ireland, 800-1200: from the Vikings to the Normans By Máire Ní Mhaonigh
- The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill
Fueled by her love for storytelling and history, M.N. Stroh writes Christian Historical Fiction with an edge, to inspire the downtrodden and outcasts through adventure-laden escapes that lead them back to their First Love. Her debut series, Tale of the Clans, is contracted with Olivia Kimbrell Press for publication through their Cave imprint. M.N. serves as Director of Communications for Serious Writer Inc. affiliate, Writers Chat. She is also the director of Serious Writer Book Club, and a member of ACFW and Historical Novel Society’s Interview Admin Team.