The bounds between Irish Legend and Irish Myth has often been blurred, especially as the retelling of heroic deeds has been passed on through generations. Brian Boru was no legend although his life deeds were legendary. He was very much a real man and was in fact the last great High King of Ireland and perhaps the greatest military leader the country has ever known.
Brian Boru was born Brian Mac Cennétig at Kincora, Killaloe, a town in the region of Tuadmumu (Thomond), the son of Cennetig (Cennedi) and Babhion or Bebinn. Members of the Dál gCais (or Dalcassians) tribe, the family had an ancient royal ancestry. His mother was sister to the mother of Conor, the King of Connacht. The youngest of twelve sons, Brian would become the 175th King of Ireland, the founder of the O’Brien dynasty and the ancestor of the Kings of Thomond. Brian was an excellent harp musician and the harp has become a symbol of peace and unity in Ireland in his memory.
In 1002, Brian was recognised as Ard Rí, High King of Ireland, thus ending the six hundred year reign of the Uí Néill’s in Leinster. Breaking from tradition, he ruled from Kincora Castle in Killaloe instead of Cashel, thus making Killaloe the “Capital of Ireland “. Brian’s name was inscribed in the Book of Armagh, in gold lettering, as “Emperor of the Irish” in 1005 during Brian’s campaign in the north of Ireland.
After forty years of incessant warfare in his early life, Brian devoted his mind to works of peace. He rebuilt the monasteries that had been destroyed by the Danes, and erected bridges and fortresses all over the country. He founded and restored schools and colleges, and took measures for the repression of crime.
Maelmordha, brother of Gormlaith, third wife of Brian, who had usurped the crown of Leinster in 999, rebelled against Brian’s rule in 1013. Conspiring with Sitriuc, son of Gormlaith, the two resolved themselves to overthrow Brian. They along with Dane Vikings of the north of Ireland in Leinster and Dublin, as well as native Irish rivals to Brian, gathered their forces in rebellion to Brian in 1014. Two Norwegian princes, Bróðir and Óspak at the head of a thousand troops, arrived to reinforce the Danish contingent. As the Danes prepared for battle at Clontarf, they numbered sixteen thousand, as well as troops from Leinster under their king, Maelmordha.
With a force nearing thirty thousand, including the Dalcassion Knights, Brian marched into Leinster, where Malcolm II, King of Meath, joined him four miles outside of Dublin at Clontarf. Arriving on Palm Sunday, the battle would occur five days later on Good Friday. All of the accounts state that the Battle of Clontarf lasted all day and was a bloody affair. Brian Boru’s troops would win this battle to keep a unified Ireland, but this would not to be a glorious day.
High King Brian Boru died on this day, Good Friday, 23 April 1014. There are many legends concerning how Brian was killed, from dying in a heroic man-to-man combat to being beheaded by the fleeing Viking mercenary Bróðir while praying in his tent at Clontarf.
Brian’s army had won the battle, but his enemy King Sitriuc remained in control of Dublin. Many of the dead were probably buried on the field of battle, but the fallen leaders were afforded special treatment.
Brian’s body, along with that of his son Murchad, and the heads of his nephew and another Munster king, were all taken to Swords (north Co Dublin). There they were met by the Abbot of Armagh, who escorted the cortege northward to Armagh, where their remains were buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with great reverence after an extended wake. It was fitting that the church of Armagh should accord this special honour to the man they had once hailed as ‘Emperor of the Irish’.
Brian Boru remains to be one of the greatest historical figures and the last that saw a unified Ireland.
Photo: Dublin Castle, Chapel Royal Sculpture of King Brian Boru.