Brian Boru: imperator Scotorum

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Platform, Volume 22

Above: Brian Boru, Imperator Scotorum, by Robert Ballagh, after the frontispiece of Geoffrey Keating’s The history of Ireland (1723), an English translation of his Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (c. 1633).

Above: Brian Boru, Imperator Scotorum, by Robert Ballagh, after the frontispiece of Geoffrey Keating’s The history of Ireland (1723), an English translation of his Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (c. 1633).

Brian Boru is the most famous Irishman before the modern era. From fairly modest beginnings he rose to be king of Ireland, dying a fabled death at the Battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014. He was born about 941, one of the twelve sons of Cennétig (d. 951), king of Dál Cais. A hitherto little-known dynasty, Dál Cais underwent a rapid ascent in importance in the early tenth century: Cathy Swift examines some of the circumstances that may have given rise to it.

Brian got his nickname ‘Boru’ from the Old Irish bórama, ‘cattle tribute’, or more likely from Bél Bóraime, a ringfort near Killaloe where he had a residence. Nowhere in Ireland is more closely associated with Brian than this part of east Clare, and no extant building provides a more tangible link to him than the church of Tuamgraney near the western shore of Lough Derg. Tuamgraney was one of the most significant ecclesiastical sites in Dál Cais—indeed, the first known king of Dál Cais (d. 934) was also abbot of Tuamgraney. As Tomás Ó Carragáin observes, it seems certain that Brian passed through its remarkable doorway on many an occasion.

Dál Cais’s growing importance was evident by 967, when Brian’s brother Mathgamain was described as king of Cashel (i.e. Munster), the first to win the title, and perhaps the first king of the province in five centuries not to be part of the great dynasty of the Eóganachta. This achievement points to the change under way in Irish society, accelerated by the Viking presence and described by Charles Doherty. Norse trade, particularly slavery, brought great wealth; when Irish kings gained access to this, it allowed for the increasing militarisation of society, and kingdoms became larger and fewer in number.

It was Mathgamain who first gained control over the Norse settlement at Limerick, when he defeated them in the battle of Solloghod in 967, the battle in which Brian, now in his mid-twenties, distinguished himself, according to the slightly later Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (‘The war of the Irish against the Foreigners’). The Norse of Limerick were instrumental, however, in Mathgamain’s downfall and murder in 976. Only at this point, at perhaps 35 years of age, does Brian emerge fully into the light of history.

In the course of a military career spanning five decades, Brian fought few major battles, his first vital encounter being the battle of Belach Lechta (in the Ballyhoura Hills) in 978, a contest for the kingship of Munster between Dál Cais and Eóganachta, from which he emerged victorious. By 982 Brian was beginning to flex his muscles outside Munster, which led to years of warfare between him and the king of Tara, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of the Southern Uí Néill. But by 996 Brian had taken the hostages of Leinster, i.e. won its submission, and now controlled Leth Moga (the southern half of Ireland), and had therefore achieved for Dál Cais a new position of eminence.

It was a status that Máel Sechnaill had to acknowledge, and so in 997 Brian sailed to Bleanphuttoge, on the shores of Lough Ree, Co. Westmeath, and there agreed with Máel Sechnaill to divide Ireland between them: the latter abandoned the centuries-old Uí Néill claim to overlordship of the entire country and became master of Leth Cuinn (the Northern Half) alone. This was the high point of Brian’s career to date. Late in 999, Brian went to Glenn Máma (near Newcastle Lyons, Co. Dublin), where the Hiberno-Norse of Dublin and the Leinstermen forced him to commit to a pitched battle, something he generally avoided. But his enemies’ forces were slaughtered and Glenn Máma stands out as one of his greatest victories. Afterwards, he stormed Dublin, departing laden with gold, silver and captives. He banished King Sitric Silkenbeard, who was eventually forced to hand over hostages to Brian in a sign of submission.

The very streets that Brian ransacked in AD 1000 were exposed in the Wood Quay excavations of the 1970s. Their proposed destruction by Dublin Corporation sparked one of the great causes célèbres of recent times in Ireland because of the public outcry it evoked. Now, as Linzi Simpson describes, Dublin City Council has commissioned an oral history project to record the memories of those involved on both sides of the Wood Quay controversy.

Politics then, as now, was a dirty business and it was also in 1000 that a buoyant Brian repudiated his treaty with Máel Sechnaill. In 1002 he took the hostages of Connacht and Mide (Meath), an event of momentous importance. Brian had obtained the submission of the Uí Néill high-king, overturned a convention that was several centuries old, and was now entitled—if he could enforce his claim throughout the Northern Half—to assume the title of high-king of Ireland.

Brian set about making a reality of his claim by marching north year after year to force the northern kings into submission. His 1005 expedition was his most elaborate yet, going to Armagh, where, according to Denis Casey and Bernard Meehan, the hallowed Book of Armagh, with its collection of early texts about St Patrick, was produced for inspection by Brian, an inscription recording that it was written ‘in the presence of Brian, emperor of the Irish (imperatoris Scotorum)’. This title is unique in Irish history, and is an insight into Brian’s ambition and sense of his own status.

The awesome energy of this man, now in his mid-60s, was demonstrated in 1006, when Brian again mustered an army of all the southern kings and journeyed through the north, but it was another four years before the most powerful king of the north, Ua Néill of Cenél nEógain, submitted, Brian bringing his hostages back to Cenn Corad (Kincora), a hill overlooking the Shannon at Killaloe where Brian had his principal residence. Finally, in 1011 Brian’s army forced the one remaining independent power in the land, the king of Cenél Conaill in Donegal, to become his vassal, reaching the apogee of his power.

It wasn’t long, however, before the power structure that Brian had laboriously built began to crumble. A rebellion by Sitric Silkenbeard of Dublin and Máelmórda, the king of Leinster, inevitably saw Brian attempt to force them back into submission, which culminated in the famous Battle of Clontarf, on Good Friday 1014. It was a bloody affair, which I analyse inside, the Dublin and Leinster armies being reinforced by troops from Man and the Isles while Brian had only limited support from Munster, south Connacht and perhaps Mide. Nevertheless, Brian won the day, although he himself was killed.

Later accounts portray the saintly King Brian, praying in his tent, being brutally assassinated in the hour of victory by the fleeing Viking leader, Bródar. This is not mentioned in more contemporary accounts, although they do report that after the battle the bodies of Brian and his son Murchad were brought ceremoniously to Armagh by its clergy, and there buried in a new tomb.
Something about Clontarf and its hero has never failed to hold the imagination of the Irish nation. Clare O’Halloran summarises the Brian of later legend; Nancy Hurrell examines the harp that provides us with our national symbol (preserved in Trinity College), which—however anachronistically—tellingly bears his name; Niamh O’Sullivan examines a great nineteenth-century portrayal of Brian’s victory at Clontarf in the magnificent but little-known painting by Hugh Frazer; and Donal Fallon considers how the commemoration of Clontarf featured among the heady events of 1914.
As it was Brian’s ultimate victory over his opponents, we can reas-onably say that his career ended in glory, and he also broke the Uí Néill monopoly of the high-kingship, thereby shaping the course of Irish history for the next 150 years; Denis Casey discusses the high-kingship after Brian. What is more, renewed Scandinavian attacks on England and Ireland in the run-up to Clontarf suggest that Brian’s victory may have averted a large-scale Scandinavian attack on Ireland, such as that which the Danish King Knut and his family successfully mounted against England at this time. Clare Downham discusses this Scandinavian context.

Brian was succeeded by his son Donnchad, who died in Rome in 1064 and was buried there, and then by Donnchad’s nephew Tairdelbach (d. 1086) and the latter’s son, Muirchertach (d. 1119), the family by then sporting with pride the surname Ua Briain (O’Brien). It is a name now widely dispersed through-out the world but all who bear it are ultimately descendants of Brian.

Seán Duffy lectures in medieval history at Trinity College, Dublin.


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