Brian Boru - The Last High King of Ireland
Few historical names are more widely known among Irishmen than that of Brian the First - "Brian Boru, or Borumha;" and the story of his life is a necessary and an interesting introduction to an account of the battle of Clontarf. The line between Irish Legend and Irish Myth have 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 Bóruma mac Cennétig, (c. 941–23 April 1014), (English: Brian Boru, Middle Irish: Brian Bóruma, Irish: Brian Bóroimhe), was an Irish king who ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. Building on the achievements of his father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, and especially his elder brother, Mathgamain, Brian first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated Leinster, making himself ruler of the south of Ireland. He is the founder of the O'Brien dynasty.
Brian Boru the son of Kennedy, of the Dalgas race was born in Kincora in 941. In 964 his brother Mahon became king of all Munster. At this time the Danes held the chief fortresses of the province, including Limerick, Cork and Waterford, from which their marauding parties swept continually over the country, murdering and destroying wherever they came. King Mahon and his brother Brian, finding that they were not strong enough to withstand them openly, crossed the Shannon with those of their people who abode on the open plains, and took refuge among the forests and mountain solitudes of Clare. From these retreats they carried on a relentless desultory warfare with the foreigners, during which no quarter was given on either side.
After a time both parties grew tired of these destructive conflicts; and a truce was agreed on between Mahon and the Danish leaders. But young Brian would have no truce: and he maintained the war on his own account against fearful odds, till at last he was left with only fifteen followers.
And now the king, Mahon, hearing how matters stood, and fearing for his brother's safety, visited him in his wild retreat, and tried to persuade him to abandon further resistance as hopeless. But all in vain: the young chief was not to be moved from his purpose. And he at length persuaded his brother the king to resume hostilities; and the two brave brothers collecting all their forces, formed an encampment at Cashel, from which they sent expeditions to ravage the Danish settlements all round.
When Ivar of Limerick, king of the Munster Danes, heard of this uprising, he was infuriated to madness; and making a mighty gathering of all the Danes of Munster he determined to march into Thomond and exterminate the whole Dalcassian race root and branch. Molloy king of Desmond and Donovan king of Hy Carbery (in the present Co. Limerick) basely joined and encouraged him; and bent on vengeance he set out from Limerick with his whole army for the encampment at Cashel. When the Dalcassian chiefs heard of this they marched west, and met the enemy half way at Sulcoit, now Sollohod, a level district near the present Limerick junction, twenty miles from Limerick city. The battle of Sulcoit began at sunrise on a summer morning of the year 968, and lasted till mid-day, when the foreigners gave way and fled—"fled to the hedges and to the valleys and to the solitudes of the great flowered-covered plain." They were pursued and slaughtered all the way to Limerick, which now was taken possession of by the victorious Irish. After this decisive battle Mahon defeated the Danes in seven other battles, till at last he became king of all Munster.
At this time there were two ruling families in Munster. The Owenaghts or Eugenians who ruled Desmond were now represented by Molloy, and afterwards by the Mac Carthys: the Dalgas or Dalcassians now represented by Mahon and Brian, and afterwards by the O'Briens, ruled over Thomond. It had been for many centuries the custom that the kings of the Eugenian and Dalcassian families should be alternately kings of all Munster. Mahon's uninterrupted success excited the envy and deepened the hatred of Donovan, Molloy, and Ivar the Dane; and they laid a base plot for his destruction. In 976 he was invited to a friendly conference to Bruree, the residence of Donovan, who on his arrival seized him and sent him to be delivered up to Molloy and his Danish associates.
Molloy sent forward an escort to meet him in the pass of Barnaderg, near Ballyorgan, between the counties of Cork and Limerick, with secret instructions to kill him, while Molloy himself remained behind within view of the pass, but a good way off. The safety of each person was guaranteed by the Bishop of Cork, who acted as mediator between them. Mahon, chivalrous and unsuspecting, went unattended and unarmed to the conference. He was seized by an armed band of, Donovan's men, who handed him over to a party of Molloy's retainers, by whom he was put to death. He had with him, as the sacred and inviolable "safe-conduct" on the faith of which he had trusted himself into the power of his foes, a copy of the Gospels written by the hand of St. Barre. As the assassins drew their swords upon him, Mahon snatched up. the sacred scroll, and held it on his breast, as if, he could not credit that a murderous hand would dare to wound him through such a shield! But the murderers plunged their swords into his heart, piercing right through the vellum, which became all stained and matted with his blood. Two priests had, horror-stricken, witnessed the outrage. They caught up the blood-stained Gospels and fled to the bishop, spreading through the country as they went the dreadful news which they bore. The venerable successor of St. Fin Bar, we are told, wept bitterly and uttered a prophecy concerning the fate of the murderers, which was soon and remarkably fulfilled.
When Malloy saw in the distance the flash of the naked sword, he knew the deed was done; and mounting his horse he fled from the place. But this villainous deed only raised up a still more formidable antagonist, and swift retribution followed. When the news of his noble-hearted brother's death was brought to Brian at Kincora, he was seized with the most violent grief. His favorite harp was taken down, and he sang the death-song of Mahon, recounting all the glorious actions of his life. His anger flashed out through his tears as he wildly chanted-
'My heart shall burst within my breast,
Unless I avenge this great king.
They shall forfeit life for this foul deed,
Or I must perish by a violent death
Brian now became king of Thomond: and his first care was to avenge his brother's murder. Proceeding with his fleet to Scattery island where Ivar had taken refuge after the battle of Sulcoit, he slew him and his Danes. Next, in 977, he captured Bruree, Donovan's fortress, and killed Donovan himself, with Harold the son of Ivar and a vast number of their followers.
It was now Molloy's turn: and Brian, marching south in 978, encountered his army in Barnaderg, the very spot where the great crime had been committed two years before. Molloy was defeated with a loss of 1,200 men; and immediately after the battle he himself was found hiding in a hut and was killed without mercy by Murrogh the young son of Brian. After this last battle Brian was acknowledged king of all Munster.
In 996 Brian finally managed to control the province of Leinster, which may have been what led Máel Sechnaill to reach a compromise with him in the following year. By recognising Brian's authority over Leth Moga, that is, the Southern Half, which included the Provinces of Munster and Leinster (and the Hiberno-Norse cities within them), Máel Sechnaill was simply accepting the reality that confronted him and retained control over Leth Cuinn, that is, the Northern Half, which consisted of the Provinces of Meath, Connacht, and Ulster.
Precisely because he had submitted to Brian's authority, the King of Leinster was overthrown in 998 and replaced by Máel Morda mac Murchada. Given the circumstances under which Máel Morda had been appointed, it is not surprising that he launched an open rebellion against Brian's authority. In response, Brian assembled the forces of the Province of Munster with the intention of laying siege to the Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin, which was ruled by Máel Morda's ally and cousin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard. Together Máel Morda and Sigtrygg determined to meet Brian's army in battle rather than risk a siege. Thus, in 999, the opposing armies fought the Battle of Glen Mama. The Irish annals all agree that this was a particularly fierce and bloody engagement, although claims that it lasted from morning until midnight, or that the combined Leinster-Dublin force lost 4,000 killed are open to question. In any case, Brian followed up his victory, as he and his brother had in the aftermath of the Battle of Sulcoit thirty-two years before, by capturing and sacking the enemy's city. Once again, however, Brian opted for reconciliation; he requested Sigtrygg to return and resume his position as ruler of Dublin, giving Sigtrygg the hand of one of his daughters in marriage, just as he had with the Eoganacht King, Cian. It may have been on this occasion that Brian married Sigtrygg's mother and Máel Morda's sister Gormflaith, the former wife of Máel Sechnaill.
His next proceeding was to invade Malachi's territory, in 1002, in violation of the treaty of four years before; and he sent to him to demand submission or battle. And Malachi finding he was not strong enough to resist, rode into Brian's encampment with merely a small guard and without any guarantee or protection, and telling him plainly he would fight if he had been strong enough, he made his submission. This was in 1002; and from that year Brian was acknowledged king of Ireland, Malachi going back to his own special kingdom of Meath. And now after forty years of incessant warfare 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. The bright picture handed down to us of the peaceful and prosperous state of Ireland from Brian's accession to the battle of Clontarf, is illustrated by the well-known legend, that a beautiful young lady richly dressed, and bearing a ring of priceless value on her wand, traversed the country alone from north to south without being molested—a fiction which Moore has embalmed in the beautiful song "Rich and rare were the gems she wore."
The Norsemen were not done yet however, and once more waged war on Brian Boru and his followers at Clontarf in Dublin in 1014. The King of Connaught, Tadhg O'Conor refused to ally with Brian against the Ostermen although Uí Fiachrach Aidne and Uí Maine did join with him. Mailmora and the Danish leaders now began actively at the work of mustering forces for the final struggle; and Gormlaith, who was among her own people—having been discarded by Brian—was no less active than her relatives. Her son Sitric of the Silken Beard, acting under her directions, engaged Sigurd earl of the Orkneys, as well as Broder and Amlaff of the Isle of Man, the two earls of all the north of England, who promised to be in Dublin on Palm Sunday, the day fixed on for the meeting of all the confederates. Broder had once been a Christian, but now worshipped heathen fiends: "he had a coat of mail on which no steel would bite;" he was both tall and strong, and his black locks were so long that he tucked them under his belt. These two vikings, Broder and Amlaff, who had a great fleet with 2,000 "Danmarkians" are described as "the chiefs of ships and outlaws and Danars of all the west of Europe, having no reverence for God or for man, for church or for sanctuary." There came also 1,000 men covered with coats of mail from head to foot: a very formidable phalanx, seeing that the Irish fought as usual in tunics. Envoys were despatched in other directions also: and Norse auxiliaries sailed towards Dublin from Scotland, from the Isles of Shetland, from the Hebrides, from France and Germany, and from the shores of Scandinavia. While Sitric and the other envoys were thus successfully prosecuting their mission abroad, Mailmora was equally active at home; and by the time all the foreign auxiliaries had joined muster, and Dublin Bay was crowded with their black ships, he had collected the forces of Leinster and arranged them in three great battalions within and around the walls of Dublin.
The Irish monarch had now no time to lose. Now in his seventy third year he prepared to give battle once more. He collected his forces about the 17th of March; and having encamped at Kilmainham, he set fire to the Danish districts near Dublin, so that the fierce Norsemen within the city could see Fingall the whole way from Dublin to Howth smoking and blazing. And brooding vengeance, they raised their standards and sallied forth to prepare for battle. On the evening of Thursday the 22nd of April the king got word that the Danes were making preparations to fight next day—Good Friday. The good king Brian was very unwilling to fight on that solemn day; but he was not able to avoid it.
On the morning of Friday the 23rd of April 1014 the Irish army began their March from Kilmainham at dawn of day, in three divisions; and the Danes were also in three divisions. Sitric the king of Dublin was not in the battle: he remained behind to guard the city. In the march from Kilmainham the venerable monarch rode at the head of the army; but his sons and friends prevailed on him, on account of his age—he was now seventy-three—to leave the chief command to his son Murrogh. When they had come near the place of conflict, the army halted; and the king holding aloft a crucifix in sight of all, rode from rank to rank and addressed them in a few spirited words. He reminded them that on that day their good Lord had died for them; and he exhorted them to fight bravely for their religion and their country. Then giving the signal for battle he withdrew to his tent in the rear. Little or no tactics appear to have been employed. It was simply a fight of man against man, a series of hand-to-hand encounters; and the commanders fought side by side with their men.
The old chronicle describes Murrogh as dealing fearful havoc. Three several times he rushed with his household troops through the thick press of the furious foreigners, mowing down men to the right and left; for he wielded a heavy sword in each hand, and needed no second blow. At last he came on earl Sigurd whom he found slaughtering the Dalcassians. But Murrogh struck off his helmet with a blow of the right hand sword, bursting straps and buckles; and with the other felled him to the earth—dead. Towards evening the Irish made a general and determined attack; and the main body of the Danes at last gave way. Crowds fled along the level shore towards Dublin, vainly hoping to reach either the ships or the city. But Malachi who had stood by till this moment, rushed down with his Meathmen and cut off their retreat.
The greatest slaughter of the Danes took place during this rout, on the level space now covered with streets, from Ballybough Bridge to the Four Courts.
After the rout of the Danish main body, scattered parties of Danes continued to fight for life with despairing fury at various points over the plain. On one of those groups came Murrogh, still fighting, but so fatigued that he could scarce lift his hands. Anrad the leader of the band, dashed at him furiously. But Morrogh who had dropped his sword, closing on him, grasped him in his arms, and by main strength pulled his armour over his head: then getting him under, he seized the Norseman's sword and thrust it three times through his body to the very ground. Anrad, writhing in the death agony, plunged his dagger into the prince's side, inflicting a mortal wound. But the Irish hero lived till next morning when he received the solemn rites of the church. The heroic boy Turlogh, only fifteen years of age, the son of Murrogh, fought valiantly during the day in his father's division, side by side with his elder relatives. After the battle, late in the evening, he was found drowned at the fishing weir of the river Tolka, with his hands entangled in the long hair of a Dane, whom he had pursued into the tide at the time of the great flight.
But the crowning tragedy of the bloody day of Clontarf was yet to come. The aged king remained in his tent engaged in earnest prayer, while he listened anxiously to the din of battle. He had a single attendant, Laiten, who stood at the door to view the field; and close round the tent stood a guard. And now came the great rout; and the guards, thinking all danger past, eagerly joined in the pursuit, so that the king and his attendant were left alone. It happened that Broder, who had fled from the battlefield, came with some followers at this very time toward the tent. "I see some people approaching," said Laiten. "What manner of people are they?" asked the king. "Blue and naked people," replied the attendant. "They are Danes in armour," exclaimed the king, and instantly rising from his cushion, he drew his sword. Broder at that instant rushed on him with a double-edged battle-axe, but was met by a blow of the heavy sword that cut off both legs, one from the knee and the other from the ankle. But the furious Viking, even while falling, cleft the king's head with the axe. After a little time the guards, as if struck by a sudden sense of danger, returned in haste: but too late. They found the king dead, and his slayer stretched by his side dying.
As to the numbers slain, the records differ greatly. According to the annals of Ulster 7,000 fell on the Danish side and 4,000 on the Irish, which is probably near the truth. Almost all the leaders on both sides were slain, and among them Mailmora, the direct inciter of the battle. The battle of Clontarf was the last great struggle between Christianity and heathenism. The body of king Brian and that of his son Murrogh were conveyed with great solemnity to Armagh, where they were interred in the cathedral, the archbishop and the clergy celebrating the obsequies for twelve days.
The bones of Brian Boru the King of Ireland who defeated the Vikings are said to be buried in the North Wall of Saint Patricks Church Of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh which dates back to medieval times. In the west wall of the North Transept is a granite slab, placed there in 1914, commemorating the burial on the north side of the Cathedral of Brian Boroimhe, Boru High King of Ireland, in 1014.
Our thanks to A. M. Sullivan and P. W. Joyce for their contributions to this article.