Wednesday, May 22, 2013 6:23 PM
Published on: Friday, September 02, 2011
By: Llewellyn Toulmin
Last month I described Dromoland Castle, home of the descendants of King Brian Boru for almost 1000 years. This month we will go in search of some Brian Boru sites near Killaloe, in County Clare, and learn more about his life, and then go to a battle site near Dublin and learn more about his death.
At Killaloe at the south end of Lough (Lake) Derg, we were able to home in on the life and some remnants of the great man himself. The Brian Boru Heritage Center presents video, text and a painted history of Brian and his life.
Brian Boru was born in Killaloe on the Shannon in 941, into the small, unimportant Dalcassian clan in southern Ireland, in an era of Viking invasions and constant warring among Irish tribes. Brian’s tribe claimed descent from Finn MacCool, the huge giant who built the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and from other leaders dating back to the year 167 AD. However, it is evident that much of this genealogy was manufactured.
Brian’s father, Cennitig (or Kennedy), was killed by the Vikings when Brian was just ten; Brian’s brother Mahon became King of the Dalcassians. Mahon and Brian fought the Vikings for two decades, defeating them in a battle in 968 at Solohead. This victory allowed Mahon to claim the throne of Munster; he was inaugurated at the famous Rock of Cashel of the Kings, in 970.
But Mahon was treacherously killed by his enemies at the Bloody Pass in County Limerick. This left the door open for Brian, who assumed the throne of Munster and Thomond at the age of 37. He avenged his brother’s death by attacking a group of his Viking and Irish enemies on a monastic sanctuary island in the Shannon, and virtually wiping them out.
Brian then temporarily joined forces with his traditional rival Malachy, chief of the O’Neills, who had held the ceremonial title of High King of Ireland for many generations. Together in 999 Brian and Malachy succeeded in defeating their common enemies the Vikings at Glen-mama, where 4000 of the enemy were killed. Malachy and Brian marched on Dublin, then a Viking port, and plundered it of gold, jewels and slaves.
Brian next began maneuvering to displace Malachy as High King. After some negotiation, Malachy yielded the title to the stronger and more popular Brian. They met at the famous site of Tara (remember that name from Gone with the Wind?), about 30 miles north of Dublin, the seat of the kings of Ireland. Here 142 ceremonial kings of Ireland had ruled, and from here half the counties in Ireland can be seen. Brian was inaugurated here as the High King of All Ireland and Imperator Scotorum (“Emperor of the Irish”). He was 61 years old.
Brian at this time was reported to be “a man of fine figure, large stature, and great strength.” He was conspicuous for his “mental endowments, sagacity, bravery and Christian piety.”
Just a mile north of the Heritage Center we found Brian Boru’s fort. This fort was used by Brian, his brother Mahon, and his father Kennedy. It protected a critical ford across the Shannon, and was probably used to levy tribute in the form of cattle from traders crossing the river. In fact, “Boru” can be translated as “cattle tribute.” The fort in Brian’s time was likely a large wooden stockade built atop a round earthen berm, but today all that remains is an earthen bank and outer ditch.
After Brian was crowned as High King, he set about showing what he thought the title really meant. He pushed for ecclesiastical reform, restored previously destroyed churches, united the many lesser Irish tribes into a more national consciousness, encouraged education, consolidated his control over the country by fighting a rebellion instigated by his divorced wife Gormla, and built a large palace at Kincora, just north of Killiloe. (Unfortunately no trace of the palace survives.) He built roads and bridges, and set up trade with Britain and Europe. He kept the kingdom relatively peaceful, and he presided in 1007 over the great fair and games at Tailteann, which had been suspended for 80 years. He probably began the system of Irish surnames, by which his descendants became known as “O’Brien.” He became Ireland’s first naval leader, creating a great fleet of ships based at Lough Derg. Many sources call him “the greatest Irishman of all time.”
Unfortunately, Brian’s Viking enemies still waited in the wings. They supported Brian’s ex-wife Gormla and her brother Maelmor in yet another rebellion. The stage was set for the heroic death of Brian Boru.
Brian, knowing that battle was coming, set up camp with his 30,000 supporters, north of Dublin in what is now a residential suburb of the town, known as Clontarf. The Vikings gathered from Scandinavia, the Orkneys, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles of Scotland. The battle took place on Good Friday, April 23, 1014.
The battle raged all day, with thousands on each side fighting hand-to-hand in two great lines. Finally the battle began to go Brian’s way. At this crucial juncture Brian, now 73, was observing the battle from his tent and giving instructions to his aides. His guards were distracted and were also looking at the battle, and were not watching in all directions. Suddenly a small party of Vikings led by the warrior Brodir emerged from behind the tent and attacked. Brian cut off Brodir’s leg, mortally wounding him. But Brodir managed to kill Brian Boru with a final blow of his war ax.
The Irish under Brian won the day, and the Vikings were ejected from Ireland for all time. But the price was high. The High King was dead.
Perhaps most importantly, Brian Boru, still vigorous despite his great age, lost the chance to consolidate his hold over Ireland. It is difficult to say “what if,” but it seems likely that if Brian’s guards had been more attentive and he had lived, he could have turned Ireland into a real country with a national consciousness, rather than a collection of warring tribes.
Failing that, the next turning point in Irish history was a tragic one. Beginning in 1166 the English became embroiled in Irish inter-tribal wars, and have never left. Perhaps if Brian Boru had been allowed to put a stop to this kind of warfare, England would never have invaded Ireland, and both would have been more peaceful. Perhaps the Scots-Irish, the forced settlers in northern Ireland, would not have existed, perhaps the IRA would not have been founded, and perhaps Northern Ireland, that perpetual thorn in the side of England and the world, would not exist as we know it today. Perhaps….
Today all that remains of the battle of Clontarf is the “Well of Brian Boru,” reputed site of Brian’s tent. The well, really a spigot, is located on a residential street in the suburb of Clontarf. It seems rather a minor monument to such a great man.
Brian was buried at St. Patrick’s cathedral in Armagh in what is now Northern Ireland. A large but simple plaque outside the cathedral marks the approximate location of the grave. On the day we visited, overhead a police helicopter hovered continuously, watching out for sectarian violence in the land never quite united by Brian Boru, High King of All Ireland.
Lew Toulmin is the 29th great grandson of Brian Boru, and lives in Silver Spring.