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In search of: Brian Boru, the high King of Ireland

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Published on: Monday, August 08, 2011

By Llewellyn Toulmin

My wife Susan wanted to go to Ireland, and I hadn’t been there since I was a kid in 1965.  So we started planning a major trip.  Whenever I go anywhere, now that I’m hooked on genealogy, I try to see if there is a family connection.  But I didn’t recall any Irishmen in my database of ancestors, just Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen of course, and a bunch of continental Europeans.  Meanwhile, I was reading up on Irish history, and kept coming across this fellow Brian Boru, the first High King of All Ireland to take his job seriously, who tried to unite Ireland into a real country in the year 1000.  He was felt to be the greatest Irish leader of the middle ages, and perhaps of all time.  

Then I recalled that somewhere in my trusty genealogical database, way back in time, there perhaps was an Irish chieftain.  It was worth a look.  So I poked around the database, searching in various ways, until finally I found him and his daughter, my lone Irish ancestors out of 2493 ancestors and relatives cataloged.  He was King Olaf II of Dublin (1005-1034), my 27th great grandfather, and his daughter Ragnihildr (dates unknown). (I know, I know, it seems incredible that anyone could really document 27 generations, but I have proof for every link.)  Ragnihildr had married Cyan of Wales who was exiled in Ireland; presumably this was how the two met.  Cyan was the great-great-grandfather of Llywelyn The Great, Prince of Wales (1173-1240), the most famous of the many Welsh princes who resisted English rule.  Llywelyn was my 22nd great grandfather via a reliable line with many references.  

I decided to see if Olaf II had any interesting ancestors.  I called up various Internet websites and sources, and soon found some sites with good references which stated that Olaf II had a father Sihtric Macamlaib, King of Dublin, who had a wife Slani Ingin O’Brian, whose father was – OnMyGod! -- Brian Boru, High King of All Ireland!  Wow!  My 29th great-grandfather.  Suddenly I was a descendant of the greatest Irish leader of all time.  How cool is that?

I decided to link our trip to Brian Boru’s life, and go on a quest to find out what traces still existed of this great Irishman.  Now our trip had a fascinating theme and a real research purpose.  Susan’s ancestry was included, too, since Olaf II and Brian Boru were ancestors of our (Susan and my) common ancestor, Lt. Col. Thomas Ligon (1623-1675) of Warwickshire and Virginia, a “gateway” ancestor to Magna Charta barons and British, European, and now Irish royalty.

More study showed that many Americans are descended from Brian Boru but just don’t know it.  For example, President John F. Kennedy and his clan are descendants, as are Presidents Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, and Robert “King” Carter of Virginia – and all of their descendants.  

I identified four sites that would help us explore the life, impact and descendants of Brian Boru.  These were: Dromoland Castle; sites in and near Killaloe, County Clare; St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Armagh; and the Brian Boru Well in Clontarf, Dublin.

The research phase complete, we flew to Shannon airport in southwest Ireland, and stayed a night at our first site -- the fabulous Dromoland Castle hotel and resort.  This castle is one of the most famous in Ireland, and is the ancestral home of the O’Briens, Barons of Inchiquin, one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood, and the direct descendants of Brian Boru.  Donough O’Brien, a son of Brian Boru, owned the site in the 11th century, and had a defensive stronghold there.  The O’Brien family lived at Dromoland for almost 1000 years, one of the longest continuous family holdings in the world.

Our visit to the castle was pleasant and rewarding.  The guest rooms were beautifully furnished, and the grounds were gorgeous.  The most attractive feature was the lovely garden, protected by a 12 foot high wall, which contained numerous roses, hydrangeas and other beautiful flowers.  Perhaps the most amusing feature was a fanciful portrait in the living room of the castle of the O’Brien’s director ancestor Brian Boru, showing him in very inappropriate 17th century-style armor.

It was a resident of this castle, chief of the clan O’Brien, Morrough, known as the Prince of Thomond, who in 1543 was forced to pledge his loyalty to the English King Henry VIII.  Henry dubbed Morrough the Baron of Inchiquin and Earl of Thomond -- a bit of a comedown from “Prince.”  

The oldest part of the current building was constructed in 1736, and consists of a quadrangle of 29 guest rooms called Queen Anne’s court, named after the then Queen of England.  

Most of the current structure was built over 15 years, from 1811 to 1826 by Sir Edward O’Brien, Lord of Dromoland, at a fantastic cost. The stone alone cost more than 100,000 pounds, a huge expense at the time.

During the struggles for Irish independence, the castle was targeted, like many other aristocratic homes, for destruction by the IRA.  On two occasions the O’Briens learned of gasoline shipments which were sent secretly to County Clare for burning the castle.  But local residents pleaded that the O’Briens were fair and benevolent in dealing with their tenants, and the castle was spared at the last minute.  

By the 1960s the expense of keeping up the castle was too much, and the castle was sold out of O’Brien hands.  However, Conor Myles John O’Brien, The O’Brien, Prince of Thomond, Chief of the Name, 18th Baron Inchiquin, 10th Baronet of Leamaneh (what a mouthful!) still lives in a grand house beside the castle, and still participates in managing and developing the estate.  He is hoping to finance a movie based on Brian Boru’s life and the Morgan Llywelyn book on Brian, called “The Lion of Ireland.”

The Dromoland O’Brien family pedigree is kept in a vault at Lloyds of London.  It is 36 feet in length!  

Next month I will describe other sites in our quest to find the High King of All Ireland.  

Lew Toulmin is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and lives in Silver Spring.  

Reader Comments - 4 Total

captcha 80727c68a2544372acc9337a1bb3e58d

Posted By: murdoch o dailigh On: 11/17/2013

Title: funny people

yea im related to brian borumha aswell, turns out
im also related to hitler, everybody wants to be irish
, how i love life, you should have bought some small
trinkets while you wer there and when you went home
you could have handed them out to your freinds and then
they would be irish aswell

Posted By: Lars G On: 5/17/2013

Title: Mr

I am also related to Brian Boru; Check out this link
We live in Adamstown, MD and recently had a great family brunch at the Brian Boru Pub in Severna Park. The Boru Vodka is excellent
Lars Granholm

Posted By: Marissa On: 4/25/2013


So we are related through Brian...

Posted By: Mighty Mick On: 12/22/2012

Title: Cast

Mickey Rourke should be King Brian Boru


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