Brian Boru

Having climbed from partisan leader to king of armies, Brian Boru eventually established himself as the first monarch of a consolidated Ireland.

In the year 795 some foreigners, called Gentiles in the Chronicles, landed off the coast of Ireland on the island of Lambay, north of Howth, to plunder the shrines. This was the first recorded foreign attack on Ireland, a country then well peopled, with a close network of laws and institutions binding the activities of the tribes and clans. There were bogs and much forest. The lakes of Ireland were large, and the people who lived in the wooden houses were intelligent and strong. They liked poetry, music, history and romantic stories. They liked learning—there were many monasteries and schools, and they loved fighting. Ireland was in touch with Britain, and with the most advanced civilization of the west, France—a letter from Charlemagne to Colgu the Wise of Clonmacnoise written in this year of invasion is still extant.

Centuries of invasion by the Norse had started. Their dragon-boats flying the flag of the raven grounded on the beaches and spilled their men on to the island to bum, murder, and shake the quiet culture and religious foundations laid by Patrick, Colum and their successors. Most successful of the Norse invaders from the fiords of western Scandinavia was Thorkils who expelled the Abbot of Armagh; based his camp at that city and, for fourteen years between 831-845, roamed the island, carrying back church treasure by the cartload to his palace. He fully intended to establish himself as monarch of all Ireland, but was captured by the King of Meath, and drowned in Loch Owel near Mullingar.

In 852 the Black Gentiles, the Danes, arrived and in a three-day battle at Carlingford defeated the earlier invaders and established themselves with Olaf as King of Dublin and his brothers, Sitric and Ivar, at Waterford and Limerick. From 890 onwards, fresh waves of Norse invaders occupied the homes of the Irish so that the owners had not even the power to ‘give milk or eggs to a sick or infirm man; the foreigners claimed the right over everything’.

The Irish were inferior in arms, and completely unable to withstand these invasions. But towards the end of the tenth century, leaders arose from the general mass of intrigue and battle, men whom the Irish supported in opposition to a common foe. Malachy, King of Tara, was one of these. The other was Mahon, son of Kennedy, who ruled Munster for thirteen years. Kennedy could trace direct descent from Milesius, conqueror from Spain and colonizer of Ireland who, according to Bardic chronology, landed on the Irish coast 1300 years before the birth of Christ. In the third century a.d. an earlier descendant of Milesius, Oilioll Olum, King of Munster, had unwisely decreed that his heirs should be alternately from his eldest son and from his second son, and should rule in turn. This split Munster in two: the north, formed of Clare, Limerick and part of Tipperary; the south, consisting of Kerry, Cork and Waterford. The second son, Cormac Cas, gave his name to the northern kingdom whose men became known as Dalcassians. Kennedy ruled this clan.

Another of Kennedy’s sons was called Brian. This boy’s mother was Beibhionn Cianog, daughter of Archadh, who ruled over a western territory of the Connaught province. The date of Brian’s birth is variously reported in the Chronicles as 926 or 941. This article supports the earlier date. The Chronicon Scotorum and the Annals of Tigemach, Innisfallen, Ulster, Boyle, Clonmacnoise and the Annals of the Four Masters —the most important, compiled in the Franciscan monastery of Donegal—are our sources for this period of Irish history. It is not so difficult to separate legend from fact as it is to determine which of the chroniclers is the most accurate in his dates and reports. Brian’s father died in 942. It is not known how long his mother survived. In the sixth century a religious establishment was founded on Innisfallen Island in County Kerry. For centuries afterwards, a monastery and school flourished on the island and it could be that Boru received his education there.

‘The most careful attention,’ wrote the Reverend John O’Hanlon in his Lives of the Irish Saints, ‘must have been bestowed, by his parents and tutors, on the infancy and childhood of Brian. His dispositions were happily moulded: his piety—of no ascetic cast however—was solid and sincere; his virtues were of a noble and generous quality, while his education was not neglected. ... Literature and politics formed the basis on which his instructions were grounded, but to warlike pursuits he was also addicted.’

The boy grew up in an age when deeds of daring were the only passage to power. As a young man, he conducted a partisan war against the Danish invaders. He banded together one hundred noblemen with their servants and waited for the foreigners in ambush at passes or defiles as they marched on plundering expeditions. During one of these actions, Brian attacked and killed a Dane called Birimus and fifty of his men. This took place near the present town of Killaloe, where Brian eventually built his famous palace of Kincora. Brian and his men lived ‘in the wild huts of the desert, on the bard knotty wet roots’. He killed the Danes ‘in twos and threes, and in fives and in scores and in hundreds’. His one hundred men were reduced to fifteen in skirmishes with the Danes before he returned to his brother Mahon:

‘Alone art thou, Brian of Banba,

Thy warfare was not without valour—

Not numerous hast thou come to our house—

Where hast thou left thy followers?’

‘I have left them with the foreigners

After being cut down, O Mahon:

In hardship they followed me over every plain.

Not like as thy people.’

Brian urged Mahon to join him against the invaders and together they fought the Danes who invaded across the Shannon into the Dalcassian woods from their centre at Limerick. When Mahon then made a truce with the Danes, Brian’s reply is recorded, ‘that such an argument was bad, because it was hereditary for him (Brian) to die, and for the whole of the Dalcais likewise; as their fathers had passed away so must they; but it was not natural or hereditary for the Dalcais to submit to insult or contempt; their forefathers had never submitted to this, and no power on earth would make him do so.’

Brian continued to fight ‘the black grim Gentiles’ alone until, in 968, Mahon and Brian again united against the Danes and in the willow-wood of Sulcoit near Limerick Junction inflicted a ‘crimsoned’ defeat on them. The Danes ‘fled to the ditches and the valleys and to the solitudes of that great sweet flowery plain’. Brian captured Limerick, and carried off ‘their jewels and their best property, their saddles, beautiful and foreign; their gold and silver; their beautifully woven cloth, satin and silks, both scarlet and green, pleasing and variegated’.

Within a year, Ivar the Dane was back and held the Island of Scattery in the Shannon. By treacherous intrigue with Molloy and Donovan of North Munster, he enticed Mahon into a trap and had him murdered eight years after Sulcoit, on the hill Sliebh Riach, between Limerick and Cork. Brian marched to avenge his brother, met Donovan and Aulavius, King of the Danes of Munster, in 977 and killed them both with most of their men.

During the next few years Brian established himself as King of Munster by taking possession of all the other islands that had become foreigners’ camps, killing Daniel the Dane of Waterford before turning his attention to Malachy, King of Tara, who in 982 invaded the territory of Thomond and cut down the famous tree of Magh-Adhair, under whose branches the Kings of Munster were crowned. Brian demanded compensation for this insult and Malachy, not daring to fight, offered to return all his prisoners of war. Malachy formed a treaty with Brian, broke it in 994, and in the following year was defeated by Brian; but not killed. In 998 the two joined forces again and marched against the Danes of Dublin who surrendered goods and hostages.

Thus by varying stages Brian climbed from partisan leader to king of armies until, in 1001, he headed the forces of Munster, Connaught, Leinster, and the Danes of Dublin, marching to Tara against the troublesome Malachy who had rebelled yet again. Brian’s small navy moved up the Shannon from Lough Dergh to Lough Ree, where Malachy met him and made a treaty, coming to Brian’s camp with a mere 240 horsemen. Brian accepted the surrender and offered Malachy an extra horse for each of his men. Malachy took the horses and immediately gave them to Brian’s son who, it is recorded, did not disdain to receive them.

Treaties with a man like Malachy were bound not to last, and this one broke when Malachy joined with the Danes of Dublin. Their forces were defeated by Brian at a place called Glen-mana near Dunlavin in County Wicklow. He then sacked Dublin and carried home to Kincora a vast amount of treasure ‘gold, silver, bronze, precious stones, carbuncles, gems, buffalo horns, beautiful goblets, and vestures of all colours’.

Before returning home, however, he stayed for the Christmas festival in Dublin and noticed whom we may suppose was the most beautiful woman in Dublin of the day. She was described in the Niala Saga as omnium foeminarum venustissima. Her name was Gormflaith, sister of the King of Leinster, already twice married, to Olaf the Dane, and then to Malachy, both of whom had dismissed her. By all accounts, she was a beautiful but scheming woman. ‘This princess,’ stated Torfoeus in his History of the Orkneys, written in Copenhagen in 1697, ‘is reported to have set off her attractions by ornaments which were not the products of her own skill or industry, and to have been so deeply sunk in vice, as to have destroyed, as far as she could, whatever natural gifts she had previously been endowed with.’ Brian fell for her, however, an act he was to rue, and took her back to Kincora.

Brian was now aged seventy-six (a.d. 1002) and acknowledged King of all Ireland. ‘He was not a stone in the place of an egg, and he was not a wisp in place of a club; but he was a hero in place of a hero, and he was valour after valour.’ He was known as Brian Boroimhe, anglicized as Boru, a name derived from the Boromean or tribute of cattle and goods which had been abolished in a.d. 680 and reinstated by Brian. Tribute from the provinces brought to Boru at Kincora ‘for the use and service of the crown’ included: ‘2,670 beeves, 1,370 hogs, 180 loads or tons of iron, 32$ hogsheads or pipes of red wine, and 150 pipes of other wines of various sorts, and 500 mantles.’

In 1004 Boru toured the whole of Ireland as a show of strength to consolidate his empire. A year later he was in Armagh and laid a twenty-two ounce gold collar on the altar of Patrick’s church. On this occasion, Brian asked to see the Book of Armagh, which was then two hundred years old, and told his secretary Mailsuthain to write a decree In conspectu Briani Imperatoris Scotorum, which can still be seen in the book, confirming the ancient ecclesiastical supremacy of Armagh.

A hundred years later, an unknown writer summarized the outcome of this royal tour: ‘So Brian returned from his great royal visitation around all Ireland made in this manner; and the peace of Erinn was proclaimed by him, both of churches and of people, so that peace throughout all Erinn was made in his time.’ Having summarized Brian’s ability to maintain peace, the eulogy continues: ‘By him were erected also noble churches in Erinn, and their sanctuaries. He sent professors and masters to teach wisdom and knowledge, and to buy books beyond the sea and the great ocean: because their writings and their books were burned, in every church and sanctuary where they had been, and were thrown into the water by plunderers, from the beginning to the end. And Brian himself gave the price of learning and the price of books to every one separately who went on this service. Many works also and repairs were made by him. By him were erected the church of Killaloe and the church of Inis-cealtra and Bell tower of Tuamgraney (Tom-grany, Co. Clare), and many other works in like manner.’

Brian could count on the support of the church: one has only to study the map to see how easy a route the Shannon affords into the centre of the island. Dublin was an active Norse settlement, but caused probably less trouble than the enemy sorties made from Limerick. Viking ships made their way up the Shannon, passing, and no doubt raiding, the Irish churches on the way, Inis-cathaig, Mungret, Killaloe, Tuamgraney, Mis-cealtra, Lorrha, Terryglass, Clonfert and Clon-macnois. Boru held the narrow waters at Killaloe which protected this route past the churches and his support from them was assured.

‘His reign at the beginning was full of battles, wars, combats, plundering, ravaging, unquiet; but at its conclusion this reign became at length bright, calm, happy, peaceful, prosperous, wealthy, rich, festive, with giving of banquets and laying of foundations.’ An example of the peaceful nature of his twelve-year reign is given by the woman who travelled alone from Torach, now known as Tory Island off the north-west coast of Donegal, to Clidna, Glandore Harbour in Cork, with a ring of gold which she carried on a stick, unmolested by any stranger on all the journey, inspiring the bard to write:

‘From Tor to lovely Clidna’s wave,

With rings of gold upon her wand,

Whilst Brian reigned, severe and just,

One woman lone through Eri roamed.’

Firmly established as King, Boru was able to turn his attention to developing the country. He built churches and schools and ensured the contentment of his subjects by returning all the hereditary land to the relevant tribes. He built many bridges and roads, duns and insulated fortresses. The main fortress and capital was Kincora, with most of the timber and clay houses on the Clare side of the Shannon at the head of a wooden bridge across the river. There were two churches near the river, one of which still exists next to the cathedral. One of the outlying forts is still plainly discernible a short way upstream; the ancient ramparts of a stone ring-mound, nine feet wide on top, sixty feet wide at the base and ten-to-fourteen feet high, hidden in a clump of trees, look down to the Shannon and Lough Dergh. The palace was a mile away, near the cathedral, but there is no trace of it now. Between the palace and the fort Brian kept a small village of retainers, with their stables and stores.

The Annals of Clonmacnoise say of the Danish treatment of the Irish, and of Boru: ‘In sume it was strange how men of any fashion cou’d use other men as the Danes did use the Irish-men at that time. But King Bryan Borowe was a meet salve to cure such festered soares, all the phissick in the world cou’d not help it else where, in a small time he banished the Danes, made up the Churches and Religious houses, restored the nobility to their Antient patrimony and possessions, and in fine, brought all to a notable reformation.’

To him is attributed the surname system, which he encouraged and which then spread across Europe. He called himself MacCenneidigh, son of Kennedy. Various records enable us to build up a picture of the man. He wore his fair hair long, with a full beard and curled moustache. He had fair skin, well-manicured finger nails and took an evening tub-bath with oil and sweet herbs. He was a brave man, able in war, selfless, very conscious of his ancestors; a man of deep faith, and superstitious. He was, says the Niala Saga, ‘the best natured of all Kings.’ He ‘thrice forgave all his outlaws the same fault’, but punished them strongly after that. He is reputed to have been a poet and musician and a harp said to be his, but in fact of fourteenth-century date, can be seen in Trinity College Library, Dublin. (Irish harp music, Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in 1185, is ‘lively and rapid, while the melody is both sweet and sprightly’. And he spoke of the so ‘complex and rapid a movement of the fingers’.)

Record still exists of the order of various kings and chiefs at Boru’s table. Behind each chief’s seat was his coat of arms. The tables were covered with gold-mounted cups and the food, cooked in the dining hall, consisted of beef, mutton, pork, game, fish, oat-cakes, cheese, curds, onions and watercress. They drank wine, beer, mead and bilberry-juice. One hundred servants attended at meals.

Whenever he travelled, his retinue included a judge, a bishop, an ollav, poet, historian, musician, and three servants. Guards with swords, axes, sling stones and bows attended, and a ‘strong man’ or ‘battle soldier’ to answer challenges to single combat. A house steward came and an officer in charge of the jewels, a man to look after the chess board and pieces, a master of horse, groom and outriders, swineherds, cooks, messengers and runners, fools, jugglers and jesters.

‘A raven of the sea was he; his might like whelming flood;

On many-colored Banba’s isle his glory flashed like fire.

He banished sadness from his land; he quelled all wrath and guile;

And Eri saw twelve happy years, while conquering Brian reigned.’

After perhaps ten or eleven years, in about 1012, unrest grew in Ireland. In that year Danes invaded and burnt Cork. Certain tributes to Brian from provinces a long way from Kincora were delayed, and then not sent at all. The King was an old man of eighty-six.

Gormflaith fell out of favour with him. He took on another girl, but allowed Gormflaith to remain at Kincora. On one occasion her brother Mailmoda came to visit Boru, bringing with him three masts for Boru’s navy. On crossing a bog the mast bearers needed help and Mailmoda put his shoulder to the work. In so doing he tore one of the silver buttons from his ‘gold-braided silken tunic’. This tunic had been a present from Brian and on arrival at Kincora, when he asked his sister to sew the button back on she replied by hurling the jacket into the fire, reproaching him for wearing a garment given by Boru and which signified Mailmoda’s submission to the King. Mailmoda was no doubt astonished at her action, but quickly learnt that she was serious and active in her plots against Boru. So ‘grim’ was she against Brian, the Niala Saga points out, ‘that she would gladly have him dead.’

Shortly after this, Mailmoda was watching Boru’s son Morrogh playing chess and unhappily suggested a move that lost the game. Morrogh turned on Mailmoda with a remark drawing an analogy between this bad advice and that which Mailmoda had given on an earlier more important occasion at the Glenmana battle, when his poor counsel had lost the battle for the Danes, on whose side Mailmoda was fighting, to Boru. Mailmoda retorted that next time he would make sure the Danes won. To this he received a further taunt from Morrogh: ‘Ask them to find you a yew tree first!’—an allusion to Mailmoda being found hiding in a yew tree after the battle of Glenmana.

Mailmoda left Kincora feeling indignant and hurt at these two minor domestic incidents. Brian sent a messenger after him to ask him to returnbut Mailmoda killed the luckless fellow on Killaloe bridge. Back in Dublin Mailmoda and Gormflaith incited the Danes to revolt. Gorm-flaith sent her sons to the Orkneys to secure Sigurd’s support. He agreed when promised the throne of Ireland. Like promises were made to Brodar, a giant Viking from the Isle of Man with black hair so long that he tucked it into his belt. Ospak the Viking pirate came. Amlaff, a pagan from northern England, came with men in armour of iron and brass. These joined with the Danes of Dublin, the Kinshelas of Wexford and the Leinster men. Auxiliaries came from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Shetlands and Hebrides, Lewis, Skye, Kintyre and Caithness. King Canute was happy to play an active part in establishing his men in Ireland. According to other sources, men also came from Iceland, France, Flanders, and Rome.

‘Sigurd came, and with the great Orkney earl a great gathering of his chiefs and followers, called to the war from every island of the Scottish main from Uist to Arran, beaten blades who had followed the descendant of Thorfinn, the skull-splitter, in many a roving cruise, half-heathen, half-christian men who trusted perhaps to the sign of the Cross on land and to Thor’s holy hammer on shipboard.’

They arrived in Dublin Bay on Palm Sunday, 1014, and Brodar shortly afterwards. Brian marched, joined by troops of Meath and Connaught, and encamped for the night at Kilmainham within view of the enemy. The Norse were armed with spears and javelins. The Danes carried spears and wore ‘heavy and stout corslets of double-relined iron, and of cool uncorroding brass’. The Irish were clearly distinguishable in their white linen surcoats and helmets, carrying spears, swords and axes. (The Irish still wore no armour as late as 1260 when the English (Galls) beat them at the Battle of Down:

‘Fine satin shirts on the race of Conn;

The Galls in one mass of iron.’

Legend has it that before the battle the air was heavy with portents. Wild din was heard in the sky, the Danish weapons attacked each other and a man died on each of their ships for three nights. Showers of boiling blood fell on the foreigners, and ravens with iron claws and beaks attacked them. Also recorded is the story that on the night before the battle, Aibhell, the banshee of the O’Briens, visited Boru and predicted his death on the following day. The day of the battle was Good Friday, April 23rd, 1014. By $.30 a.m. (it was reported that the sea was at high tide, and it has been calculated that this was the hour) the armies had formed up. The Irish consisted of the Dalcassians in the van led by Morrogh. In the centre were men of South Munster and in the rear men of Connaught. The enemy, under Sigurd the Silkenbeard, consisted of three lines extending two miles along the coast at Clontarf with their backs to the sea. In front were the foreign Danes under Brodar; behind them the Danes of Dublin under Dougal with Leinster men and Kinshelas under Mailmoda in reserve.

Early that morning Boru addressed his men: ‘I am convinced,’ he is recorded as saying, ‘that your valour and conduct will this day put an end to all the sufferings of your dear country by a total defeat of those sacrilegious and merciless tyrants.... ’ He held his crucifix and his sword high for his men to see. His exhortation was expressed by the poet William Kenealy:

‘Men of Erin! Men of Erin! grasp the battle axe and spear!

Chase these Northern wolves before you, like a herd of frightened deer!’

Before the general fighting began two chiefs, who had challenged one another, fought and fell between the two armies, ‘the sword of each through the other’s heart, and the hair of each in the clenched hand of the other.’ Then long straggling uneven lines of heavy men fell on each other. The air rang with the clang of swords and axes. There was no cavalry, but several thousand men on each side. There were few tactical moves, more a pitched man-to-man battle of individual contests, the man behind replacing those who fell in front. The wounded stuffed moss into their wounds and fought on.

Brian was aged eighty-eight at the Battle of Clontarf,

‘For four score years and eight

(Right truly is their number told)

Had Brian lived in victories,

Before that rough and desperate fight.’

His son Morrogh aged sixty-three, and grandson Turlogh, a boy of fifteen, were also on the field. Some say Brian spent the day in prayer, protected by a shieldburg, a circle of men with interlocking shields. An attendant named Latean watched thebattle and kept the King informed of progress. On hearing that his son’s standard had fallen the King remained, resigned, despite pleas to leave the field: ‘Retreat becomes us not... . ’

Morrogh had killed many men that day, including two sons of the King of Norway and Sigurd, son of Lodar, Earl of the Orkneys, by ‘dividing him into two equal parts through his coat of brass, from his head to his rump with a single blow of his military axe’. He finally fell towards the evening when, with hands swollen from wielding his sword, he was attacked by a Dane. He wrestled with the man, tearing off his armour and killing him on the ground, but not before the Dane had drawn Morrogh’s own dagger and stabbed him in the side. After his father was wounded, Turlogh chased a Dane and, according to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, his body was later ‘found drowned near the fishing weir of Clontarf, with both his hands fast bound in the hair of a Dane’s head, whom he had pursued to the sea’. ‘This was his first—his fatal field.’

At the end of the day, Brian’s forces rallied for a final effort and drove the Danes from the field, chasing them into the sea, and back to Dougal’s bridge over the Liffey. Brian’s daughter, watching the battle from the walls of Dublin, commented at this stage: ‘It appears to me that the foreigners have gained their inheritance.’ Asked what she meant, she replied: ‘They are going into the sea, where they belong.’ The King’s guards seeing this ran to join the pursuit, leaving the old man alone. At this moment three Danes, one of them Brodar, ‘blue naked people’ according to Latean, who was deceived by the colour of their armour, came up and, at first mistaking Boru for a priest, then recognized him and attacked. Boru wielded his two-handed sword in a diagonal sweep, severing Brodar’s left leg at the knee and his right foot with the one blow, but, as was common in this manner of fighting, one blow was frequently delivered simultaneously with receipt of another: at the same time as Brian cut Brodar, he took a splitting blow on the head from Brodar’s axe. The Icelandic saga says Brodar was then taken and disembowelled alive. Brian, Morrogh, Turlogh, Sigurd and Mailmoda were all dead.

The Annals of Innisfallen give the numbers dead at Clontarf as 13,800 on the side of the Danes, and 4,000 of Brian’s army. These are undoubtedly exaggerated figures though the ratio is probably accurate. Another source says a quarter of Brian’s men were killed. The Chronicon Scotorum succinctly summarizes the nature of the fight: ‘the like battle, or any equal to it, had not been fought in Ireland for many ages.’ The Irish victory was affirmed not only by the Irish annalists but in the Northern Sagas.

Although Danes still held Irish seaports after Clontarf, the idea of a Scandinavian province in Ireland had been dispelled for ever. Brian’s body was carried first to the Abbey at Swords, and then to churches on route to Armagh. The Archbishops and clergy received the body at Louth and carried it to Armagh where it lay in state for twelve days and nights before burial on the north side of the altar in the great church.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email