Brian Boru is the most famous Irishman before the modern era who, from fairly modest beginnings, rose to be king of Ireland, dying a heroic death at the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014. He got his nickname Boru from the Old Irish bóruma, ‘of the cattle tribute’, or more likely ‘of Bél Bóraime’, a ringfort near Killaloe, Co. Clare where he had a royal residence. He was born about 941, at or near Killaloe, one of the twelve sons of Cennétig (d. 951), king of Dál Cais.
The earlier history of Dál Cais is obscure but under Brian’s father and older brother Mathgamain the family grew rapidly in importance and by 967 Mathgamain was described as king of Cashel (i.e., Munster), the first member of Dál Cais to win the title, and perhaps the first king of the province in five centuries who didn’t belong to the great dynasty called the Eóganachta.
Vikings landing at what became Dublin AD 841Mathgamain also gained control over the Norse settlement at Limerick, when he defeated them in the battle of Sulchóit (near Limerick Junction) in 967, the first battle in which Brian, now in his mid-twenties, distinguished himself, according to the slightly later history known as Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (‘The war of the Irish with the foreigners’).However, the Norse of Limerick were instrumental 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.
He began, in 977, by avenging his brother’s death, attacking Limerick and killing its king, Ívarr, on Scattery Island.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 the Eóganachta, from which Brian emerged victorious.
By 982 Brian was beginning to flex his muscles outside Munster and so the new king of Tara and high-king of Ireland, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of the Uí Néill, brought his army south to Thomond, and broke down the sacred tree on the Dál Cais royal inauguration site at Mag Adair (near Quin, Co. Clare). But Brian was campaigning outside Munster again the following year, bringing a large fleet up the Shannon to attack Connacht.
For the rest of the 980s Brian remained in a strong position. In 993 his fleet was on Lough Ree, his forces raiding overland as far north as Bréifne. He went north again in 996 and killed 300 of Máel Sechnaill’s men in Westmeath, and also appeared in Leinster where he took the hostages of the province as a sign of its submission.
Battle of Clontarf 1014
Brian 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 which Máel Sechnaill had to acknowledge and so, in 997, Brian sailed to Bleanphuttoge, on the shores of Lough Ree in 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 assembled to attack him, forcing him to commit his armies 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 marched on Dublin, where he spent a week, 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.
By now, Brian was confident of his own power and in the year 1000 repudiated his treaty with Máel Sechnaill. In 1002 he sailed north to Athlone, and took the hostages of Connacht and Mide, 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 try to force the northern kings into submission. His 1005 expedition was his most elaborate campaign yet.
He went to Armagh, where the ninth-century 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 heading towards his seventies was demonstrated in 1006 when Brian again mustered an army of all the southern province kings and journeyed through the north, but it was another four years before the most powerful king of the North, Flaithbertach Ua Néill of Cenél nEógain, submitted, Brian bringing his hostage back to Cenn Corad (Kincora), a hill overlooking the Shannon at Killaloe where Brian had his principal royal residence.
Finally, in 1011, Brian’s army marched north again and forced the one remaining independent power in the land, the king of Cenél Conaill in Donegal, to become his vassal. At this juncture Brian had reached the apogee of his power.
It wasn’t long, however, before the power structure which Brian had laboriously built up began to crumble. A rebellion broke out led by Sitric Silkenbeard of Dublin and the king of Leinster, Máelmórda mac Murchada, and Brian spent from 9 September until Christmas 1013 attacking them but without restoring the peace.
The inevitable consequence was Brian’s attempt to force Dublin and Leinster back into submission, and this culminated in the famous battle of Clontarf, on Good Friday, 23 April 1014.
It was a bloody affair, the Dublin and Leinster armies being reinforced by troops from Man and the Western and Northern isles while Brian had only limited support from Munster, south Connacht, and perhaps Mide. Nevertheless, they won the day, although Brian himself was killed.
Later accounts portray the elderly and saintly King Brian, while praying in his tent, being brutally assassinated in the hour of victory by the fleeing Viking leader, Bródir.
This is not mentioned in contemporary accounts, although they do report that after the battle the bodies of Brian and of his son Murchad were brought ceremoniously to Armagh by its clergy, and there waked for twelve nights, before being buried in a new tomb.
Something about the battle of Clontarf and its hero has never failed to hold the imagination of the Irish nation and it seems that Clontarf will remain an important landmark.
As it was Brian Bóraime’s ultimate victory (however Pyrrhic) over his opponents, it can be said with justification that his career ended in glory, that he broke the Uí Néill monopoly of the high-kingship, and thereby shaped the course of Irish history for the next 150 years.
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.
He was succeeded by his son Donnchad (d. 1064), then in turn by the latter’s more successful nephew, Tairdelbach (d. 1086) and by the latter’s son, Muirchertach (d. 1119), the family by then sporting with pride the surname Ua Briain (O’Brien).
No place in Ireland is more closely associated with Brian Boru than the Killaloe area of Co. Clare. Brian was a member of a branch of the Dál Cais dynasty called Uí Thairdelbaig, who took their name from a man called Tairdelbach who lived seven generations back from Brian sometime in the eighth century. Tairdelbach had five sons, one of whom was St Flannán of Killaloe, which accounts for the family’s patronage of this ecclesiastical site.
Brian’s nickname Boru is probably from the place called Bórama or Bél Bóraime, an impressively large ringfort on the west bank of the Shannon less than two kilometres north of Killaloe. It may have taken its name from the ford at Killaloe (where the bridge is now) which is called Áth na Bóraime.
Brian had Bórama as one of his principal residences, along with Cenn Corad (Kincora), which seems to have been slightly further south overlooking Killaloe. The first reference to Cenn Corad is in the year 1010. Subsequently mentions become regular, suggesting the possibility that it had only recently been constructed by Brian. He was certainly engaged in a programme of fortification in his later years.
We can see the association of the residences at Bórama and Cenn Corad from, for example, the invasion of Munster that happened in 1116 under the king of Connacht, Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair, ‘so that he burned and demolished Bórama and Cenn Corad’.
Little remains of the latter – it is said to have been located where the Catholic church in Killaloe now stands – but Bórama is still a magnificent site that was excavated by archaeologists in 1961.
It was established that it comprised a typical ringfort or rath, with a circular earthen rampart, that was revetted in stone on the outside. A wooden building was unearthed, which measured internally about 4 metres by 2.5 metres, and it had a central hearth.
More importantly – in terms of connecting Bórama with Brian’s family – a silver coin was found inside this house, and another just outside it, both of which were minted in Dublin in the eleventh century, probably between 1035 and 1070; they were presumably captured or exchanged and brought south to Bórama when it was a residence of Brian’s son Donnchad (d. 1064) or grandson Tairdelbach (d. 1086).
In Killaloe itself, it was Brian who ‘erected the church (tempull) of Killaloe’, according to the slightly later Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, and among the several prestigious ecclesiastical offices held by his brother Marcán was that of abbot of Killaloe.
Cashel was intimately connected with Brian Boru throughout his life. In the year 995 he is reported in the Annals of Inisfallen as having built a fortification (cumdach) there. This seems to have remained one of the royal residences of his family who, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, still had a ‘house of the O’Briens in Cashel (tigh Uí Bhriain h-i c-Caisseal)’ a century later.
More importantly perhaps, Cashel held tremendous symbolic importance for Brian. Long before Brian’s day Munster was ruled by a federation of dynasties claiming descent from the legendary Eógan Már – hence they were called the Eóganachta.
Their fabulous origin-myth tells of Cashel being ‘discovered’ by Eógan’s descendant Conall Corc, whose mother, it was said, was British and who had spent a long exile among the Picts, and it is just possible that the origins of the Eóganachta lay in the expulsion of Irish colonists from their settlements in Wales – Cashel (Caisil in Irish) is an early borrowing from Latin castellum – which might have happened about the year AD 400 or so.
Cashel was therefore a political and a military centre of power in Brian’s day. And the term was used synonymously with Munster: therefore, if a man was described as being ‘king of Cashel’, it meant that he was ruler of Munster.
When Brian’s family – who were of quite humble descent – were beginning to make inroads on Eóganachta power they fabricated a genealogical link to them, and this was one of the tactics employed by Brian’s family to take their place as the rightful kings of Cashel and Munster, and that is what propelled them onto the national stage.
Nowadays, we think of the Rock of Cashel as primarily an ecclesiastical centre, and that too is because of Brian’s family. There had for centuries been a church there, dedicated to St Patrick, but when Brian’s great-grandson, the great Muirchertach Ua Briain, presided over a synod at Cashel in the year 1101 he granted the site in perpetuity to the church, from which point onwards it ceased to be a royal residence and became what Armagh was for the northern half of Ireland, the ecclesiastical capital of the southern half.
Later that century, when Ireland was carved up into territorial dioceses, with four archbishops presiding over four ecclesiastical provinces, Cashel became the seat of one, a tradition that has remained ever since.
Armagh holds special importance as the place to which Brian Boru’s body was brought for burial after his death at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. But his connection goes further back than that.
During the course of a week-long visit to Armagh in 1005 Brian laid a gift of twenty ounces of gold on the altar, a visit that had much to do with symbolism.
Armagh had long claimed primacy over the Irish church. It was a claim based on a connection with St Patrick. If Patrick was the most noble of the saints of Ireland, Armagh, it was believed, was the most noble of the churches he founded, and as, over the centuries, Patrick’s status as the Apostle of Ireland became more firmly established, the churchmen of Armagh strove ever harder to claim their right to be Ireland’s first church and to extend Armagh’s authority throughout the Irish world.
Armagh had for many generations been closely associated with the Uí Néill kings of Cenél nEógain, whom Brian was attempting to force into subjection, but in 1005 the abbot of Armagh became a supporter of Brian: the abbot needed the collaboration of the king of Ireland – irrespective of his background – to assert his own ecclesiastical hegemony throughout the island, and Brian of course knew that his own claim to political supremacy would be all the more persuasive if it came with the imprimatur of the country’s leading ecclesiastic.
Armagh had in its possession a collection of early works by and about St Patrick, bound together in an early ninth-century vellum manuscript called the Book of Armagh. There does not survive today a single object which we can say for certain was seen – perhaps even touched – by Brian Boru, with the exception of this manuscript, which is now preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
And we know that Brian saw it in 1005 because on folio 16v is written a note recording the visit and written ‘in the sight of Brian, Emperor of the Gaels (in conspectu Briani Imperatoris Scotorum)’.
There can be little doubt that this inscription is an authentic record of Brian’s 1005 visit (although, he may have been in Armagh again in the following year when he is reported to have granted ‘the full demand of the community and successor of Patrick’ or in 1012 when he ‘gave complete immunity to Patrick’s churches on that hosting’, and it is just possible that the inscription dates from one of these later visits).
Brian’s links with Armagh were such that he himself decreed in his will that his body was to be buried there. The most reliable account, in the Annals of Ulster, tells us that: ‘Máel Muire mac Eochada, successor of Patrick, with his venerable clerics and relics, came moreover to Swords, and brought away the body of Brian, king of Ireland, and the body of his son Murchad, and the head of [Brian’s nephew] Conaing and the head of Mothla [king of the Déisi], and buried them in Armagh in a new tomb (i n-ailaidh nui). For twelve nights the community of Patrick waked the bodies in honour of the king’.
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Many people might be surprised to hear that Clontarf is not mentioned in the early annal-accounts of the battle. The earliest certain reference to Clontarf seems to survive in a list of the kings of Munster preserved in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster which states that Brian was killed in ‘the Battle of Clontarf Weir (Cath Corad Cluana Tarb)’.
Thus the battle was contested in the immediate environs of this weir. Some think it was a salmon weir on the River Tolka near Ballybough Bridge. This, however, is not in Clontarf as such.
It is possible therefore that the weir was not a barrier across the Tolka but was similar to the ancient estuarine fishtraps found for instance in the Shannon Estuary and Strangford Lough, and one could visualize one of these along the tidal shoreline at Clontarf and between it and Clontarf Island (which survived until the nineteenth century and now forms part of Fairview Park).
This is corroborated by the account elsewhere in the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh of the death of Brian’s 15-year-old grandson Tairdelbach, who ‘went after the Foreigners into the sea, when the rushing tide wave struck him a blow against the weir of Clontarf (im carrid Cluana Tarb), and so he was drowned’.
The Cogadh asserts that, having reached Dublin, Brian’s forces plundered Fine Gall, north of the Liffey, and when the Foreigners of Dublin saw the area around Howth set ablaze they came into Mag Elta, the coastal plain to which the Howth peninsula attaches and ‘raised their battle-standards on high’.
All the evidence suggests that Brian himself, now in his early 70s, did not take part in the ensuing battle, instead pitching camp out on the Faicthe Átha Cliath, a green area to the west of Dublin often thought to be in the vicinity of Kilmainham.
Meanwhile, the Scandinavian fleet – whose arrival in Dublin is attested to in a variety of sources – was in Dublin Bay, perhaps off the eastern (Fairview) end of Clontarf.
These Scandinavians linked up with the Norse of Dublin and the Leinstermen, their vessels having availed of the full tide to make a landing. Battle began at first light and raged all day. But as the tide receded, so it drew the Scandinavia vessels with it and scattered them about the bay.
By evening the Norse were compelled to retreat and would have made for the safety of Sitriuc’s fortress at Dublin or a wood that seems to have stood in the other direction (towards Howth) – not, it appears, the famous Caill Tomair (‘Wood of Þórarr’), a tract of oakwood, close to Dublin, and highly prized by the Dubliners – rather a less celebrated grove, apparently to the east of the battle-site. The problem for the enemy forces scattering before Brian’s men was that they could not get to this wood because the incoming tide was between them and it.
Similarly, on the west side of the battlefield, as Brian’s fleeing enemies fled they were slaughtered, only twenty Dubliners, the Cogadh tells us, escaping, ‘and it was at Dubgall’s Bridge the last of these was killed’.
We do not know who Dubgall was or where his bridge was, but he may be Dubgall mac Amlaíb, brother of King Sitriuc Silkbeard, who commanded the Dublin forces at Clontarf – Sitriuc himself stayed inside the town to prevent it falling into enemy hands – and perhaps Dubgall is also the man whose estate at Baile Dubgaill gives us Baldoyle.
It is sometimes assumed that his was the bridge over the Liffey (not far from the Four Courts) which separated the town of Dublin from its northern suburb of Oxmantown then already beginning to take shape. But a more likely location is a bridge straddling the Tolka at Ballybough (which would fit if Dubgall did indeed give his name to Baldoyle which one reaches to this day by the same route). If this is the case, the Norse needed to reach this bridge and cross over the Tolka to escape to Dublin but the tide was between them and the bridge.
On the modern landscape we can imagine the defeated forces being at the old heart of Clontarf – say, between Castle Avenue and Seaview Avenue/Stiles Road – being pushed downhill towards the sea, and to escape to the bridge they would have to traverse what is now Fairview Strand, except that the incoming tide had submerged it. In the other direction, protection was offered by a wooded area which lay perhaps to the east of Vernon Avenue but the inundation of the area around Oulton Road and Belgrove Road blocked off that route also, and so they had no option presumably but to position themselves with their backs to the sea and make a stand, which proved disastrous for them, many of them drowning as they were beaten back.