A thousand years ago on 23rd March 1014, Ireland’s last great High King was slain at the Battle of Clontarf. Bards, writers, painters and sculptors have all been enthralled and inspired by the legendary and heroic tales of Brian Boru. Like so much of Irish legend and folklore, the stories have real foundation and hold a place of great importance in Irish History.
Brian Boru was born Brian Cennétig to Lorcáin, King of Thomond and Leader of the Dál gCais Clan, known as the Dalcassians in Killaloe, County Clare. He was the youngest of twelve sons, and when his father died at the hands of the Vikings, older brother Mathgamain took the throne.
The Vikings were very much focused on success in Munster and particularly Limerick due to the significance of its port and access along the River Shannon. After they had imposed severe taxes, with Brian’s assistance Mathgamain fought back and seized the Rock of Cashel from the Norsemen, leading to him being crowned King of Munster, taking the title from the Uí Néill clan who had reigned for six hundred years.
During conflicts between both the Norse ‘Ostermen’ and rival chieftains, Mathgamain was slain. In retaliation Brian assassinated the King of the Ostermen in Limerick and became King of Munster. A skilled and persuasive leader, Brian held Munster alone and unchallenged and had his first victory as King in battle over the Vikings at the Battle of Sulcoit in Tipperary.
King Brian marched onto Connaught and Leinster and entered into conflict with the High King Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill. When Brian took control of Leinster, Mael Sechnaill ceded to Brian’s authority for reasons that were never recorded and the King of Leinster was overthrown. King Brian was named Ard Ri, the High King of Ireland in the year 1002.
Years of battle and politics followed, both with rival Chieftains and the Vikings. However in order to keep his followers loyal, King Brian used tactics unfamiliar with his predecessors. Instead of taxes and enforced removal of valuables to fund his wars, Brian asked for tributes, which he then ploughed into the restoration of monasteries, schools and libraries that had been destroyed by the Norsemen throughout Ireland.
The High King of Ireland then became known as Brian, King of Tributes, or Brian Boru. A spiritual man and a man of words and music on the one hand and a formidable warrior on the other, King Brian was always at threat from both the domestic and foreign enemy.
The High King of Ireland held an uneasy acknowledgement from the Chieftains for only a short time and the Vikings were not surrendering. Indeed the Vikings had begun converting to Christianity and were forming alliances through inter-marriage and political integration. One such Chieftain, Máel Mórda mac Murchada had resented Brian and began rebellion in 1012. Máel then formed an alliance with Ulster and began an attack on Meath. Although King Brian tried to assist the High King Máel Sechnaill in his defence, he was forced to retreat back to Munster.
In 1014, the Irish Chieftain rivals of Leinster and Dublin and the Norsemen gathered and created an alliance against Brian Boru, fully convinced that the great High King of Ireland would return. Brian himself had a mixed army of his loyal followers, Irish men, Munster Vikings who had integrated into the Irish clans and Viking mercenaries. Most surprising were the men of the Province of Meath, commanded by his old rival Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill.
Confident he would succeed, Brian Boru sent an advance attack party to south Leinster, however a disagreement had led to the withdrawal of Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill and his troops which in turn steered directly to the Battle of Clontarf.
Two sides evenly matched in strength and numbers, the battle began on Palm Sunday, 18th April. Thus begins the blurring of legend and history. The battle itself was arduous and there were heavy losses on both sides, however stories of magic and a titanic battle of good versus evil have grown to legendary proportion.
It was said that the Viking arrows were anointed with the blood of dragons and that witches and demons waited impatiently to claim the fallen in battle. It was also written that the banshee of the House of Munster would appear to forewarn of the death of warriors aligned to Brian Boru. Whether supernatural or man-made circumstance, this was to be Brian Boru’s final battle.
King Brian was advancing in years by this stage and no longer able to take his place on the battlefield, choosing instead to pray for the spiritual well-being and victory of his troops in his tent. In an unfortunate twist of events, the Vikings facing defeat were fleeing and a Norse Commander known as Brodir happened upon the King’s tent. Brodir entered the camp and murdered King Brian Boru, High King of Ireland as he knelt in prayer on Good Friday, 23rd April 1014.
Brian Boru’s remains were taken to Swords in Dublin and then escorted to Armagh where he is believed to be buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Although King Brian was slain, the Battle of Clontarf was a victory and Ireland remained under Irish rule.
After this the title of High King became honorary and the Vikings that remained integrated into Christianity and the Irish ways. Brian Boru however would not be forgotten. Stories, poems and artwork have carried through the centuries, each depicting the hero, the warrior, the legend and the man. Official annals and other documents exist in Ireland and Denmark and his name can be seen throughout Munster and Ireland.
So this day we remember the thousand year hero of Ireland, Brian Boru. He is, and always will be, the most successful High King of Munster and the Last Great High King of Ireland.