• Ali Isaac

The Irish 1 – The Vikings Nil | Was Brian Boru a Benevolent High King or Terrible Tyrant?

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

Well, it’s Good Friday, and I couldn’t let the day go by without mentioning the Battle of Clontarf, now, could I? The chances are, if you live in Ireland, you’ll be sick of hearing about it by now.

But for all those of you who live beyond these vibrant shores, pin back your lugs and listen up, for this is no fanciful fairytale, you know; Brian Boru was a bone fide historical High King of Ireland, and the tale of the Battle of Clontarf is all about power struggle, the cut and thrust of sword and politics, betrayal and treachery, love and lust… oh yes, in bucket-loads!

Contrary to popular belief, Brian did not drive the marauding Vikings from Ireland. The Norsemen and Danes had been arriving in Ireland since the late eighth century, long before Brian Boru was born, at first raiding and pillaging, as was their wont.

But by the mid ninth century, their temporary encampments had become more permanent fortresses, which in the future would grow  into the cities we know today as Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Cork. So the Vikings, who were great craftsmen, established their towns, set up trade, inter-married, adopted Irish customs, speech and dress, and were to all intents and purposes, assimilated into Irish culture.

By Hugh Frazer - Isaacs Art Center (former owner of the painting), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14577823
The Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazer 1826.

So who was Brian Boru?

Brian was one of twelve sons of Cennétig mac Lorcáin, who was a minor King in the north of Munster province. When he died in 951, power passed to Mathgamain, Brian’s older brother. Not content with his small kingdom, Mathgamain set his sights further afield, finally capturing the Rock of Cashel in 964, thus seizing power over the whole of Munster (yep, definitely a bit of a tyrant in there, somewhere!). Unfortunately, he was killed soon after by Máel Muad mac Briain, whereupon Brian Boru assumed his brother’s place.

When Brian eventually gained control of Leinster province in 996, the then High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnall seemed to recognise that this upstart might just be unstoppable. He made a treaty with Brian, allowing him to keep the south, whilst he himself retained the North.

Me looking at a model of Viking Dublin at the National Museum of Archaeology, Dublin.Image
Me looking at a model of Viking Dublin at the National Museum of Archaeology, Dublin.

Meanwhile, the Leinstermen were planning a rebellion against Brian, led by Máel Morda mac Murchada, whom they declared as their new King. They soon joined forces with Sitric Silkenbeard, who was Morda’s cousin and Viking King of the city of Dublin. The Battle of Gleann Máma in 999 was a fierce and bloody skirmish, in which Brian was victorious.

Perhaps surprisingly for a man who had his eyes firmly fixed on the bigger picture, he attempted to ally himself with Silkenbeard, allowing him to keep his Kingship of Dublin, and marrying him to one of his daughters (what happened to the terrible tyrant? At this point, he seems more like a benevolent and wise King to me).

At the same time, he took Gormflaith, who was Silkenbeard’s mother and Morda’s sister, to be his wife. Gormflaith had also been married to Sechnaill, the previous High King. She obviously had a bit of a thing for all-powerful husbands… It should be noted at this point, that Brian himself had four wives during his life time (well, there’s the lust and power, then).

In 1002, Sechnaill finally backed down and surrendered to Brian, who then became High King. It took another ten years of battle campaigns, however, before the Ulstermen recognised and accepted his claim to the throne.

By Phillip Perry, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13586614
Clontarf Castle, now a hotel. By Phillip Perry, https://commons.wikimedia.org

But what about the Battle of Clontarf?

In 1012, that pesky trouble-maker, Morda, rebelled against Brian for the second time. He gained support from one of the lesser Kings of Ulster, but whilst the rest did not fully support Brian, they weren’t keen to bear arms against him, either. They’d been there before, remember, and where did it get them?

Poor Morda was forced to hire mercenaries from amongst his Viking brethren settled on Orkney and the Isle of Man. But they weren’t joining the war for love, loyalty or politics, oh no! They were after loot, plain and simple. They landed in Ireland a few days before Easter in the year 1014.

As his great army rode to meet them, Brian confidently sent out contingents of warriors under the command of his sons to raid, plunder and burn all Viking settlements along the way (seems like that tyrant thing must be in the blood).

Battle commenced outside the city at Clontarf, which is now a Dublin suburb. It is said the battle raged fiercely all day and half the night, that the men were unable to throw their spears because the air was so dense with the flying hair of those cut down; that no man recognised even his own son except by his voice, for they were so covered in blood. That’s not poetry, that’s the ugly reality of battle.

Although the Viking horde were fierce and brave, they were no match for the Irishmen, and despite his great victory, Brian Boru was tragically killed that very night.

It is unlikely that he went into battle himself, as he would have been very old by this time; the Annals, Ireland’s ancient records, explain that he was somewhere between 76 and 88 years old.

One legend claims he was murdered in his tent while he prayed, by one of the escaping Viking renegades named Bródar.

The truth cannot now be known. But it’s that little breath of mystery and intrigue which lends just a touch of legendary Sidhe magic to even Ireland’s known historical leaders; which keeps the story alive, and has people all over Ireland celebrating Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf a thousand years later.

By JohnArmagh (shifted & cropped by Rabanus Flavus) - File:ArmaghCICathedral.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59341076
St Patrick’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland). By John Armagh (shifted & cropped by Rabanus Flavus)

Brian Boru’s body was carried to the city of Armagh, where he is said to have been interred in a tomb which lies beneath the walls of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

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