Brian “Boru” mac Cennétig
(Circa 941 – 23 April 1014)
Sections written by Garaidh Ó Brianin; Sections edited by Greg Seán Canning
Early Life and Background
Brian Boru, High King of Ireland (Ard-Rí), ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. Building on the achievements of his father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, and especially his elder brother, Mahon, Brian first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated Leinster, eventually becoming High King of Ireland. Brian mac Cennétig was a self made man and king and the founder of the O’Brien dynasty.
Brian mac Cennétig (Brian Boru) was born around 941. He was one of the 12 sons of Cennétig, who died in 951 AD. His father was head of one of the royal free tribes of Munster: the Dál gCais. His family ruled the kingdom of Thomond. Brian’s tribe occupied a territory north of the River Shannon Estuary (the Shannon region that flows into the Atlantic). This area today incorporates a substantial part of County Clare.
Brian Boru grew up during the worst days of the Viking’s tyranny when the Dalcassians had been driven in to the present county of Clare. The River Shannon served as an easy route by which raids could be made against the provinces of Connacht and Meath. Both Brian’s father, Cennétig mac Lorcáin and his older brother Mathgamain (Mahon) conducted river-borne raids, in which the young Brian would undoubtedly have participated. This was probably the root of his appreciation for naval forces in his later career. Thus an important influence upon the Dalcassians was the presence of the Hiberno-Norse city of Limerick on an isthmus around which the Shannon River winds (known today as King’s Island or the Island Field). The Norse had made many a raid themselves from the Shannon, and the Dalcassians likely benefited from some interaction with them, from which they would have been exposed to innovations such as superior weapons and ship design, all factors that may have contributed to their growing power.
In Brian’s early years he was educated at the monastery of Clonmacnoise, along the Shannon River, in today’s county of West Meath. He developed an unquenchable appetite for reading the histories of the military leaders of Europe, such as Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. Because of this love for reading, Brian learned the tactics of the great military leaders and used them throughout his career, making him one of the greatest of Irish generals.
While in his teens, his brother, Mahon, sent for the young Brian to learn the ways of the warrior and to take his place among the Dál gCais fighting the Norsemen of Limerick. Years later, Brian had a falling out with his brother Mahon, King of Thomond, about making peace with the Norse.
The Dalcassians were hemmed into Clare by the Norse Leader Ivar of Limerick and Mahon was willing to accept terms. However, Brian had seen almost all of the Dál gCais tribe, including his mother, brutally murdered by a Viking raid when he was only a child and refused to be any part of such a truce. Brian deserted Mahon and, together with a group of soldiers, lived in the hills of Munster and carried out a guerrilla war against the Norse of Limerick, beginning in 962 for several years. It is during this time that Brian married his first wife, Mór, a princess of a sub-king of Connacht. Mór bore at least three sons: Murchadh, Conchobher, and Flann. Also two daughters: Sadhbh and Blanaid. Unfortunately, Mór died at a young age.
Map of Early Ireland
During the guerrilla fighting years, Brian obtained a Norse battle-ax from one of his many skirmishes. The Norse held superior weaponry and armor over the Irish, who did not use chain-mail for protection. The battle-ax was also a formidable weapon. Brian learned how to use the ax and trained his men to learn this skill. Later Brian would include the ax as one of the Irish weapons to help in the defeat of the Norse and other warring Irish tribes as well as some chain-mail. He broke the old tradition which only allowed Nobles to ride horses in battle. All the men in his guerrilla band were allowed to ride horses.
Reign of his Brother, Mahon
As the eldest son, Brian’s brother Mahon eventually succeeded Cennétig as chief of the Dalcassians and king of Thomond in 951 AD. In 964, Mahon, claimed control over the entire province of Munster by capturing the Rock of Cashel, capital of the Kings of Munster. Earlier attacks from both the Uí Néill and Vikings had greatly weaken the Munster King and allowed the Dál Cais to seize the provincial kingship. However, Mahon was never fully recognized and was opposed by Máel Muad (a relative of the overthrown king of Munster from the far south of the province) throughout his career in the 960s and 970s. In addition, the Norse king Ivar of Limerick was a threat and may have been attempting to establish some degree of overlordship in the province.
At the time, Brian’s fame had spread throughout the province and infuriated Ivar. Although Brian had only a handful of men, his skill as a tactician led him to defeat vastly superior numerical forces. After a number of small battles, Brian had trained an excellent Dalcassian army to face the Vikings. The stories of his triumphs had led to vast numbers of young men volunteering to join his side and the feud between Brian and his brother Mahon ended.
Mahon renounced his truce with the Vikings and the two brothers rejoined forces. Ivar was routed by Mahon and Brian in the celebrated Battle of Sulcoit in 967. This victory was not decisive however and eventually led to a brief alliance of sorts between Mahon, Máel Muad and others to drive the Norse out of Munster and destroyed their Limerick fortress in 972.
Unfortunately the two Gaelic claimants ( Mahon and Máel Muad) were soon back to fighting each other. The capture of Mahon in 976 by Donnubán mac Cathail allowed him to be effortlessly murdered by Máel Muad, who would now rule as king of Cashel for two years.
Brian Boru: Head of the Dal Dál gCais
Despite Máel Muad’s short lived victory, the Dál Cais remained a powerful force and Brian quickly proved to be as fine a commander of armies as his brother. After first dispatching the already much weakened Norse leader Ivar in 977, he challenged Máel Muad in 978 and defeated him in the fateful Battle of Belach Lechta, after which Brian was crowned King of Munster on the coronation stone at the Rock of Cashel. As King of Munster, Ireland’s largest province, Brian began his career as a master negotiator and diplomat. He accomplished as much if not more through negotiation and alliances then by war.
Mount of Cashel, Inauguration site of the kings of Munster
Soon after his victory over Máel Muad, Brian routed Donnubán and the remainder of the Norse army in the Battle of Cathair Cuan, there probably slaying the last of Ivar’s sons. He then allowed some of the Norse to remain in their settlement, as they were wealthy and now central to trade in the region, with a fleet of great value.
Cian, the son of his brother Mahon’s sworn enemy Máel Muad, later became a loyal ally of Brian and served under him in a number of campaigns.
Either shortly before or right after becoming King of Munster, Brian married for the second time to Eachraidh ni Cearbhall, granddaughter of Oilill Fionn, ruler of Meath. Author Roger Newman, in his biography titled Brian Boru: King of Ireland, suggests that this was perhaps a marriage to get Brian into the heart of Uí Neill territory and establish vassal allegiances. Eachraidh bore at least two sons (Tadhg and Domhnall) and a daughter (Emer.)
The palace of the new King of Munster was at Ceanncora (Kincora), located under the present town site of Killaloe, on the eastern edge of County Clare at the bottom shoreline of Lough Derg, where the Shannon River flows to the ocean. Ceanncora was to become the most magnificent palace of an Irish King to date. Here, Brian would entertain his guests and shower them with gifts and set a new standard for hospitality. The enemy was treated the same as a friend or ally. In fact Brian accomplished more through diplomacy then with the sword.
Having established unchallenged rule over his home Province of Munster, Brian turned to extending his authority over the neighboring provinces of Leinster to the east and Connacht to the north. By doing so, he came into conflict with High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill whose power base was the Province of Meath. For the next fifteen years, from 982 to 997, High King Máel Sechnaill repeatedly led armies into Leinster and Munster, while Brian, like his father and brother before him, led his naval forces up the Shannon to attack Connacht and Meath on either side of the river.
Brian suffered quite a few reverses in this struggle, but appears to have learned from his setbacks. He developed a military strategy that would serve him well throughout his career: the coordinated use of forces on both land and water, including on rivers and along Ireland’s coast. Brian’s naval forces, which included contingents supplied by the Hiberno-Norse cities that he brought under his control, provided both indirect and direct support for his forces on land. Indirect support involved a fleet making a diversionary attack on an enemy in a location far away from where Brian planned to strike with his army. Direct support involved naval forces acting as one arm in a strategic pincer, the army forming the other arm.
Meanwhile, another great leader had arisen in the North – Malachy the Second, the Ui Neill King of Tara (b. 948). Malachy became High King when he overthrew a Norse army and took Dublin at the battle of Tara in 980. A clash between Brian and Malachy was inevitable.
But trouble continued to brew in Leinster and the Norse city-state of Dublin. In 999, Malachy and Brian joined forces against those two common foes and met them in Leinster at a place called Gleann Mama, where the rebels were thoroughly routed. This victory was significant in Brian’s move towards a higher throne. Glenn Mama also brought the scattered tuathas, states and kingdoms that were disorganized in line for a union or federation where there was one policy maker, a central government, and they would be supreme under one king, Brian Boru.
In 996 Brian finally managed to control the province of Leinster, which may have been what led Máel Sechnaill to reach a compromise with him in the following year. By recognizing Brian’s authority over the southern half of Munster and Leinster (and the Hiberno-Norse cities within them), Máel Sechnaill was simply accepting the reality that confronted him and retained control over the Northern Half of the Provinces of Meath, Connacht, and Ulster.
Precisely because he had submitted to Brian’s authority, the King of Leinster was overthrown in 998 and replaced by Máel Morda mac Murchada, who launched an open rebellion against Brian’s authority. In response, Brian assembled the forces of the Province of Munster with the intention of laying siege to the Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin, which was ruled by Máel Morda’s ally and cousin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard (Sitric). Together Máel Morda and Sigtrygg determined to meet Brian’s army in battle rather than risk a siege.
In 998, Brian and Malachy, the Ui Neill King of Tara, met and divided Ireland between the two of them, Brian becoming the King of the South and Malachy the King of the North.
In 999, the opposing armies of Brian and the Norse alliance in Dublin fought at the Battle of Glen Mama. This was a particularly fierce and bloody engagement. Brian followed up his victory by capturing and sacking the enemy’s city. Once again, however, Brian opted for reconciliation; he requested Sigtrygg to return and resume his position as ruler of Dublin, giving Sigtrygg the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. It may have been on this occasion that Brian married Sigtrygg’s mother and Máel Morda’s sister Gormflaith, the former wife of Máel Sechnaill.
Brian and Gormfhlaith
Brian had made a politically astute move by marrying Gormfhlaith, an ambitious, cunning, and very beautiful woman of a noble house of Leinster. Gormfhlaith had previously married Dublin’s former Viking king, Olaf Cuaran, when about fifteen, and had a son, Sigtrygg, who would become Dublin’s king. Later she married Máel Sechnaill, the Ard-Ri, but was repudiated by him in 999, probably because of the political union of her son, Sigtrygg and her brother, Máel Morda, the Leinster king want-to-be.
By marrying Gormfhlaith (about age 42), Brian now held the power of the Viking element in Ireland in his hands, as well as half of Leinster, all of Munster and a marriage alliance with Connacht. Brian was the undisputed King of Leath Mogha!
Irish Brehon Law allowed for more than one wife at a time. Brian’s third wife, Dubhchobhlaigh, daughter of King Cathal of Connacht, was Brian’s lawful wife, whom he married in 988, after his victory over Connacht at Port Lairge. Gormfhlaith was a “mate,” or concubine, but legal (although the Christian Church had serious problems with this Irish practice.) Dubhchobhlaigh is believed to be the mother of Brian’s youngest child and son, Donough. She died in 1008-1009.
To really bind the ties with Dublin, Brian arranged the marriage of his daughter, Emer, to King Sigtrygg (Brian’s new step-son).
After Gleann Mama and the business at Dublin, Brian made a quick stab at Tara, possibly hoping to catch Malachy the Second off guard before his troops could be refreshed. The Ard-Rí was ready and after a brief skirmish, Brian pulled back and returned home. A worried Ard-Rí made an alliance with King Cathal of Connacht.
Peace was upon the Emerald Isle for the new millennium. But the following year Brian sent Sigtrygg in long ships around Ulster raiding it’s coast. The King of Leath Mogha marched to Dundalk in Ulster in a pageantry of arms. He was testing the Uí Neills cohesiveness to each other and the Ard-Rí. Finally Aodh Ua Neill, king of Aileach and heir apparent to the Ard-Rí, stood with an army before Brian. But there was no battle and one can only speculate what the two kings discussed.
Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
By 1002, it was becoming clear that the joint sway of Malachy and Brian could not last. Malachy, unable to gather enough support to take on the mighty forces of Brian, allowed Brian to take over his lands peacefully. This was the greatest moment in the history of native Ireland. Brian, by his title, “Ard Ri”, was claiming the monarchy of the whole Gaelic race.
Brian mac Cennétig, Chief of Dál gCais, King of Thomond, King of Munster, King of Leath Mogha, and now Ard-Ri or High-King of Ireland — had won Ireland’s highest crown without shedding a drop of blood.
Before the time of Brian and Malachy, Ireland was divided in to a number of petty kingdoms, which were sometimes at peace, sometimes at war with one another. The Vikings themselves joined in the struggles between the Irish kingdoms and also fought bitterly among themselves. There was no one king until Brian Boru who was responsible for the defense of Ireland against the Vikings and had control over the entire island.
Brian had much to do as High King and was tasked with lifting Ireland out of the ruins of the Viking Age. He rebuilt ruined churches and built new ones. He endowed liberally the scholastic and monastic institutions and sent emissaries to Europe to find and replace the tens of thousands of books that had been destroyed during Irish and Viking raids, and to invite scholars to come to Ireland where the isle was once more being made into a land of Saints and Scholars. He invited scholars to come to Ireland, where the isle was once more being made into a land of Saints and Scholars. He did all that he possibly could to heal the wounds of the past two centuries of Viking pillage.
Ireland would now be ruled by one King, the Ard-Rí. The high-kingship would no longer be just a figure-head, it would be the central government and all the sub-kings would enforce the orders of that government. The notable reformation of Ireland had begun. In the Book of Armagh was written: “Briain Imperatoris Scotorum,” (Scots was the term used for the Irish until about 1100.)
During this period, Brian decreed that surnames should be fixed for clans and septs, showing a common ancestral relationship from a prominent ancestor. But this is only tradition, and it didn’t take hold widely for several more generations. Not even all of the descendants of Brian Boru took the name Ua Briain (O’Brien). But if one’s O’Brien ancestry comes from Munster and particularly counties Clare, Limerick, and Tipperary, they probably descend from the progenitor of the O’Brien Clan.
Another tradition from this period tells of the peace and control that Brian brought to the Emerald Isle. It is said that during Brian’s reign a noble woman dressed in fine clothing and jewels could walk alone the length of Ireland and not be molested. Such was the control that Brian had upon the land and its people.
The Battle of Clontarf
Leinster and Dublin finally had enough of the tribute tax they were forced to pay, and began to rebel at the end of 1012, and Gormfhlaith’s driven desire for intrigue got her repudiated by Brian. The following year Leinster and Dublin began to mobilize their forces realizing that Brian would soon gather a larger army then theirs. Sigtrygg then went for outside help and contacted Sigurd the Stout, Jarl of Orkney and the Scottish isles. Sigtrygg promised to Sigurd in marriage the hand of his mother, Gormfhlaith, and the throne of Dublin. Figuring that Sigurd’s chances of living through the battle were slim, Sigtrygg made the same offer to two other Vikings from the Isle of Man. All this was done in the year 1013.
King Brian appears to troops before battle
Ard-Rí Brian Boru, was now seventy-three, and before him his life’s work and ambition was suddenly coming unraveled. The King began to assemble his forces to meet those of rebellious Leinster and Dublin, who dared destroy the unity presently enjoyed on the Emerald Isle. But no help came from Ulster, and the King of Connacht refused. The kindred of Brian’s first wife came from west Connacht and rallied to his banner, as did the Uí Mhaine of Galway. The warriors of Munster assembled and among them was Brian’s son-in-law, Cian, leading the Eóghanachtas (the former ruling tribe of Munster). Murchadh mac Brian led the Dalcassians as always, and the former Ard-Rí, Malachy, brought the forces of Meath. To Brian’s banner also came the Norsemen of Limerick and Waterford. A twist in this scenario, was a contingent of warriors under Domnhall, the Mormear of Mar in Alba (Scotland), being sent from Brian’s other son-in-law, Malcolm II, King of Scots, who was father-in-law to Sigurd the Stout, Jarl of Orkney. (It is believed that the King of the Scots had sent a contingent to the battle, either because he was indebted to or related to Brian.)
On the eve of 23 April 1014, traditions tell of the appearance of Aoibhinna/Sylvia, a leannan sidhe (banshee) of the Dalcassians, who appeared to Brian and foretold of his impending doom. Also that day was a verbal fight between Malachy and Murchadh mac Brian. The former Ard-Ri left the field with his forces and returned back to Meath.
The Battle of Clontarf was fought on a holy day, Good Friday, and the battle lasted from early morning to the setting sun. Brian was too old to fight, but he appeared before his troops to inspire them to their duty in the early sunlight. Throughout the day, Brian prayed in his tent. An estimated ten thousand men at arms battled on the field. With the setting sun came victory to forces of the Ard-Rí, but at a heavy price. Prince Murchadh mac Brian was dead, as were Brian’s additional sons Conchobher and Flann, who are believed to have died here too, and many of the chiefs, chieftains and mighty champions of the tuathas, and the Mormear of Mar.The fleeing Viking chief, Brodar of the Isle of Man, came upon Brian’s tent and found the king kneeling in prayer. There are two versions dealing with his encounter with Brian:
- Version 1 — Coming upon Brian’s tent, Brodar slew several of Brian’s body guards. Brodar than cleaved the bare head of the Ard-Ri of Ireland while he was praying thanks in his tent. However, Brodar was captured later and was hung for the murder of Ireland’s King.
- Version 2 — After slaying Brian’s body guards, Brodar entered the tent swung his ax to severe the head of the king. Brian swung his sword at the same time cutting sander the legs of Brodar, who bled to death.
To the ecclesiastical church at Armagh in Ulster, the body of the High-King and his son Murchadh, were taken and buried near the high alter.
After this, Malachy resumed his position as High King and the Dál gCais strength remained only in Munster. The Viking presence in Ireland continued after Brian’s death but their military power was crushed. They remained in the country as traders and intermarried amongst the native Irish. Ireland was never again to have a king to control the entire of the island. The cost to Ireland, and to Brian, of crushing the Viking power in this country was a great one, for Ireland was never again to have a true “Ard-Rí“.
Union for the people of the Emerald Isle was over, the dream of Brian Boru died with him as did the “notable reformation” of Ireland, all came to a crashing end on that Good Friday.
Ireland returned to its former past; tuatha fighting tuatha, king against king, province against province, until 1169 A.D., when the Anglo-Normans came under the invitation of the exiled Leinster King, Diarmaid mac Murchadha, and a new invader was to be encountered.
Birth and Death:
Born: 941 A.D., (probably Kincora/Killaloe) County Clare, Ireland. Son of Cennétig mac Lorcan and Bebinn ni Aurchada.
Died: 23 April 1014, Clontarf, County Dublin, Ireland.
Brian’s 1st Marriage:
962 A.D., to Princess Mór ni Eidigean of Uí Fhaiachrach Aidhne, County Galway. Her father was Eidigean mac Clerig of the Hy Fiachrach (King of West Connacht).
1. Murchadh mac Briain – Married to ???. Killed at Clontarf on 23 April 1014, with his teenage son, Toirdhealbahach.
2. Flann mac Briain – Killed at Clontarf on 23 April 1014.
3. Conchobar mac Briain – Killed at Clontarf on 23 April 1014.
Brian’s 2nd Marriage:
988 A.D., to Eachraidh ni Cearbhall mac Oilill Fionn, of Uí Aodha Odhbha of Meath. Her father was the king of Ui Aeda Odba.
4. Tadhg mac Briain – Born: 985 A.D. Married but wife unknown. King of Munster, and assassinated in 1023. (AI; CGH 250, 427; BS 189, 228.)
5. Domhnall mac Briain – Died in 1012 A.D. (AI, AFM)
6. Emer/Slani ni Briain – Married to Viking Sitric “Silkbeard” Olafssen, King of Dublin. (CGG193, 257) (One of her descendants is Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd in northern Wales, HGaC.)
Brian’s 3rd Marriage:
998 A.D., to Princess Dubhchobhlaigh ni Cathal of Connacht. She died in 1008-1009. Her father was Cathal mac Conchobair, King of Connacht 973-1010.
7. Donnchadh mac Briain – Married 1st to Neassa ???; 2nd to Dressilla (sister to King Harold Goodwinson of England), daughter of Earl Goodwine, of Wessex. King of Munster, assassinated older brother Tadhg. Died in 1064 A.D., in pilgrimage at Rome. (CGH 238; BS 314, 338, 189, 227) (Pride of Lions)
Brian’s 4th Marriage:
999-1002 A.D., to Gormfhlaith ni Murchada (cousin to the King of Leinster.) She died in 1030 A.D. Many writers state that she is the mother of Brian’s youngest child, Donnchadh. She was the daughter of Murchad ma Finn, King of Leinster. Formerly married to Olaf ‘Cuaran/amlaib Cuaran, King of Dublin and York, who died in 981. She was the mother of Brian’s son-in-law, Sitric Olafssen, King of Dublin. She then married Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill, King of Meath and High-King of Ireland until dethroned by Brian Boru.
Other Children but by which Mother is Unknown:
8. Sadb ni Briain – Died in 1048. Married to Cian mac Nael Muaid, son of Brian’s predecessor in the kingship of Munster.
9. Dub Essa ni Briain – Died in 1052. (CS, AFM)
10. Be Binn ni Briain – Died in 1073. (AU, AFM)
11. Blanaid ni Brian – Married to Malcolm II, King of Scots. Only mention of her is in the historical novel by Morgan Llywelyn. In absolutely no other history does her name appear, thus placing doubt on her existence. (Lion of Ireland)
By Morgan Llewelyn
The land over which Brian Boru had made himself High King, or Ard Ri was still heavily forested and rich in natural resources. Cattle were the economic backbone of the country. Viking-built trading cities such as Dublin and Limerick were exceptions; Ireland remained rural, dependent upon the land, suspicious of urban life.
Social structure was complex. A High King ruled from Meath, exerting varying degrees of power, dependent upon his personal strength, upon the provincial kings of Munster, Ulster Connacht, and Leinster, who in turn claimed tribute from their under-kings, or clan chieftains. Alliances shifted like the turn of the tide. Until Brian Boru rose from obscurity to become first king of Munster, then of Ireland, there had been no sense of national purpose or even of nationhood at all, the land merely being a large island which held a variety of frequently warring tribes. But this was to be expected..
The Gael had, for over a millennium, been a warrior aristocracy in the mold of Homer’s Mycenaens. Isolated on an island in the Atlantic, they had long been accustomed to earning their claims to heroism and keeping their battle skills sharp by fighting one another.Sometimes their warfare was little more than stylized ritual; sport. Often it was more savage. The advent of the Danes and Norsemen had introduced a new element as issues of trade and taxation, as well as landholding, further divided the people.
Though historians may always argue about his character and motives, Brian the son of Cinneide, prince of the Dal gCais, was undeniably a man ahead of his time.
Although upon coming to power originally he made his goal the destruction of the foreigners, he was gifted with a larger view. In time he realized that the Scandinavians – who did not call themselves Vikings, as Viking was a verb describing raiding and plunder – had been in Ireland for centuries. They were well established here, they had put down roots and intermarried. Their art forms had enriched indigenous art forms, their trade had become important to Ireland’s economy. In short, they could not simply be driven out.
They could, however, be made Irish. Brian Boru saw as no man had before him that this involved thinking of Ireland as nation. He even went so far as to style himself “Emperor of the Irish” in the Book of Armagh, in his effort to unify the land into a prosperous coalescence of its differing inhabitants. His was the first and most nearly successful of all attempts to create a strong, self-sufficient unity here, drawing upon the various strengths and talents of individual tribes and races. His dream would die with him at Clontarf on Good Friday, 1014, drowned in blood as Gael and Dane on one side fought Gael and Dane on the other, unable to agree on anything but plunder and vengeance.
To reach Clontarf Brian Boru – dreamer, opportunist, ruthless pragmatist , skilled harper, accomplished scholar, accomplished warrior – had led an army across the midsection of Ireland, drawing additional supporters as he went.
In spite of his efforts he had made to introduce a form of cavalry, most warriors still fought on foot, and barefoot at that. Battle-dress was as individualistic as the men themselves.Some wore simple saffron-dried tunics with woolen cloaks or shaggy mantles. Others had body protection in the form of boiled leather fitted to the torso, or the occasional set of chain links taken from a dead Dane. Weapons also varied. Brian himself had mastered the battle-axe, but short swords and spears and slings and clubs were very much in evidence. Then as now, many thought there was no substitute for a stout blackthorn cudgel.
In 1014, as if anticipating trouble with the always-fractious Leinstermen and their allies among the Danes of Dublin, Brian had fortified Thomond. When it became obvious war was inevitable he drew strongly upon support from what are now counties Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. As his army set forth they carried with them a wealth of supplies from the west in terms of material and weaponry, though most of their food must have come from the countryside through which they passed.
It is doubtful if many of the smallholders who watched Brian’s army march by had any idea of the issues at stake. Most of the army itself did not. They set out singing marching songs, excited by the opportunities for glory and plunder which battle always provided. Some were undoubtedly frightened, shivering in their cloaks before they were long underway, but unwilling to admit it to their fellows. The indomitable will of the aged but awesome man who led them kept them from deserting, however. Brian Boru was always able to communicate enough of his dream to make men follow him, even against impossible odds. Even against the thousand ships which, it was rumored, would be sailing into Dublin bay to stand against him. Norse and Dane – white foreigners and black foreigners, as they were called- marched in Brian Boru’s army to some extent. They had become Irish.
But against them were arrayed the Leinstermen and their own Scandinavian allies, not only the ships from abroad but the well-fortified city of Dublin itself, ruled by Sitric, the son of Brian Boru’s former wife Gormalaith. When Brian Boru set the trouble making Gormlaith aside he made of her an enemy who would change the history of Ireland.
Gormlaith’s anger called in the armies who intended to overthrow and destroy Brian Boru. Knowing this, knowing also that as a man of seventy-three he might not survive this battle, even if his followers allowed him to fight personally as he had done the preceding year, Brian marched on.
As his armies passed through the rich central plain of Ireland clans who supported them supplied them with dried meat, cheeses, bread – the last of the so-called ‘winter food’. Footsoldiers carried skins of Danish beer, the most popular drink of the common man, but would gladly settle for a cup of buttermilk from a friendly farmer. At night in his leather tent the Ard Rí dined on more sumptuous fare, for he was known for his taste for luxury. Irish stew in 1014 did not contain the now-ubiquitous potato, but consisted of mutton, hare, waterfowl, eel, prawns, mussels, barley, onions and root vegetables, kale seaweeds and watercress, and the sediment, or lees, of red wine. As Ard Rí, Brian Boru undoubtedly flavored his with imported cinnamon.
He and his fellow chieftains were richly attired in pleated shirts of bleached linen, vests embroidered with gold thread, form fitting tunics and trews, and crested helmets. Their shields boasted bronze bosses and were swagged with elegant chains. Their spear-heads glittered atop shafts of white hazel. The Ireland they knew was wealthy and worth fighting for.
An important factor in determining the outcome of the battle would be whether Malachy Mór, whom Brian had overthrown to become Ard Rí. would stand with Brian’s forces as he had in the past. Their alliance was fragile. Both had wanted the High Kingship; both had once been married to the same woman, Gormlaith of Leinster. But without the help of Malachy and his Meathmen Brian would be dangerously outnumbered.
All of these thoughts must have run through the old King’s head as he and his armies advanced on Dublin, their ranks swelled by welcome additions from Connacht, which had proved a staunch ally. But whatever unity Brian had forged among those who considered themselves Irish was about to undergo its most severe test against rebellious Maelmors of Leinster and his foreign allies. Should Brian win, he intended to establish a stable dynasty to replace the strife-fraught custom of alternate kingship and fragmented leadership. Ireland could then present a unified face and proven military might to the rest of the world. It would no longer appear a temptingly easy target for plunder by foreign kings. Ireland could anticipate a similar future to that which Charlemagne had won for his land.
The tapestry of tribes who followed Brian Boru were not thinking in these terms, of course. They had neither his education nor his vision. They simply prayed to God for victory and dreamed of the loot they would take as their share of the spoils. So they marched through that muddy, rainy spring, to converge upon Clontarf. Good Friday, 1014.
Frances Bryne. “The Dal Cais: O’Brien High-Kings,” Irish Kings and High-Kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972.
Morgan Llywelyn. Lion of Ireland. (Historical novel) Tor Books, 1981; New York:, 1996.
Pride of Lions. (Historical novel) New York: Forge, 1996.
Edward MacLysaght. “O’Brien,” Irish Families. New York, 1957; Crown Publishers, 1972.
Roger Chatterton Newman. Brian Boru: King of Ireland. Dublin: Anvil Books, 1983.
Fr. John Ryan. “Brian Boruma, King of Ireland,” North Munster Studies. Limerick, 1967.
John O’Donovan, ed. & translator, Annals of the kingdom by the Four Masters. 7 Volumes. (Dublin: 1848-51.) (AFM)
W. M. Hennessy, ed. & translator, Annals of Loch Ce. (Rolls series 54, London, 1871.) (ALC)
Sean MacAirt, ed. & translator, The Annals of Inisfallen. (Dublin, 1944, reprinted 1988.) (AI)
Sean MacAirt and Gearoid Mac Niocaill, ed. & translator, The Annals of Ulster. (Dublin: 1983.)(AU)
Whitley Stokes, ed., The Annals of Tigernach, Revue Celtique 16 (1895), 374-419, 17 (1896), 6-33, 337-420, 18 (1897), 9-59, 150-303, 374-91. (Includes text plus translation of Irish text, but no translation of Latin text.) (AT)
J.H. Todd, ed & translator, Cogadh Caedhel re Gallaibh (The War of the Gaedhil with the Gall). (London: Rolls Series 48, 1867.) (Considered as propaganda for the O’Brien Clan and relatives. However, the text of Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh is an earlier material.) (CGG)
M.A. O’Brien, ed., Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. (Dublin: 1962, reprinted in 1976.) (CGH)
W.M. Hennessy, ed. & trans., Chronicum Scotorum (London: Rolls Series 46, 1866.) (CS)
“Genealogies from Hanes Gruffudd ap Cynan,” in Peter C.Bartrum, ed., Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, (Cardiff, 1966) 35-7. (HGAC)