The Chieftain Clan O'Flaithbheartaigh {O'Flaherty}

The History of Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland

          A reproduction of a Celtic island village, a style still used in the 16th century.

                                       Craggaunowen Crannog, County Clare.


Ireland experienced many invasions and migrations down through the ages, as we have discussed in previous articles. Each of them were identified in a racial context, and each contributed to the technological and cultural evolution of the Irish people, while each group, in their turn, were assimilated into what we have come to think of as the Celtic Race, although the Celts were merely one more of the races who became the Irish.  And yet, through all their history, the Irish had remained insular, a tribal people, identifying with an extended family rather than with a geographical territory.  Their world seldom extended beyond Ireland's shores, and most of them lived their entire lives within a few miles of where they were born, creating a sense of loyalty to family and neighbors, rather than any sense of nationalism.  This was true until the Viking era, who were themselves Celts, although with a very different world view.

        When the Norse arrived in Ireland, early in the 9th Century, they had been making a living from conquest and commerce for more than four hundred years.  They possessed a mobility and world view which made them an integral part of, not only all of Europe, but of Western Asia and North Africa as well.  No one had cut such a wide swath since the Roman Empire.  The Vikings were well entrenched from the courts of Byzantium to the Pillars of Hercules, and from Sicily to Iceland, and beyond. Even so, they were, first and foremost, adventurers, raiders and merchants, opportunists who profited from a good trade.  And so, even though the Vikings brought the concept of urban living to Ireland, they created trading centers, rather than defensible towns in the Roman and European context.  When threatened, Vikings usually took to their ships, where they were supreme, while the Irish still relied on family and alliances for their security.  The Irish viewed Ireland in much the same context as Europeans viewed Europe.  Neither the Vikings, nor the Irish, had any concept of Irish nationalism. Their world was divided into their clan and strangers, a term the Irish still use today.

        Following the defeat of Domhnuil Brecc, King of Dalriada, at the battle of Mag Rath in 637, Irish Dalriada, now separate from Scottish Dalriada, was gradually weakened until the Dal n’Araide, the former allies of Dalriada, were able to overrun the kingdom in the 8th Century. However, it is likely that most of the populace, including the Irish contingent of Cineal Cholla, survived.


                                         Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary.

                       'Caput' (Seat) of the 'Ard Righ' (High King) of 'muma' (Munster)


 The Uí Neill had originally held the west and center of Ireland, south of "Ulaidh" (Ulster). Ulster fell to them at an early date, as discussed, and Patrick’s seat at Armagh was always linked to Tara and King Lóegaire, who died in 462. But it was not until the 9th Century that one of their kings, "Righ Maélsechlainn" (King Malachy I) of Cineal Cholmáin (one of two major dynasties of the southern Uí Neill) centered in "Midi" (Meath), in about 845, following his conquest of the Vikings under Tuirgeis and taking advantage of the distractions provided by the Viking incursion, succeeded in taking hostages both from "Laigin" (Leinster) and from the ruling dynasty of "Muma" (Munster), allowing him to declare himself "ard righ" (high king) of all of Ireland.

(AKA Brian Bóriomhe, or Brian Boru)

The facts concerning Brian mac Cennéidigh (Kennedy), of "An Dál Cais" (The Dalcassians), son of the chief of "Thuaidh Muma" (North Munster - Thomond) in what is now eastern County Clare, are disputed; but it is said that he was born c. 941, and that he took the name Brian Boru from the town of Bóriomhe, near Killaloe, on the west bank of the Shannon, where he was later to build his "caput." His palace, "Ceann Coradh" (The Head of the Weir - Kincora) was situated on the summit of the hill in the center of the present town of Killaloe, where the Catholic Church now stands. Thomond was a tributary kingdom of Muma, most southern of the five "coicidh" of Ireland. Brian was the youngest of twelve brothers, all of whom fell in battle; except Marcán, who became the de facto Bishop of Munster; and Anlúan, who died of an illness.


Beal Bóriomhe, Brian mac Cennéidigh's Fort one mile north of Killaloe, Co. Clare

Brian’s eldest brother "Mathghamhain" (Mahon) succeeded his father as High King of Muma in 968. The elder Mahon had seized the throne in 964, but was driven from Cashel and forced to accept a truce. Brian refused to submit and retired instead into the wild country of Slieve Aughty on the border of Connacht. He was almost constantly at war with the Vikings of Luimneach and with the Coicidh of Laigin, who were usually allied with the Vikings as a matter of expediency. Laigin was the traditional enemy of the Dál Cais. A legend grew around Brian’s name as he fought a bitter guerrilla war, hiding in the wilderness, often with fewer than fifteen men. In 968, in alliance with the neighboring clans of "Thuaidh Muma" and "Deíse Muma" (South Muma - Desmond), Brian crossed the Shannon and sacked the Norse settlements in the south. They defeated Viking King Ivar of Luimneach and his Irish allies, Donovan and "Maolmordha" (Molloy) of Laigin, at Sologhead near Tipperary, causing them all to flee to Wales. Brian’s brother Mahon was restored to the throne of Muma but, in 976, Ivar returned with a great fleet and, having forced Mahon’s abdication, had him put to death by Donovan and Molloy.

 The Wood of Beal Bóriomhe


Brian, thirty-five years of age, succeeded his brother as King of Muma and quickly took vengeance on the assassins. With the help of the Gaelic clans of Muma, he overran and burned the Norse settlements on the islands in the Shannon at Luimneach. They then attacked the Viking army and slaughtered Ivar and his sons who, as Christians, had taken refuge in the monastery founded by St Senan early in the 6th Century on Scattery Island. Donovan and Molloy were hunted down and killed and Brian was crowned King of Muma at Cashel. Within three years he was the undisputed ruler of the southern half of Ireland and had established his seat at "Ceann Coradh" (Head of the Weir or River Crossing - Kincora, called the crossing place of the race of man, modern Killaloe, Co. Clare).


                     Brian's palace of "Ceann Coradh" (Head of the Weir - Kincora)

was located at the top of the hill immediately to the left of the bridge.

Killaloe, Co. Clare

Overlooking the River Shannon at a strategic point.

In 980, "Maélsechlainn Mhór II" (Malachy II, The Great) styled himself Emperor of the Irish, after having won a victory over the Norse under kings Sitric and Olaf Kvaran at the Battle of Tara the year before. Brian disputed this presumption and, in 985, sailed an army up the Shannon to Lough Ree, raided Meath and pillaged Connacht. After a considerable period of futile conflict, a truce was negotiated and, for several years, they coexisted amicably, with Malachy sole sovereign north of the "Eiscir Riata" and Brian, king of the south. But in 998, the Danes of Dubhlinn allied themselves with the Norse of Leinster under King Molloy (the younger) again and revolted.

        Brian and Malachy united their forces "to the great joy of the Irish" and, in the year of the millennium, defeated the Danes "with red slaughter" at Glenmáma, on the slopes of the Wicklow Mountains near Dunlavin. Seven thousand Danes are said to have fallen in the battle, and the remaining Danes of Dubhlinn were isolated in the pass and virtually wiped out. King Molloy of Laigin was found hiding in a yew tree. Brian’s Irish then marched to Dubhlinn, sacked it and ravaged Laigin so that the province was ever after relegated to a spoiler’s roll. Brian received the submission of the Viking King Sitric and then restored Armagh, confirming its’ supremacy over the Irish church.

 In 1002, Brian and Malachy quarrelled again and Malachy, after Brian marched on Tara, was compelled to resign his sovereignty to the superior force of Brian and to take the inferior position of provincial king.  

Brian subsequently ruled a more or less united and peaceful Ireland for more than twelve years and was inscribed in "The Book of Armagh" by his secretary and counselor, "Maelsuthain O Cearbhaill" (Upstanding Master ÓCarroll), as "Brian Imperator Scottorum," (Brian, Emperor of The Irish).


                          Scattery Island Monastery                                                                               Where King Ivar of Luimneach was killed by Brian Boru


During his reign, Brian was able to transcend the traditional independence of the clans, discourage their incessant debilitating feuds, and to suppress the Vikings. He enforced law and order with rigid and impartial justice; built forts at strategic points, as well as roads, bridges and churches; founded schools and encouraged learning. Notable remaining examples are Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, consecrated in 1134, and Clonfert Cathedral, Co. Galway, completed in 1164. Brian dispatched agents abroad to buy books and during his reign the bardic schools, as well as Irish art, experienced a revival. They laid the basis for a prescriptive grammar of Irish, the first such grammar of a western European language. Many of our oldest sources today were created or copied during this era and at least three of them remain. One was compiled in the great monastery of Clonmacnoise c.1100; another probably at Glendalough about the same time; and the third in the monastery of Terryglass in Tipperary between 1150 and 1200. There are also two remaining copies of the "Book of Hymns," late 11th or early 12th Century manuscripts of more limited scope but nevertheless contributing to our knowledge of the period. Trade flourished and Brian’s palace at "Ceann Coradh" became the political center of Ireland. Vikings throughout the Gaedhil acquired respect for Gaelic culture and political institutions, changing the relationship.

Unfortunately, Brian Boru made no adequate arrangement for his succession or for the continuity of the united Ireland he had brought about. In fact, by taking the throne from Malachy, Brian voided the druidic "Brehon" tradition of the hereditary succession of the Uí Neill to the high-kingship.

Boru, like the MacDonalds’ progenitor, Somhairle in Alba, used the force of his strong arm and his personal charisma to bring about peace and unity. Neither hero possessed the political acumen to immortalize their achievements. The Norse, the Danes, the Normans and finally the English, were successful in Ireland because they seldom faced a united foe.


               Romanesque Entrance To Clonfert Cathedral

One of the best remaining examples of the enlightenment engendered by Brian Boru.


                                                     Clonfert Cathedral

                                               Built in the era of Brian Boru


The local kings and clan chiefs were jealous of the authority of Kincora and, as the king aged, they looked for an opportunity to reestablish their independence. Brian’s former wife, Gormlaith, is said to have taken advantage of the situation presented and to have caused the battle of Clontarf resulting in Brian Boru’s death. She had been married twice before and was constantly plotting on behalf of herself and her son Sitric, now King of Dublin. Gormlaith precipitated a quarrel between Brian’s eldest son "Murchadh" (Murrough) and her brother Molloy, King of Laigin. Molloy, visiting Kincora, interfered in a game of chess which Murrough was playing. Murrough responded by taunting Molloy about his capture when hiding in the yew tree. The implication of cowardice was enough to cause Molloy to revolt. He returned to Laigin and allied himself with the Uí Neill, Sitric and others, and attacked and defeated Brian’s ally Malachy. Malachy appealed to Brian for help.

        Upon hearing of Gormlaith’s latest manipulation, Brian set her aside, which only freed her to vent her hatred on him. She offered herself in marriage to Sigurd, Earl of Orkney and grandson of Ivar, former King of Dublin, if he would come to the aid of Sitric and Molloy. Meanwhile, the winter of 1013 was spent in preparation for what all now saw would be a decisive confrontation. Sitric sought the aid of Brodar and Ospak (Olaf) of Man, two brothers who controlled the seaways of Man with a fleet of thirty long ships between them. Brodar agreed on the condition that he should wed Gormlaith who, with all her failings, was very beautiful. Sitric assented, with the stipulation that the condition remain secret. Olaf was dissatisfied with the arrangement and when Brodar tried to kill him, Olaf fled with ten long ships, sailed to the Shannon and became Brian’s ally.


                               16th Century Jarl's Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney

                    Possibly built on the site of Sigurd's 11th Century palace.


Sitric then went to Orkney, where Jarl Sigurd, who was at that time overlord of The Western Isles and of Cineal Cholla, was holding a Yuletide feast. A number of prominent Vikings were there, including Jarl Gilli (possibly Somhairle’s great-grandfather), Thorstein Hallson, Hrafn the Red and Erling of Stroma. At first, Sigurd was reluctant, but finally agreed, after Sitric also promised him Gormlaith’s hand, to have his long ships at Dublin by Palm Sunday (April 18, 1014). Mother and son both counted on the accidents of battle to resolve one marriage promise or the other.


              Bull Island, sheltering "Cluain Tarbh" (Meadow of Bull Seals - Clontarf)

            on the right in this picture, and the mouth of the Liffey, at top, Co. Dublin


The forces of the Vikings assembled by Palm Sunday on the shore of Clontarf, a few miles north of Dublin. There were 1,000 mail-clad men from "Mona" (The Isle of Man) under Brodar, as well as Vikings from Normandy, Flanders, England and Cornwall. But the major foreign contingent of picked men conspicuous for their valor were those from the Innse-Gall of Scotland, who obviously included forbearers of the MacDonalds, MacLeods, MacSweeneys and all those Hebridean clans who had Viking ancestors. It was told that there were many portents and dreams of omens before the battle. The night rained boiling blood on Brodar’s ships and a great clamor foretold the rupture of the world. Strange horsemen were seen against the skyline and crows gathered by the gates in anticipation of the heads that would be hanging there. A Seeress at Skida Myre in Orkney foretold that the famous Raven battle banner she had woven for Sigurd the Strong would bring victory to those who faced it and death to him who bore it. A man of Orkney saw a vision of twelve "valkyriur" weaving a terrible cloth of battle on the loom of slaughter. "Men’s heads were used in place of weights and men’s intestines for the weft and warp: a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow."

        Brian’s forces mustered for the "slogad" at Ceann Coradh on March 17th, St Patrick’s Day. They included the men of Muma, of southern Connacht under their warleaders ÓHeyne of Aidhne and ÓKelly of the Uí Maine; plus the Christianized Norsemen of Luimneach and Phort Lairge.

        Near Cashel, Brian was joined by the Deise Muma. Olaf and his Manx Vikings were there. Malachy and the forces of Midi had joined them near Dubhlinn by Palm Sunday, perhaps including the Cineal Cholla of Airgialla. Apart from them, the Irish were all from the southern clans, since the Uí Neill did not take part. It is said that Scottish companies fought for Brian under Mar and Lennox as well. Another source says that they were under Domhnall, Steward of Mar. He may have participated in opposition to Sigurd of Orkney, who would have been his traditional enemy. They were mentioned by Brian’s bard MacLiag, in his c.1015 tribute to Brian and his palace, "Kincora:"

                                    And where is that youth of majestic height,

                               The faith-keeping Prince of the Scots - Even he,

                                As wide as his fame was, as great as his might,

                                      Was tributary, oh, Kincora to thee!

                                                  Thee, oh, Kincora!

                                       Excerpt from translation by J L Mangan


It is certain that there were significant representatives of the Highlands and Isles, including ancestors of Cineal ua Dhomhnuil, who fought on both sides at "Clontarf" (Cluain Tarbh - Meadow of Bull Seals). In retrospect, we can easily see the importance of this decisive battle which ended the expansion of the Vikings in the British Isles and weakened them sufficiently so that Harald Hardraade’s defeat at Stamford Bridge in England in 1066 was irreversible, allowing Somhairle to wrest The Isles from the Lachlannaich a hundred and forty years later. Participation by so many from all over the Danish Empire indicates that they understood its’ significance as well, or determined to make it so.

        The Irish bards tell that on the night before the battle, the Norse claimed that Woden, their god of war, rode up through the dusk on a dapple-gray horse, halberd in hand and foretold that if the battle were fought on Good Friday, Brian would be slain, but if on any other day, all would fall who were against him. Insults were exchanged and possibly the Vikings attempted to determine if Malachy and his men would really fight. Brian was unwilling to fight on the Holy Day, but the pagan Vikings forced the battle.

        Each army numbered about 20,000 men, but the Danes were better armed, most clad in shirts of mail, their war coats appearing as a sea of dull wavering blue to the Irish who fought in tunics. Although Brian is said to have mounted his horse before the battle, with a golden-hilted sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other, urging on his men; he was 73 years old and, during the battle, he was guarded on a hill in Tomar’s Wood, by a "skjaldborg"(fence of shields) of chosen warriors who surrounded him with their shields locked together.


                                          Clontarf Sunrise Over The Irish Sea


At first light the Vikings deployed with their backs to the shore in a typical Viking battle line. They were used to overwhelming weak opposition and relied on brute force, rather than tactics, for victory. But this time, because of their need to defend both the Dubhlinn bridge and their anchored ships, their battle line extended for more than a mile and a half. Some of their units were separated by more than a bow shot from each other and the sea behind left no room for retreat or maneuver, except to their ships. In any direction they advanced, they would have to fight up hill. Rather than a poor plan, it was no plan at all.

        Sitric’s brother Dubhgall guarded the Dubhlinn bridge on the Viking left with the Norse of the town, while Sitric watched the battle from the tower above the gate. Molloy commanded the center with the men of Laigin, Dungal of the Liffey’s men and the other disaffected Irish clans, who for one reason or another opposed Boru. The sea-Vikings and men of the Innse-Gall were on the right under Sigurd the Strong of Orkney who flaunted his great Raven Banner. His shield wall included Plait, known by the Irish as the bravest of the Lachlann. Then there were Hrafn the Red, Asmund the White, Thorstein Hallson, Brodar of Mona and three other sons of the King of Norway.

        The Irish chose to extend their front to meet the Viking deployment, so that they advanced in a long thin line, perhaps only twelve men deep. Seventy battle banners marked the Irish war bands. Command of the battle line was given to Brian’s son Murrough, known as the "Hector of Erin." He was famous for going into battle with a sword in each hand and was in the center, supported by his own warband of "seven score sons of kings," in the tradition of Irish heros. "For there was not a king of any one tribe in Erin who had not his son or his brother in Murrough’s household, for he was the Lord of the volunteers of Erin." Murrough’s brave legion was followed closely by the men of Deíse Muma. On the Irish left, commanded by Murrough’s son Tordelbach, were the men of the Dál Cais, facing Sigurd, his armored Sea-Vikings and the thousand followers of Brodar of Man. The men of Connacht under ÓHeyne and of Olaf of Mona and other Christian Vikings, opposed Dubhgall and the Dubhlinn Norse on the right. Malachy and the army of Midi formed the reserve, their position partially concealed by a ditch that crossed the battlefield.

        The battle began with a challenge to single combat between the Alban, Domhnall of Mar, and the Viking hero, Plait, son of their king. It is told that they were found the next morning with the hair of each in the fist of the other, and the sword of each in the other’s heart. The battle frenzy took charge and the two armies came together under a hail of arrows as a great carnage ensued, so closely fought that "a sharp, cold wind" out of the east blew blood droplets into the eyes of Brian’s warriors.

        At first the Vikings wreaked havoc on the Irish, although Molloy was killed early in the fight. Later in the day, Malachy attacked the Viking flank with fresh men and the course of battle turned. The Danes began to waiver and when Murrough and Tordelbach combined in an encircling maneuver, many of the Lachlannaich fled toward their ships. But an exceptionally high Spring tide had carried the vessels away and great numbers of Norse were drowned while heaps of their dead lay on the ground. Brodar and his men hacked their way out of the maelstrom, but Sigurd the Strong chose to maintain his shield wall until he was dispatched by Murrough. Brian’s son struck Sigurd a blow with his right hand sword which knocked loose his helmet, followed by a blow with his left hand sword which clove his neck. Murrough was soon attacked by Eric, a son of the Viking King and, like Domhnall and Plait, they slew each other.

        Brian’s army is said to have suffered 4,000 casualties, while the Vikings lost 7,000. Olaf of Mona blocked the bridge into Dubhlinn so that it is said that only twenty surviving Norse reached the city. But from his post on the hill, Brian could see that his son Murrough’s banner no longer flew and, feeling a premonition, named his younger son his heir.

        Tadhg Ó Ceallaigh (ÓKelly), King of Uí Maine in Connacht (Hy-Many in Galway), traditional enemy and long envious of the Irish king, is said to have betrayed Brian, pointing out his position to Brodar who, with his men, overcame Brian’s guard. Both Brian and Brodar, as well as the traitor ÓKelly, were killed. The saga graphically describes the horrible revenge of the Irish for Brian’s slaying: "Brodar was taken alive. Ulf Hreda slit open his belly and unwound his intestines from his stomach by leading him round and round an oak tree; and Brodar did not die until they had been pulled out of him." But in spite of the loss of their greatest king, Ireland had won her freedom from the Danes, probably the key factor in relieving the rest of Europe from their tyranny as well, although they came again with a different name a little over a hundred and fifty years later, this time called Normans. In 1016, the men of Connacht burned Kincora and, in 1062, Aedh ÓConnor, King of Connacht, again destroyed the rebuilt palace, feasting on the sacred salmon kept in a palace pool.

        After Brian, no other "ard righ" ever attained the complete supremacy he had enjoyed, and for the next 150 years different families jostled for the title. The Dál nÁraide lost their sovereignty in the 12th Century to an outsider, "Murchadh ÓCearbhaill" (Murrough ÓCarroll), King of Airgialla, who styled himself king of Dál nÁraide, Dál Riata and Fir Li. The first recorded ÓCahan, Ragnall (d. 1138), ruled Fir na Craibe, Ciannachta and Fir Li (Coleraine and Keenaght in Co. Derry). After the Ui Neill defeated the last of the Danes in Co. Down in 1148 and the earldom of Ulster collapsed in 1333, Cineal Cholla, who had maintained holdings and alliances in Antrim, began to reestablish their power and independence. Somhairle mac Gillebruide established the Kingdom of The Isles in the 12th Century and it may be that the predecessors of Cineal ua Dhomhnuil acquired or reacquired control of Rathlin Island and some part of their ancient patrimony of Irish Dalriada, perhaps following Somhairle’s victory over the King of Man. In any case, the success of Somhairle in establishing the Kingdom of The Isles produced benefits for his kinsmen in the Glens of Antrim as well.


                                              Storm Surf in Ballycastle Bay         as an Irish king who 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, Mathgamain, Bryan first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated Leinster, making himself ruler of the south of Ireland. He is the founder of the O'Brien dynasty.



Bryan Boruma mac Cennetig


Bryan Bóruma mac Cennétig, (c. 941–23 April 1014), (English: Bryan Boru, Middle Irish: Bryan Bóruma, Irish: Bryan Bóroimhe), was an Irish king who 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, Mathgamain, Bryan first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated Leinster, making himself ruler of the south of Ireland. He is the founder of the O'Brien dynasty.

The Uí Néill king Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, abandoned by his northern kinsmen of the Cenél nEógain and Cenél Conaill, acknowledged Bryan as High King at Athlone in 1002. In the decade that followed, he campaigned against the northern Uí Néill, who refused to accept his claims, against Leinster, where resistance was frequent, and against the Norse Gaelic kingdom of Dublin. Bryan's hard-won authority was seriously challenged in 1013 when his ally Máel Sechnaill was attacked by the Cenél nEógain king Flaithbertach Ua Néill, with the Ulstermen as his allies. This was followed by further attacks on Máel Sechnaill by the Dubliners under their king Sihtric Silkbeard and the Leinstermen led by Máel Mórda mac Murchada. Bryan campaigned against these enemies in 1013. In 1014, Bryan's armies confronted the armies of Leinster and Dublin at Clontarf near Dublin on Good Friday. The resulting Battle of Clontarf was a bloody affair, with Bryan, his son Murchad, and Máel Mórda among those killed. The list of the noble dead in the Annals of Ulster includes Irish kings, Norse Gaels, Scotsmen, and Scandinavians. The immediate beneficiary of the slaughter was Máel Sechnaill who resumed his interrupted reign.

The court of Bryan's great-grandson Muirchertach Ua Bryain produced the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, a work of near hagiography. The Norse Gaels and Scandinavians too produced works magnifying Bryan, among these Njal's Saga, the Orkneyinga Saga, and the now-lost Bryan's Saga. Bryan's war against Máel Mórda and Sihtric was to be inextricably connected with his complicated marital relations, in particular his marriage to Gormlaith, Máel Mórda's sister and Sihtric's mother, who had been in turn the wife of Amlaíb Cuarán‎, king of Dublin and York, then of Máel Sechnaill, and finally of Bryan.

Early life

Many Irish annals state that Bryan was in his 88th year when he fell in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. If true, this would mean that he was born as early as 926 or 927.[1] Other birth dates given in retrospect are 923 or 942.[1]

He was one of the 12 sons of Cennétig mac Lorcáin (d. 951), king of Dál Cais and king of Tuadmumu (Thomond, in north Munster). Cennétig was described as rígdamna Caisil, meaning that he was either heir or candidate ("king material") to the kingship of Cashel or Munster,[2] although this might be a later interpolation. Bryan's mother was Bé Binn inion Urchadh, daughter of Urchadh mac Murchadh (d. 945), king of Maigh Seóla in west Connacht.[1][2] That they belonged to the Uí Briúin Seóla may explain why he received the name Bryan, which was rare among the Dál Cais.[2]

Bryan was born at Kincora, Killaloe, a town in the region of Tuadmumu (Thomond).[2] Bryan's posthumous cognomen "Bóruma" (anglicised as Boru) may have referred to "Béal Bóruma", a fort north of Killaloe (Co Clare) in Thomond, where the Dál Cais held sway.[1][2][3] Another explanation, though possibly a late (re-)interpretation, is that the nickname represented Old Irish bóruma "of the cattle tribute", referring to his capacity as a powerful overlord.[1]

When their father died, the kingship of Tuadmumu passed to Bryan's older brother, Mathgamain, and, when Mathgamain was killed in 976, Bryan replaced him. Subsequently he became the King of the entire kingdom of Munster.

The Dál gCais

Bryan belonged to the Dál gCais (or Dalcassians), a newly styled kin group of ultimately Déisi origin who occupied a territory north of the Shannon Estuary, which today would incorporate a substantial part of County Clare and then formed the core of the new kingdom of Thomond. In earlier times their ancestors had controlled some lands in today's County Limerick as well, but these had been overrun by the Uí Fidgenti from the 9th century and the invading Norse in the 10th.

The River Shannon served as an easy route by which raids could be made against the provinces of Connacht and Meath. Both Bryan's father, Cennétig mac Lorcáin and his older brother Mathgamain conducted river-borne raids, in which the young Bryan 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 964, Bryan's older brother, Mathgamain, claimed control over the entire province of Munster by capturing the Rock of Cashel, capital of the ancient Eóganachta, the hereditary overlords or High Kings of Munster, but who in dynastic strife and with multiple assassinations had weakened themselves to the point they were now impotent. Earlier attacks from both the Uí Néill and Vikings were factors. This situation allowed the illegitimate (from the Eóganacht perspective) but militarized Dál Cais to attempt to seize the provincial kingship. However, Mathgamain was never fully recognized and was opposed throughout his career in the 960s and 970s by Máel Muad mac Brain, a semi-outsider from the Cashel perspective but still a legitimate Eóganacht claimant from far south Munster. In addition to Máel Muad, the Norse king Ivar of Limerick was a threat and may have been attempting to establish some overlordship in the province or a region of it himself, with the Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib even asserting he actually achieved this until routed by Mathgamain in the celebrated Battle of Sulcoit in 967. This victory was not decisive however and eventually there grew up a brief alliance of sorts between Mathgamain, Máel Muad and others to drive the Norse "soldiers" or "officials" out of Munster and destroy their Limerick fortress in 972.[4] But the two Gaelic claimants were soon back to fighting and the fortuitous capture of Mathgamain in 976 by Donnubán mac Cathail allowed him to be effortlessly dispatched or murdered by Máel Muad, who would now rule as king of Cashel for two years.

But 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 Ivar in 977, he challenged Máel Muad in 978 and defeated him in the fateful Battle of Belach Lechta, after which all the Eóganachta were no longer viable at the provincial level and Brian and the Dál Cais now enjoyed the overlordship, although not the traditional kingship of the province, which was based on lineage. Either soon before or soon after his victory over Máel Muad, Bryan routed Donnubán and the remainder of the Norse army in the Battle of Cathair Cuan, there probably slaying the last of Ivar's sons and successor Aralt. He then allowed some of the Norse to remain in their settlement, but they were wealthy and now central to trade in the region, with a fleet of great value.

Cian, the son of his brother Mathgamain's sworn enemy Máel Muad, later became a faithful ally of Bryan and served under him in a number of campaigns.

Extending authority

Having established unchallenged rule over his home Province of Munster, Bryan 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 Bryan, 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. He 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. Bryan'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.

In 996 Bryan 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 recognising Bryan's authority over Leth Moga, that is, the Southern Half, which included the Provinces 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 Leth Cuinn, that is, the Northern Half, which consisted of the Provinces of Meath, Connacht, and Ulster.

Precisely because he had submitted to Bryan's authority, the King of Leinster was overthrown in 998 and replaced by Máel Morda mac Murchada. Given the circumstances under which Máel Morda had been appointed, it is not surprising that he launched an open rebellion against Bryan's authority. In response, Bryan 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. Together Máel Morda and Sigtrygg determined to meet Bryan's army in battle rather than risk a siege. Thus, in 999, the opposing armies fought the Battle of Glen Mama. The Irish annals all agree that this was a particularly fierce and bloody engagement, although claims that it lasted from morning until midnight, or that the combined Leinster-Dublin force lost 4,000 killed are open to question. In any case, Bryan followed up his victory, as he and his brother had in the aftermath of the Battle of Sulcoit thirty-two years before, by capturing and sacking the enemy's city. Once again, however, Bryan 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, just as he had with the Eoganacht King, Cian. It may have been on this occasion that Bryan married Sigtrygg's mother and Máel Morda's sister Gormflaith, the former wife of Máel Sechnaill.

The struggle for Ireland

Bryan made it clear that his ambitions had not been satisfied by the compromise of 997 when, in the year 1000, he led a combined Munster-Leinster-Dublin army in an attack on High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill's home province of Meath. The struggle over who would control all of Ireland was renewed. Máel Sechnaill's most important ally was the King of Connacht, Cathal mac Conchobar mac Taidg (O'Connor), but this presented a number of problems. The Provinces of Meath and Connacht were separated by the Shannon River, which served as both a route by which Bryan's naval forces could attack the shores of either province and as a barrier to the two rulers providing mutual support for each other. Máel Sechnaill came up with an ingenious solution; two bridges would be erected across the Shannon. These bridges would serve as both obstacles preventing Bryan's fleet from traveling up the Shannon and as a means by which the armies of the Provinces of Meath and Connacht could cross over into each others kingdoms.

The Annals state that, in the year 1002, Máel Sechnaill surrendered his title to Bryan, although they do not say anything about how or why this came about. The Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh provides a story in which Bryan challenges High King Máel Sechnaill to a battle at the Hill of Tara in the province of Meath, but the High King requests a month long truce so that he can mobilise his forces, which Bryan grants him. But Máel Sechnaill fails to rally the regional rulers who are nominally his subordinates by the time the deadline arrives, and he is forced to surrender his title to Bryan. This explanation is hardly credible, given Bryan's style of engaging in war; if he had found his opponent at a disadvantage he would certainly have taken full advantage of it rather than allowing his enemy the time to even the odds. Conversely, it is hard to believe, given the length and intensity of the struggle between Máel Sechnaill and Bryan, that the High King would surrender his title without a fight.

Where that fight may have occurred and what the particular circumstances were surrounding it we may never know. What is certain is that in 1002 Bryan became the new High King of Ireland.

Unlike some who had previously held the title, Bryan intended to be High King in more than name only. To accomplish this he needed to impose his will upon the regional rulers of the only Province that did not already recognise his authority, Ulster. Ulster's geography presented a formidable challenge; there were three main routes by which an invading army could enter the Province, and all three favored the defenders. Bryan first had to find a means of getting through or around these defensive 'choke points', and then he had to subdue the fiercely independent regional Kings of Ulster. It took Bryan ten years of campaigning to achieve his goal which, considering he could and did call on all of the military forces of the rest of Ireland, indicates how formidable the Kings of Ulster were. Once again, it was his coordinated use of forces on land and at sea that allowed him to triumph; while the rulers of Ulster could bring the advance of Bryan's army to a halt, they could not prevent his fleet from attacking the shores of their kingdoms. But gaining entry to the Province of Ulster brought him only halfway to his goal. Bryan systematically defeated each of the regional rulers who defied him, forcing them to recognise him as their overlord.

Emperor of the Irish

It was during this process that Bryan pursued an alternate means of consolidating his control, not merely over the Province of Ulster, but over Ireland as a whole. In contrast to its structure elsewhere, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland was centered, not around the bishops of diocese and archbishops of archdiocese, but rather around monasteries headed by powerful abbots who were members of the royal dynasties of the lands in which their monasteries resided. Among the most important monasteries was Armagh, located in the Province of Ulster. Bryan's advisor, Maelsuthain O'Carroll documented in the 'Book of Armagh' that, in the year 1005, Bryan donated twenty-two ounces of gold to the monastery and declared that Armagh was the religious capital of Ireland to which all other monasteries should send the funds they collected. This was a clever move, for the supremacy of the monastery of Armagh would last only so long as Bryan remained the High King. Therefore, it was in the interest of Armagh to support Bryan with all their wealth and power. It is interesting that Bryan is not referred to in the passage from the 'Book of Armagh' as the 'Ard Ri' —that is, High-King— but rather he is declared "Imperator Scottorum," or "Emperor of the Irish" ("Scottorum" then being the common Late Latin term for the Irish: Ireland was usually referred to in Latin as "Scotia Major" while Scotland was referred to as "Scotia Minor").

Though it is only speculation, it has been suggested that Bryan and the Church in Ireland were together seeking to establish a new form of kingship in Ireland, one that was modelled after the kingships of England and France, in which there were no lesser ranks of regional Kings – simply one King who had (or sought to have) power over all in a unitary state. In any case, whether as High King or Emperor, by 1011 all of the regional rulers in Ireland acknowledged Bryan's authority. No sooner had this been achieved than it was lost again.

Máel Mórda mac Murchada of Leinster had only accepted Bryan's authority grudgingly and in 1012 rose in rebellion. The Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh relates a story in which one of Bryan's sons insults Máel Morda, which leads him to declare his independence from Bryan's authority. Whatever the actual reason was, Máel Morda sought allies with which to defy the High-King. He found one in a regional ruler in Ulster who had only recently submitted to Bryan. Together they attacked the Province of Meath, where the former High King Máel Sechnaill sought Bryan's help to defend his Kingdom. In 1013 Bryan led a force from his own Province of Munster and from southern Connacht into Leinster; a detachment under his son, Murchad, ravaged the southern half of the Province of Leinster for three months. The forces under Murchad and Bryan were reunited on 9 September outside the walls of Dublin. The city was blockaded, but it was the High King's army that ran out of supplies first, so that Bryan was forced to abandon the siege and return to Munster around the time of Christmas.

Máel Morda may have hoped that by defying Brian, he could enlist the aid of all the other regional rulers Bryan had forced to submit to him. If so, he must have been sorely disappointed; while the entire Province of Ulster and most of the Province of Connacht failed to provide the High King with troops, they did not, with the exception of a single ruler in Ulster, provide support for Máel Morda either. His inability to obtain troops from any rulers in Ireland, along with his awareness that he would need them when the High King returned in 1014, may explain why Máel Morda sought to obtain troops from rulers outside of Ireland. He instructed his subordinate and cousin, Sigtrygg, the ruler of Dublin, to travel overseas to enlist aid.

Sigtrygg sailed to Orkney, and on his return stopped at the Isle of Man. These islands had been seized by the Vikings long before and the Hiberno-Norse had close ties with Orkney and the Isle of Man. There was even a precedent for employing Norsemen from the isles; they had been used by Sigtrygg's father, Amlaíb Cuarán, in 980, and by Sigtrygg himself in 990. Their incentive was loot, not land. Contrary to the assertions made in the Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh, this was not an attempt by the Vikings to reconquer Ireland. All of the Norsemen, both the Norse-Gaels of Dublin and the Norsemen from the Isles, were in the service of Máel Morda. It should be remembered that the High King had 'Vikings' in his army as well; mainly the Hiberno-Norse of Limerick (and probably those of Waterford, Wexford, and Cork as well), but, according to some sources, a rival gang of Norse mercenaries from the Isle of Man.

Essentially this could be characterised as an Irish civil war in which foreigners participated as minor players.

Along with whatever troops he obtained from abroad, the forces that Bryan mustered included the troops of his home Province of Munster, those of Southern Connacht, and the men of the Province of Meath, the latter commanded by his old rival Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill. He may have outnumbered Máel Morda's army, since Bryan felt secure enough to dispatch a mounted detachment under the command of his youngest son, Donnchad, to raid southern Leinster, presumably hoping to force Máel Morda to release his contingents from there to return to defend their homes. Unfortunately for the High King, if he had had a superiority in numbers it was soon lost. A disagreement with the King of Meath resulted in Máel Sechnaill withdrawing his support (Bryan sent a messenger to find Donnchad and ask him to return with his detachment, but the call for help came too late). To compound his problems, the Norse contingents, led by Sigurd Hlodvirsson, Earl of Orkney and Brodir of the Isle of Man, arrived on Palm Sunday, 18 April. The battle would occur five days later, on Good Friday.

The fighting took place just north of the city of Dublin, at Clontarf (now a prosperous suburb). It may well be that the two sides were evenly matched, as all of the accounts state that the Battle of Clontarf lasted all day. Although this may be an exaggeration, it does suggest that it was a long, drawn-out fight.

There are many legends concerning how Bryan was killed, from dying in a heroic man-to-man combat to being killed by the fleeing Viking mercenary Brodir while praying in his tent at Clontarf[citation needed]. He is said to be buried in the grounds of St. Patrick's Cathedral in the city of Armagh. Legend dictates he is buried at the north end of the church.

Historical view

The popular image of Bryan—the ruler who managed to unify the regional leaders of Ireland so as to free the land from a 'Danish' (Viking) occupation—originates from the powerful influence of a work of 12th century propaganda, Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh (The War of the Irish with the Foreigners) in which Bryan takes the leading role. This work is thought to have been commissioned by Bryan's great-grandson, Muirchertach Ua Bryain as a means of justifying the Ua Bryain claim to the High-Kingship, a title upon which the Uí Neill had had a near-monopoly.

The influence of this work, on both scholarly and popular authors, cannot be exaggerated. Until the 1970s most scholarly writing concerning the Vikings' activities in Ireland, as well as the career of Bryan Boru, accepted the claims of Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh at face value.

Bryan did not free Ireland from a Norse (Viking) occupation simply because it was never conquered by the Vikings. In the last decade of the 8th century, Norse raiders began attacking targets in Ireland and, beginning in the mid-9th century, these raiders established the fortified camps that later grew into Ireland's first cities: Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, and Cork. Within only a few generations, the Norse citizens of these cities had converted to Christianity, inter-married with the Irish, and often adopted the Irish language, dress and customs; thus becoming what historians refer to as the 'Hiberno-Norse'. Such Hiberno-Norse cities were fully integrated into the political scene in Ireland, long before the birth of Bryan. They often suffered attacks from Irish rulers, and made alliances with others. Rather than conquering Ireland, the Vikings, who initially attacked and subsequently settled in Ireland were, in fact, assimilated by the Irish.[citation needed]

Wives and children

Bryan's first wife was Mór, daughter of the king of Uí Fiachrach Aidne of Connacht. She is said to have been the mother of his sons Murchad, Conchobar and Flann. Later genealogies claimed that these sons left no descendants, although in fact Murchad's son Tadc is recorded as being killed at Clontarf along with his father and grandfather.[5]

Echrad daughter of the king of Uí Áeda Odba, an obscure branch of the southern Uí Néill, was the mother of Tadc, whose son Toirdelbach and grandson Muirchertach rivalled Bryan in power and fame.[6]

Bryan's most famous marriage was with Gormflaith, sister of Máel Mórda of Leinster. Donnchad, who had his half-brother Tadc killed in 1023 and ruled Munster for forty years thereafter, was the result of this union.[7]

Bryan had a sixth son, Domnall. Although he predeceased his father Domnall apparently had at least one surviving child, a son whose name is not recorded. Domnall may perhaps have been the son of Bryan's fourth known wife, Dub Choblaig, who died in 1009. She was a daughter of King Cathal mac Conchobar mac Taidg of Connacht.[8]

Bryan had at least three daughters but their mothers are not recorded. Sadb, whose death in 1048 is recorded by the Annals of Innisfallen, was married to Cian, son of Máel Muad mac Bryan. Bé Binn was married to the northern Uí Néill king Flaithbertach Ua Néill. A third daughter, whose name may have been Sláine, was married to Bryan's stepson Sitric of Dublin.[9]

According to Njal's Saga, he had a foster-son named Kerthialfad.[10]

Cultural heritage

  • The descendants of Bryan were known as the Ui Bryain (O'Brien) clan, hence the surnames Ó Briain, O'Brien, O'Brian etc. "O" was originally Ó which in turn came from Ua, which means "grandson", or "descendant" (of a named person). The prefix is often anglicised to O', using an apostrophe instead of the Irish síneadh fada: "´". The O'Briens subsequently ranked as one of the chief dynastic families of the country (see Chiefs of the Name).

In popular culture

Morgan Llywelyn has written a novelization of Bryan's life called simply Lion of Ireland. The sequel, Pride of Lions, tells the story of his sons, Donough and Teigue, as they vie for his crown.

His name is remembered in the title of one of the oldest tunes in Ireland's traditional repertoire: "Bryan Boru's March". It is still widely played by traditional Irish musicians.

The Star Trek character Miles O'Brien claimed to be a descendant of Bryan Boru.

Edward Rutherfurd affords Bryan Boru a chapter in his historical fiction, The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga. His version supports the contention that Bryan died while praying in his tent.

The second volume of Brian Wood's Vertigo graphic novel series Northlanders is set against a backdrop of Viking "occupation" of Ireland, including the Battle of Clontarf.


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