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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Brian Boru: the Intermingling of History and Legend

Brian Boru is only one of Ireland's High Kings. Why is he the one who has most captured the imagination?
Brian Boru is only one of Ireland's High Kings. Why is he the one who has most captured the imagination?

Ireland had several high kings who ruled over the entire island and commanded tribute as well as loyalty from territorial kings. The most renowned is Brian Boru. He is said to have reached legendary status during his own lifetime and his reputation continues to burn brightly in Irish memory. Primarily, this is because he got rid of the bloody Vikings. Well, so the legend goes. Brian was killed in the climactic battle—the Battle of Clontarf (1014)—and the Norsemen (as the Irish called the Vikings) or the Ostermen (as the Vikings called themselves) continued their settlement of the little place now known as Dublin. But their harassment of the native Irish settled down. For a little while.


     Some scholars argue that Brian’s greatest achievement wasn’t routing the Vikings. It was impacting Irish politics in a major way. For several centuries, the O’Neills had been the BIG GUYS on the island. This had gone on so long that, by the 9th century, everyone had pretty much accepted that, to be a High King, you had to be a member of the Uí Néill, the O’Neill clan. They claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the legendary fifth-century King of Tara. By Brian Boru’s time, even those people who had the money, skills, and power to defeat the Uí Néill and claim the High Kingship didn’t because having an O’Neill as High King had become the tradition.


     Apparently, Brian wasn’t a traditionalist. He was, however, well-connected. His mother was the daughter of the King of Connacht. His father, Cennétig mac Lorcáin, King of Thormond. (My U.S. readers might be interested to know that the Kennedy clan takes its name from Cennétig even though the actual clan—Ó Cinnéide—descends from one of Brian Boru’s nephews.) Brian’s brother, Mahon, became the King of Munster. So, Brian set out to make a name for himself because, well, that’s what you do. Right?


Stand By Ukraine
Stand By Ukraine

     And the Vikings helped him with that. His first major experience in battle was in helping his brother fight the Norsemen. He was about twenty-three at the time (964 AD). Then (and I haven’t been able to get a date for this) the Vikings held him captive for a time. And Brian used that time well by studying their military tactics. Sometime after he escaped, the Vikings killed his brother. And that did it. Brian set out to avenge his brother’s death.


     First, he killed Imar of Limerick, King of the Ostermen. Then he went back to his brother’s kingdom, Munster, chased the Vikings out and, by 976, established himself as the King of Munster. But he wasn’t finished. Next, Brian took control of Leinster and began extending his rule throughout Ireland until he become High King. Take that O’Neills! Never again would the Uí Néill have a lock on the High Kingship of Ireland.


     Nevertheless, it was the Vikings who brought the fame and glory that made Brian Boru a legend. His crowning achievement is said to be the Battle of Clontarf, fought in 1014. The Vikings were defeated so thoroughly at that confrontation that they ended up running from battle! This led to Brian Boru as a symbol of the Irish resisting, rejecting, and overcoming any rule by foreigners.


    It’s an inspiring story—except that Brian Boru probably didn’t fight in the battle. He was, at that point, in his seventies. Okay, okay! I can hear the chorus of voices saying that age wasn’t about to stop our Brian! Yes, but many versions of the story also say he was sick that day, lying on a bed in his tent, and directing the battle by relaying messages to his son, Murchad, who was on the battlefield. A few accounts of the battle claim that the High King didn’t fight that day because he was a devout Christian, and it was Good Friday. So, he didn't think it proper to kill anybody. That day.


According to legend, Brian Boru chased the Vikings out of Ireland. But did he?
According to legend, Brian Boru chased the Vikings out of Ireland. But did he?

Believe what you want. I’m reporting, not arguing. Sadly, Brian died during this, his most famous battle. Most scholars say a couple of Viking warriors stumbled across the High King’s tent and killed him in his bed, hacking him to death with their battle axes.


     It seems an unceremonious end to a man considered one of Ireland’s most shining historical figures. But the truth is, it wasn’t the end of his story. His legend and greatness grew from there. Brian Boru is remembered as Ireland’s greatest High King.

Perhaps this is unsurprising as he is a symbol for so much that is Irish in spirit. He was a little guy who had the courage and spunk to overcome the big guys (the O’Neills). He chased the foreigners out (or so the legend goes). He is considered a symbol of a united Ireland. And one I don’t think gets enough attention: Brian Boru was a supporter and promoter of the arts. In fact, he himself was a harpist who is said to have cultivated a love of music throughout Ireland (I submit that that already existed). Now, I’m not about to suggest (as some articles do) that Brian Boru is the reason Ireland’s national symbol is the harp, but I would say that his being associated with the harp indicates how much of a symbol of Eire Brian Boru is to the Irish.

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Slán go fóill

     All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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