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GREAT HEROES OF IRELAND: BRIAN BÓRÚ

 

Travel is people. You may go abroad to see the famous sites, but what you remember best are the people you meet. Among them, like unexpected treasure, are a few memorable contacts that will make your travels unique, special, and delightful. "People" is devoted to some of those you may come in contact with during your Home At First travels.

BRIAN BÓRÚ

CENTRAL IRELAND'S FIRST SON • Ireland’s Greatest Warrior King

ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF FACTS & LEGENDS

THE ORATORY OF ST. LUA, KILLALOE. HIGH CROSSES
MARK A PLACE KNOWN TO IRELAND'S GREATEST HIGH KING.

This article first appeared in January, 2002. Latest update: 2015.  Text and Photos copyright © Home At First.

          Brian’s story, like many great Irish tales, is a mixture of fact and legend, so much so that a factually accurate biography cannot be written. Little matter. Like the tales of King Arthur in England, what the saga of Brian Bórú lacks in provable fact it more than makes up for as symbol for the Irish culture.
 
        Ancient Ireland was rarely a unified land. Its native Celtic (or Gaelic) peoples had a tribal system of cultural organization, like their cousins in Scotland, England and Wales. Great tribal, or clan, families became the royalty of the principal regions of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms of Ulster (north), Connacht (west), Leinster (east), and Munster (south.
          The traditional clan system was fraught with jealousy, intrigue, and feud. When in the latter part of the first millennium Viking invaders attacked the British Isles, they found the native residents too disunited to put up much resistance. Many local tribes chose to welcome new Viking overlords in hopes that their rule might be more benign than Celtic clan rule. Within 200 years, the various Viking invasions led to the establishment of permanent Viking colonies in Ireland as well as in Britain.

 
        In Britain, the constant wars against the Vikings so weakened the Anglo-Saxon armies of the English petty-kings that Norman invaders found Britain an easy mark in 1066. A similar history was being written in Ireland.
 
        County Tipperary’s favorite son, Brian Bórú (941?-1014), broke the pattern, and, for a brief, shining moment, became king of a unified Celtic Ireland. He ended the Viking hold over large parts of the island. And his factual success at ridding Ireland of invading foreigners has elevated his legendary status to "Savior of Ireland." To a greater or lesser extent, Ireland has sought another Brian Bórú in the 1,000 years since his death.
 
        He was born into semi-royalty in Killaloe on the River Shannon in the eastern part of what is now County Clare. His mother and the mother of Conor (King of Connacht) were sisters. The young Brian Bórú was considered an upstart by many of the Gaelic Chieftains.
 
        In 954AD, when King Callahan of Cashel (Tipperary) died, his son Donnchad succeeded him. After Donnchad’s death, Mahon, the oldest of the surviving sons of Kennedy, King of the Dalcassians, claimed the kingship for himself. He desired peace with the Vikings and attempted to secure it. His younger brother, Brian Bórú, however, urged armed, violent resistance against the pagan invaders.
 
        Brian was able to convince the Irish that they had to fight the Vikings. Brian and his forces defeated the Limerick Vikings, bringing on a time of peace in Ireland. Eight years later, in 975, the Vikings assassinated King Mahon.

          Brian succeeded his older brother Mahon,

 

and the fight was on. The clan prince hunted down and killed the Viking King of Limerick. In 978 Brian became king of Cashel, capital of the ancient kingdom of Munster. The powerful Eoghanachta clan from Wales that had ruled the region from their stronghold of the Rock of Cashel lost possession of the Rock in the 10th century to the O'Brien tribe under the leadership of Brian Bórú.

          By 984 Brian had subjugated all Munster, then extended his power over all southern Ireland. In 1002 he became high king of Ireland by conquest over the Kingdom of Leinster,

Brian Boru conquered the Rock of Cashel in 978AD. Photo © Home At First.
THE ROCK OF CASHEL, CO. TIPPERARY,
IRELAND. Brian
Bórú conquered
the Rock of Cashel in 978AD.

breaking the 600-year-long domination of

 

Ireland by the Ulster O’Neill clan dynasty. He was seen across Ireland as a hero, uniting Ireland in opposition to the Viking presence.
 
        Once King of Ireland, his name changed to Brian Bórú (Brian of the Tributes) because he collected tributes from the clan kings of Ireland, using the monies to rebuild monasteries and restore libraries which had been burned by the Vikings. Despite his Christian piety, Brian Bórú reportedly had 4 wives and 30 concubines (many Irish families trace their ancestral heritage to Brian Bórú).

          From his youth, Brian had been fighting the Vikings, who had occupied part of the country. As his power increased, relations with the Norse rulers, who controlled much of the eastern and southern coast of Ireland, including the Dublin area, grew steadily worse.

          Among his four wives, Brian had married "the most beautiful woman in Ireland", Maelmora. She may also have been the most evil. After only four years of marriage, which produced a mail heir, Brian left Maelmora. Filled with hatred for Brian and his allies, Maelmora summoned the Vikings with the promise of lands and riches if they would defeat Brian Bórú.

          Sitric Silkenbeard, king of the Dublin Norse, formed against Brian a coalition of the Norse of Ireland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, and Iceland as well as Brian’s Irish enemies. In the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin (on Good Friday, April 23, 1014), his sons led Brian’s unified Irish armies and annihilated the Vikings and their allies, thereby permanently destroying their power in Ireland.

 

          On 23 April, 1014 at sunrise, Brian


ST. FLANNAN'S CATHEDRAL, KILLALOE. THIS GOTHIC
CHURCH ON THE RIVER SHANNON HAS ROOTS TO
THE TIME OF BRIAN
Bórú, INCLUDING A STONE
FROM ABOUT 1,000 AD INSCRIBED IN EARLY
GAELIC (OGHAM) AND IN VIKING RUNES:
"A BLESSING ON THORGRIM, WHO MADE
THIS STONE." NOTE THE 12TH CENTURY
ST. FLANNAN'S ORATORY (LEFT),
KILLALOE'S SECOND ANCIENT
ROMANESQUE STONE CHAPEL.

rode in front of his army holding a sword upright in one hand, and a crucifix in the other. He inspired his men, instilling the "insanity" for which the fighting Irish have become famous. The Vikings charged the Irish positions, but the Irish held. There was tremendous slaughter, and acts of heroism on both sides. It has been said that only twenty or so Vikings escaped the Battle of Clontarf alive. Among the more than 10,000 killed on both sides were the Earl of the Orkneys, the King of Leinster, two Connacht kings, and Brian Bórú’s son, Murrough.

          Brian, at 73 too aged to fight, was awaiting news of the battle when he was slain in his tent by a retreating Viking intruder. Earl Brodar of Man, a Dane, while fleeing to his ship, found Brian at prayer in his tent giving thanks for victory, and attacked him with his double-headed battle-axe. (It is said that, though mortally wounded, Brian was still able to behead his murderer with his broadsword.)

          Brian’s body was borne to the Cathedral of Armagh by his whole army and there buried in a stone coffin on the north side of the high altar. Ironically,

 

Brian’s body rests in Ulster at the

cathedral he selected to be Ireland’s primary church, an act designed to speed the unification of the north with the south.

          Brian’s unified Ireland did not last long — the victorious Irish army started to fight among themselves again — an Irish custom which is net yet dead. And although Brian’s victory broke the Viking incursion in Ireland forever,

Brian’s death resulted in the short-lived united Ireland’s

 

rapid fall into anarchy.

          This anarchy resulted in the rather easy invasion and annexation of Ireland by the Normans one generation after they had conquered Britain. The divisions within Irish culture engendered by this second Norman Conquest continue to plague Ireland to this day.
          Brian Bórú still has many associations with south central Ireland. It is still possible to visit the great fortress castle called the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. The hilltop church in Killaloe occupies the site of Kincora, Brian’s hillside palace overlooking the River Shannon. Killaloe is best remembered as the home of Brian Bórú, High King of Ireland 1002-1014, and the progenitor of one of Ireland's great families, the O'Briens. Here he was born and reared, and here stood his palace of Kincora. Following the lead given by his immediate ancestors, Brian continued to harass the Vikings of nearby Limerick.

          After a series of spectacular victories in Munster and Leinster he deposed his rival, Malachy, and assumed the High Kingship. From Killaloe the course of Irish history was now changed, and Brian’s victory at Clontarf in 1014 ended the Viking supremacy. Brian himself died in his hour of triumph. His burial in the city of Armagh (Northern Ireland) — the Vatican City of Ireland — instead of his native Killaloe, was the church’s tribute to Ireland’s greatest High

Oratory of St. Lua, Killaloe. One of the few remaining structures in Ireland from the time of Brian Boru. Photo © Home At First.
BRIAN WAS BORN AND
RAISED IN KILLALOE
 CONCURRENT
WITH THE
 BUILDING OF THE 
ORATORY OF ST. LUA.
BRIAN IS DEAD 1,000
YEARS BUT THE ORATORY
STILL STANDS, NOW ATOP

Killaloe TOWN, One
of the FEW remaining
 structures in Ireland
from the time of
Brian
Bórú.

King. On a mountainside across the Shannon River from

 

Killaloe are the Graves of the Leinstermen, site of a massacre of Brian’s enemies on their way to a wedding. This time it wasn’t Brian, but his wife who saw to the slaughter — but that's a story for another time.

 

HOME AT FIRST has lodgings in and near Brian Bórú's Central Ireland hometown of Killaloe.
Plan your visit for the start of July if you wish to experience's the Killaloe's annual
Féile Brian Bor
ú, a 5-day festival celebrating Ireland's greatest high king.

 

Learn more about HOME AT FIRST's travel program to: CENTRAL IRELAND.

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