GREAT HEROES OF IRELAND: BRIAN BÓRÚ
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CENTRAL IRELAND'S FIRST
Irelands 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.
Brians 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
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 Tipperarys 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 Donnchads 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
In 1002 he became high king of Ireland by conquest over the Kingdom of
ROCK OF CASHEL, CO. TIPPERARY,
the Rock of Cashel in 978AD.
breaking the 600-year-long
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 Brians Irish enemies. In the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin (on
Good Friday, April 23, 1014), his sons led Brians unified Irish armies and
annihilated the Vikings and their allies, thereby permanently destroying their power in
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
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.
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 Bórús 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.)
Brians 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
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
Brians death resulted in the short-lived united Irelands
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, Brians 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
churchs tribute to Irelands greatest High
BRIAN WAS BORN AND
BUILDING OF THE
ORATORY OF ST. LUA.
BRIAN IS DEAD 1,000
YEARS BUT THE ORATORY
STILL STANDS, NOW
Killaloe TOWN, One
of the FEW remaining
structures in Ireland
the time of
King. On a mountainside
across the Shannon River from
Killaloe are the
Graves of the Leinstermen, site
of a massacre of Brians
enemies on their way to a wedding. This time it wasn’t Brian,
but his wife who saw to the slaughter — but
story for another time.
HOME AT FIRST has lodgings in and near
Central Ireland hometown of Killaloe.
Plan your visit for the start of July if you wish to experience's the
Féile Brian Ború,
a 5-day festival celebrating Ireland's greatest high king.