Brian Boru – High King of Ireland

Who was Brian Boru?

‘He was perhaps the greatest ‘realist’ Ireland has known’, wrote Mrs Stopford Green in History of the Irish Free State to 1014, published in 1925. ‘At all times keeping pace with a changing world. His sense of realities taught him how far he could go and when to draw hack. Warrior as he was by the hard training of his youth, where any peace was possible his one object was to avoid fighting. The true dignity of his character, and his single devotion to his country’s salvation, may be measured by the fact that in all the changing circumstances of his life we do not find a case in which personal humiliation or personal ambition was to him of any account…’

Yet it was some nine centuries after his death that the first attempt at a biography of the great man was attempted. As is the case with so many famous people in the early parts of our history, it is difficult to verify facts and to separate myth from truth. No exact date of his birth can be located, and there are slight variations with some of the important dates in his life.

‘The youngest son of the King of Thomond – a throne in all probability elevated by the most aristocratic family in the
island, the Ui Neill, to help maintain their own authority – he was certainly born to greatness. His leadership of a small band of guerrillas, holding out in the wilds of Clare against the Danes of Limerick, brought him into prominence with his own people, and the murder of his eldest surviving brother, Mathghamhain, gave him the thrones of Thomond and Munster. Having come thus far, he went on to displace the mighty Ui Neill on the high throne of Ireland, and in old age established a form of governance that was probably the nearest to a strong central monarchy the conglomeration of disunited Irish Kingdoms had ever experienced. He subdued the Scandinavian inhabitants of the island and, having done so, turned his skills in commerce to the benefits of native and Land Leaper alike.’

Some important dates in Brian’s Life

940 Sometime around this year, Brian was born in Killaloe, Co. Clare in to The Dalcassian tribe. His father, Cennetig, was the King of Thomond and the leader of the tribe.
951 Brian’s father killed by the Vikings: his brother, Mathghamhain, becomes King of The Dalcassians.
968 Brian and Mathghamhain recovered Cashel from the Vikings.
970 Mathghamhain became King of Munster and Cashel.
976 Mathghamhain assassinated by rival Chieftains, Brian succeeded as King of The Dalcassians.
977 Brian became King of Munster
978 The battle of Sulcoit in Tipperary was Brian’s first victory over the Danes.
980 Malachy [King of Ireland] defeated the Vikings at Tara.
997 Brian and Malachy made peace and divided Ireland between them.
998 Brian defeated Malachy and the Danes at Glenmama and laid siege to Dublin.
1002 Brian inaugurated High King of Ireland.
1004 After a battle at Craebh Tulcha, Brian marched through Meath to Armagh, where he stayed a week and made an offering of gold upon the altar of the great church and acknowledged the ecclesiastical supremacy of Armagh.
1014 On Good Friday 23rd April 1014, Brian was killed at the Battle of Clontarf. Brian was too old to lead his troops into battle and was watching the progress of his forces from a tent, and praying for victory when tragedy struck. The battle had gone well for Brian, but unfortunately his son Murchadh was killed. The Danes were retreating and found their retreat to Dublin cut off, the only escape was by sea. Brodar, a Danish commander, rather than risk crossing the battlefield turned north hoping to circuit the retreat and reach the coast. His retreat led him directly past the hill where Brian had his tent. When he realised who was in the tent, he attacked it and killed Brian and his old companion Conaing as they knelt praying. Brian’s body was carried to Swords and thence escorted by clergy to Armagh. He was buried in a stone or marble coffin in what is now Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.