Some Irish People – Brian “Boru”.

Brian mac Cennétig (c. 941 – 1014).

940 AD is the most generally accepted date for the birth of Brian (the ‘Boru’, or Bóruma, suffix only came later, see below). He was originally, of course, Brian mac Cennétig, Brian son of Cennétig, and his father was Cennétig mac Lorcain. He was born at Kincora, Killaloe, about twenty miles upstream of Limerick on the Shannon. He was really the first, and arguably the only, King or all Ireland. He was head of what came to be called the O’Brien family. Apart from the ‘High King’, the King of all Ireland, one must take the title ‘King’ used with a pinch of salt. Generally speaking I think Chief or Chieftain would better describe the rôle. Or  perhaps Ruler. However the title is always translated into English as King. It was all a question of honour, one’s ‘honour price’, or ‘face’.

The town of Limerick was in “Norse Gael” or Viking hands when Brian became King, which detracted from the value of his province of Thomond – Thomond spanned the River Shannon, but access by the Shannon to the sea was restricted by the Vikings downstream. Thomond was roughly today’s County Limerick, with a bit of North County Tipperary and East County Clare thrown in. The presence of both river and Vikings made the people of Thomond natural warriors and natural boatmen. The river was a natural highway. And it was a highway all the way north to Connacht and West Meath, regions ripe for plunder, both. To this day these are prosperous cattle grazing and sheep regions.

It may have been Brian’s elder brother Mat (Mathuin is short for Mathgamain which means Bear) who first conceived the idea of becoming King of the whole of Munster, a title which it is said he claimed on capturing St. Patrick’s Rock at Cashel where the Munster Royal ‘Palace’ was situated. This he probably did about 964 AD. However King Máel Muad still ruled the rest of the Province. Legends differ as to how Mat the Bear met his end soon after, but they agree on it being a violent end, most likely at the hands of the Vikings. At all events it would have been around 976, so that was when the Mat’s brother, Brian later called Boru, found himself King of Thomund.

Seizing the murder of Mat as a casu belli with both hands, and with a speed which would soon become known as the hallmark of his wars, Brian proceeded to avenge his brother. He first defeated the Vikings in Limerick, and then swiftly moved on and defeated King Máel Muad of Munster, even though he was supported by other Vikings. So he became, within a year of his brother’s death, the real King of Munster, which included Thomund.

Brian then mounted a series of assaults on the Provincial leaders from both the water where there was any, and on land. By 1000 AD Brian was ruler of Munster and Leinster and finally the all important Viking city of Dublin, hitherto ruled by Sigtrygg Silkbeard. This capture of Dublin seems to have been a diplomatic as much as a military victory. True, there was a military victory, the great Battle of Glen Mama, but it was part of the genius of Brian that he followed that victory by asking Sigtrygg to return and resume his position as ruler of Dublin, cementing the alliance by giving him the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. The more common practice of the times would have been to simply annihilate the these Viking Dubliners.

Two years later Brian Boru was Ard Ri, the High King, the ruler of all Ireland, although Ulster, fiercely independent then as now, would continue rumbles of rebellion. But by 1006 he was able to make a Royal Circuit of Ulster unopposed.

Brian cemented his authority with the support of the Church. In Ireland by now the Church was well established, but the organisation of the Church was not, as elsewhere, diocesan and ruled by Bishops, but monastic and ruled from Monasteries and Abbeys. And not just monastic – the Monasteries were run by lay Abbots, often with wives and children, usually members of the royal or chiefly dynasties of the lands in which their monasteries lay. It was these Abbots who ran things, not the bishops. The practice of appointing lay Abbots persisted in Ireland until the 13th century.

The most important monastery in the land was that of Armagh, allegedly founded by Saint Patrick some five hundred years before. To this monastery Brian gave a gift of ‘twenty two ounces of gold’. He then declared that henceforth Armagh was the senior monastery in Ireland, and that all other monasteries must pay both homage and dues to it. Most major transactions at this time, especially in Ireland where gold was still mined, were done in gold. Like Dublin,  this was a bloodless diplomatic coup which gave him the support of the Church machinery throughout the country. The monastic records now refer to Brian not merely as ‘Ard Ri’ or ‘High King’, but as ‘Emperatus Scottorum,’ or ‘Emperor of the Irish.’ It was also as a result of this arrangement for tributes in gold that the name ‘Boru’ (or Bóruma) came to be applied to him. ‘Brian Boru’ means, roughly, ‘Brian of the Tributes’, referring to the tributes paid by the Monasteries.

But it was unfortunately too early for the Irish to accept a long term unified authority in Ireland (perhaps it still is?), and the rest of Brian’s life was spent fighting for his office. Even so, he was arguably both the first and last High King of all Ireland who actually ruled all Ireland. He eventually died at the Battle of Clontarf, so the legends say, in April 1014, over seventy years old, fighting against Máel Mórda mac Murchada (Miles MacMurrough) of Leinster. Miles was aided by the Vikings, and  was also killed. But Brian’s (mostly Munster) armies won, and the battle was really the end of the Vikings in Ireland as a force to be reckoned with. As a Viking chronicler put it, ‘Brian fell, but won at last’. His poet Mac Liag wrote a biography after his death He also wrote a rather sad little poem. Translated into English it loses a great deal, but the sentiments come through clearly. Kincora was King Brian’s palace, near modern Killaloe.  It was also where he was born. In English, translated by Clarence Mangan, it goes:

Oh, where, Kincora! is Brian the Great?
And where is the beauty that once was thine?
Oh, where are the princes and nobles that sate
At the feast in thy halls, and drank the red wine?
Where, oh, Kincora? Where, oh Kincora, are thy valorous lords,

Oh whither, thou Hospitable, are they gone?
Oh where the Dalcassians of cleaving swords,
And where are the heroes that Brian led on,
Where, oh Kincora?

And where is Morough, descendant of kings,
Defeater of hundreds, the daringly brave,
Who set but light store on jewels and rings,
Who swam down the torrent and laughed at the wave,
Where, oh Kincora?

And where is Donagh, King Brian’s brave son,
And where is Conaing, the beautiful chief,
And Cian and Core, alas, they are gone!
They have left me this night all alone in my grief,
Alone, oh Kincora!

And where are the chiefs with whom Brian went forth,
The ne’er vanquished sons of Erin the Brave,
The great King of Eogh’nacht, renowned for his worth,
And Baskin’s great host from the western wave,
Where, oh Kincora?

And where is Duvlann of the swift-footed steeds,
And where is Cian who was son of Molloy,
And where is King Lonergan, the fame of whose deeds
In the red battle-field, no time can destroy ?
Where, oh Kincora?

And where is the youth of majestic height,
The faith-keeping prince of the Scotts? even he,
As wide as his fame was, as great as his might,
Was tributary, oh Kincora, to thee,
To thee, oh Kincora!

They are gone, those heroes of royal birth,
Who plundered no churches and broke no trust
‘Tis weary for me to be living on earth
When they, oh Kincora, lie low in the dust.
Low, oh Kincora!

Oh never again will princes appear
To rival Dalcassians of cleaving swords!
I can ne’er dream of meeting afar or near,
In the east or the west, such heroes and lords,
Never, Kincora!

Oh dear are the images mem’ry calls up
Of Brian Boru, how he never would miss
To give me at banquet the first bright cup,
Oh, why did he heap on me honour like this,
Why, oh Kincora?

I am MacLiag, and my home’s on the lake;
And oft to that palace whose beauty has fled
Came Brian to ask me, I went for his sake;
Oh my grief! that I live when Brian is dead!
Dead, oh Kincora!

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