What did Brian Boru ever do for us?

For generations of Irish people he is the hero who secured the country’s freedom. The truth is more complicated.

What really happened during the Battle of Clontarf? Trinity professor Dr Seán Duffy and Irish Times journalist Patrick Freyne find out as they tour the sites in Dublin where it all went down.

Thu, Apr 10, 2014, 10:01

April 23rd is the 1,000th anniversary of the death of Brian Boru, the most famous and, arguably, the greatest Irishman before the modern era. He died in his hour of victory at the Battle of Clontarf, after a lifetime of remarkable achievement.

The man we call Brian Boru – Brian of Béal Bóraimhe, near Killaloe in Co Clare – was from a Munster family formerly of no great distinction. He was born into an Ireland that was hidebound by tradition, where political power was dominated by a single great dynasty, the Uí Néill.

These descendants of the eponymous and perhaps mythical Niall of the Nine Hostages occupied a vast swathe of Ireland, their southern branch inhabiting the midlands from the Shannon to the Irish Sea, the northern Uí Néill ruling from modern Donegal to the River Bann.

For half a millennium, until Brian came along, the Uí Néill had held exclusive rights to the almost mystical “kingship of Tara”. Over the course of time, and certainly during the ninth and 10th centuries, an equation came to be made between possession of this arcane trophy and exclusive entitlement to the kingship of all Ireland.

This meant that, although at any one time upwards of half a dozen provincial rulers were powerful enough to bid for national supremacy, the force of tradition and Uí Néill propaganda combined to deny them the honour.

This is why Brian Boru was a hugely important figure, even before his triumph at Clontarf. He flouted this convention. For 20 years this upstart led a political and military struggle to undermine the ruling dynasty. And by the year 1002 Brian had succeeded in forcing the Uí Néill high king, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, to recognise him as his superior.

It was a landmark in Irish history. Brian had demonstrated that one did not have to be a descendant of the eponymous Niall to put forward a claim to the high kingship.

So he fundamentally altered the rules of Irish politics at the start of the 11th century – undermining the Uí Néill monopoly so that the high kingship of Ireland was now up for grabs – and this remained the case for a century and a half, until the high kingship went into abeyance soon after the Anglo-Norman invasion.

The death of Brian Boru, the new high king, in triumph at Clontarf in 1014 ended what the great Irish medievalist Edmund Curtis called “the Norse tyranny”. This perception of the battle as a watershed in Irish history is of long standing. One of the most valuable compilations of medieval Irish annals is manuscript 1293 at Trinity College Dublin, otherwise known as the Annals of Loch Cé . The literati behind it had access to early-medieval material, but the manuscript begins only with the year 1014, meaning that even in the Middle Ages it ranked as a key milestone.

The manuscript’s account of the Battle of Clontarf, more than 1,200 words long, is more the stuff of romance than history, but evidently the compiler viewed Brian Boru’s victory as possibly the single most glorious achievement by any of his nation.

That attraction remains. Brian has been, for generations of Irish people, the hero who led his people to victory over their would-be Viking conquerors and secured their freedom from foreign oppression, so much so that of the 50 or so high kings who reigned from the dawn of Irish history until the institution was smothered, in the aftermath of the English invasion, Brian is (a little depressingly) the only one who commands general recognition today.

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