Of all the many kings, mythical and historical, of pre-invasion Ireland Brian Boru alone is known to the people, and Clontarf is the only battle they have heard of. And he alone of Irish kings is the subject of a rude schoolboy rhyme. (I’ll not repeat it here.)
It is a perversity of Irish education that schools teach little or nothing of the Irish Golden Age and such European figures as Columba, Columbanus, Sedulius and Eriugena. The same is true of the kings and dynasties. Most people have woolly and foolish notions about wandering tribes and barbarous chiefs. In fact Ireland was ruled by ambitious provincial kings with clear ideas about kingship and patronage. There was a very aggressive aristocratic elite, organised in great lineages. Success depended on keeping down rivals within the dynasty and dominating the provincial aristocracy. These backed winners: political power was built that way, and it melted fast with defeat. Success meant expansion as well as power and its fruits. This drove the politics of the age, in Ireland and elsewhere.
In a way Brian and Clontarf had more significance for 19th-century Ireland. James Clarence Mangan’s elegiac poem-in-translation celebrates a royal splendour, as absent in his day as in ours:
O, where, Kinkora! is Brian the Great?
And where is the beauty that once was thine?
O, where are the princes and nobles that sate
At the feast in the halls and drank the red wine?
William Kenealy’s nationalist ballad about Clontarf, reprinted again and again and learned off by generations of schoolchildren, strikes a harsher note. Crucifix in the left hand, golden sword in the right, the aged king harangues his troops before the battle:
Stand ye now for Erin’s glory! Stand ye now for Erin’s cause!
Long ye’ve groaned beneath the rigour of the Northmen’s savage laws . . .
Men of Erin! men of Erin! Grasp the battle-axe and spear!
Chase these northern wolves before you like a herd of frightened deer!
Burst their ranks like bolts from heaven! Down on the heathen crew,
For the glory of the Crucified, and Erin’s glory too!”
And so on for many more bracing verses.
Elsewhere we see a mix of Cullenite Catholicism and nationalism, as in Canon O'Hanlon's long life of the "Blessed Bryan Boroimha, king of Munster, Monarch of Ireland, and Martyr", part of his 10-volume Lives of the Irish Saints (Dublin 1875–1903). According to the good canon, the much-married Brian "lived chastely and therefore he was reverenced by his domestics and subjects . . . his virtues were of noble and generous quality".
His munificence in founding churches and monasteries, his justice in ruling, and “the private virtues of his spotless life” made him the model saintly king. A national king, then, serious and moral, unlike the silly Stuarts and stodgy Hanoverians that had been foisted on us.
Brian was a legend in his own lifetime –he made sure of that – the heroic founder of a dominant dynasty battling it out with provincial rivals for the kingship of Ireland. The grand narrative Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib ( The War of the Gael with the Foreigners ) was written up within a year or so of 1100, for his great-grandson Muirchertach, the most powerful king in Ireland and ruler of Dublin, now threatened by the sudden arrival of king Magnus Barelegs of Norway, bent on mischief.
It is a colourful work, full of rhetorical heroics, adroit propaganda and dynastic boasting. The tale is complex and twisted, but Prof Seán Duffy has all the historical skills and the scholarship for the task. He expertly unpicks the strands of legend and propaganda and uncovers the real Brian as he appears in historical sources that are often frustratingly reticent.
Brian is often said to be of humble background. This is not so, though his dynasty was not of the first rank. They originated in Limerick, conquered east Clare, and dominated the Shannon, the route of trade passing into the midlands, and not without tolls. A remote forebear signed up, with other kings, for the Law of Adomnán in 697, and this makes his dynasty an ancient one by European standards. In the early 10th century they rebranded themselves as Dál Cais, descendants of an invented Cormac Cas, brother of Eogan, ancestor and name-giver of the storied Eoganacht, the kings of Munster for centuries. Ironically, just when they claimed to be their kin, Dál Cais were about to displace them as they declined in disorder and infighting.
Duffy carefully traces the rapid rise of Dál Cais. Mathgamain, Brian’s older brother, made himself king of Munster in 963. He defeated the Eoganacht and the Vikings of Limerick in a great battle at Sulchóit, near Tipperary, in 967. He was in Limerick by forced march by noon next day. He burned their ships, took the town, and plundered their citadel on King’s Island – the earliest step in a move that made Dál Cais the first urban Gaelic dynasty. We find Mathgamain allying himself craftily with St Patrick’s church of Armagh and its powerful clergy in 973. Three years later he was dead, captured and executed by his Eoganacht enemies. Brian succeeded him.
He turned on his brother’s killers. In 977 he attacked Ímar, king of Limerick, and killed him and his sons in the sanctuary of the monastery of their patron, St Senán of Scattery. Some saw this as sacrilege. The next year he defeated and slew his brother’s killer in battle in the Ballyhoura Hills.
He was now king of Munster, with no rival in sight, but he spent four years consolidating his position.
His first interprovincial move was against Ossory, a necessary step on the way to dominate Leinster, but this brought on him the wrath of Mael Sechnaill, who had recently won a great victory over the Viking rulers of Dublin. Unopposed as “high king” or king of Tara, he was easily the most powerful and blue-blooded king in the land. Brian was not intimidated. With a cool head and matchless ambition he set out to dominate Ireland.
He overcame his rivals not usually in bloody battles and by main force (though he had that in reserve) but by psychological and symbolic warfare. From 977 to 999 he fought no major battle, yet by 983 he was dominant in the southern half of Ireland. In 988 he put 300 vessels on the Shannon and harried Mael Sechnaill’s lands as far as his dynasty’s sacred site of Uisnech. There was no major battle, but the message could not be clearer.
He marched into his rivals’ kingdoms with bigger and bigger armies; he withdrew when he met serious opposition, but everybody knew he was coming back soon with an even bigger army. He preferred threat and diplomacy, and he negotiated submissions. Those who submitted today were officers in his armies tomorrow. By 997 he had so outplayed Mael Sechnaill that they made the Lough Ree accord that divided Ireland between them. Brian was now supreme in Munster and Leinster.
As Duffy acutely observes, in a society with a remarkable mythical and historical literary culture, Brian was very alert to symbolism and to the political resonances of the great historic sites. Right on the millennium, at the head of the troops of Munster, Leinster and Dublin, he marched against Mael Sechnaill – not into his immediate territory but to Tara, the mythical heartland of his dynasty. Within a year Mael Sechnaill had submitted to him. When he marched into Ulster in 1005 he encamped at Emain Macha, the heroic site of the deeds of Conchobar mac Nessa and Cúchulainn, conveniently a few kilometres west of the ecclesiastical capital, Armagh, his real target.
Mael Sechnaill tried to reply in kind. In 1007 he revived the Fair of Tailtiu, the assembly of his dynasty, now meant to be seen as a great national event. His royal poet, Cúán ua Lócháin, celebrated this in a magnificent poem in which he described Mael Sechnaill as óen-mílid na hEórapa, “the best soldier of Europe”. Pure spin.
In 1005, with extravagant gestures, Brian backed Armagh and confirmed its primatial claims over Ireland. He placed 20 ounces of gold on the altar of St Patrick, and in an inscription, written into that sacred relic the Book of Armagh, he called himself Imperator Scottorum, "Emperor of the Irish". Nothing odd about that. The term was in the air in 11th-century Europe: it meant not absolute monarch but the king dominant over many kings, and perhaps not just those in Ireland.
That dominance was challenged in 1014 at Clontarf, a bloody conflict within the close-knit, much intermarried Irish and Hiberno-Viking elite.
Duffy offers a close reading of the annals and a sharp analysis of events and issues. The two most reliable books of annals are skimpy on the battle: they do not give the place, the exact date, the tactics or even a narrative – just short lists of the slain on each side and a brief account of the coming of the clergy of Armagh to take Brian's body for solemn burial in their church. Most of the details – and the legends – come from Cogad and the Dubliners' own self-serving tale of the battle, the Old Norse Saga of Brian , both written about 85 years after. By then Brian had become the holy and heroic king of Ireland, patriotically facing the fearsome might of the whole Viking world, and dying nobly in the moment of victory.
Not all bought into the heroics. In the mid 11th century Bishop Finn of Kildare wrote grumpily in a mediocre poem copied into the Book of Leinster: “A host brought about the violent death of Brian son of Cennétig – defeated by the glorious valorous warrior Máel Mórda son of Murchad and by the victorious host of the Foreigners of the city in the crowded battle of Clontarf”.
In this scholarly and sympathetic book Duffy offers an important reassessment of Brian’s achievements and of his place in Irish history. He has done Brian proud – if history matters more than legend in Ireland.