For centuries, Ireland has told the stories of the great High King Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf: a battle that’s accredited as the end of the Viking’s reign in Ireland. This narrative, although partially true, neglects a great deal of the nuance that came before and after this battle. Brian’s legacy looms high, rightfully so, over 900 years after his death. In this piece, we revisit his life to clear up why is so renowned, and the evidence may not be what you think.
Initially born to a small royalty in Munster known as the Dál Cais’ clan in what is now County Clare, Brian was the twelfth son of King Cennétig, and the last expected to inherit the throne in his family; but Brian’s life and leadership would see him destined to be one of the greatest kings Ireland has ever known. As a child, Brian’s father was killed in a battle with the Vikings in Limerick. This event would lend itself to the inherited story we tell today that Brian’s life was categorized by his life-long vengeance against the Vikings. When Cennétig died, the position fell to Brian’s brother Latchna, who died soon after in 953. The leadership then transferred to a different brother, Mathgamain, who was called the King of Cashel and ending up controlling nearly all of Munster. Mathgamain and Brian were different leaders; Mathgamain was more of a pragmatist, and even struck an alliance with the Vikings in Limerick by 963. He would eventually change his mind, and join Brian’s more persistent revolt to try to take the Vikings down, or at least make them succumb. These two brothers would join forces in the Battle of Sulcoit in 968, when they lured the Limerick Vikings into the forest and dealt them a heavy blow. The Vikings would get their revenge on the family, when they captured and murdered Mathgamain, leaving the family’s legacy in Brain’s hands.
Brian was never an ordinary King. The fact that he became King in the first place was a testament to how different he was from his brothers and predecessors. He was a warrior through and through, and it was this skill that made him an easy pick to follow as the next King of Munster. His reign would ring in when he killed the Viking leader that murdered his brother. But his ruling period would focus far less on the Vikings, and far more on the Gaelic tribes that ruled Ireland at that time. Brian wanted dominance. He set his sights very early on towards the High Kingship of Ireland. He led small attacks and slowly started taking control over more and more land, including land that fell under the jurisdiction of the King of Meath, Máel Sechnaill mac Domaill, or Malachy II, a member of the great southern Uí Neill clan. Here’s where things get complicated.
Although the Battle of Clontarf is credited as the end of the Viking reign in Dublin, this is misinformed. The Viking reign in Dublin ended in 980 when Malachy II led a successful revolt against the Vikings, leaving 5000 Vikings dead and forced the Viking King at that time, Olaf Cuarán to surrender. This battle confirmed Malachy II as the High King of Ireland. Perhaps out of respect, Malachy II placed Sitric Silkbeard, a son of Olaf’s, on the throne of Dublin. Sitric was half Irish, half Viking; he spoke both languages, and more importantly, he was a Christian! Sitric and his father are solely responsible for transforming Dublin from a trading post, to a successful market town. So, then, if the Vikings are assimilated, and the leader is a Christian that speaks Irish, what was the Battle of Clontarf?
Brian wanted dominance; he wanted the High Kingship. How he got it, is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of his life. When Brian and his brother took over the Limerick Vikings, they became part of Brian’s army. He used the Vikings, their ships, and the River Shannon to secure his power in Connaught. This war tactic would force Malachy II into an alliance with Brian. They split Ireland: Brian became the King of Munster, Connaught, and Leinster, including Dublin, while Malachy II only retained control over Meath. With great power, comes great opposition. In 999, Máel Murda, a small power in Leinster allies with Sitric Silkbeard in Dublin and challenges Brian for the Kingship of Leinster. Brian responds forcefully at the Battle of Glenamama, and successfully takes Dublin from Sitric. Later, however, Sitric and Brian form an alliance, and Brian marries his daughter Sláine to Sitric to seal it. With this strengthened force, Brian breaks his alliance with Malachy II, and threatens an attack on the High King. In 1002, knowing he would never win the fight, Malachy II willingly surrenders to Brian Boru making him the new High King of Ireland. This had never been done before in the history of Ireland; suddenly, it was not assumed that a member of the Uí Neill would become High King. Now for generations to come, it would be whoever wanted it more, and who fought the hardest. Brian went on to use the church and his un-matched army to secure the northern Uí Neill clans, making the last three smaller kingdoms—and the last of Ireland—now under his jurisdiction, making him what the church called ‘Emperor of the Irish.’
But, in classic Medieval Irish fashion, the war is never won. One of the leaders in the north isn’t done yet. Cenél nEógain, and its leader Flaithbertach come back ablazing, and Brian sends Malachy II to take care of it. In a great upset, Flaithbertach comes out victorious and humiliates Malachy II and Brian Boru by proxy. Sensing weakness, Sitric Silkbeard and Máel Murda feel like they have another shot at taking down Boru and his Kingship. So Sitric sends word to his Viking neighbors across the way, and recruits a great foreign army to come help him battle for the throne of Ireland, and thus commences the Battle of Clontarf. This battle was not the Irish verse the Vikings, not at all. This was a battle for High Kingship, where Vikings and Irish were present on both sides of the fight. Where family ties were intertwined amongst all the great leaders of Ireland of the time. This was a messy plot to finally settle who the best really was.
In 1014, on Good Friday, Brian’s army was led by his son Murchad to meet Sitric’s army led by Máel Murda and newly arrived Viking leaders. But neither Sitric nor Brian would be found on the battlefield that day. Brian was well into his 70’s at this point, and unfit for battle. He set up camp near Clontarf, and waited on word from his army. While Sitric remained in Dublin waiting for word on his. The battle was said to have lasted for a full day, where both Murchad and Máel Murda died on the battlefield; but Brian Boru’s army would end up victorious when they surrounded Sitric’s army on all sides, pushing them against the water. The loses were tremendous on both sides. Perhaps the greatest loss of all was Brian. During the battle, a few Vikings managed to escape the chaos and stumbled on Brian’s tent. They didn’t stutter when they found him, immediately beheading him and killing his guard. Although Brian’s army won, Sitric would remain the leader of Dublin for the next two decades; and Malachy II was reinstated as High King of Ireland.
So this begs the question, why is Brian’s life and this battle so staunchly considered the stomping out of Vikings in Ireland? On the one hand, they did stomp them into the ocean and won the battle. On the other hand, it wasn’t just Vikings they were stomping out; it was the Irish powers that wanted to take his, that happened to be accompanied by Viking blood. After this battle, since Murchad, the rightful heir to Brian’s throne died in battle, Brian’s other son Donnchad inherited the role, but he was not the leader that his father was. They eventually commissioned a saga to be written about Brian Boru’s life. This story, like many written down back then, made his life more myth than truth to gain political power and claim a right to the throne of Ireland.
So, which story would you choose? A great Christian warrior born to a small tribe, rises up and assumes the largest stronghold over Ireland ever seen and uses that power to stomp out the pagan Vikings? Or, the more nuanced version, of a great warrior obsessed with retaining full power over Ireland, who is challenged for high kingship by a man that is also Christian, and married to his daughter, and allied to an Irish dynasty, who is not just a Viking but also Irish, that ultimately leads to the death of him while the half-Viking, half-Irish Christian goes on to maintain control of Dublin? The devil’s in the details.
But no matter what, Brian Boru, was in no question, the greatest Irish King to ever live. His legacy will surely never be forgotten.