"The obituary of Domnall Ua Neill in 980 is the first contemporary record of the term Árd-ri Erenn (High King of Ireland), which was to be given a spurious significance by the so-called ‘men of learning’ who shaped the pseudo-history of Ireland. From the mid 9th century “the doctrine of the High Kingship was being elaborated for the benefit of the Ui Neill.” (1)  ‘Historical’ sources were being systematically revised to impose the idea of a Tara kingship with suzerainty over the whole of Ireland.” (2)  Despite being a powerful Northern Cenel nEogain king, Domnall was not king of all Ireland. That contemporary record was for Ui Neill ears alone. He was succeeded by Mael Sechnaill of the Clann Colmán whose reign as alleged High King was cut in two by that of Brian Boru. The reigns of both show how unauthentic and ephemeral the title ‘High Kingship of Ireland’ really was and just how unconnected it was with Tara. No Ui Neill King ever resided at Tara. Brian Boru conspicuously ignored Tara. Cúán Ua Lothchán was the early 11th century Ui Neill poet-historian who fictitiously seated the Ui Neill kings at Tara.

Many claim Brian Boru was the first true High King of Ireland. He accepted Armagh as the metropolitan seat of the Irish Church, but did not recognize Tara as the seat of the High Kingship of Ireland. His royal seat was near Limerick in northwest Munster. He defeated the Danes at Clontarf in 1014 reputedly with a united Irish army.

“As usual with Irish ‘history’, there is more invention here than fact. Nationalistic historians confuse the extent of his power with their own ideas of what the ‘high-kingship’ really was. We must begin to accept the fact that then, as now, there was no such thing as a united Ireland. The fictionalized high kingship of Ireland, had become reality by the year 1000, at least as an idea. In practice its existence was a bit more shadowy.” (3)

One glimpses its equivoacal state even in Brian’s so-called united Irish army. Munster’s Cashel kingship had been wrested from its traditional guardians, the Eoganacht, by Brian’s Clare/Limerick Dail Cais clan. The Dal Cais king, Brian Mac Cennetig, forced Leinster to recognize the suzerainty of Munster by 984, making Brian temporarily supreme only in the South of Ireland, but subject to no High King of Ireland.

Mael Sechnaill’s alleged High Kingship did not extend over Southern Ireland where Brian Boru ruled. In 999 Brian encamped at the gates of the Viking city of Dublin. The Viking chief Sigtrygg surrendered to him. “To cement their alliance Sigtrygg gave his mother to Brian in marriage, and Sigtrygg took Brian’s daughter from a previous union. With the Norse of Dublin behind him, Brian forced Mael Sechnaill to cede his alleged title of High King. In 1005 on a so-called ‘royal circuit of Ireland’, Brian paid an official visit to Armagh and bolstered its claims to Ecclesiastical primacy by placing twenty ounces of gold on the high alter. In return, in the Book of Armagh, his title was ritualistically recorded – ‘imperatoris scotorum’, Emperor of the Irish.” Armagh had its day of recognition from the South, while the Ui Neill did not. Brian’s recognition of Armagh’s alleged metropolitan status and this single full-page entry in the Book of Armagh did more for Armagh and the High Kingship of Ireland than any single act in history. Because of his alliance with the foreign Norwegians under Olaf Ospak, Brian was given the even more glorious title of “High King of the Irish of Ireland and of the Foreigners and the Welsh, the Augustus of the whole of Northwestern Europe.”

Brian Boru “was not ruler of the entire country; he made no impact on the Northern Ui Neill and made no attempt to consolidate his power” (4) over Leinster which renounced allegiance to him, nor Connacht which never submitted to him. Even Sigtrygg, the Norse king of Dublin, was titled ‘High King of Ireland’ in Icelandic Records despite having no influence outside Dublin. “The biggest fable of all is that Brian’s success at Clontarf was a national effort against a national enemy (the Vikings), when in truth the battle represents just an internecine feud.” (5) Roy noted that nationalistic historians were “convinced Ireland was benevolently united” behind Brian Boru as High King of a united Ireland. They believe he led a united Irish army to defeat the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Look a little closer. Facts speak for themselves!

The opposing armies clearly show the purely regional and private aspects of the fight. On Brian’s side were levies from his Dal Cais and their allies, and Norwegians under Olaf Ospak, brother of Brodar (who assassinated Brian), King of the Isle of Man. Not included in Brian’s army were the Northern Ui Neill or the men of Connacht who totally ignored the struggle. Opposing Brian were the Leinster King Maelmorda’s contingent, the Norse Sigurd the Stout from the Orkneys and Brodar from the Isle of Man. Mael Sechnaill of the Southern Ui Neill jockeyed back and forth on the edge of the battlefield but never committed his forces; and on the other end of the field, viewing the fight from Dublin city walls, sat Sigtrygg with many of his Vikings. Mael Sechnaill and Sigtrygg saw the battle for what it was, a fight for private prestige and profit, a feud” (6), and were sufficiently uncommitted as not to get involved. F. J. Byrne emphatically declared that “Brian’s glory has been enshrined in the (12th century) ‘Cocad Gaedel re Gallaib’ which has succeeded in deceiving many historians into regarding Brian Boru as the first true high-king of Ireland.” (7)  So much for Clontarf and Brian’s High Kingship of Ireland!

The situation after Brian’s death became explosive. “Wars were widespread because men had larger ambitions which broke the bonds of tribal and dynastic hierarchy. Between 1022 and 1072 the “ men of learning” developed the doctrine of a highkingship of Ireland centered at Tara and allegedly held from the coming of Christianity until the usurpation of Brian Boru by the descendants of Niall (of the Nine Hostages). This antiquarian fiction served as a spur to novel ambitions. In pursuit of this chimerical highkingship, the provincial kings marched and counter-marched until Ireland became a trembling sod.” (8)

1. Prionsias Mac Cana, ‘The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland’, p.104
2. Kelleher, ‘Studia Hibernia 3’ p. 119-22
3, 4, 5, 6. J Charles Roy, ‘Celtic Ireland’ p. 186-191
7, 8. Francis John Byrne, ‘Irish Kings and High Kings’ p. 267; 269ff

More on the Battle of Clontarf:

Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf

How the Battle of Clontarf Unfolded

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Tags: History of Ireland

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on April 26, 2020 at 8:59am

Sorry, but have to ask.  Why are we illustrating an article on Brian Boru with a picture of Gauls attacking Romans?  The helmet being worn in the foreground went out of use around 10 BC and the shields have the late Republic Eagles wings motif..


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