While the rest of Europe plunged into darkness with the fall of the Roman Empire, the light of learning and western civilization was kept flickering in Ireland, preserved in the monasteries established by the followers of St. Patrick. However, it would only be a matter of time before the “light” attracted the unwanted attention of those more interested in plunder than learning. A period of warming weather and a population explosion in what we now know as Scandinavia combined to unleash upon Europe a terror the likes of which had never been seen before: the Vikings.
In 795, the Viking attacks on Ireland began with the sacking and burning of a monastery on Rathlin Island . Hit and run raids along the Irish coast would continue for the next forty years. The Viking tactics changed however in 837; sixty Viking longboats appeared in the river Boyne while another sixty appeared in the river Liffy and began to raid inland and plunder the great monasteries such as Clonamacnois. In the winter of 841-842 the Vikings wintered in Ireland at a defensive position they had established: Dublin. The Vikings were now no longer raiders, they were occupiers and colonists. The Vikings began building fortified towns, longphorts, near the sea which was the source of their strength. These Norse settlements would be the basis for the future Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Wicklow, Limerick and Stangford. The drawback to these settlements for the Vikings is that they provided fixed targets for the Irish to attack. The result was the establishment of a chaotic and often violent status quo, with Viking Jarl and Irish Chieftain making and breaking alliances as part of ongoing power struggles in both communities
One of the contributing factors to the success of the Viking invasion was that the Ireland of that time was made up of dozens of small kingdoms and competing kings and chieftains. Brian was the younger son of Cennedi (Kennedy), the King of the Dal Cais of north Munster, what would be equivalent to modern County Clare (“Boru” was not a family name, but a cognomen given after Brian’s death; either a reference to "Béal Bóruma" a fort where his family held sway or the Gaelic “bóruma” meaning “of the tributes” indicating a powerful lord to whom homage was to be paid.). The Dal Cais had recently risen in power due to the strategic position of their lands straddling the river Shannon, which combined with knowledge gained from Norse tactics allowed them to become a formidable military force. Brian’s older brother, Mathgamain, succeeded to the kingship of Munster and successfully captured and sacked the Viking settlement of Limerick. Mathgamain success was short lived; he was betrayed by supposed allies and murdered. Brian avenged his brother’s death and assumed the throne of Munster.
For the next twenty years Brian would increase his power with a vision of becoming Ard Ri, “High King “of a united Ireland. The title of Ard Ri was an ancient one, that had long been held by the O’Neill’s of Ulster, but it was more honor than substance, with the minor kings giving or withholding support as suited them. This was to change with Brian. In 999 Brian captured Dublin, the last of the Viking cities yet to fall under his control. Brian became High King in name and fact with the submission of the then current High King, Malachy the II, in 1002.
The next decade was a period of relative peace and prosperity in Ireland. Under Brian’s protection, the plundered monasteries were rebuilt. It is said that Brian sent emissaries abroad in an attempt to acquire and return treasures and artifacts that had been taken from Ireland. Relative peace and stability gave rise to a new golden age of Irish culture.
However, such a Golden Age would not last long. In an attempt to consolidate his power through reconciliation, Brian had allowed Sitric, the Viking King of Dublin, and Mael Mordha King of Leinster to retain their positions after swearing fealty to Brian. Combining forces along with Viking allies that had been recruited by Sitric from the Orkney Islands Sitric and Mael Mordha decided to challenge Brian at Clontarf, located outside of what was then Dublin, on Good Friday April 23, 1014. What resulted was one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Dark Ages. The battle swayed back and forth throughout the day when finally Brian’s forces gained the advantage. The result was a slaughter ; Sitric and Mael Mordha killed and many of the Orkeny Vikings drowning as they attempted to flee in panic to their Longships as the tide was coming in. Out of an estimated force of 6,500-7,000 Vikings who fouht that day nearly 6,000 were killed; such was the magnitude of the route by Brian's forces, However, in winning the battle the Irish had also lost heavily; Brian’s son and grandson were both killed in the battle. Legend says that Brian, now an old man in his seventies, was killed by a fleeing Viking who found the old man at prayer for his lost son, grandson and in honor of Good Friday. Without Brian’s strong leadership and the succession of his house in shambles, Ireland rapidly reverted to the disjoint and feuding kingdoms that had preceded Brian’s reign.
Legends says that Brian Boru drove the Vikings out of Ireland. Brian’s victory at Clontarf did mark the last time the Vikings would attempt a major landing in Ireland, but the Norse of the longphort’s had been in Ireland for generations and had become, and would continue to be, an integral part of Irish Society. At the same time the descendents of Vikings that settled in France, the Normans whose name was a corruption of "Norse Men", invaded Ireland 55 years later and would begin another conquest of Ireland. One wonders what might have been the result if Brian Boru’s united Ireland had been able to persist longer, could the Normans have conquered a united Ireland rather than playing minor kings off against each other as events transpired.
It would be equally wrong to view the end of Brian’s High Kingship at Clontarf as a hollow victory that brought to an end Brian’s vision of a unified Ireland on that Good Friday 1014. It was memories of the Golden Age of Brian’s reign that would keep alive the vision of Ireland’s nationhood in the face of conquest and oppression; that would inspire the volunteers who rose in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, not far from where Brian had asserted Ireland's right to sovereignty 900 years before, and set Ireland once more on the path of independence and unity. On another Good Friday, 984 years later, 10 April 1998, the light of the promise of a free, peaceful and united Ireland was lit again with the Good Friday agreements. Despite the winds of politicians and voices of division that light continues to flicker and we must nourish and protect that small flame of freedom until all of Ireland bask in the light of freedom as it was in the time of Brian Boru.
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Great piece, Neil. Thanks for sharing it here.
Delighted to get this narrative, and perspective, Neil. Go raibh maith agat!
.... and not a word about our own Tadhg Mor Ó Ceallaigh who "died fighting like a wolf dog"