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 alliances and breaking alliances as part of ongoing power struggles in both communities
It was into this turbulent world, in the middle of the 10th century, that Brian Boru was born. 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 , the King of the Dal Cais of north Munster. The Dal Cais had recently risen in power due to their 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 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 there 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 loyalty to Brian. Combining forces along with Viking allies that had been recruited by Sitric from the Orkney Islands they decided to challenge Brian at the Battle of Clontarf, located outside of what was then Dublin, on Good Friday April 23, 1014. What resulted was one of the largest and bloodiest battles that Ireland had yet seen. 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. However, in winning the battle the Irish has also lost. 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. With no one of Brian’s line left to claim the High Kingship, 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 marked 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. 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 Good Friday 1014. It was memories of the Golden Age of Brian’s reign that would inspire the volunteers who rose in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, not far from where Ireland had lost her one and only Ard Ri, and set Ireland once more on the path of independence and unity
Historian – Neil F. Cosgrove
Did You Know That
- The distinctive “Round Towers” that dot the Irish Country side are a response to Viking attacks. The High towers served as watch towers from which approaching Viking raiders could be seen. The towers had their entrances several stories above the ground and were only reachable by ladders that could then be pulled up, protecting those who took refuge inside.
- Based on language one could reasonably ask “Who conquered who?” The Vikings seemed to have very quickly adapted to the Irish language, only some fifty Norse words entering into Gaelic.
- The official symbol of the Republic of Ireland is a Medieval Harp that can still be seen at Trinity College and is often referred to Brian Boru’s Harp. While the Harp is in fact from the 15th Century, too late to be associated with Brian Boru, it is one of only three Medieval Gaelic Harps known to still exist.
- Brian Boru’s true name was Brian Mac Cennedi (“Brian son of Cennedi”). “ Boru” was an honorary name coming from the Gaelic Bourma meaning “taker of tributes”, a fitting title for a man who commanded the loyalties of the various kings and chieftains of Ireland.