Brian Boru: High King of Ireland



Brian Boru: High King of Ireland


Roger Chatterton Newman

Roger Chatterton Newman’s book ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland (Mercier Press, Cork, 1983), according to the author, sets out to elaborate on the High Kings achievements and contribution to Irish society but his reputation is, for the most part, based on fiction, “what the annalists would have us believe is romantic fiction”[1]; and the book presents itself as the first ever full length biography of Brian Boru. Newman wants to remove all this fiction and myth to reveal the ‘real’ Brian Boru. The book leaves no doubt that Brian Boru was the right man, in the right place at the right time, “Brian lived in the heyday of the Viking age, when Ireland was part of a scattered empire that stretched across northern Europe”[2] He is shown in the Western Europe of his day, largely divided but struggling towards a unified monarchical system. The Vikings were plundering and pillaging and Ireland needed a united front to drive back the foreigners. Other national leaders such as the Ui Neill’s were not, it seems, overly concerned with the Viking occupation or demonstrated any real desire to end outside domination so the task was left to Boru. Such unification, new contends, was by no means a new idea, the 10th century is marked with numerous attempts by the Ui Neill, amongst others, making deliberate attempts to ensure the King of Tara ruled all Ireland. Brian’s successful attempt to bring Ireland under his control had local and European patterns.

According to Newman the heroic Boru, not unlike the later Napoleon Bonaparte, “a product of middle-class pretentiousness” [3] was a man who knew how to fight his way to the top and he was determined to have his own way, impose his own rules, have his own will respected and was willing to enforce his demands by diplomacy or by force whenever the need necessitated, “Brian’s policies and reforms, unusual when compared with the average politics of his age, were based on a genuine desire to bring peace and prosperity to his realm.”[4] But, although Boru was very much aware that there were advantages to having the Vikings resident on Irish soil, Newman contends that the Vikings are undeserving of fashionable applause by todays historians, “they should not be credited with greater contributions to Irish history than is their due…they did much for Ireland in trade and commerce but their legacy should be compared at all times with what has been left by native craftsmen, scribes and builders of the same time.”[5] They advanced agriculture, knew how to build comfortable residences and were efficient traders in communication with many fellow traders in foreign lands. These benefits meant Boru was not determined to wipe them out but merely to tame them. Their immense economic and social benefit to Ireland would have enormous advantages for Brian’s kingdom.

Brian’s greatness came from the fact that he was equally skilled as warrior and politician and he was determined to break foreign rule. In Brian Boru’s Ireland foreigners were welcome as traders and visitors or peaceful residents but those seeking power on the island were dealt with using brute force, violence and bloodshed. Newman makes the point that the decline of Ireland’s naval power rendered the country vulnerable to foreign invaders. Because Ireland was a small island by comparison to other European countries the country was easy pickings for the Vikings. Ireland’s neighbours across the English Channel were equally as vulnerable but learned the lesson and developed itself as a powerful naval force. Ireland failed to do so and thus paid the price.

Newman contends that Boru was a most temperamental power monger who was a product of his own environment, “Boru was subject to sudden outbursts of temper, in the end, to cost him his own life and end his dynastic aspirations. It makes him more human.”[6]He was the youngest son of a petty king with little prospect of inheriting greatness but a combination of fortune and fortitude intervened and Brian built his own reputation through guerrilla warfare. His courage and determination convinced the Dal Cais that he was a true leader and from this moment on his campaign to secure the High Kingship of Ireland had become unrelenting. Although his relationships were not in keeping with the Catholic philosophy he was embraced by the Catholic Church because of his kindness and adherence to every other aspect of the religion. The church was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to his marital fiascos in exchange for his support both monetary and moral. Newman finds Brian’s family life, although chaotic, most unusual in familial loyalty. Such loyalty, he argues, is evidence of Boru’s charisma.

The book pays too much attention to the ups and downs of warfare, divisions and rivalries; who won, who lost and what were the consequences and it can make the narrative somewhat confusing for those with only a passing interest. But the author attempts to resolve this issue by inserting comprehensive notes at the back for those eager for such information. The author cites the annalists as his primary sources but never loses sight of the fact that such sources are lacking in credibility.

Regardless of the fact that the book is academically written and is a scholarly study, supported by extensive research it remains a most readable work about a most mesmerising man. Newman’s more human ‘Brian Boru’ is clearly a great reformer and warrior and a very skilled administrator, but, perhaps most obvious of all a devout flag-waving nationalist, “that over-used word patriot is undoubtedly justified.”[7]




[1] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 376

[2] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 9

[3] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 110

[4] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 17


[5] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 389

[6] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 335


[7] Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 300


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 25, 2014, in Celtic History, Ireland History, Limerick History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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