The Transformation Of Brian Boru



Conventional interpretations judge Brian Boru as a martyr hero who led his people to victory but more recent interpretations have favoured the view that the battle was little more than the culmination of a rebellion against Boru by the insubordinate king of Leinster and his Dublin associates. Dr Seán Duffy, claims, “Brian Boru the man and the myth are right at the core of the Irish imagination. It is time that the real Brian, his real achievements and legacy are properly understood and interpreted for a modern audience.” Duffy’s statement suggests that, thus far, representations of Boru are in some way inaccurate and in need of revision. One primary reason for 20th Century representations of Boru being at the core of the Irish imagination is the manner in which he was depicted in Ireland’s local and national popular press throughout the period. By tracing the course of these articles there emerges a 19th Century warlord Boru, distinct in many ways from a 21st Century statesmanlike Boru.


Then glance the page of history down to valiant Brian Boru,

O’Rourke, O’Connor, O’Neill, O’Donnell, those clansmen tried and true;

We honour Robert Emmet, too; Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone,

While O’Connell’s name upon our hearts we ever shall enthrone.

Laurence McGowan [1]


Traditional interpretations judge Brian Boru as a martyr hero who led his people to victory but more recent interpretations have favoured the view that the battle was little more than the culmination of a rebellion against Brian, the king of Munster, by the insubordinate king of Leinster and his Dublin associates. Dr Seán Duffy, Associate Professor of Medieval History in Trinity, claims, “Brian Boru the man and the myth are right at the core of the Irish imagination. It is time that the real Brian, his real achievements and legacy are properly understood and interpreted for a modern audience.” [2] 

Duffy’s statement suggests that, thus far, representations of Boru are in some way inaccurate and in need of revision. The reality is that Boru’s persona is permanently in a state of revision. One primary reason for 20th Century representations of Boru being at the core of the Irish imagination is the manner in which he was depicted in Ireland’s local and national popular press throughout the period.

By tracing the course of these articles there emerges a 19th Century warlord Boru, distinct in many ways from a 21st Century statesmanlike Boru. If anyone doubted whether the strategy worked or not then history could offer further proof of Boru’s far reaching greatness as a statesman into the late 20th century with claims that one of his descendants “a mirror reflection of Boru” was running America, “A firm link has been established between Brian Boru and Ronald Reagan.”[3] The high point of Reagan’s presidential visit to Ireland in 1984 was the presentation to him of a scroll attesting to his descent from Brian Boru. One present reporter later stated, “I was not allowed a close sight of the document, but I wonder if it is possible to trace definitively Reagan’s ancestry back for 1,000 years or thereabouts.”[4] But the ‘Boru’ distinction occurs not because history, as it is perceived by contemporary historians; “a word to do with digging and delving, a word which takes the glamour from the shoulders of Brian Boru”[5]; has changed in any way but interpretations of history have changed dramatically.

It is best to begin with what we think we know. One of Ireland’s oldest names is O’Brian, “With reference to the origin of the surnames in Ireland it may be mentioned that, in the eleventh century, the Irish Monarch Brian Boroimhe (Boru) made an ordinance that every Irish family and clan should assume a particular surname (or sire-name); the more correctly to preserve the history and genealogy of the different Irish tribes.”[6] The pedigree of this family is taken in John O’Hart’s Irish Pedigrees as from one Cormac Cas, who was the second son of Olioll Olum, King of Munster, whose mother was a daughter of Conn Cétchathach; Connof the Hundred Battles.[7] This Cormac had a son whose birth is recorded as 167 A.D., which gives a good idea of the long ties the O’Brien’s have in the history of Ireland.[8] Mac Lysaght’s Irish Families says the Dalcasian clan, known as Ui Toirdealbhaigh, took the surname O’Brien from Brian Boru.”[9]

Historians in the mid-19th century perceived Brian Boru as, “a delicately organised, thoroughbred Milesian, a maiden loving, harp-taught, council-swaying King of Erin.”[10] Furthermore, Boru was a brave, ambitious and generous prince; “he made presents of gold to the church of Armagh”[11], the friend and patron of religion and learning, “His value to Ireland may be best estimated from the independence, prosperity and glory of Ireland under his sway.”[12] Not everyone totally agreed with this estimation of the High King, “And yet, if we reflect upon it, this man the grandest figure in our history, was still a usurper of the National crown.”[13]

By 1879 the “tragedy” of Brian Boru is brought to the Dublin stage and its London writer, J.T.B., favourably compares his work, “a dramatization of historical reality” to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. He is condemned by Irish theatre critics for manipulating history, “No art, no ingenuity, no dramatic or moral purpose, can justify the violence done to our great historical figure.”[14] The public affection for Boru clearly ran deep.

Boru’s heroic status had continued unquestioned in newspapers as far back as the 18th Century. For example, February 19th 1879 as the steamship Countess of Dublin left the North Wall with a detachment of the 77th Regiment, consisting of 148 rank and file members, sergeants and corporals, all Londoners, destined for the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa; as the steamer moved away from her moorings the band triumphantly played Brian Boru’s March.[15] The minor event, in the great scheme of history, gives us a little insight into the deep affection for the fearless warrior Boru has had in Irish History. He is the personification of Irish militaristic force, courage and heroic valour.

Over a decade later widely commended Irish poet M.C. Hime claimed Boru as an accurate representation of Irish patriotism with a “daintily conceived poem celebrating the achievements of Brian the Brave. The versification is full of national spirit.”[16] Many Irish newspapers quickly adopted the notion and proclaimed, “Brian was one of those men in whom the patriotic impulse superseded all others.”[17] Thus, the poet M.C. Hime was never alone in such thinking and many historians fully agreed, “All Irishmen should honour the name of this great Irish General, and in the march of modern civilisation steps should be taken that spots such as that on which he stood, hallowed by historic events, should be perfectly preserved.”[18] On the eve of the 20th century Limerick celebrated it’s sept-centenary as natives recollected of their homeland “the granary of Ireland” being harassed by hordes of adventurers, not just Danes, “Limerick was stained with the crimson blood of rapine until Boru settled the order of things.”[19]

Some early 20th Century romantic Irish historians claim that Brian Boru was so famous that even William Shakespeare made reference to him in Hamlet when he wrote, “to take up arms against a sea of troubles” which contains a mixture of metaphors from which one might infer that some of Hamlet’s ancestors were among the unwelcome Danes which, “Brian Boru showed the door”; and the still more famous saying, “It is a custom more honour’d in the breach than in the observance” goes far to support the same theory.”[20]

In the very early 20th Century it was generally believed that the Danes came to Ireland as a plundering race at the close of the eighth century, and for 165 years they were nothing but brigands, settled in batches in seaport towns, which they fortified and ruled. The history of their ultimate defeat dated from the historic moment in 968 CE, when Mahon, King of Munster, and Brian Boru called the people together in County Clare, and discussed the question of war or peace with the Danes. The decision was war, and war followed by an immediate attack on the Danes and the capture of Limerick. From that date until the close of the tenth century there were continuous efforts to free the country of the Danes but mostly including Clontarf in 1014.[21]

Whatever his accomplishments in Clontarf and whether or not he ever really held the throne of High King of Ireland, he most certainly, through his mythical or otherwise valiant deeds, conquered the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland who fondly embraced his memory if and when a true Irish hero was needed. His scope was nationwide from far south to far north, east and west across the length and breadth of Ireland and was as widespread as the nationalists who were quoting his noble cause in their speeches, “Patrick showed us the way to Heaven and Brian Boru to glory.”[22]

It seemed as if whenever a true ‘nationalist’ hero needed to be trotted out then Boru was called upon. As was the case in 1905 in the midst of a political debate into the nationalisation of school life in Ireland, “My teacher never taught me much about Irish history. A few scant words about Brian Boru and St. Patrick and that was it. But that teacher could trace his descent to Oilioll Olum.”[23] But, Boru had taught the Irish a lesson in Unity, “the man who will do most for Irish unity must know how to play the game as Brian Boru played it.”[24]

By 1910 rural Nationalists applauded the Rev. Canon Flannery, “a good old soggarth” when he declared, “although Boru is dead the nationalist movement will continue to infuse the Irish spirit into their movement and show the country that the spirit of Brian Boru is not dead.”[25] In 1912 the Nationalists contemplating a successful Third Home Rule Bill wondered whether the new Irish flag should be red because, “Brian Boru’s flag at Clontarf in 1014 was a red one.”[26] Furthermore, “when we raise the flag we better have Brian Boru’s March in tramping order. We’ll want it.”[27]

In Westminster the name Boru was raising howls of laughter on for Unionists on the eve of the 900th anniversary of Clontarf when nationalist John Redmond’s brand of ‘new patriotism’ was compared to Boru’s more traditional approach, “It is extraordinary that 900 years after the great man’s death another great man in the person of Mr John Redmond should have arisen; Boru had never allied himself inseparably with the fortunes of England and never accepted £2,000 a year to lead the forces of his country.”[28] When the anniversary arrived in 1914 nationalists were reminded, “Brian Boru came of fighting stock, “Men whose lives were used up in defence of their home and country. They were devoutly attached to Christ and the Vikings objective was to plunder and destroy the Christian spirit of Christ.”[29]

Boru’s reach went much further than his own homeland. In 1920, Irish Nationalists in Chicago were implored to support the Irish cause and by so doing they too were equally as important to the course of Irish history as Boru’s loyal and patriotic troops. As the attendees celebrated Boru’s victory at the battle of Clontarf they were informed that on the eve of the 1014 battle Boru addressed his troops and told them, “We are here today to defend the faith and the all-powerful hand of our Saviour will be with us in the fight. There will be courage from God in the heart of every man who faces the enemy.”[30]

Boru’s courage and victories were also in no doubt back in South Cork where patriots are reminded, “Ireland can boast of many heroes who fought and bled for their native sire land, but, alas, with most of them their sacrifices were in vain. They failed to accomplish what they fought for and they left to posterity a legacy of disappointed ambitions and hopes deferred. But there was one notable exception to the list of failures, it is Brian Boru.”[31]

Over in North Tipperary the residents who claimed, “you cannot throw a stone in Tipperary without hitting a Ryan” were reminded that this was so only because the ancestors of this clan were first brought to this side of the country from Wexford by the mighty Brian Boru, who had quarrelled with the original chieftains of Tiobrid Arainn, disposed them in his own high handed way, and planted the sept Mulryan, who were his Leinster allies, in their place.”[32]

In 1921 nationalist residents of South Armagh were quite proud of the fact that, “Boru was buried here, he was the King of all Ireland and this is good enough reason that Armagh should be selected as the site for a Parliament proposed to be set up for the six counties.”[33] A further protest, “declaring ourselves committed to resist the partition of Ireland,” later the same year were reminded, “We hold the ashes of Brian Boru who struggled for Irish Independence.”[34] A sentiment still not forgotten in 1933, “Brian Boru’s bones, dust by now, lie here, borne here from Clontarf by a mourning army.”[35]

But further south something of a Brian Boru re-evaluation was beginning to occur and it began with his name. Some historians debated the contentious issue of how best to spell Boru’s name after a Judge in Galway declares, “I see no reason why the hero of Clontarf should have his name spelled ‘Brian Bóroimhe’instead of ‘Brian Boru’. It would be pleasing to the old warrior to know that the rising generation would be better able to grapple with his name.”[36]

By the mid 1920’s the relevance and wisdom of teaching Boru in schools was being questioned, “There is a good deal of talk about the teaching of Irish history, boys are being taught more about Brian Boru than about the days of their own fathers.”[37] But Boru supporters were having none of it and suggested that, not only should it be taught in schools but, their idol was suitable for canonisation, “Our own Brian Boru was mooted as a possible candidate for canonisation; an honour which the most enthusiastic of his contemporaries would hardly accord him.”[38]“It was further noted that a t Liverpool Cathedral there is a chapel dedicated to St. Patrick and the saints of Ireland. A stained glass window contains an appropriate image of the national apostle, and in subordinate places appears St. Columba and St. Bride and one of the panels is filled with the image of Brian Boru.”[39]

Weeks later in the town of Ennis where the centenary of Daniel O’Connell’s election to the Imperial Parliament was being celebrated nationalist visitors were reminded that they walked on the hallowed ground of significant historical events, “to the east Brian Boru built a castle and from this stronghold marched his Dalcassians to the conquest of not only Munster, but of the sovereignty of all Ireland.”[40] Such was the affection for Boru in Clare that in 1929 there was public outrage at the impending sale of three hundred acres of timber being sold from nearby Cratloe Woods, “These splendid Oaks have ancient associations with the historic Brian Boru. For it was here, in this forest, Boru and his guerrillas often retired after sallies against the Danes of Limerick.”[41] While closer to Boru’s home turf, in Clare, there was a controversy raging about the sacred and hallowed ground that was ‘Brian Boru’s Fort’, so precious a place that there was a question as to whether tourists should be allowed anywhere near it.[42]

Hence, Irish patriotism long cherished the theory that Brian’s victory at Clontarf saved Western Europe from Norse domination, “The century after his death, despite dynastic quarrels, saw remarkable progress in letters, learning and the peaceful arts and crafts, and scholars are tracing the fruit of his toil in the records of ancient homes of learning throughout the basin of the Shannon.”[43]

A young Eamon De Valera who had, “attempted to destroy the Labour Party” was being alluded to by his political enemies as, “a second Brian Boru”[44], a title seized upon by Unionists who accused him of, “wanting one more Battle of Clontarf as Brian Boru had before to sweep the enemy into the sea.”[45] Some years later Journalists criticised the view and attributed it to a dying Unionist population, “His critics are just old men who discuss De Valera in the language of Brian Boru.”[46] But De Valera himself was not unimpressed with the appellation and, in 1933, on the site of Brian Boru’s Killaloe fort referred to the fourteenth anniversary of the Declaration of Irish Independence, and, “expressed the hope that in the not far distant future we shall see the freedom and unity Brian Boru achieved in his generation.”[47] In Toomevara, years later, they continued to agree that, “Mr De Valera was the greatest leader of the Irish people since Boru had placed in the forefront the independence of his country.”[48]

But, back in 1930 something of a Boru renaissance was in full swing. Discrepancies between accounts about Clontarf in the Irish annals and ‘non-Irish’ encyclopaedias and reference books began to emerge. While Irish Annals accounts were quite voluminous the records were ‘scanty’ in non-Irish publications, “these latter narratives popularise history as part of the education of Irish youth.” [49] For example, the widely read Century Encyclopaedia condenses  the “greatest battle ever fought in Western Europe” and merely states, “Clontarf, a village in Ireland, north of Dublin, and scene of a famous battle in which Brian Boru, king of Ireland, and 20,000 men defeated King Sitric with 21,000 Danes. King Brian and his son and 7000 Irish fell; the Danes loss numbered 13,000.”[50] Irish historians and their books such as Cusack’s History of Ireland gave greater accounts, went into better detail and the descriptions are sourced from chronicles preserved and survived through the centuries in Irish repositories, “King Brian possessed a powerful mind and a strong will, with the vision of a statesman and the character of a law giver. The mighty Boru stands only second in its stature to the gigantic proportions of St. Patrick, he increased the prestige of the Irish race in every Irish centre throughout the world.”[51]

The transformation of Brian Boru had begun. He was being reinterpreted not just as a warrior warlord but, as his political role was being better understood, he was now being more aptly described as, “Our last great Soldier-Statesman,”[52] and even the tune he is most associated with ‘Brian Boru’s March’ was worthy of reconsideration, “the tune supposed to have some connection to Brian Boru was a well-known Hornpipe the ‘Return from Fingal’ borrowed by Boru’s Irish pipers as the March played as the Munster troops returned from Clontarf.”[53] But Boru’s redefined statesman persona had stuck and, furthermore, he was also now being depicted as the man who brought literature to Ireland, “It has been suggested that the hereditary custody of literature was designed by Brian Boru, who was a constructive statesman as well as a warrior.”[54] Under Brian Boru, who was now being seen as a type of cultural monarch like Alfred the Great and Charlemagne, there was great activity in all departments of literature. The wondering bards were greatly honoured, and became attached to the hereditary literary families, “Henceforth scribes, poets, chroniclers, and lawyers were very active in the literary life of the country.”[55] But, literary advocate and statesman or not Boru’s only failure was to, “succeed, by diplomacy or force, in overcoming the individualism and parochialism which have been the eternal bane of Ireland in politics.”[56]

Historical revisionists also questioned the veracity of the suggestion that Donagh O’Brien, son of Brian Boru, on the occasion of his visit to Rome, made a present of Ireland to the Holy See;

“Donough O’Brien o’er the foam

Bore Ireland’s Crown away to Rome;

To that deed we trace our woe,

From it all our ills did grow.[57]

“There is no trustworthy evidence that Donough purported to make such a grant. In point of fact, he was scarcely able to maintain his own position as King of Munster, and it would have been sheer impertinence on his part to make a gift of what did not belong to him.”[58] There are other allusions to that event, vague and sad, but it is not narrated what Donough did with the royal relic, “No one knows now, I suppose, where the Crown was laid, or what fate befell it.”[59]

Relics aside, some historians began to argue that, “If Brian Boru and his whole family had not been slain at Clontarf; Irish history might have been different;”[60] With his death came about the demise of the first man in Irish history who could have united Ireland in a single monarchy and, “saved us much woe.”

In Kerry, historians were by now asserting, “We now know that Brian Boru and his brother Malachi were not of the ferocious kind far too common, not only in the period of which they lived, but long afterwards.”[61]  Quoting P.W. Joyce’s book[62] as a definitive source the article emphatically states, “The forgotten Malachi was the most distinguished king who had reigned for many generations in Ireland, and was second only to his great contemporary, King Brian Boru.” Malachi had come to the attention of the general public but was portrayed as second-class to Boru, “He died in 1022 leaving behind him a noble record of self-denial, public spirit and kingly dignity.”[63]

Historians were also floating some theories that the true cause of Boru’s demise was, “a slighting remark made by Murragh, son of Brian, to Maelmoradh, while playing a game of chess.”[64] Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and another theory stated in fact one woman; she was Boru’s jilted lover Gormflath, wife of Cormac MacCullanan, King of Munster, about 900AD was responsible for bringing in the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf. She was married two times before becoming the wife of Brian Boru, “It was because she was repudiated by Brian that she plotted to bring in the Norsemen in 1014. Her hand was offered to Earl Sigurd with the Kingdom of Ireland. The battle of Clontarf was fatal to her plans, and ended in the death of Brian. She thus ruined ‘Ireland’s cause’ when it had produced its greatest man. In all that she could control she was the most evil of women.”[65] She had aligned herself to the O’Brien’s, because of their station, they even had a place of inauguration when the times came for such ceremony. This place was at Magh Adair, in County Clare, “It is worthy of mention that Tara was the chief residence of the head of the O’Brien’s, King Brian Boru. His palace was called Cean Cora, which was, according to all accounts, a place of splendour and magnificence;”[66] A befitting home and base of power for a learned and art loving individual attractive to any self-respecting power hungry female. Later, historians simplified their argument, “I’m inclined to side with those who look on the battle of Clontarf as one of the biggest in-law rows in Irish history.”[67]

Dr Brian O’Cuiv, University College, Dublin endorses Boru’s cultural impact on Irish nationalism when he writes, “The 11th century was a time of renaissance in Ireland, following Brian Boru’s reign and his decisive victory over the Norse at Clontarf. The literary activity which took place was the prelude to the evolution of ‘Classical Modern Irish,’ the literary standard which was to be the medium of the professional poets for the following four hundred years.”[68] All of which comes as no surprise when it is recalled that Boru’s family were descended directly from the line of Heber, a minor character in the Book of Genesis, and as such had plenty of time to develop their literary and political skills. That influence continued for many more years to come. According to Myles na Gopaleen, in an open letter to John F. Kennedy in 1963, “Brian was the son of Cenneide; a wild Munster Chieftain who lived about the middle of 900 AD. His son had a bit of an obsession about taxes and his name was Brian Boru; ‘Boru’ is an Irish word meaning tax.”[69]

But, by the end of the 1930’s ‘old myths’ about Boru were starting to be exposed. Ringleader of the critics was Rev. John Ryan, published by the Royal Society of Antiquaries, who was offering a ‘new history’ of the Battle of Clontarf, “In the story of this famous battle a lot of romantic and sentimental nonsense has been superimposed upon the sober facts. It is time to reveal the truth.” Ryan claimed to have delved into original Irish, Welsh and Norse sources, twelve in all, and now concluded that it was not the Norsemen, but the men of Leinster, who played the predominant part in the series of events which culminated in the momentous battle.

Of the fundamental errors commonly accepted as fact which he now laid bare, the most remarkable is that concerning the real issue and significance of the conflict; the age old determination of the Leinstermen to maintain their independence against the High King, “In the first place it was not simply a battle between the Irish and the Norse. Brian’s army was not a national army but an army of Munster men, increased by the troops from two small south Connacht states. The opposing force was not an army of Norse, but an army composed of Leinstermen and Norse troops, in which the former were certainly the predominant element and constituted two-thirds of the whole.”

He also demolishes the theory that it was a battle between paganism and Christianity because the majority of the troops opposed to Boru were Irish Catholics like himself. Furthermore, within a generation after Clontarf Dublin was a Christian state. At Clontarf itself some of the visiting Norsemen were Christians. Ryan examines closely the long disputed question of the actual site of the struggle and reaches what he terms the revolutionary conclusion that the Battle of Clontarf was fought at Clontarf.[70]

But the traditional historians were infuriated and were quick to point out that the powerful Eoghanacht of Loch Lein and their heroic followers accompanied Boru to the Battle. They asked had it not some significance that Brian was educated at Innisfallen, advanced to that fight against the pagans of Western Europe on Good Friday, holding the Crucifix aloft, and that after the battle the remains of himself and his son and grandson were reverently borne to Armagh, and there buried in the primatial cemetery which is now under Orange rule?, “And now who will say that our struggle then, as ever since, was not truly a fight for Faith and Fatherland?”[71]

But some diehard Boru supporters had to concede that there may be more to the Clontarf story than had been originally believed. At a Fianna Fail Convention held in Mullingar in May 1940, the Minister for the Co-Ordination of Defence Measures, Frank Aiken told delegates, “When Brian Boru secured unified control of the national forces the Danes were driven out; although it now seems certain Irish factions fought against him at Clontarf.”[72]

It seemed as if almost every aspect of Boru’s life, personality, history, beliefs and reputation was under close scrutiny so it was perhaps inevitable that the famous Fort at Killaloe would fall foul of the revisionist historians, “It now seems that the Royal Palace which stood where the fort is situated was never there at all. The real name of the fort is Beal Borumha, a relic of the Glacial Ages in existence centuries before Brian Boru.”[73] At best, it now seemed, Boru merely happened to pass the site, liked its location and set up some soldiers to stand guard there and prevent enemies passing over the Shannon River. However, down in Thurles they had something, a little more tangible than mere here say, in a piece of broken metal found in 1935 “among the sweepings of an 8th Century church” near Thurles which had taken ten years to be identified as having been inscribed for Brian Boru. The inscription reads “C Cenedic Do Rig E” which Dr Sean Raftery, of the National Museum, said meant, “For Brian, the son of Kennedy; for the King of Ireland.” The find was made not far from Cashel, or Kincora, which were both used as royal residences by Boru.[74] Furthermore, it seemed likely that Boru liked to roof these palaces with Killaloe Slate, “The palace on Royal Kincora was roofed with slate dug up from the bowels of a 350 foot deep yawning chasm on the Arra Mountains.”[75]

In 1947 another new revelation comes to light when Dr Reidar Christiansen, a noted Norwegian archivist discussing the relations between Norsemen and Irishmen. He believed the early Norsemen settled in Northern Ireland and learned the Irish language and so, by the time of the Battle of Clontarf, there were some Vikings on Brian’s side. To prove that they were bilinguists he said that early places conquered by the Norse, for instance the Shetland Islands, bore Norse place names, while placers conquered later, the Hebrides bore Irish place names. It was not the desire to plunder that brought the Norse to Ireland but the scarcity of land at home.[76] So then, some of the Vikings who lost their lives at Clontarf were, in fact, fighting for Boru.

But that fight had even deeper impact across the European continent than previously thought according to an Irish politician, Michael J. Keyes, laying a wreath on the tomb of Boru’s son Donnchadh O’Brien in Rome, “By the victory of Brian Boru over the heathen Norsemen the power of heathenism in Western Europe was broken.”[77] Keyes was leading a ‘religious pilgrimage’ from Ireland in the company of the Bishop of Limerick, Dr O’Neill and Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Rodgers.[78] Boru was firmly established as a religious icon, “Near here a road meanders away silently leftwards. It is Via S. Stefano, which takes its name from the church so dear to Irishmen because Boru’s son is buried in this sacred place.”[79]

But revisionist historians disagreed that Clontarf was ever such a great victory, religious or otherwise, after all. Nor was Boru such a person of renown. Boru started out to avenge his brother’s death with the assistance of 1,400 Lochlannaigh and defeated Maolmhuaidh at Bealach Leachta. He later on defeated the Sochlannaigh of Leinster in 26 battles, “It is clear however, that his objective was to secure the Ardriship rather than to defeat the Danes. He sent envoys to Malachi telling him that it was not right for him to hold the Sovereignty unless he devoted his time to banishing foreigners and as Malachi was given to luxury and comfort and ease and Brian undergoing the labour of banishing them it was only right that Brian should have the sovereignty.

With the Lochlannaigh and Gaels of Leath Mogha he marched on Tara and demanded the submission of Malachi to him as King of Ireland. He was put off for a year, but at the end of that time he proceeded to Athlone leading all the Lochlannaigh of Athcliath, Portlairge Soch Garman, Corca, Suigheach and Ui Cinnsealaigh as well as the forces of Leaih Mogha. Malachi naturally submitted to him and thus did he obtain the Kingdom of Ireland. He probably never would have got it were it not for the assistance of the Danes, whom he ostensibly set out to defeat. And if at Clontarf he drove the Danes out of Ireland, then so much the poorer was Ireland as a result. We know that one of the great benefits conferred on Ireland by the Danes was that they taught the Irish the art of trade and commerce. Once they were overthrown the country was neglected to an inferior place in the matter of trade for it then fell back into the hands of a class who had no experience in the matter beyond trading in dogs. Ireland’s downfall was on the horizon. The position of Malachi was analogous to that of Alfred of England and might have been handled just as astutely were it not for Brian’s ambitions. Alfred was obliged to skulk about in disguise for fear of the Danes. For twelve months he laid concealed having abandoned every mark of royalty. Oddune, the Earl of Devon, redeemed the situation. He armed his vassals and fell suddenly on the Danes and routed them. Alfred took courage on seeing this; he sallied forth and eventually overcame the Danes. He neither lost his crown, Oddune did not claim it, nor did he drive out the Danes. He gave them the option of remaining as Christians with a chief exercising authority under him.[80] The revelation should come as no surprise to those who had been reliably informed that, “Brian Boru and Queen Elizabeth of England are blood relations. Therefore, we of Ireland are the true British people.”[81]

He may have been a blood relative but some argue that Boru certainly lacked her class and was, by all accounts, “most brash.” A historian calling himself Mac Alla states, “On the evening of the Battle of Clontarf a lady who made an allusion to the Danes as ‘running home like cows to be milked,’ and got her front teeth broken by her husband, who happened to be the Dane, Sitric, King of Dublin, and the lady the daughter of Brian Boru that had been pressed on Sitric by Brian with a big dowry of Cows, though it turned out the day after the wedding the Cows were whipped from Carlow.” Mac Alla also alleges that this, and many other facts, had escaped the attention of historians. For example, how did the men of Leinster end up on the side of the Danes, was did Malachi stand idly by as the battle progressed, why did the men of Ossory turn on Boru’s son on the road home, and, why was Boru’s daughter married to Sitric? All of this proves that there was a certain ‘uppishness’ about Boru and this overbearing side of his personality should not be allowed to continue to encourage impertinence in those who study him, “Boru has not been an exhaustible source of inspiration to the people of Ireland but the provocativeness that went with his character has also been taken as a ‘sine qua non’ of true patriotism.”[82]

But something even more provocative was to come when historian J.J. Brady reported his findings, “Many facts have been suppressed by historians and the reality is that Brian Boru did not drive the Danes out of Ireland, and he was a usurper.”[83] Not just Boru but the authenticity of the old conceptions of a high-kingship of Ireland in ancient times was now being questioned by researchers as ‘ancient origin tales’ were being investigated. Some of these tales had never been translated from the very early Irish in which they were written shortly after a script was developed. Such tales represent traditions on Irish pre-history which conflict with the Latin monastic traditions of the ‘Book of Invasions,’ written centuries after the introduction of Christianity. This was elaborated upon by Prof. Myles Dillon who wrote, “There was an Ard Ri of Connaught and one at Tara but there was not an acknowledged ‘High King’ of all Ireland until after the era of Brian Boru, “The Ari Ri of Cashel never acknowledged the lordship of Tara.” Furthermore, claimed Dr R. Dudley Edwards, Professor of History at U.C.D., “A uniformity of Culture that had evolved throughout Ireland by the time of the Norse Invasions helped to develop the conception that a High-Kingship had existed from an earlier time.”[84]

Prof. Edwards contended that, “The unity of Ireland goes back to the ninth century, when, in the face of the Scandinavian invasion, the historians set out to stress the unity of the cultural tradition but political unity was not really achieved until the high-kingship of Brian Boru after the Battle of Clontarf.[85] Edwards was not alone in this thinking and his perspective remained in the late 1950’s, “In Ireland the example of Brian Boru had shown that the old order was dying. It was a natural evolution that there should be a High King who would not only rank first in dignity but would form a strong central government, cutting out the powers of lesser kings. The various struggles between ruling armies were, therefore, an effort towards real unity.”[86] Historian H.J.McManus stated, “I don’t agree with this Brian Boruism; it isn’t desirable to emphasise it unduly. To me it was the common people who made the Irish nation.”[87]

By 1970 new ideas started to emerge from the ruins of two 8th century churches which evidence suggested enjoyed the benefaction of Brian Boru.[88] Historian Liam de Paor wrote, “Like Killaloe and Toomgraney, it was patronised by Brian Boru and his successors who built stone churches and other monuments.”[89] Tradition has it that the ancient Church at Killaloe was built by Brian Boru, but scholars are inclined to date it some two centuries later than Brian’s time.”[90] But Boru’s religious influence and heroic efforts were being questioned by even more perplexed historians now changing their view on the pre 20th century ‘Boru’ compared to the ‘new’ one; the transformation was nearing completion.

Further ‘historical inaccuracies’ are brought to light when it was revealed that the validity of the famous Saltair of Cashel, “begun in the fifth century and completed by Brian Boru”[91] as a source on Brian Boru, is now being questioned. It emerged that one of the most eminent authorities, Eugene O’Curry, Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland in 1886 had claimed that the Saltair of Cashel was compiled by Cormac Mac Cullinan, King of Munster and Archbishop of Cashel who was killed in 903 AD and makes no reference to Brian Boru, “Therefore it is impossible for this manuscript to have had its origin in the fifth century, as previously believed, but must have been posterior to that period by at least 300 years, and also must have been completed a considerable time anterior to the monarchy of King Brian Boru.”[92] In one swoop a primary source to date on Boru was wiped off the map.

Romantic and long held theories about Boru and Clontarf were being openly criticised. Sean Dowling of the Old Dublin Society claimed that Gormlaith, the discarded wife of Boru, had got a raw deal from historians and did not cause the battle because, “elderly statesmen do not go to war to please the most glamorous of grandmothers, and Gormlaith was at least 45, and possibly 65, in 1014. Dowling believed that the Kingship of Ireland was at stake in the battle. Sitric probably hoped to supplant Brian, his father-in-law, and may have offered his own kingdom of Dublin to Sigurd, the Earl of the Orkneys, in return for his help. The battle was not the outstanding success historians to date had claimed. According to the Irish account, Sitric did not take part in it. he undoubtedly did, and escaped across the Liffey. Dowling also rejected the theory that the weir of Clontarf, where the Vikings were drowned, was in the Tolka. It was in the Liffey. Dubhgall’s Bridge, the weir of Clontarf and the Ford of the Hurdles, were all one and the same structure. The battle was fought in the territory now lying between Parliament Street Bridge and Ballybough.

The warriors, too, were not all we were led to believe they were. Turlough, son of Brian’s eldest son, Murrcha, according to the Irish account, was only 15 years old, but one of the greatest warriors of Clontarf. After the battle his drowned body was found impaled on a stake of the weir at Clontarf with a dead Norseman in each hand and another beneath him. This fairy tale has been given as historical fact. If Turlough existed, why was his body not taken, with those of his father and grandfather, for burial in Armagh? The head of Conaing, perhaps all that could be recovered, was taken to Armagh and Conaing was only Brian’s nephew.[93]

In 1966 Professor Francis J. Byrne outlined the progress of the ancient Kings and stated that the downfall of the ancient Ulster Fifth of Eamhain Macha and the rise of the Ui Neill in the fifth century disrupted the old system of the ‘Five Fifths’ and the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages became the most important kings in Ireland. Byrne believed this claim of importance was not admitted by Ulaidh or the kings of Munster but successful levying of the borumha cattle-tribute from Laighin over-ruled the theory that the King of Leinster had no overlord. By the beginning of the ninth century Ui Neill, King of Tara was interfering in the dynastic affairs of Leinster. Kings of Cashel challenged the Ui Neill claims, but in the middle of the ninth century Mael Seachlainn 1st made the High Kingship a reality by obtaining the submission of Ulaidh and of Mumhain. From the time of St. Colum Cille, the church wished to strengthen the royal authority, which was limited in Irish law. The See of Armagh was anxious to promote the concept of a central High Kingship to support politically its own position as Primatial See. It acknowledged both Brian Boru and his great grandson, Muirchertagh O’Briain, rather than the weaker Ui Neill claimants.[94]

Historian Dr W.L. Warren was also demanding, “a new look at Irish history” at a conference at Queen’s University. In his public lecture on interpretation of twelfth century Irish History Warren threw out so many ‘illusions’ in history that, “it would lead to a considerable modification of the view generally held of the history of the century, of the events leading up to the Norman invasion of Ireland, and of its immediate results.”[95] Warren admitted that there had been a movement towards giving a new concept to the kingship of Ireland before the conquest but he did not see Brian Boru as the leader of the movement but rather Muircheartach O’Briain, who seemed to be aware of European developments at the time. It would appear that the bishops who were striving for ecclesiastical reform were anxious that the high-kingship should become a high-kingship more than in name.

Some noted historians were getting peeved with the seemingly relentless conjecture and ‘true Irish patriot’ and noted Fenian Dr Micheal William O’Reilly was determined to remind people of the reality of Boru, “I am not given to hero worship but if there is any hero I worship, it is Michael Collins. Ireland produced two outstandingly great men in the last 1500 years, Brian Boru and Collins. I cannot pay higher tribute than that.” He further wrote, “For if Brian Boru rid Ireland of the Danes, it was largely Collins who rid it of the English.”[96]

A 1969 flurry of interest in Boru was initiated by ‘an act of vandalism’ when the famous Brian Boru Harp, “the most elaborately carved harp in existence” is stolen from the library of Trinity College, Dublin, “The harp was on display near the Book of Kells which is normally locked away for the night but he harp, because of its delicacy is handled as little as possible.”[97] Some historians contend that the affair is ‘much ado about nothing’ because, “the harp is only 600 to 700 years old and therefore could not be Brian Boru’s.[98] Bur other reports state, “When the great Harp was x-rayed, dismantled, treated, cleaned, polished and restored there was much rejoicing among those who value antiquarian relics and its origins can be traced back 1400 years.”[99] The culprits were soon captured after, “they demanded money with menaces from Trinity College Dublin.”[100]

Such articles led some journalist to reminisce about such school days and the subject of Brian Boru, “I remember my own schooldays and the masters telling us we got our kicks at Clontarf. The official version was that Boru was done-in by a Dane. There was a bit of sex thrown in when his red-headed wife went to the Danes on the morning of the battle and told them to give Brian hell.” He continues, “Seems now Brian screwed the Danes and then copped it. Never mind the fanciful story that a Dane slew him as he knelt in prayer. More likely under the Danish horned helmet was a mean little Leinster bastard who knew if Brian survived after beating the Danes he’d be too powerful.”[101]

Irish historian Donnchadh Ó Corráin was having none of this propaganda. He argued that contrary to popular belief Boru was not a national monarch and neither was he the first Irish nationalist. Nor was he an outstanding patron of the church and the arts. In fact, he was the first of a long line of hard-headed power politicians. The career of Brian had been too much interpreted through the sagas, stories, and later poems, which grew up about him, and the Battle of Clontarf, and which were extremely popular as long as the Irish manuscript tradition survived. These were very much O’Brien dynastic propaganda produced in the 12th century by what must have been the most effective school of propaganda ever to exist in medieval Ireland.

Brian’s achievements were substantial and had; no doubt, battle axed his way to the Kingship of Ireland. But was he really as powerful as historians would have us believe?  He did not create a national monarchy or the institutions associated with a national kingship, but he contributed greatly to advancing the idea of kingship of the whole island. He shattered the Ui Neill primacy in Ireland and opened up the struggle to create a national kingship and helped shape the course of Irish history in the 11th and 12th centuries.

O’Corrain declared that Brian’s struggles with the Norse were greatly exaggerated. Long before Clontarf they had become a minor political force in Irish affairs. In fact, Clontarf was part of the internal struggle for sovereignty and was essentially the revolt of the Leinster men against the dominance of Brian. Its most important result was the blow it dealt to the powers of the Munster kings.

However, in subsequent tradition, both Irish and Norse, Clontarf became a heroic battle of saga and song. The ranks of the combatants were swelled by numerous additions because everyone wished his ancestors had participated in it, “The Viking contingents from the isles and from Man, themselves not the major part of the forces which opposed Brian, became the forces of the entire Viking world and Brian became in story what he never was in fact – the sovereign of Ireland who led the forces of the nation to victory over the foreigners.”[102]

These revelations implied that Boru was a nationalist monarch and military man with deeply held religious beliefs. Littleton Bog in Co. Tipperary had been revealing minor historical treasures and thus began new thinking on Brian Boru. The bog was located on the path of one of the most ancient roads of Ireland which crossed from Leinster into Munster. Myles na Gopaleen writes, “This had been the main road to Tara made by the Kings of Ireland. It was the main road to the north and Brian Boru fixed it up.”[103]

In 1972 Liam de Paor questioned the idea that Boru had ever really conquered Ireland at all. It is a forced contention that Ireland was politically unified under native rule between AD 1002 and AD 1014, when the usurping Boru exercised a somewhat precarious suzerainty all over Ireland. Long before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans Irish dynasts struggled to achieve national monarchy. None succeeded and ‘high-kingship’ remained a political concept which eluded them.

The island was divided, as it had always been, and after the invasion there was a new concept of political unity, that of the lordship of Ireland, and this too was never achieved. The island was partitioned between the land of English law and the land of Irish law, racially, culturally as well as politically. It took until Henry VIII before the country was finally conquered; the triumph of English culture over Irish culture.[104] Such conjectures began to strip away at Boru’s credibility as a warlord but garnished some support for the notion that he may have been more of a politician.

In May 1972 the publication of James F. Lydon’s ‘The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages’ led to further debate. Although Lydon stated his aim was to be interpretive he makes some sensitive observations on medieval Ireland leading to critical castigation, “His interpretation is surmise and it is not enough for an author of what explicitly purports to be an interpretive work to relate facts that appear to be inconsistent, without an attempt at greater explanation.”[105] Critics say interpretation is inevitable subjective to some degree but Lydon’s treatment of Irish history is blatantly inadequate and inaccurate. Lydon claimed that Henry II came to Ireland to finalise the church reform and to settle the problem of the power vacuum caused by the death of Brian Boru (more than one 150 years earlier) and, say critics, this is historical nonsense on all counts.

As early as 1938 Rev. Professor Ryan criticised the notion that Brian created a greater political authority as his predecessors and there was overwhelming evidence that later kings like Muirchertach O’Brien and Rory O’Connor exercised greater authority than Brian. With regard to Henry’s attitude to Ireland it had been argued that the papal Bull Laudabiliter granting Ireland to Henry was acquired through the influence of Canterbury, that it was ignored by him, and that he came to Ireland only to prevent the first invaders from establishing a powerful independent kingdom.

By 1977 a new interpretation of Boru had fully emerged. Historians now contend of all the Irish Kings, Brian Boru is probably the only one who can be considered equal to great monarchs of European history. Supreme in the national territory to which he laid claim, he was accomplished in the arts of war and peace. Nor in his own time was he known only in Ireland; his lifelong contest with the Norsemen made his reputation to be sung almost in his own lifetime wherever Norse influence was felt. He was a remarkable man and within his lifetime he managed to supersede the O’Neill’s who had a proud lineage extending backs into the mists of pagan times.

If his military skills made him High King, Brian showed remarkable qualities of statesmanship in his exercise of the office. He did little to interfere with the traditional rights of petty kings and was more or less content with their recognition of him as their superior. In accepting the religious primacy of Armagh and all that went with it, he made the point that a High King from Munster could be as good a friend of the Church as any Northerner could be. The Northern clergy, it is assumed, responded by throwing the weight of their influence behind his kingship. The bond must have been a strong one, since before his death on April 23 1014, Brian made a will expressing the desire to be buried at Armagh, the seat of Patrick, and that the community there should be given lavish gifts. And there, after his last triumph at Clontarf, his body as brought to rest forever among the men of the North whose pride he had once so offended by his claim to authority over them.”[106] With such reports the 20th Century transformation of Brian Boru from Warlord to Statesman was complete.

By now historians were comparing Boru to England’s Alfred the Great, “There is a striking parallel between the lives of England’s Alfred the Great and that of Brian Boru. Both were younger brothers who began at an early age a lifelong struggle with the Danes, both succeeded to leadership at a time of great crisis, both, while never shirking war used well the blessings of peace. And both were far ahead of their contemporaries as soldiers and as statesmen.”[107]

But Boru’s escapades, if unworthy of the attention of either an American President, a British Monarch or the Bard of Avon, was most certainly well worthy of scribes from Ireland’s ancient annals right up to 21st century media. Boru is the only political leader of his time who remains well known yet, despite his firm place in folk-memory, as a figure he remained curiously vague. Historians, throughout the 20th Century and on into the present day, continue to attempt to correct this and sometimes trip each other up with their revelations, findings, conjectures and opinions. Some even wondered if Boru was more myth than fact; an invention of his loving kinfolk desirous of scaring their enemies into submission.

By 1977 O’Corrain was claiming that the County Clare Dalcassian clan, that “produced” Boru, was, in fact, a tribe called the Deisi who crossed the Shannon from Limerick in 600 AD and later faked the genealogy, “they produced Brian Boru and the two succeeding O’Brien kings, who were the most powerful rulers that Gaelic Ireland knew.”[108] He argued the Deisi became powerful in Clare and faked a genealogy by which they claimed to be of the Eoganacht, who were over the premier Munster dynastic families, having originated in Kerry.

The argument was given some credence when Professor John Byrne argued that the official life story of Brian Boru was compiled by his great-grandson, Muircheartach O’Briain who was King of Munster from 1086 until 1119, “he was the most powerful King in Ireland and claimed to be High King of Ireland. During his reign the story of Brian Boru emerged and reflects Muircheartach’s own ambitions.”[109] Two years later, in 1979, Liam de Paor endorses this view. He wrote it was not until the end of the eleventh century that the Dal Cais dynasty had sufficiently recovered from the pyrrhic victory at Clontarf to produce another virtual high king of all Ireland, “Brian Boru by then had been enhanced in reputation and his time was being looked back to as a golden age. In due course pseudo historical tracts were produced glorifying and exaggerating the achievements of the Dal Cais in the days when the founders of its greatness were expanding their power. Brian became the ‘mirror for Princes’ and a great Christian and Irish hero fighting against the heathen and the foreigner.”[110]

The year 1980 was declared ‘Viking Year’ and their reputation also got a major clean-up and, some historians would argue that life with the Vikings may not have been quite as bad as we had been led to believe, “Fading into the past is our notion of Vikings as merely marauders. We now realise that the Irish were equally as good at creating chaos. The Scandinavians made a much more positive contribution to the life and culture of medieval Ireland by founding towns and cities.”[111]

Numerous books are published celebrating the Vikings, most notable of these being, James Graham Campbell’s ‘The Viking World’ which explored their rich culture, their art, script and literature as well as their mode of daily life and the towns and states which they founded. In his book he argues, “It is misleading to describe the Vikings as raiders or pirates for, by no means, all Scandinavians were.”[112] The publication of Morgan Llewellyn best-selling ‘Lion Of Ireland – The Legend of Brian Boru’ brought the mythological hero firmly into popular culture, “Through its pages she puts flesh on the bones of Brian Boru, the man she describes as being larger than life; rough yet elegant.”[113] Her illusion was so fantastic that even Hollywood’s Warner Brothers Film Studios was tipped to pay out $15m to make the movie with Clint Eastwood to play Boru. Even President Ronald Reagan had something to say, “I think the story is worthy and would make a wonderful action film.”[114] Movie Director Herb Wright tells the Irish media, “I believe Brian has not got his proper international recognition and he deserves the same treatment as Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia.”[115] This particular production was later postponed.[116]  But it wasn’t the end of Boru’s Hollywood career, thirty years later, in 2013 it is announced that ‘Boru’ an $80m big-budget biopic of the hero is set for filming in Ireland, “Epic battle scenes will be filmed and it is hoped Boru will match the success of Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’; the Boru biopic is a story about, “bravery and human spirit”.[117]

But by the mid mid-1980’s historians continued to defend their beliefs, “As a general Brian Boru was a man apart. He left nothing to chance and unlike his contemporaries; he never fought an engagement unless he was sure of success. He was a brilliant strategist.”[118] But, “he was the hero on whom lesser men tried vainly to model themselves, forgetting that his military skills had been supplemented by many of the qualities of the true statesman.”[119]

The publication of Roger Chatterton-Newman’s book ‘Brian Boru; King of Ireland” in 1983 is hailed by historians as a turning point in the historical research into Boru, “Biographers have neglected, to the point of ignoring Boru who was regarded as Emperor of the Irish. Sources are scarce and obscure because of the ravages of time and warfare; and unreliable since ancient annalists suffered as much from bias as do modern historians.”[120] Chatterton is praised as having carved away the myth and presenting the ‘real’ Brian Boru, “Boru’s rise to power did not follow established ‘rights’. He imposed his rule by his own will through diplomacy as well as by sword. His justification was success.”[121]

Apart from some minor references to Boru in the last decade of the millennium which he occupied he all but vanished from the media. In the early 1990’s historian Fergal Keane was claiming that the relationship between the Irish and the Danes was still not fully restored, “We have an unrequited love for the Danes. With a distrust level of 10% among the Irish, Denmark is our second most trusted nation after Luxembourg. But more than 17% of Danes feel they could not trust us, Brian Boru included, no doubt.”[122] Boru’s campaign against the Danes was continuing to have impact a full millennium after the events at Clontarf. Whatever about the Danes there was good reason for the British to mend their attitude to Ireland; Prof. Noel Mulcahy of the University of Limerick claims that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is really Irish. She is descended directly from Brian Boru. Believing In alliances, as he did, Brian married one of his daughters off to Malcolm II of Scotland, “Now that may seem to be a fairly innocuous statement, but when one considers the implications it gives one food for thought, because the marriage of Malcolm and Brian’s daughter, gave rise to a line of Scottish monarchs that led eventually to the line of British monarchs right down to Queen Elizabeth of today. So we have this fantastic irony that the monarch of the United Kingdom is descended directly from Brian Buru; so the British queen is really Irish,” according to Mulcahy.[123]

But such revisionist historians are becoming the targets of serious doubt, “Revisionism is a good thing, in the sense that all good historians are revisionists. The problem is that not all revisionists are good historians. And while there is much to be said for this effort to look again at the legacy of Clontarf, the danger of casting doubt on the significance of Clontarf, however laudable the intention, is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.”[124] Irish academics have traditionally presented themselves as detached observers detailing a value-free, impartial account of history. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to be non-judgemental when contemplating some of their conjectures. Their tales, of course, are often exaggerated, sometimes even fictional. Because such stories are conducive to an exaggerated nationalist interpretation, scholarly accounts of Brian Boru have tended to be detached, even clinical. One may wonder why anyone should seek to cheapen and demean the Irish past in such a way. Revisionist historians would argue that they are not doing this. They would point out that history has to be continually revised in order to separate fact from fiction.[125] This is irrefutable. But revisionism Irish-style has been driven not by a desire to uncover new facts but by a craving to debunk the nationalist version of history. This was provoked by the revitalisation of the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Southern nationalist mythology, they believed, had contributed to the renewal of the radical militant nationalism of the I.R.A. The I.R.A. claimed that they were acting in the name of the Irish people and continuing the fight for freedom initiated by Pearse and Connolly with the 1916 rising. The revisionist historians, foolishly, essentially accepted this theory and have ever since kept themselves busy by ‘demythologising’ and patronising almost every Irish figure of note, most notably Brian Boru.

By the dawn of the new millennium Brian Boru’s transformation from Warlord to Statesman was not only complete but as the 1000th Anniversary of Clontarf was approaching there seemed to be a final push to copper fasten his Statesman persona, “The millennium just past, proved history has been a pretty tragic business and while we had a bit of a lift at the start with Brian Boru and the Danes, it was mostly all downhill afterwards.”[126] Boru, by all accounts was a devoted Christian who had done a lot for Ireland. He set about the restoration of libraries and the rebuilding of monasteries, “He had established peace and helped convert the Vikings, who eventually lived with the Irish in harmony. He believed a united country was far stronger than a divided one.”[127] In June 2002 the 1,000th anniversary of the crowning of Brian Boru as High King of Tara is celebrated and he is hailed as the only High King who ever had control over the entire island and he was responsible for beginning reform in the churches, schools and monasteries. He is remembered as an extraordinary leader and as a brilliant military tactician.[128]

In Northern Ireland some historians are calling for a rethink on Unionist teachings on the importance of Brian Boru to British history, “Boru and the Battle of Clontarf is significant because it was one of the largest battles in Europe of its era, and had major implications for the influence of the Vikings, yet is barely known by many school children in Northern Ireland today. Such odd gaps in our understanding of history are not merely explicable by the different slants than unionists or nationalists put on the past.”[129]

By 2014 Boru is being described as, “a man who brimmed with extraordinary fortitude of character, political innovation, military and diplomatic genius.”[130] He was an immensely significant figure even before his victory at Clontarf because he led a 25-year diplomatic and military struggle to subvert the ruling dynasty. Therefore, Brian Boru’s greatest achievement is in fundamentally altering the parameters of Irish politics. This explains, in part, why the efforts of revisionists to re-examine the justification for the Rising have been mirrored by an attempt to contest the ‘myth’ of Brian’s expulsion of the Vikings. This process has been under way for the last three-quarters of a century, so that it is regularly stated nowadays that far from being about the defence of Ireland from the Scandinavians, Clontarf was merely the culmination of a rebellion against Brian, the king of Munster, by Máelmórda, the defiant king of Leinster, and his Dublin underlings.

Boru memorabilia remained important as Conor O’Brien, Lord Inchiquin; a direct descendant of Boru reveals that he is on the trail of the original crown entrusted to the Vatican nearly 1,000 years ago. He believes that the crown originally worn by his 32nd generation ancestor may still lie in the Vatican vaults. The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles John Brown, admitted that this was the first he had heard that “we might have it”, but said: “If anyone can find it, Pope Francis can.”[131] More significantly the famous 9th Century Book of Armagh is now officially declared as the only surviving item from antiquity known to have been in Brian Boru’s presence. The ancient text clearly defines Boru, not as a warrior but as an Emperor. Dr Denis Casey states, “In it Boru is memorably styled Imperator Scotorum, or Emperor of the Irish.”[132] The transformation of Brian Boru from warlord,a military commander and aggressive regional chief with individual autonomy, to the highly elevated status of sovereign ruler of an empire and statesman of equal calibre to his descendants Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II, amongst others, was finally complete.


[1] Leitrim Observer, 14 May 1932

[2] Trinity College Dublin, ‘Truth of the Battle of Clontarf Investigated at Conference’,, accessed on 16.04.2014

[3] Irish Times, 17 November 1980

[4] Irish Independent, 7 June 2004

[5] Irish Press, 6 June 1932

[6] John O’Hart, ‘Irish Pedigrees or, The Origin And The Stem, or The Irish Nation’, (Dublin, 1892) p. xxi

[7] Library Ireland, The Line Of Heber,, accessed 5 April 2014

[8] John O’Hart, ‘Irish Pedigrees or, The Origin And The Stem, or The Irish Nation’, (Dublin, 1892) pp. 61,62

[9] Irish Times, 10 February 1999

[10] Belfast Newsletter, 24 September 1829

[11] Meath Chronicle, 1 January 1921

[12] Tuam Herald, 13 January 1844

[13] Nation, 23 November 1872

[14] Nation, 25 January 1879

[15] Irish Times, 20 February 1879

[16] Irish Times, 20 March 1889

[17] Anglo Celt, 13 January 1894

[18] Weekly Irish Times, 28 September 1895

[19] Irish Times, 27 December 1897

[20] Weekly Irish Times, 29 June 1901

[21] Weekly Irish Times, 6 February 1904

[22] Southern Star, 12 November 1904

[23] Kerryman, 21 January 1905

[24] Donegal News, 27 May 1905

[25] Nenagh News, 8 October 1910

[26] Irish Independent, 22 March 1912

[27] Connaught Telegraph, 15 June 1912

[28] Skibbereen Eagle, 25 October 1913

[29] Ulster Herald, 14 May 1914

[30] Chicago Daily Tribune, 20 April 1920

[31] Southern Star, 16 October 1915

[32] Nenagh Guardian, 27 November 1920

[33] Ulster Herald, 19 March 1921

[34] Freemans Journal, 17 September 1921

[35] Irish Press, 3 October 1933

[36] Connacht Tribune,  11 March 1922

[37] Irish Times, 14 June 1926

[38]Irish Press, 2 April 1974

[39] Irish Times, 27 August 1928

[40] Irish Times, 3 October 1928

[41] Irish Times, 6 February 1929

[42] Limerick Leader, 21 August 1929

[43] Irish Times, 20 August 1929

[44] Southern Star, 19 April 1930

[45] Longford Leader, 31 May 1930

[46] Irish Press, 26 July 1932

[47] Irish Press, 23 January 1933

[48] Nenagh Guardian, 26 June 1937

[49] Anglo Celt, 19 April 1930

[50] Century Encyclopaedia, quoted in, Anglo Celt, 19 April 1930

[51] Anglo Celt, 19 April 1930

[52] Kerryman, 16 August 1930

[53] Donegal News, 18 October 1930

[54] Irish Press, 25 September 1931

[55] Irish Independent, 20 March 1935

[56] Anglo Celt, 20 February 1932

[57] Irish Press, 30 June 1933

[58] Southern Star, 8 October 1932

[59] Irish Press, 30 June 1933

[60] Irish Press, 16 January 1934

[61] Kerryman, 12 May 1934

[62] Patrick Weston Joyce,’ ‘A Concise History of Ireland’, (Dublin, 1910)

[63] Kerryman, 12 May 1934

[64] Leitrim Observer, 19 January 1957

[65] Irish Times, 9 February 1939

[66] Times Pictorial, 20 December 1952

[67] Limerick Leader, 7 August 1993

[68] Irish Times, 18 November 1959

[69] Irish Times, 28 June 1963

[70] Irish Independent, 6 September 1938

[71] Kerryman, 15 April 1939

[72] Irish Press. 6 May 1940

[73] Limerick Leader, 21 September 1940

[74] Irish Press, 23 January 1945

[75] Irish Press, 19 January 1949.

[76] Connacht Sentinel, 25 November 1947

[77] Irish Independent, 14 October 1950

[78] Irish Independent, 14 October 1950

[79] Irish Independent, 8 April 1952

[80] Ulster Herald, 6 January 1951

[81] Irish Press, 28 November 1952

[82] Irish Press, 13 February 1953

[83] Donegal News, 29 January 1955

[84] Irish Independent, 2 September 1955

[85] Irish Independent, 12 December 1955

[86] Meath Chronicle, 14 March 1959

[87] Irish Press, 7 August 1959

[88] Irish Times, 3 July 1970

[89] Irish Times, 4 August 1971

[90] Irish Independent, 28 July 1962

[91]Connacht Tribune, 14 July 1967

[92]Irish Independent, 27 May 1960

[93] Irish Press, 31 January 1963

[94]Irish Independent, 14 January 1966

[95] Irish Press, 29 May 1967

[96] Irish Independent, 22 February 1968

[97] Irish Press, 26 March 1969

[98] Irish Independent, 26 March 1969

[99] Irish Independent, 27 March 1969

[100] Irish Press, 1 August 1969

[101] Irish Times, 28 August 1971

[102] Irish Times, 28 August 1971

[103] Irish Times, 29 January 1972

[104] Irish Times, 23 August 1972

[105]Irish Press, 6 May 1972

[106] Irish Press, 23 April 1977

[107] Irish Press, 26 October 1977

[108] Irish Times, 19 April 1977

[109] Irish Times, 29 August 1977

[110] Irish Times, 18 May 1979

[111] Irish Press, 20 March 1980

[112] James Graham Campbell, ‘The Viking World’, (London, 1980), p10

[113] Irish Press, 8 July 1980

[114] Sunday Independent, 1 March 1981.

[115] Irish Press, 23 February 1983

[116] Irish Press, 17 June 1983

[117] Sunday Independent, 19 May 2013

[118] Irish Press, 23 April 1981

[119] Irish Press, 10 March 1982

[120] Irish Press, 27 June 1983

[121] Ibid

[122] Irish Press, 16 July 1990

[123] Irish Press, 17 March 1995

[124] Irish Independent, 18 April 2014

[125] Southern Star, 15 November 1997

[126] Southern Star, 1 January 2000

[127] Westmeath Examiner, 9 September 2000

[128] Meath Chronicle, 29 June 2002

[129] Belfast Newsletter, 8 March 2014

[130] Irish Independent, 12 April 2014

[131] Irish Independent, 18 April 2014

[132] Irish Independent, 12 April 2014




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 Ireland History, Limerick History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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