Brian 926-1014, king of Ireland, known in Irish writings as Brian Boroimhe (Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, Rolls Series, p. 208), Boroma (Tigernachi Annales in Bodleian MS. Rawlinson B 488), most commonly in earlier books as Brian mac Cennedigh (Book of Leinster, facsimile, fol. 309 a; Tigernach, ed. O'Conor, pp. 266, 268), and in English writings as Bryan mac Kennedy and Brian Boru, was a native of the northern part of Munster, and was of the royal descent of Thomond, of the family known as Dal Cais, who claimed the right of alternate succession to the kingship of Cashel, as the chief kingship of Munster is usually called by the Irish writers. His father was Cenneide, son of Lorcan, and Brian, who was born in 926, was the youngest of three sons. The time of Brian's youth was one of continued harrying of Ireland by the Danes, whose hold on the seaports of the country had been steadily increasing since their first invasion in 795, and from Limerick they made many plundering expeditions into the country of the Dal Cais. Brian's elder brother Mathgamhain became head of the tribe, and under him Brian's life as a warrior began; but when Mathgamhain made peace Brian continued the war by expeditions from the mountains of Clare, but was unable to make way against the Danes, and at last, with only a few followers left, had to take refuge with his brother. The war soon began again, and Mathgamhain succeeded in seizing Cashel and the vacant kingship of Munster. The Danes of Limerick with many native Irish allies marched against the king of Cashel and his brother, and were defeated at Sulcoit in Tipperary. This battle, fought about 968, was the first of Brian's victories over the Danes, and was followed by the sack of Danish Limerick. In 976 a conspiracy of rival chiefs in Munster led to the murder of Mathgamhain, and Brian became chief of the Dal Cais with an abundant inheritance of wars. Succession to the kingship of Cashel was alternate between the Dal Cais and the Eoghanacht, that is between the tribes north of the plain in the middle of which the rock of Cashel rises and those south of it. Maelmuadh, Mathgamhain's murderer, was the next heir of the Eoghanacht, and became king after the murder. Brian defeated and slew him in a pitched battle at Belach Lechta, in the north of the present county Cork, in 978, and thus himself became king of Cashel. He had, however, much hard fighting before he was able to obtain hostages, in proof of submission, from all the tribes of Munster. Constant warfare made the Dal Cais more and more formidable, and having obtained recognition throughout Munster, Brian first led them against Gillapatric, king of Ossory, and then marching into Leinster was, in 984, acknowledged as king by its chiefs. His successes had evidently determined him to extend his sway over as much of Ireland as he could.
Brian sailed up the Shannon from his stronghold at Killaloe, and with varying success ravaged Meath, Connaught, and Breifne, and at length entered into an alliance with Maelsechlainn mac Domhnaill, chief king of Ireland. The Leinstermen with the Danes of Dublin rose against Brian in the year 1000, and, with the help of the king of Ireland, he defeated them with great slaughter at Glenmama in Wicklow, and immediately after marched into Dublin. Sitric the Danish king submitted to Brian, who took a Danish wife and gave an Irish one to Sitric. He now thought himself powerful enough to end his alliance with Maelsechlainn, and sent a body of Danes into Meath towards Tara. Tara had long been an uninhabited green mound, as it is at this day, and its possession was only important from the fact that it was associated with the name of sovereignty and with the actual possession of the rich pastures by which it is surrounded. Maelsechlainn defeated the first force sent against him, but Brian advanced at the head of an army of Munstermen, Leinstermen, Ossorymen, and Danes, and Maelsechlainn retired to his stronghold of Dun na Sciath on Loch Ennell, and sent for help to his natural allies, Aedh, king of Ailech, and Eochaidh, king of Uladh, and to Cathal, king of Connaught; but all in vain, and he was obliged to offer hostages to Brian. Thus, in the eyes of the Irish, Brian became chief king of Ireland, and the Clonmacnois historian, Tigernach, has at the end of the year 1001 the entry Brian Borama regnat (Bodleian MS. Rawlinson B 488, fol. 15 b, col. ii. line 31). He next made war on the west, received submission from the Connaughtmen, and was thus actual lord of Ireland from the Fews mountains in Armagh southwards. The men of western and central Ulster under the king of Ailech, and those of Dalriada and Dalnaraide under the king of Uladh, still resisted him, but they were also at war with one another, and in 1004 met in battle at Craebh Tulcha and were both slain. Brian at once marched through Meath to Armagh, where he made an offering of gold upon the altar of the great church and acknowledged the ecclesiastical supremacy of Armagh in the only charter of his, the original of which has survived to our day. The charter is in the handwriting of Maolsuthain, Brian's confessor, and is on fol. 16 b of the Book of Armagh. The book itself, written on vellum about 807 by Ferdomnach, contains the gospels, a life of St. Patrick, and other compositions, some in Latin and some in Irish, and in 1004 was already considered one of the chief treasures of Armagh. Its subsequent history has been carefully traced, and it is now preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. On the back of the sixteenth leaf of the Book of Armagh is part of the life of St. Patrick with an account of grants of land in Meath made to him and to his disciples and their successors by Fedelmid mac Loiguire, king of Ireland. The writing is in two columns, and at the foot of the second the original scribe had left a blank, in which the charter of Brian was appropriately written. Maolsuthain wrote in Latin, translating his own name into Calvus Perennis, and Cashel into Maceria. St. Patrick, says the charter, when going to heaven, ordained that the entire produce of his labour as well as of baptism, and decisions as of alms, was to be delivered to the apostolic city, which in the Scotic tongue is called Arddmacha. Thus I have found it in the records of the Scots. This is my writing, namely Calvus Perennis, in the presence of Brian, imperator of the Scots, and what I have written he decreed for all the kings of Maceria. This grant, besides its intrinsic interest, is of importance as confirming the accuracy of the early chronicles which mention Brian's visit to Armagh. He received hostages from all the chief tribes of the north except the Cinel Conaill, who remained unconquered in the fastnesses of Kilmacrenan and the Rosses. His next action was to make a circuit of Ireland demanding hostages of all the territories through which he passed. This was probably suggested by a similar act of Muircheartach na gcochall gcroicionn, king of Ailech, who in 941 marched from the north through Munster taking hostages to secure his own succession to the chief kingship of Ireland.
The poem which Cormacan mac Maolbrighde, Muircheartach's bard, composed in honour of his exploit mentions (ed. O'Donovan, line 129) that the king of Ailech on his expedition passed a night at Cenn Coradh, Brian's home, and even if Brian did not witness the progress of the northern king, its memory must have been fresh in Munster in his youth. Cenn Coradh was near Killaloe, within the limits of the present town, and starting thence Brian marched up the right bank of the Shannon and northwards as far as the Curlew mountains, which he crossed and descended to the plain of the river Sligech, which falls into Sligo Bay, and then marched by the sea to the river Drobhais, then as now the boundary of Ulster. Brian forded it and followed the ancient road into the north over the ford of Easruadh, the present salmon leap on the river between Loch Erne and Ballyshannon. From this he marched to the gap called Bearnas mor, probably keeping to the coast. He passed unattacked through the long and desolate defile, and beyond it emerged into Tir Eoghain, which he crossed, and entered Dalriada by the ford of the Ban at Feartas Camsa, near the present Macosquin. He passed on into Darnaraidhe and ended his circuit at Belach Duin, a place in Meath, three miles north of Kells.
He was thus, by right of his sword and admission of all her chiefs, Ardrigh na Erenn, chief king of Ireland, and so remained till his death. After so much war there was an interval of peace. Brian is said by the historians of his own part of the country to have built the church of Killaloe and that of Inis Cealtra, and the round tower of Tomgraney; but the ruins on the island in Loch Derg, and the ancient stone-roofed church of Killaloe, are later than the buildings erected by him. He himself lived in the Dun of Cenn Coradh, probably in a house resembling the dwellings of the peasantry of the present day, with an earthen floor, thatched roof, and a hearth big enough to boil a huge cauldron, whence the king and his guests drew out lumps of meat, which they washed down with draughts of the beer which, tradition says, they had learnt to brew from their Danish friends, and of the more ancient liquor of the country made from honey. Senachies, historians who knew how to turn history into poetry, and who like poets often excelled in fiction, were the men of letters of Brian's court. They feasted with the king and his warriors, and sang the glories of the Dal Cais and the great deeds of Brian, son of Cenneide, in strains some of which have come down to our own times. It was perhaps one of these who first gave Brian the name by which in modern times he has become the best known of all the kings of Ireland; few Englishmen can, indeed, name any other. Borama (Book of Leinster, facs. 294 b) na boromi (Leabhar na Huidri, facs. 118 b), a word cognate with ½ÿµ (Stokes, Revue Celtique, May 1885, p. 370), is an Irish word for a tribute, resembling the indemnity of modern warfare, as distinguished from cáin and cís, or rightful dues and taxes payable according to fixed usage. Thus, in the Annals of Ulster under 998 a.d.: Indred loch necach la haedh mac domhnaill co tuc boroma mor as (Plundering of Loch Neagh by Aedh mac Domhnaill, he took a boroma thence); and a.d. 1008: Creach la Flaithbertach ua Neill co firu Breagh co tuc boromamor (A foray by Flaithbertach O'Neill on the men of Bregia, and he took a great boroma). Eric has part of the same meaning, and the statement of the most famous borama begins: Isí seo imorro innéraic, this is, moreover, the eric (Book of Leinster, facs. 295 b, line 20). This was an annual tribute which the Leinstermen had in early times been forced to pay to the kings of Tara. It consisted, according to the Book of Leinster, of 15,000 cows, 15,000 pigs, 15,000 linen cloths, 15,000 silver chains, 15,000 wethers, 15,000 copper cauldrons, 1 huge copper cauldron capable of holding 12 pigs and 12 lambs, 30 white cows with red ears, with calves of the same colour and trappings, and its payment was often refused and led to endless wars. It has often been supposed that Brian received his cognomen because he put an end to this tribute by subduing the king of Tara; but there is no passage in early historians justifying this statement. As Brian is called Boroma by Tigernach O'Braoin, a writer who lived in the middle of the eleventh century (the existing fragmentary manuscript of his history being of about the year 1150), it is clear that the title was a real one, given him during his life. But Brian was throughout life a taker and not a refuser of tributes. No one who has read the Irish chronicles could think it likely that a hero of the Dal Cais would care to be celebrated as a reliever of the burdens of the Leinstermen, first his enemies, and then his subjects. Brian was called Boroimhe or Brian of the Tribute, because of the tribute which he had levied throughout Ireland, and which brought plenty to the Dal Cais, but was taken from the Leinstermen, the Connaughtmen, the men of Meath, and of Ulster, with as firm a hand as ever the most famous borama was seized from the descendants of Eochu mac Echach by the kings of Tara
In 1013 fighting began again between the Danes of Dublin, who found allies in Ossory and Leinster and Maelsechlainn. The king of Meath was worsted and sent to ask help from Brian, who ravaged Ossory and Leinster and joined Maelsechlainn at Kilmainham near Dublin, where some remains of an old earthwork at Garden Hill have been conjectured to mark their encampment. They besieged the Danes from 9 Sept. till Christmas, but then had to raise the siege. In the spring Brian again marched against the Danes, who, besides allies from Leinster, had obtained help from Scandinavia. He wasted Leinster and marched to the north side of Dublin. On Good Friday, 23 April 1014, at Cluantarbh, on the north side of Dublin Bay, a decisive battle was fought, in which the Danes were routed with great slaughter. Brian's sons, Murchadh and Donchadh, and his grandson led the Irish, and Brian himself, too old for active fighting, knelt in his tent, repeating psalms and prayers. Here he was slain by Brodar, a Danish jarl.
The victory was the most important the Irish had ever won over the Danes, and the Danes were never after powerful in Ireland beyond the walls of their boroughs. The battle was celebrated in poetic accounts full of dramatic details, both by the Irish and the Northmen, sometimes natural as in the saga where a fugitive stops to fasten his shoe: ‘Why,’ says a pursuing Irishman, ‘do you delay?’ ‘I live,’ answers the fugitive, ‘away in Iceland, and it is too late to go home tonight.’ Or sometimes supernatural, as in the Irish tale, where Aibhell of Craig Liath, the bensidh of the Dal Cais, warns Brian the night before the battle of his approaching death. The Irish chronicler (Cogadh G. re G.) describes the battle in alliterative prose, sometimes breaking into verse, as does the English chronicler in celebrating Brunanburh. In the case of Cluan Tarbh, as probably in that of Brunanburh, it was the nearness and actual living fame of the event that made the historian become a poet, and not distance of time that caused history to become inextricably blended with romance. Brian was carried to Armagh and there buried. His tomb is forgotten, and his power died with him. Two sons, Tadhg and Donnchadh, survived him, while his son Murchadh and his grandson Toirdelbhach were slain in the battle. His clansmen returned to Cenn Coradh, and Maelsechlainn mac Domhnaill again reigned as chief king of Ireland, and so continued till his death. Brian had raised the power of the Munstermen to a pitch it had never reached before, and his fifty years of war wore out the Danish strength; but his efforts to obtain supremacy in Ireland diminished the force of hereditary right throughout the country, and suggested to willing chiefs that submission should only be yielded to him who could exact it. The last chief king of Ireland of the ancient line was the Maelsechlainn whom Brian had for a time dispossessed, and when he died in 1022 no king of Tara was ever after able to enforce even the slight general control exercised in former times, and the king James, who united the rule of England and Scotland, was the next real king of the whole of Ireland. The fame of Brian Boroimhe has been spread throughout Ireland by Dr. Geoffrey Keating, whose interesting ‘Forus feasa air Eirinn’ was the most popular of all Irish histories from its appearance in the seventeenth century till the time when Irish literature ceased to be read at all in the country about the year of the famine. The book was written in Munster, and therefore praises the most famous of her heroes. In later days still, from the time of Daniel O'Connell downwards, the renown of Brian has been spread more and more. ‘For it was he that released the men of Erin and its women from the bondage and iniquity of the foreigners and the pirates. It was he that gained five-and-twenty battles over the foreigners, and who killed and banished them as we have already said.’ These words of the old Munster chronicler, who wrote all the praise he could of the popular hero of the south, represent the spirit in which Brian has been extolled in modern times. He has been often praised in books and speeches as an enlightened patriot, a compeer of King Alfred and of Washington. In the chronicles of his own times this is not his aspect; he there appears as a strong man and a hardy warrior, skilful in battle and in plotting, proud of his ancestors and of his tribe, and determined that the Dal Cais should be the greatest tribe in Ireland, the tribe with the most cattle and the most tribute. Such was Brian, son of Cenneide, for whom no fitter title could be found than that of Boroimhe, of the tribute, the main object of so many of his battles.
Original Charter in Book of Armagh, 16 b, reproduced in facs. in National Manuscripts of Ireland, vol. i.; date of the charter 1004. Tigernachi Annales;
Photograph of Bodleian MS. Rawlinson B 488; and in O'Conor's Rerum Hibernicarum Scriptores, vol. i.;
Tigernach wrote before 1088, manuscript in Bodleian of about 1150.
Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh, The War of the Irish with the Danes, Rolls Series, and Book of Leinster facsimile fol. 309.
The Book of Leinster is a twelfth-century manuscript; only a fragment of the work remains in it, the rest of the Rolls text being from late manuscripts, the general accuracy of which is confirmed by independent evidence. Annala Rioghachta Eirionn, the general summary of Irish chronicles, compiled by the O'Clerys and their associates in the seventeenth century, and commonly known as the Annals of the Four Masters, printed in Dublin, ed. O'Donovan, 1851, vol. ii.;
Reeves's Ancient Churches of Armagh, 8vo, Lusk, 1860, and Memoir of the Book of Armagh, Lusk, 1861, and Antiquities of Down, Connor, and Dromore, Dublin, 1854;
O'Donovan's Circuit of Muirchertach mac Neill, Irish Archæological Society, 1841;
Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, London, 1831, ii. 360-71;
Johnstone's Antiquitates Celto-Scandicæ, Hafn. 1783;
Thormodus Torfæus, Historia rerum Norvicarum, 1711, &c., Hafn.;
Dasent's Burnt Njal, 1861.
Contributor: N. M. [Norman Moore]