A thousand years ago, April 23 was an important date – it was Good Friday, a date significant to Christians everywhere. However, in Ireland it had another significance. It was the day that the forces of High King Brian Boru met the Vikings on the field of Clontarf and broke Viking power in Ireland forever – the only country ever to do so.
It really all began about the year 941, when Brian was born to Kennedy MacLorcain, Chieftain of the Dalcassian clan in County Clare. He was born near present day Killaloe on the River Shannon. As the youngest son, he was destined to become a monk as his older brother, Mahon, was chosen to succeed his father as Chieftain. Brian’s father sent him to Clonmacnoise, a monastery where he learned to appreciate his heritage. He studied military leaders and tactics and learned to despise the Viking invaders who were plundering Irish monasteries.
In 951, word came that Brian’s parents had been killed by Vikings. Furious, Brian left the monastery to seek revenge. Mahon, who was now Chief, announced a treaty with the Vikings of Limerick, but Brian objected! He and a group of followers left the clan and began raiding Viking camps. His fame spread throughout the province of Munster. Though few in numbers, his tactics led him to defeat larger forces and he attracted many young men to his banner. As Viking raids continued, Mahon realized that Brian had been right. He renounced his truce with the Vikings and the two brothers joined forces. They took Cashel in 963 from another Celtic Chieftain who had made an alliance with the Vikings to stay in power. With Limerick between Cashel and their stronghold in Clare, Viking power in Limerick had to be eliminated. In 968, the brothers marched on Limerick and broke Viking power in all of Munster. Mahon ruled peacefully for eight years over Clare, Cork, Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick. However, the Vikings returned in 976, and Mahon attended what was to have been a peaceful meeting of reconciliation with the Limerick Vikings. At the meeting, Mahon was seized and murdered. Brian became the undisputed clan Chieftain and ruler of all of the province of Munster. He attacked the Viking force and killed the leaders. He built a fleet of ships to patrol the Shannon and defeated the Vikings in Waterford and the surrounding islands as well. Brian then set his sights on the Vikings of Dublin who had allied with the King of Leinster and were raiding into the center of Ireland. He got the support of Malachy, the King of Meath who controlled the northern part of Ireland. After a decisive battle, Malachy and Brian entered Dublin victorious in 1000.
In the towns he conquered, Brian allowed the Vikings to stay, but an annual tribute was imposed. It’s for that reason that Brian MacKennedy became known as Brian Boru or Brian of the Tributes. Brian now led his army to Tara, where his former ally, Malachy, ruled. By this time, Brian’s reputation was so wide-spread that Malachy submitted with little resistance and Brian claimed the title of Ard Righ – High King of All Ireland. Brian’s reign as lasted 12 years and the country prospered. Monasteries and schools destroyed by Viking raids were rebuilt as were roads, bridges and churches. Illuminated manuscripts and delicate metal work that had been hallmarks of monastic art saw a rebirth. Trade increased and emissaries were even sent to Scotland and Wales to solicit tribute in return for the protection of the King of Ireland from his palace, Kincora, on a hill overlooking a shallow part of the Shannon where the tribute cattle were driven across the river.
Then, in 1012, Maelmora, King of Leinster, rebelled. Knowing he would need more help to defeat Brian, he invited the return of the Vikings, who were eager for revenge. Sigtrygg Silkbeard, chief Viking in Dublin called on his countrymen from Orkney to the Isle of Man as well as from Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and other towns that Brian had subdued. To Dublin they came and were joined by a few Irish chieftains who wished to quit their annual tributes to Brian. Brian now regretted letting the Vikings stay in Ireland as long as they promised to be loyal. He would now have to settle this for good and dispatched messengers calling for support. He even got support from some of the Vikings he had left to rule their own territories. It was to be Irish with Viking allies against Vikings with Irish allies. Brian led a formidable army to Dublin and on Good Friday, April 23, 1014, they assembled on the field of Clontarf, just north of Dublin. Brian was about 88-years old at the time and too old to lead, so the army was commanded by his son Murchad. Brian was safe behind the lines with his personal guard.
The battle was a bloody clash. By evening the Vikings were pushed back into the sea and the rest fled to Dublin. The Irish chased them and those who had been guarding Brian joined the chase. Brian, meanwhile, knelt in prayer in his tent giving thanks for the great victory and envisioning a new Ireland. A Viking warrior, Brodar, who had fled the battle came across Brian in his tent. He saw that there were few men guarding the King and he hacked his way through Brian’s attendants and came up behind the King of Ireland, kneeling in prayer. It is recorded that Brian, startled by the noise behind him, turned and drew his sword, prepared to defend himself. He slashed Brodar’s leg, but it was too late. Brodar’s sword was already descending and cut off Brian’s head. The High King of Ireland was dead, but Brodar did not escape to brag of his treachery. Brian’s furious men seized the wounded Brodar and dispensed proper justice to the enemy who had killed the greatest leader that the Irish had ever known. They tied him to a nearby tree – with his own intestines!
Brian’s body was taken to Armagh and was buried with great honor. His tomb is in the north wall of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the city of Armagh. After 1014, there was never another Viking raid in Ireland. Vikings remained in Ireland but their power had been broken. Eventually they adopted Irish manners and customs and were absorbed into the mainstream of Irish life. Although the position of High King was filled from time to time after Brian’s death, Ireland would never again have a ruler who controlled the entire country as Brian had. Brian Boru was in fact, the last true High King of the Irish. Centuries later, when Thomas Davis wrote his inspiring ballad A Nation Once Again, the reign of Brian Boru was his reference.