BRIAN BORU - THE LAST GREAT HIGH KING OF IRELAND:
The line between Irish Legend and Irish Myth has often been blurred, especially as the retelling of heroic deeds has been passed on through generations.
Brian Boru was no legend although his life deeds were legendary. He was very much a real man and was in fact the last great High King of Ireland and perhaps the greatest military leader the country has ever known.
Brian Boru was born Brian Mac Cennétig. He mother was sister to the mother of Conor, the King of Connaught.
His brother, Mahon, had become King of Munster in 951, upon the death of their father, Cennétig. Together they fought against the invading Norsemen, who had imposed taxes in Munster. This struggle eventually led to the murder of Mahon in 975 by the Ostermen (Norse). Brian avenged his brother's death by killing the King of the Ostermen of Limerick, King Ímar.
From this point onwards Brian held Munster as his own, including the pivotal trade-centre of Limerick. He marched into Connaught and Leinster and joined forces with Mael Sechnaill II in 997. Together they divided Ireland between them.
The Norse settlers in Dublin especially ranged against Brian but were defeated at Glen Máma where the King of Leinster was captured. The King of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, was soon defeated too.
In 1002 Brian demanded of his comrade Mael Sechnaill that he recognize him as King of Ireland. Mael agreed, partially because many of his own people viewed Brian as a hero who had restored Ireland to greatness after the Viking invasions. The rule of the UíNéill's was thus at an end as a non-O'Neill was proclaimed as King. The O'Neill's had been rulers for over 600 years.
He earned his name as 'Brian of the Tributes' (Brian Boru) by collecting tributes from the minor rulers of Ireland and used the monies raised to restore monasteries and libraries that had been destroyed during the invasions.
The Norsemen were not done yet however, and once more waged war on Brian Boru and his followers at Clontarf in Dublin in 1014. The King of Connaught, Tadhg O'Conor refused to ally with Brian against the Ostermen although Uí Fiachrach Aidne and Uí Maine did join with him.
Despite the lack of backing from the men of Connaught, the Munstermen won the day but lost Brian Boru in the battle. This battle was a major turning point as it finally subjugated the Norse presence in Ireland who were henceforth considered subordinate to the Kingships of Ireland. Their military threat had been ended and they retreated to the urban centres of Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, and Cork. They eventually became completely hibernicized and integrated into Gaelic culture.
After his death and the death of one of his sons, his remaining sons, Tadg and Donnchad, were unable to assume the kingship which was assumed by Mael Sechnaill. He died in 1022 after which the role of High King of Ireland became more of a position in name only, rather than that of a powerful ruler.
Perhaps the best that should be said of Brian Boru therefore, is that he was the last great High King of Ireland.
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The High Kings of Ireland is a significant part of Irish history and mythology. They were historical and legendry figures known as an Ard Rí who claimed Lordship of the entire island of Ireland.
The High Kings, or at least their stories, date as far back as 1500 BC so their existence is part legendary, fiction, and historical. Any of the High Kings who lived prior to the 5th century AD is considered a legendry King, part of Irish mythology (pseudohistory).
In Irish mythology we’re told the story of how a group of people called the Fir Bolg invaded Ireland with 5,000 men.
Upon arrival their leaders, five brothers, divided Ireland into provinces and granted themselves the title of Chieftain. Between them they decided their younger brother, Sláine mac Dela, would be given the title of King and he would rule over them all.
Sláine’s role as High King of Ireland was short lived. A year after becoming king he died at Dind Ríg located in the province of Leinster. According to early Irish literature his burial place is said to be at Dumha Sláine (burial mound of Sláine). The Hill of Slane, as it’s known today, became the centre of religion and learning in Ireland and was closely associated with St Patrick.
After the death of King Sláine mac Dela in 1513 BC, his brother Rudraige took up the position of King but this too would be short lived as he died 2 years later. Two of the five other brothers became joint High King and ruled for a further 4 years until both died due to plague.
The last of the brothers, Sengann mac Dela, became High King and ruled Ireland for 5 years. His kingship came to an end when he was killed by the grandson of Rudraige, Fiacha Cennfinnán, who went on to take the title of King.
The line of kings remained with the Fir Bolg’s until 1477 BC when the legendry Tuatha Dé Danann invaded Ireland.
For the next two thousand years, in Irish mythology, Ireland would have over 100 legendry High Kings.
Leaving mythology behind, Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid (Malachy MacMulrooney) is recognised as the first historical High King of Ireland. He served as king between 846–860 AD and died two years later. After King Máel there would be another 16 other High Kings in Ireland until the last serving King in 1166.
Ruaidhrí Ó Conchobhair (Rory O’Connor), who was the King of Connacht, became High King of Ireland in 1166 after the death of King Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn.
Not only was Ruaidhrí inaugurated as King of Ireland in Dublin he was the first and only Gaelic King. His ruling though, would be interrupted by the invasion of the Anglo-Normans, bringing an end to the Irish high-kingship in 1198.
The story of the High Kings of Ireland has two very different starting points – one historical and one legendary, with numerous ad libs and variations in between. However, as a proud nation of storytellers to this day - we all know that these two narratives are often deeply intertwined.
Mythology would have the tradition of High Kings dating back over 3,500 years to the Fir Bolg, who sailed to Ireland and claimed it for their own – dividing the land amongst five brothers who would each rule over their own territories. Although each brother would be King of his own domain, it was agreed that an overlord should be elected so as to maintain a peaceful synergy across all of Ireland. And so, the seat of High King was established and Sláine mac Dela – the youngest of the five – became the first to assume the throne.
The Tuatha dé Danann
Over the next 37 years (very precise!) the Fir Bolg ruled in relative harmony, with the brothers taking turns to inherit the role of King when the predecessor died. That is, until the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann arrived... Often described as a race of gods, goddesses and faeries in Irish mythology, the Tuath Dé Danann came to Ireland with a request to split the land in two, so that they might have their own kingdom within the Emerald Isle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fir Bolg rejected the offer to give away half of their land and so the two ancient peoples went to war to decide who would rightfully rule over Ireland. You will perhaps have heard the tale of King Nuada , who led the Tuatha Dé Danaan to victory in this very battle while losing his hand in the ferocity of the fight. Despite this, he was a fair ruler – and decreed that the fallen Fir Bolg may keep a quarter of Ireland for their own. They respectfully chose Connacht, and then quietly faded into the background of Irish mythology.
Now, by the law of the time, the High King could not be physically blemished in anyway – and so King Nuada’s injury declare him ineligible to rule over his own people. He made the decision to unite the Tuatha Dé Danann with the Formorians (a tribe with whom they were in constant rivalry with) by electing Prince Bres – a King who would be descended from both families. As it happened Bres’ rule was a bit of a disaster, and Nuada ended up seizing the throne back years later (only after his hand had been magically regrown of course) – but more on that another time.
The historical trail only takes us back around as far as the 7th century AD, and even then it is thought that many of the Kings who are said to have held the throne are actually fabrications – invented with the purpose of claiming royal blood in one’s lineage, and therefore bettering one’s own chances of becoming High King.
With this in mind, the first widely acknowledged historical High King of Ireland is recorded as Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, whose name is often anglicised as Malachy MacMulrooney. The Annals of Ulster, which are a medieval manuscript detailing the history of Ireland between 431 AD to 1540 AD, refer to King Malachy as “rí hÉrenn uile” which translates as "king of all Ireland" – a term which wasn’t applied to other High Kings, suggesting a differentiation between the two roles.
The annals describe his reign in detail, including his efforts to unite (or exert control over, depending how you read it…) his countrymen, and battle against Viking invasions in Ireland. If you’re ever in Kilkenny you can visit the Killamery High Cross – a Celtic monument that was erected in the 9th century in the honour of King Malachy, bearing the inscription ‘or do maelsechnaill’, meaning ‘a prayer for Malachy’.
While the legendary tales of High Kings would have us believe that the reign of High King was passed from ruler to ruler in an uninterrupted line (the Tuatha Dé Danann alone were thought to have produced 100 kings over a 2,000-year period), history leans more towards the opinion that the role was only intermittently occupied. Ireland has been split into several smaller kingdoms, each which operated under its own laws enforced by a dedicated ruler and of course they all occasionally invaded one another, making the right to the High Throne difficult to establish in places.
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The role of High King was also thought to be more of a ceremonial position rather than actually taking real charge of the country as a whole, and the ruler who held the role could only really wield power within his own jurisdiction.
One thing that history and mythology appear to agree on when it comes to the High Kings of Ireland is the significance of the Hill of Tara in County Meath. The site acted as the inauguration point and seat of the High King of Ireland, where the chosen ruler would be crowned amid a flurry of initiations and traditions.
The future monarch would drink ale and symbolically marry Queen Mehb – the sovereignty goddess of Tara, a ceremony that lasted right up until Christian times in Ireland. The king would then lay his hand upon the Lia Fáil or 'Stone of Destiny’, which is said to roar three times upon being touched by the rightful ruler. Legend tells that the stone itself was a prized possession of the Tuatha dé Dannan, who brought it with them to Ireland so as to be able to determine their true monarchs for years to come in their new kingdom.
Of course, the significance of the Hill of Tara varies depending on whether you subscribe to the mythological or strictly historical chain of events, with the latter claiming that the seat of the High King was also the opening to the underworld, and is a site imbued deeply with ancient Irish magic.
A legend that brings our story into a wonderful full circle is how the people of Ireland initially chose this, now national monument, as the chair of their kingdom. It is said that the five ancient roads of Ireland all converged upon this point – with each one leading the traveller to one of the initial territories devised by the five brothers of the Fir Bolg.
If you ever do find yourself traversing the wonders of Ireland’s Ancient East, no visit would be complete without venturing out to the Hill of Tara. Whether you subscribe to the strictly logical chain of events laid out by history, or wish to be carried away by the whimsy of mythology – you can’t fail to be enchanted by the wealth of ancient heritage on offer. From ancient burial grounds to Celtic icons, and outstanding scenery all round – it truly is a cultural treasure fit for a king.
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