STORY OF IRELAND

By A. M. Sullivan

CHAPTER XI. (continued)

From the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900)

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The supreme crown of Ireland at this time was worn by a brave and enlightened sovereign, Malachy the Second, or Malachy Mor. He exhibited rare qualities of statesmanship, patriotism, and valor, in his vigorous efforts against the Danes. On the occasion of one of his most signal victories over them, he himself engaged in combat two Danish princes, overcame and slew both of them, taking from off the neck of one a massive collar of gold, and from the grasp of the other a jewel-hilted sword, which he himself thenceforward wore as trophies. To this monarch, and to the incident here mentioned, Moore alludes in his well-known lines:

"Let Erin remember the days of old,
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her,
When Malachi wore the collar of gold
Which he won from her proud invader."

Whether it was that Ard-Ri Malachy began to fear the increasing and almost overshadowing power and influence of his southern tributary, or that Brian had in his pride of strength refused to own his tributary position, it seems impossible to tell; but unfortunately for Ireland the brave and wise Ard-Ri Malachy, and the not less brave and wise tributary Brian, became embroiled in a bitter war, the remote but indubitable consequences of which most powerfully and calamitously affected the future destinies of Ireland. For nearly twenty years the struggle between them continued. Any adversary less able than Malachy would have been quickly compelled to succumb to ability such as Brian's; and it may on the other hand be said that it was only a man of Brian's marvelous powers whom Malachy could not effectively crush in as many months. Two such men united could accomplish anything with Ireland; and when they eventually did unite, they absolutely swept the Danes into their walled and fortified cities, from whence they had begun once more to overrun the country during the distractions of the struggle between Malachy and Brian. During the short peace or truce between himself and the Ard-Ri, Brian—who was a sagacious diplomatist as well as great general—seems to have attached to his interest nearly all the tributary kings, and subsequently even the Danish princes; so that it was easy to see that already his eye began to glance at the supreme crown. Malachy saw it all, and when the decisive moment at last arrived, and Brian, playing Caesar, "crossed the Rubicon," the now only titular Ard-Ri made a gallant but brief defence against the ambitious usurper—for such Brian was on the occasion. After this short effort Malachy yielded with dignity and calmness to the inevitable, and gave up the monarchy of Erinn to Brian. The abdicated sovereign thenceforward served under his victorious rival as a subordinate, with a readiness and fidelity which showed him to be Brian's superior at least in unselfish patriotism and in readiness to sacrifice personal pride and personal rights to the public interests of his country.

Brian, now no longer king of Munster, but Ard-Ri of Erin, found his ambition fully crowned. The power and authority to which he had thus attained, he wielded with a wisdom, a sagacity, a firmness, and a success that made his reign as Ard-Ri, while it lasted, one of almost unsurpassed glory, prosperity, and happiness for Ireland. Yet the student of Irish history finds no fact more indelibly marked on his mind by the thoughtful study of the great page before him than this, namely, that, glorious as was Brian's reign—brave, generous, noble, pious, learned, accomplished, politic, and wise, as he is confessed on all hands to have been—his seizure of the supreme national crown was a calamity for Ireland. Or rather, perhaps, it would be more correct and more just to say, that having reference not singly to his ambitious seizure of the national crown, but also to the loss in one day of his own life and the lives of his next heirs (both son and grandson), the event resulted calamitously for Ireland. For "it threw open the sovereignty to every great family as a prize to be won by policy or force, and no longer an inheritance to be determined by law and usage. The consequences were what might have been expected. After his death the O'Connors of the West competed with both O'Neills and O'Brien's for supremacy, and a chronic civil war prepared the way for Strongbow and the Normans. The term 'kings with opposition' is applied to nearly all who reigned between King Brian's time and that of Roderick O'Connor" (the Norman invasion), "meaning thereby kings who were unable to secure general obedience to their administration of affairs."[4]

Brian, however, in all probability, as the historian I have quoted pleads on his behalf, might have been moved by the great and statesmanlike scheme of consolidating and fusing Ireland into one kingdom; gradually repressing individuality in the subordinate principalities, and laying the firm foundation of an enduring and compact monarchial state, of which his own posterity would be the sovereigns. For Morrogh, his first-born, and for Morrogh's descendants he hoped to found an hereditary kingship after the type universally copied throughout Christendom. He was not ignorant of what Alfred had done for England, Harold for Norway, Charlemagne for France, and Otho for Germany." If any such design really inspired Brian's course, it was a grandly useful one, comprehensive, and truly national. Its realization was just what Ireland wanted at that period of her history. But its existence in Brian's mind is a most fanciful theory. He was himself, while a tributary king, no wondrous friend or helper of centralized authority. He pushed from the throne a wise and worthy monarch. He grasped at the scepter not in a reign of anarchy, but in a period of comparative order, authority, and tranquility.

Be that as it may, certain it is that Brian was "every inch a king." Neither on the Irish throne, nor on that of any other kingdom, did sovereign ever sit more splendidly qualified to rule; and Ireland had not for some centuries known such a glorious and prosperous, peaceful, and happy time as the five years preceding Brian's death. He caused his authority to be not only unquestioned, but obeyed and respected, in every corner of the land. So justly were the laws administered in his name, and so loyally obeyed throughout the kingdom, that the bards relate a rather fanciful story of a young and exquisitely beautiful lady, making, without the slightest apprehension of violence or insult, and in perfect safety, a tour of the island on foot, alone and unprotected, though bearing about her the most costly jewels and ornaments of gold! A national minstrel of our own times has celebrated this illustration of the tranquility of Brian's reign in the well-known poem, "Rich and rare were the gems she wore."

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NOTES

[4] M'Gee.


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