Death of Brian Boroimhe

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter XIII. ...continued

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The mailed armour of the Danes seems to have been a source of no little dread to their opponents. But the Irish battle-axe might well have set even more secure protection at defiance. It was wielded with such skill and force, that frequently a limb was lopped off with a single blow, despite the mail in which it was encased; while the short lances, darts, and slinging-stones proved a speedy means of decapitating or stunning a fallen enemy.

The Dalcassians surpassed themselves in feats of arms. They hastened from time to time to refresh their thirst and cool their hands in a neighbouring brook; but the Danes soon filled it up, and deprived them of this resource. It was a conflict of heroes—a hand-to-hand fight. Bravery was not wanting on either side, and for a time the result seemed doubtful. Towards the afternoon, as many of the Danish leaders were cut down, their followers began to give way, and the Irish forces prepared for a final effort. At this moment the Norwegian prince, Anrud, encountered Murrough, whose arms were paralyzed from fatigue; he had still physical strength enough to seize his enemy, fling him on the ground, and plunge his sword into the body of his prostrate foe. But even as he inflicted the death-wound, he received a mortal blow from the dagger of the Dane, and the two chiefs fell together.

The mêlée was too general for an individual incident, however important in itself, to have much effect. The Northmen and their allies were flying hard and fast, the one towards their ships, the others towards the city. But as they fled across the Tolka, they forgot that it was now swollen with the incoming tide, and thousands perished by water who had escaped the sword. The body of Brian's grandson, the boy Turlough, was found in the river after the battle, with his hands entangled in the hair of two Danish warriors, whom he had held down until they were drowned. Sitric and his wife had watched the combat from the battlements of Dublin. It will be remembered that this lady was the daughter of King Brian, and her interests were naturally with the Irish troops. Some rough words passed between her and her lord, which ended in his giving her so rude a blow, that he knocked out one of her teeth. But we have yet to record the crowning tragedy of the day.

Brian Boroimhe or Boru killed by the Viking

Brian Boroimhe killed by the Viking

Brian had retired to his tent to pray, at the commencement of the conflict. When the forces met, he began his devotions, and said to his attendant: "Watch thou the battle and the combats, whilst I say the psalms." After he had recited fifty psalms, fifty collects, and fifty paternosters, he desired the man to look out and inform him how the battle went, and the position of Murrough's standard. He replied the strife was close and vigorous, and the noise was as if seven battalions were cutting down Tomar's wood; but the standard was safe. Brian then said fifty more psalms, and made the same inquiry. The attendant replied that all was in confusion, but that Murrough's standard still stood erect, and moved westwards towards Dublin. "As long as that standard remains erect," replied Brian, "it shall go well with the. men of Erinn." The aged king betook himself to his prayers once more, saying again fifty psalms [2] and collects; then, for the last time, he asked intelligence of the field. Latean replied: "They appear as if Tomar's wood was on fire, and its brushwood all burned down;" meaning that the private soldiers of both armies were nearly all slain, and only a few of the chiefs had escaped; adding the most grievous intelligence of all, that Murrough's standard had fallen. "Alas!" replied Brian, "Erinn has fallen with it: why should I survive such losses, even should I attain the sovereignty of the world?" His attendant then urged him to fly, but Brian replied that flight was useless, for he had been warned of his fate by Aibinn (the banshee of his family), and that he knew his death was at hand. He then gave directions about his will and his funeral, leaving 240 cows to the "successor of Patrick." Even at this moment the danger was impending.

A party of Danes approached, headed by Brodir. The king sprang up from the cushion where he had been kneeling, and unsheathed his sword. At first Brodir did not know him, and thought he was a priest from finding him at prayer; but one of his followers informed him that it was the Monarch of Ireland. In a moment the fierce Dane had opened his head with his battle-axe. It is said that Brian had time to inflict a wound on the Viking, but the details of this event are so varied that it is impossible to decide which account is most reliable. The Saga states that Brodir knew Brian,[3] and, proud of his exploit, held up the monarch's reeking head, exclaiming, "Let it be told from man to man that Brodir felled Brian." All accounts agree in stating that the Viking was slain immediately, if not cruelly, by Brian's guards, who thus revenged their own neglect of their master. Had Brian survived this conflict, and had he been but a few years younger, how different might have been the political and social state of Ireland even at the present day! The Danish power was overthrown, and never again obtained an ascendency in the country. It needed but one strong will, one wise head, one brave arm, to consolidate the nation, and to establish a regular monarchy; for there was mettle enough in the Celt, if only united, to resist foreign invasion for all time to come.

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[2] Psalms.—To recite the Psalter in this way was a special devotional practice of the middle ages.

[3] Brian.—Burnt Njal, ii. 337. If this account be reliable, Brian did not live to receive the last sacraments, as other authorities state.