Brian Boru

At this time, about the middle of the tenth century, the Northmen in the South and West were very powerful. They held Waterford, Cork, and Limerick, and the adjoining territories, and constructed strong fortresses. From these places they raided the country periodically, causing devastation, destroying and plundering churches and monasteries, cattle lifting, and reducing many of the inhabitants to a state of slavery. The Gael, it seems, were not capable of offering any successful resistance, at least no Gaelic chieftain called his countrymen to arms to repel the invaders.

Munster then was ruled by two powerful tribes, the Dalcassians who possessed Thomond, and the Eugenians who occupied Desmond. The representative of the former was Mahon and of the latter Molloy. (The O’Briens and the McCarthys afterwards succeeded.) It had been for many centuries the custom that the King of Munster should be chosen alternately from these two families. Mahon’s accession to the throne of Thomond occurred at this time.

He was the son of Kennedy and had a younger brother, Brian, who was born at Kincora, 941. The Dalcassian tribe had to bear the brunt of Danish atrocities. King Mahon and Brian, feeling they were not strong enough to oppose the enemy in the open, led their followers across the Shannon and settled down in the midst of the mountains and woods of Clare and Galway, where they carried on a guerilla warfare for some years. Mahon grew tired of this sort of life, and having entered into a treaty with the enemy, abandoned the field. The motto of Brian was: No surrender. He remained steadfast, fighting the enemy with varying fortune, but at length his case became desperate as his followers were reduced to fifteen men . Mahon heard of his distress and came to visit him. He earnestly besought him to abandon the hopeless combat. Brian could not be changed.

At length Mahon consented to hold a council of war, with the result that all the members of the council were in favour of the continuation of the war. Mahon now collected his forces and made a hosting into Kerry, and Muskerry, drove out the strangers from those parts, and was joined by the Eugenians. He marched from thence to Cashel, where he encamped, and was crowned King of Munster in 964. Ivar of Limerick mustered his forces and was joined by two of the native chiefs, Molloy, Lord of Desmond, and Donovan, Lord of Hy-Carbry, in Limerick. The united forces marched towards Cashel, and Mahon hearing of their approach decided to move further on near Tipperary.

The armies met at Sulchoit near the present Limerick Junction. The battle lasted from sunrise to mid-day and ended in the complete rout of the Northmen and their allies. They were pursued all the way to Limerick and slaughtered unmercifully by the victorious Irish, who took possession of the city. The prisoners were then collected on the hills of Singland near Limerick and “every one that was fit for war was put to death, and every one that was fit for a slave was enslaved.”

Mahon followed up this victory and defeated the strangers in several other engagements. Ivar escaped to Wales, but returned in a year’s time with a large fleet, sailed up the Shannon, and made Iniscattery his headquarters. Shortly after he, Donovan, and Molloy entered into a conspiracy to assassinate Mahon. There are different versions as to the manner in which the plot was executed. Mahon, it appears, was on some peaceful mission and had the safe conduct of the Bishop of Cork, and it was known he was to travel through the pass of Barnaderg (Red Gap), which was on the road between Bruree and Mallow. According to tradition it was in this pass Mahon was killed by a band of assassins employed by the three conspirators. We would infer that the conspiracy was hatched through jealousy at the rising power of Mahon.

The conspirators gained nothing by the murder. A more formidable enemy arose in the person of Brian, brother of Mahon. After the death of the latter, Brian became King of Thomond, and his first task was to avenge the murder. He first proceeded against Ivar, who had taken refuge in Scattery Island, and put him and his army to the sword. Brian showed no mercy, neither did the other side. He next attacked Donovan at Bruree, and killed him with a vast number of his followers.

He then marched against Molloy, and a pitched battle was fought at Beallach Leactha on the borders of Cork and Limerick, near where Mahon was murdered, and in this Molloy was routed with a loss of 1,200 men. He himself was found hiding in a hut and was slain by Murrough, son of Brian, then thirteen years old. After this battle, in 978, Brian became King of Munster.

Brian was an ambitious man and his accession to the Munster throne did not satisfy him, as he aimed at higher power. After subduing the enemies who had assassinated his brother he marched into Leinster, and took hostages from the kings of that province. He thus became King of Leath Moga, 984. He next provided a great fleet of 300 ships, went up the Shannon to Lough Ree, and raided Leitrim and Cavan.

Malachy II. became Ard-Righ in 980. He immediately directed his attention to the Northmen and gained a great victory over them at Tara. He soon after, with the King of Ulidia, made a hosting against the foreigners of Ath-Cleath and was enriched with valuable spoils—two thousand kine, and jewels, and treasures.

In 990 Malachy raided Thomond, killing 600 inhabitants, and he defeated the united forces of Leinster, Munster, and a Norse contingent. In 996 he routed Brian and the men of Munster, and carried off from Ath-Cleath the ring of Tomar and the sword of Carlus.

Now a final conflict between Brian and Malachy, who were evenly matched, seemed inevitable. The matter, however, was for the time amicably settled, as they agreed to divide the country between them, Malachy taking the northern half, and Brian the southern.

This treaty was displeasing to Mailmora, King of Leinster, who objected to become subject to Brian. In 999 he and the Northmen revolted. Brian marched northwards to reduce them to submission. He was joined by Malachy, and a great battle was fought at Glenmama in Wicklow, where the Leinstermen and Danes were completely defeated, with a loss of 4,000 slain. The allied forces entered Dublin and brought away gold, silver, and many captives, destroyed the fortifications, and expelled King Sitric.

Brian aimed all along to secure for himself the over-lordship of the country. He now thought the present time favourable to accomplish his designs. To strengthen his position he entered into alliances with his former enemies. He gave his daughter in marriage to Sitric, and took Mailmora into favour. It is said that he himself married Gormlaith, mother of Sitric, and sister of Mailmora, but this is not probable, because Brian’s second wife and Gormlaith’s husband were both alive at the time.

Having completed his arrangements, he invaded the territory of Malachy. His main forces were preceded by a division of Norse cavalry, which were cut to pieces by Malachy. After this defeat he discontinued the campaign for the present, and went in search of more allies. He secured the aid of the Waterford Danes, and the men of South Connaught. Thus three provinces, with foreigners, were united against the County Meath. The Northern Ui Neill refused assistance to their kinsmen though Malachy most earnestly sought it. There was nothing for Malachy but to surrender, and this he did in a most manly manner. With a few followers he approached Brian’s camp, yielded to his sway, saying, at the same time, he would fight, if he only could with any hope of success. His status was thus reduced to that of a provincial king, and Brian reached the summit of his ambition.

Was Brian a true patriot? This question has been debated with great heat; some holding that he was a true patriot, while others have held that he was guilty of treachery to his country.

Those who approve of Brian’s conduct allege that these were his motives. He perceived the necessity of unity against foreign invasion—the tribal system produced many evils, feuds, broils, dissensions, wars, and other calamities—and there could be no progress under such a system. He meant to tear it up root and branch, and establish a new dynasty. The seat of government was to be at Kincora, a central and suitable position. The elective system was to be abolished, and a hereditary monarchy on the principle of primogeniture established. He, of course, perceived the difficulties that had to be encountered, and was quite alive to the fact that it required tact and time to accomplish so great a change. He himself had the tact, and he had great faith that the heir-apparent would complete the work. The battle of Clontarf decided otherwise.

Those who condemn Brian assert that he held no such views at all. He had no intention of changing the system of government, and, at any rate, he made no attempt to do so. He allowed the old order of things to continue. Under his reign the provincial and other kings continued to enjoy their old prerogatives, even the Danes were tolerated and their dignities acknowledged. If Malachy were a weak Ard-Righ, and unfit for the position, there would be some excuse for a more fitting person to take his place. Malachy was just as able a man as Brian, and only wanted his cunning and diplomacy, which are qualities of a doubtful character. If the question should be decided by the result of Brian’s policy we must confess that the country was not benefited by Brian’s accession to the throne, in fact things were made worse, as disturbance was increased by the addition of another competitor for the crown. No doubt Brian was a great warrior, a great tactician, and a great organiser. It must not be supposed that he fought against the Norsemen for the cause of religion. Many of the foreigners were Christians at the time, and Brian’s daughter was married to Sitric, and he made them his allies when it suited his purpose. According to the constitution of Erin the Ard-Righ should be appointed by election, but the dignity was in the family of the Ui Neill since Niall of the Nine Hostages, 379 A.D. Many of those were opposed and had to defend themselves by the sword.

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