Brian Boru, High King of Ireland

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert. Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And we put a call out on our Twitter, "Missed in History," if you haven't followed us yet, for some Irish history topics in honor of Saint Patrick's Day. And we got back lots of suggestions. Today's choice is Brian Boru, who's the High King of Ireland. But we also put out a call for some pronunciation help because we have to confess that, even though we're both Irish girls, it was easier for us to figure out the Chinese pronunciations in the Opium Wars than it is for us to figure out the Gaelic pronunciations for this one.

Sarah Dowdey: So we owe Roger and his Irish friends, Carolyn and Ashling a huge thank you.

Katie Lambert: And any mistakes we make are not their fault. They're ours. They did their best to spell them out phonetically for us, so we're doing our best today, we promise.

Sarah Dowdey: So on to Brian Boru. And, you know, we got some suggestions for Saint Patrick, which are really great, but we were hoping that maybe most of you would have a pretty good idea of the story of Ireland's other national hero. But for Brian Boru, I mean, I don't think either of us had ever heard of him.

Katie Lambert: No.

Sarah Dowdey: So he is called by some the last great High King of Ireland, and he is the originator of the O'Brien clan. The Kennedys are supposedly descendants of Brian Boru and, apparently, everyone in an Irish pub, too.

Katie Lambert: I think if you ask around, you're gonna find a lot of descendants of Brian Boru. So to talk about him, we're gonna go into a little bit of Irish history first. So in 400 B.C. is when the Celts get to Ireland from Europe, and they introduce iron. In the 5th century A.D., Saint Patrick introduced Christianity. And this was considered to be a golden age for Ireland. There's peace; there's scholarly pursuits. But that all changes in 795 when the Vikings showed up!

Sarah Dowdey: And the Vikings are, of course, Scandinavian people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. And they call themselves the Ossmen, which is east -

Katie Lambert: The men of the east.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. And, at first, they stick to stealing from the monasteries. You know, we talked about the Book of Kells, sacking, all the good loot that you could find at a monastery, and burning fields. But then they decide that they might actually like to settle down and trade. And there's not a strong government to oppose them, so they can pretty much do whatever they want.

Katie Lambert: What were the Irish clans doing? Well, they were all fighting with each other. Europe's feudal system had a way of dealing with interlopers like the Vikings, but there was too much conflict between the tribes and the clans in Ireland for it to work there. And there were also a lot of weird rules about succession and land ownership that made that difficult. And we should also say that some say the Irish were just as violent and aggressive as the Vikings. There is a tendency to paint, I guess, the Irish people as innocent, peace-loving people, and the Vikings as evil interlopers, and that's not quite the way it went.

Sarah Dowdey: And there's not an Ireland like we would think of today either. There are a bunch of warring tribes. People are identifying themselves with their families, not this country.

Katie Lambert: [Inaudible] Irish.

Sarah Dowdey: Yes.

Katie Lambert: The Vikings themselves weren't united in Ireland either. The Norse Vikings and the Danish Vikings would get into conflicts, and they would also team up with Irish people. An Irish king might get together with a Viking against another Irish king, for example, so you'd have two black and white with this one.

Sarah Dowdey: You'd have weird matchings.

Katie Lambert: And I love also that I said the Irish were a peace-loving people when we were talking about the fighting Irish.

Sarah Dowdey: I kind of snickered at Katie when she said that. We're just gonna gloss over that one.

Katie Lambert: The Vikings also intermarried with the Irish, and they all traded with each other. So there's a little bit more to it than you might usually get. We can generally call this a period of chaos, however.

Sarah Dowdey: And the Vikings displace some of these clans in Ireland that have held power for so long, and it leaves a power vacuum. There's an open space, and somebody comes along to fill it.

Katie Lambert: And that person was Brian Boru. He was born around 940 in County Clare, and he was a member of the Dal Cais tribe. His father, Cennetig, was king of North Munster. When he was growing up, he was probably taught by monks, and his experience with the Vikings was negative, to say the least?

Sarah Dowdey: Really bad one.

Katie Lambert: His mother was murdered by Vikings and various other members of his family, and he was a witness to that, so understandably, he held a lot of animosity toward them.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. He has 11 siblings, and his brother, Mahon or Mathgamain, took over as king after their dad died in 951. And they added more of Munster to their kingdom, and he tries for peace with the Vikings, the brother. Brian wants war though and, specifically, he wants to wage guerilla warfare.

Katie Lambert: Which, as we've mentioned, is becoming a bit of a theme in our podcast? So Brian heads to the hills and attacks the Norsemen from there, and he's very, very good at what he does. The Irish people back him up because many of them don't want the Vikings there either. And, eventually, his brother comes around to his frame of mind and joins him at his height.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, when things are looking pretty good.

Katie Lambert: So they get the Vikings out of South Ireland, which some might say is as great an accomplishment as Saint Patrick driving the snakes out, but that's up to you.

Sarah Dowdey: So Brian becomes the leader of the Dal Cais in 976 when his brother dies. And he defeats Maelvadal, who is the king of the Eoganacht, which was a very powerful clan in 978. So now he's king of all of Munster.

Katie Lambert: So Brian Boru is now in control of most of Southwestern Ireland - actually, most of Southern Ireland, but it's not just the Vikings he has to worry about fighting anymore. There is a man named Mael Sechnaill, who's king of one of the most powerful clans, if not the most powerful clan in Ireland. And since this clan is just so important and, also, because we forgot to ask Roger how to pronounce it, we're just going to spell it for you! It's U-I space N-E-I-L-L. And Mael Sechnaill is their king, and he doesn't like the Vikings, and he also doesn't like how much power Brian has. According to legend, he even cut down a sacred tree of the Dal Caissians to show that they didn't have dominion over him.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is - those are fighting gestures.

Katie Lambert: "Oh, no, you did not."

Sarah Dowdey: So Mael Sechnaill fought the Vikings, too, though. And he drove them out of Dublin, becoming High King of Ireland there. But in 988, Brian came up the River Shannon and attacked Mael Sechnaill's holdings in Connacht and Meath. And, finally, he and Mael Sechnaill split up Ireland in 987; Brian becoming High King of the south. So we have two rulers at this point splitting the country in half.

Katie Lambert: But this didn't hold, of course. One of the provinces, Leinster, rebelled. There were five provinces at the time: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Meath. Today, Meath is just a county in Leinster, just so you know. And the Leinster men rebelled. They didn't like being under Brian's rules. So he basically smushed their army and then plundered Dublin. He marched on Tara, which was the seat of the kings, and made Mael S echnaill give him the High Kingship of all of Ireland in 1002.

Sarah Dowdey: So Brian rules as High King from 1002 to 1014. And we should say, too, that the role of High King is more of a symbolic one because it's not like we have a united Ireland even now. The feudal system has kind of kicked in, but things are still too fractured with all of these warring clans and tribes for him to really rule them all. I'm sure there are plenty of people who aren't allied with the king.

Katie Lambert: And under Brian's rule, we have a bit of a renaissance. He does a lot to try to rebuild what the Vikings destroyed. He's a patron of the arts, of literature, of religious architecture, and he tries to reclaim relics from Europe that have been taken from Ireland. As far as his personal life goes, he had multiple marriages and sons, which was apparently par for the course among the Irish kings.

Sarah Dowdey: But nothing lasts forever, even for Brian. And there was another revolt in 1013 when the king of Leinster, Maelmorda, got the Vikings on his side and were reinforced by lots of the other counties.

Katie Lambert: And to quell this rebellion, Brian got 30,000 men together and headed to Clontarf near Dublin in April of 1014. But Brian is very old by the time - somewhere in his 80s, so he's not much for battle. His relatives are going to lead the army instead. He'll be in a tent, praying for them. And, much to his surprise and mine, Mael Sechnaill agrees to help him, his old enemy.

Sarah Dowdey: His old rival, yeah, the other old High King.

Katie Lambert: And so we have the Battle of Clontarf, which started on April 23, 1014, which was Good Friday. Almost 4,000 Irishmen died, which was a large number, and including Brian's son, Murrough or Murchad, who supposedly behaved heroically. But it was even worse for the Vikings and the Leinster men.

Sarah Dowdey: They lost around 7,000 people, according to some estimates. Brian ended up winning. The Vikings retreated, pursued to their ships. But on their way back, according to the story, they found Brian in his tent praying, and they killed him with an axe, although supposedly he was able to kill three of them before he died, including beheading one of them.

Katie Lambert: So the victorious, yet dead Brian is honored with a 12-day wake. And we're left with the question, was the Battle of Clontarf important? And some people say it marks the end of Viking domination in Ireland. So, in that count -

Sarah Dowdey: Pretty big deal.

Katie Lambert: - yes, every important.

Sarah Dowdey: But the other side says not really. Most of the Vikings ended up staying, and it was just - it made a pretty story. It was something that was easy to turn into, you know, literary loveliness. But as far as actual political significance, maybe there wasn't a lot.

Katie Lambert: And maybe it even had a negative impact.

Sarah Dowdey: What's interesting to think about, Brian's male relatives mostly died in the battle, as did he, of course. So their power kind of fell apart. But if he hadn't died, and if they all hadn't died out -

Katie Lambert: They left heirs.

Sarah Dowdey: - would Ireland have been a monarchy?

Katie Lambert: And that's a really interesting question to ponder if you imagine this unified, very cohesive Ireland existing after this.

Sarah Dowdey: And if you have any insight there, please email us at We'd love to hear your ideas about what might have happened had Brian and his descendants ruled on.

Katie Lambert: We'd also like to hear your viewpoint on Brian Boru because there are a couple of different ones. There's the side who thinks of him as this great Irish patriot and national hero who led the Irish people against the Vikings and died for them. It's the story that's almost mythical. The stone of destiny was said to roar when Brian was crowned, and his blood when he died was said to have healed the injuries of an Irish boy. But, of course, there's always another side.

Sarah Dowdey: But, of course, some people also say that Brian Boru better epitomizes the Irish infighting, Irish fighting Irish, rather than Irish fighting Vikings in that the Vikings fought on both sides anyway. And some people say that his allegiance to his clan was more important than his allegiance to Ireland as a whole.

Katie Lambert: Regardless of what you think Brian Boru's place is, he still very much has a place in Ireland. At Trinity College, you can find what's called Brian Boru's harp, even though it was not his and has nothing to do with his life, but it's an instrument dating back to the 15th Century, and that same harp is seen on the Guinness logo, as well as the heraldic symbols of Ireland. He's still very much around.

Sarah Dowdey: And there are 750,000 O'Briens throughout the world, so he's made some kind of impact.

Katie Lambert: We plan to talk to Conan O'Brien about this on Twitter. Watch out, Conan.

Sarah Dowdey: And that brings us to listener mail.

Katie Lambert: Today's email is from Ted of Santa Cruz, California about our Zenobia Warrior Queen podcast. And he says, "You made one slight error by referring to corn in the podcast. Prior to Columbus's discovery of the Americas and North American maize, corn referred to any grain, usually wheat. Only after maize became the major staple crop of the world did it become popularly known as corn. The other grains are named precisely, such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. So your listeners might have been confused by your use of 'corn.' I do love your podcasts, so please keep doing them." So thank you to Ted for the correction.

Sarah Dowdey: So that about wraps up Brian Boru. We're gonna wish everyone Happy Saint Patrick's Day. Katie, [inaudible] and -

Katie Lambert: I'm gonna pick up a Guinness for Brian Boru.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, celebrate that harp. And if you have anything else you'd like to learn about Irish history, you should visit our homepage. It's

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