Mar 22, 2014

The Vikings Are Coming! Ard Rí na hÉireann


I live in a house with an identity crisis. It sits on an invisible line between three areas of Dublin, each historic for their own reasons. One of these is Clontarf, meaning plains of the bull. Because of the noise the waves once made crashing over Dublin Bay rather than the presence of bulls.

Clontarf gave its name to one of Ireland’s most famous Battles, the one that ended a brief rule under the authority of one High King. 2014 is the millennium anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. Vikings mercenaries flooded in from the Irish sea. The forces of the High King fought off an uprising from the Kings of Dublin and Leinster. In all, it’s estimated 6,000 Vikings and between 1,400 –4,000 Irish men died in less than a day in a bloodly, savage battle.

Today and tomorrow, I will be talking about how Brian Boru rose to Ard Rí, the battle that saw 2,000 Vikings arrive in longboats along at the seafront in Clontarf, and the Clontarf today.

Is you’re name O’Brien? Do you know any O’Briens?

This is where the name comes from.

Ireland had a long history of kings, In 1002, when Brian Boru  first proclaimed himself Ard Rí na hÉireann(High King of Ireland), Ireland had a population of half a million and 150 kings. Brian, already in his sixties, and supported by the Church wanted a system more like that of England or France where only one king ruled.

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Ireland is made up of four provinces. Before that, there were Kingdoms, including one called Mide, the seat of the Ard Rí and The Hill of Tara. Clontarf is a coastal area just north of Dublin city on the east coast of the county.

Brian was born one of twelve sons in the Munster, to the lower left of the country. Coming from a family of politically ambitious warriors, his father died King of Tuadmumu(to the top left of Munster). He was succeeded by his son, Lacthna, for two years. Lacthna was then succeeded by his brother, Mathgamain. Over the next twenty three years Mathgamain extended his reach, dying as King of Munster and passing the title to his brother, Brian Boru in 976.  

Brian was a brilliant strategist and he had big plans. Once he secured Munster, he turned his attention to Leinster and Connacht, bringing him into conflict with Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill. Máel Sechnaill was King of Mide, ruler of the Kingdom of Dublin(which he had won back from the Norse) and Ard Rí. Brian and Máel Sechnaill eventually divided Ireland in 997. Máel Sechnaill was to rule Leth Cuinn(Mide, Connacht, and Ulster, while Brian was to rule Leth Moga(Leinster and Munster). Though there were still many regional kings below them.

The King of Leinster was thought weak for conceding to Brian and was quickly overthrown by Máel Morda mac Murchada, who immediately launched an uprising. With the support of his Norse cousin Sigtrygg Silkbeard Olafsson(king of Dublin), they met Brian in Kildare in 999, south of Dublin and engaged in a blood soaked battle, where it’s thought up to 4,000 died. Brian then sieged Dublin.

However, once he’d proven himself. Brian once again sought to politically strengthen his way to power through alliances and marriage. He returned Dublin to Sigtrygg and married him to one of his daughters. In turn, Brian married Sigtrygg’s mother AND the sister of Máel Morda.

Not content with ruling Leth Moga, in 1000, Brian again launched his plans for a united Ireland under one ruler and repeatedly attacked Máel Sechnaill. When Brian set his sights on a battle at Tara, Máel Sechnaill asked for a month to gather his troops. It’s unclear if a battle occurred but when Máel Sechnaill couldn’t rally the support of the lesser kings, he was forced to concede to Brian. Brian Boru claimed the title, Ard Rí hÉireannin 1002.

But, it wasn’t enough for him to claim the title himself. He wanted it to mean something. He wanted to rule as King of Ireland, which meant forcing every one of the lesser kings to fully submit power to him. The kings of Ulster weren’t so quick to give in. Brian invaded Ulster and systematically forced each king into submission. Forever the strategist, he hedged his bets with the Roman Catholic monasteries in gold. He declared Armagh in Ulster as the religious capital of Ireland. They would only remain so as long as he was in power. So, it was in their own interest to support Brian(now in his seventies) and in 1005, he was declared Imperator(a title once used by commanders and emperors of Rome) in the Book of Armagh, but it took another 6 years before he was outwardly recognized by all the kings.

Only a year passed with all Ireland under the authority of the High King, Brian Boru before the battles for rule began again.

Read Part 2 The Battle of Clontarf here

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