Ireland’s first hero

For this St. Patrick’s Day, our columnist takes a look back at Brian Boru, high king of Ireland

TORONTO, ON, Mar 12, 2014/ Troy Media/ – With St. Patrick’s Day imminent (March 17), my thoughts go back to being a Dublin schoolboy in the 1950s, and to history lessons about Ireland’s first hero. He was a fellow called Brian Boru.

Brian’s claim to fame is tied to the dominant recurring theme of Irish history as it’s popularly told – the perpetual struggle against invading foreigners. In his case, the Vikings were the enemy. And his rendezvous with destiny happened a thousand years ago, at the 1014 Battle of Clontarf.

Born around 941, Brian came from what a recent biographer has described as “a dynasty on the make,” a family that sought power by all necessary means. Eventually, it paid off with the grand prize – the high kingship of Ireland.

Shrewd image management was part of the equation. This was a talent that ran in the family, having been most cleverly demonstrated when his immediate ancestors reinvented themselves by manufacturing a relationship with legendary royalty.

Then there was the church. Appreciating the value of influence in ecclesiastical circles, Brian ensured that members of his family filled high church offices, while cultivating a particularly close association with the most symbolically important one. In 1005, he reputedly deposited 20 ounces of gold at the altar of the primatial seat of Armagh. If the story’s true, it displayed an especially deft touch.

Still, the most important element in Brian’s success was military talent. Whether it was his use of naval power, his fortification-building, or just his plain ability to win far more battles than he lost, he was very good at the art of making war.

As for the Vikings, they’d been established in Ireland well before Brian’s birth. Initially no more than coastal raiders, they’d evolved into traders and urban developers, building port settlements in places like Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.

And since the Vikings often travelled without women, they also married into the local population, sometimes going so far as to adopt Christianity. In the process, settlements like Dublin became ethnic hybrids rather than pure Viking enclaves. To borrow a phrase from today’s vocabulary, they were multi-cultural.

But Brian and the Vikings weren’t always enemies. When it suited, they were allies.

There were even family ties. Indeed, at the time of the climactic battle at Clontarf, Brian’s third daughter was married to Sitric Silkenbeard, the Viking king of Dublin who was the main leader on the other side. And to further complicate matters, Sitric was the son – from a previous marriage – of one of Brian’s wives.

Over the centuries, Clontarf 1014 came to take on multiple meanings, the most significant of which was as a great battle between the indigenous Irish and foreign invaders. In addition, there was the religious dimension of the martyred Brian – the aging Christian king praying in his tent was accosted and killed by a fleeing heathen Viking. And for further symbolism, it all happened on Good Friday.

In fact, though, there were Irish and Vikings on both sides at Clontarf. So, rather than a repelling of the foreigners, Brian’s victory was really the suppression of a rebellion against his own expansionary power.

Mind you, the sort of myth-making that surrounds Brian isn’t a uniquely Irish characteristic. Everyone does it in their own way. Take the legend of Richard the Lionheart, England’s heroic 12th century king.

Ethnically and culturally French, the real Richard regarded England as merely a source of revenue, and spent as little time there as possible. His vast hereditary French possessions took precedence. But you’d never guess this from the popular stories or the imposing 19th century statue outside the Houses of Parliament.

When Irish history moved on, new and more durable intruders came from across the Irish Sea, and Brian’s descendants found a way of living with this reality. Consequently, they survived as one of the few old Gaelic families to form part of the post-Reformation landed elite. One wonders what Brian would have made of it all.

No doubt the legendary figure – the bane of the foreigners – would have been scandalised by their accommodations. But then again, perhaps the pragmatist, the man who extended personal and family power through a combination of military and political means, would have understood that you do what you have to do.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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