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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 12443

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

At last a time came for their oppression to be cut short in Ireland. Two valiant defenders sprang almost simultaneously into note. One of these was Malachy, or Melachlin, the Ard-Reagh and head of the O'Neills, the same Malachy celebrated by Moore as having "worn the collar of gold which he won from the proud invader." The other, Brian Boroimhe, commonly known to English writers as Brian Boru, a chieftain of the royal Dalcassian race of O'Brien, and the most important figure by far in Irish native history, but one which, like all others, has got so fogged and dimmed by prejudice and misstatement, that to many people his name seems hardly to convey any sense of reality at all.

Poor Brian Boru! If he could have guessed that he would have come to be regarded, even by some who ought to know better, as a sort of giant Cormoran or Eat-'em-alive-oh! a being out of a fairy tale, whom nobody is expected to take seriously; nay, as a symbol, as often as not, for ridiculous and inflated pretension. No one in his own day doubted his existence; no one thought of laughing at his name. Had they done so, their laughter would have come to a remarkably summary conclusion!

Brian Boroimhe, Boruma, or Boru--his name is written in all three ways--was not only a real man, but he was, what was more important, a real king, and not a mere simulacrum or walking shadow of one, like most of those who bore the name in Ireland. For once, for the only time as far as its native history is concerned, there was some one at the helm who knew how to rule, and who, moreover, did rule. His proceedings were not, it must be owned, invariably regulated upon any very strict rule of equity. He meant to be supreme, and to do so it was necessary to wrest the power from the O'Neills upon the one hand, and from the Danes on the other, and this he proceeded with the shortest possible delay to do.

He had a hard struggle at first. Munster had been overrun by the Danes of Limerick, who had defeated his brother, Mahon, king of Munster, and forced him to pay tribute. Brian himself, scorning to submit to the tyrants, had taken to the mountains with a small band of followers. Issuing from this retreat, he with some difficulty induced his brother once more to confront the aggressors. An important battle was fought at Sulcost, near Limerick, in the year 968, in which the Danes were defeated, and fled back in confusion to their walls, the Munster men, under Brian, following fast at their heels, and entering at the same time. The Danish town was seized, the fighting men were put to the sword, the remainder fled or were enslaved.

Mahon being some years afterwards slain, not by


the Danes, but by certain treacherous Molloys and O'Donovans, who had joined themselves with him, Brian succeeded to the sovereignty of Munster, and shortly afterwards seized upon the throne of Cashel, which, upon the alternate system then prevailing, was at that time reigned over by one of the Euganian house of Desmond. Having avenged his brother's murder upon the O'Donovans, he next proceeded to overrun Leinster, rapidly subdued Ossory, and began to stretch out his hands towards the sovereignty of the island.

In the meantime the over-king, Malachy, had defeated the Danes at the battle of Tara, and was consequently in high honour, stronger apparently then any of his predecessors had been. In spite of this Brian by degrees prevailed. With doubtful patriotism he left the Danes for a while unpursued, attacked Meath, overran and wasted Connaught, and returning suddenly burnt the royal stronghold of Tara. After a long and wearisome struggle, Malachy yielded, and allowed Brian to become Ard-Reagh in his place, retaining only his own ancestral dominions of Meath. He seems to have been a placable, easy-going many "loving," say the annalists, "to ride a horse that had never been handled or ridden," and caring more for this than for the cares of the State.

After this, Brian made what may be called a royal progress through the country, receiving the submission of the chiefs and inferior kings, and forcing them to acknowledge his authority. In speaking of him as king of Ireland, which in a sense he undoubtedly was, we must be careful of letting our imaginations carry us into any exaggerated idea of what is meant by that word. His name, "Brian of the Tribute," is our safest guide, and enables us to understand what was the position of even the greatest and most successful king under the Celtic system. It was the exact opposite of the feudal one, and this difference proved the source in years to come of an enormous amount of misconception, and of fierce accusations of falsehood and treachery flung profusely from both sides. The position of the over-king or Ard-Reagh was more nearly allied to that of the early French suzerain or the German emperor. He could call upon his vassal or tributary kings to aid him in war times or in any sudden emergency, but, as regards their internal arrangements--the government, misgovernment, or non-government of their several sub-kingdoms--they were free to act as they pleased, and he was not understood to have any formal jurisdiction.

For all that Brian was an unmistakable king, and proved himself to be one. He defeated the Danes again and again, reducing even those inveterate disturbers of the peace to a forced quiescence; entered Dublin, and remained there some time, taking, say the annalists, "hostages and treasure." By the year 1002 Ireland had a master, one whose influence made itself felt over its whole surface. For twelve years at least out of its distracted history the country knew the blessings of peace. Broken by defeat the Danish dwellers of the seaport towns began to turn their energies to the milder and more pacific activities of trade. The ruined monasteries were getting


(From a Photograph.)

rebuilt; prosperity was beginning to glimmer faintly upon the island; the chiefs, cowed into submission, abstained from raiding, or confined their raids to discreeter limits. Fortresses were being built, roads made, and bridges repaired in three at least of the provinces. Another twenty years

of Brian's rule and the whole future history of Ireland might have been a different one.

It was not to be however. The king was now old, and the work that he had begun, and which, had he been followed by a successor like himself, might have been accomplished, was destined to crumble like a half-built house. The Danes began to stir again. A rebellion had sprung up in Leinster, the coast-line of which was strong-holded at several points with Danish towns. This rebellion they not only aided with their own strength, but further appealed for assistance to their kinsmen in Northumbria, Man, the Orkneys, and elsewhere, who responded by sending a large force under Brodar, a Viking, and Sigurd Earl of Orkney to their aid.

This force Brian gathered all his energies to oppose. With his own Munster clansmen, aided by all the fighting men of Meath and Connaught, with his five sons and with his old rival, King Malachy of Meath, fighting under his banner, he marched down to the strand of Clontarf, which stretches from the north of Dublin to the out-jutting promontory of Howth, and there, upon Good Friday, 1014, he encountered his Leinster rebels and the Viking host of invaders, ten thousand strong it is said, and a great battle was fought, a battle which, beginning before the dawn, lasted till the sun was beginning to sink.

To understand the real importance of this battle, we must first fully realize to ourselves what a very old quarrel this was. For three long weary centuries Ireland had been lying bound and broken under the heel of her pagan oppressors, and only with great difficulty and partially had escaped within the last fifteen or sixteen years. Every wrong, outrage, and ignominy that could be inflicted by one people upon another had been inflicted and would most assuredly be inflicted again were this battle, now about to be fought, lost.

Nor upon the other side were the motives much less strong. The Danes of Dublin under Sitric stood fiercely at bay. Although their town was still their own, all the rest of the island had escaped from the grasp of their race. Whatever Christianity they may occasionally have assumed was all thrown to the winds upon this great occasion. The far-famed pagan battle flag, the Raven Standard, was unfurled, and floated freely over the host. The War-arrow had been industriously sent round to all the neighbouring shores, peopled largely at that time with men of Norse blood. As the fleet swept south it had gathered in contingents from every island along the Scotch coast, upon which Viking settlements had been established. Manx men, too, and men from the Scandinavian settlements of Angelsea, Danes under Carle Canuteson, representatives, in fact, of all the old fighting pagan blood were there, and all gathered together to a battle at once of races and of creeds.

On the Irish side the command had been given by Brian to Morrogh, his eldest son, who fifteen years before had aided his father in gaining a great victory over these same Dublin Danes at a place called Glenmama, not far from Dunlaven. The old king himself abstained from taking any part in the battle. Perhaps because he wished his son--who already had been appointed his successor--to have all the glory and so to fix himself yet more deeply in the hearts of his future subjects; perhaps because he felt that his strength might not have carried him through the day; perhaps--the annalists say this is the reason--because the day being Good Friday he preferred praying for his cause rather than fighting for it. Whatever the reason it is certain that he remained in his tent, which was pitched on this occasion not far from the edge of the great woods which then covered all the rising ground to the north-west of Dublin, beginning at the bank of the river Liffy.

The onset was not long delayed. The Vikings under Sigurd and Brodar fought as only Vikings could fight. Like all battles of that period it resolved itself chiefly into a succession of single combats, which raged all over the field, extending, it is said, for over two miles along the strand. The Danish women, and the men left to guard the town, crowded the roofs, remaining all day to watch the fight. Sigurd of Orkney was killed in single combat by Thorlogh, the son of Morrogh, and grandson of Brian; Armud and several of the other Vikings fell by the hand of Morrogh, but in the end the father and son were both slain, although the latter survived long enough to witness the triumph of his own side.

Late in the afternoon the Northmen broke and fled; some to their ships, some into the town, some into the open country beyond. Amongst the latter Brodar, the Viking, made for the great woods, and in so doing passed close to where the tent of the king had been fixed. The attendants left to guard Brian had by this time one by one slipped away to join the fight, and the old man was almost alone, and kneeling, it is said, at the moment on a rug in the front of his tent. The sun was low, but the slanting beams fell upon his bent head and long white beard. One of Brodar's followers perceived him and pointed him out to his leader, saying that it was the king. "King, that is no king, that is a monk, a shaveling!" retorted the Viking. "It is not, it is Brian himself," was the answer.

Then Brodar caught his axe and rushed upon Brian. Taken unawares the king nevertheless rallied his strength which in his day had been greater than that of any man of his time, and still only half risen from his knees he smote the Viking a blow across the legs with his sword. The other thereupon lifted his battle-axe, and smote the king upon his head, cleaving it down to the chin, then fled to the woods, but was caught the next day and hacked into pieces by some of the infuriated Irish.

So fell Brian in the very moment of victory, and when the combined league of all his foes had fallen before him. When the news reached Armagh, the bishop and his clergy came south as far as Swords, in Meath, where they met the corpse of the king and carried it back to Armagh, where he was buried, say the annalists, "in a new tomb" with much weeping and lamentation.


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