Brian Bórama (Bóruma, Boru) (d. 1014), high-king of Ireland, was born towards the middle of the tenth century. The surviving sources record the event under the year 941, but may have done so retrospectively in recognition of the fame he acquired relatively quickly in death. His epithet ‘Bórama’ (‘Bóruma’, ‘Boru’) was also acquired posthumously and refers to Béal Bórama, just north of Killaloe, the heart of his home territory. In a poem attributed to the eleventh-century poet, Cúán Ua Lothcháin (qv), he is termed Brian na Banba a Bórumi (Brian of Ireland from Bórama).
Growth of the Dál Cais dynasty Brian's dynasty, Dál Cais, had only become a dominant political force in the time of his immediate ancestors, his father, Cennétig (qv), being described in the Annals of Inisfallen as rígdamna Cassil (heir-apparent of Cashel) on his death in 951. His son Mathgamain (qv), Brian's older brother, succeeded to the kingship of Cashel and thus Munster, and it was on his murder in 976 that Brian assumed the mantle of power. His fame soon eclipsed that of his older sibling and his greater importance relative to Mathgamain is indicated by his position in the genealogies as the first of Cennétig's five sons who left descendants after them. According to the same source, Brian's mother was the daughter of a king of western Connacht, Urchad son of Murchad; her name is recorded in the Middle Irish text, Banshenchas (women-lore), as Bébinn.
Brian is recorded as having six sons, three of whom had offspring themselves, Tadc, Donnchad (qv) and Domnall, and three of whom had none, Murchad, Conchobar and Flann (though Murchad had at least one son, Tairdelbach, who was killed alongside his father and grandfather at the battle of Clontarf). This second trio is described in genealogical material as sons of the daughter of Eiden son of Cléirech and the Banshenchas confirms that Brian's first wife was indeed a daughter of Eiden, king of the southern Connacht territory of Uí Fhiachrach Aidne. Of Brian's other sons, Donnchad was the son of Gormlaith (qv), daughter of the king of Leinster, Murchad son of Finn, whose relationship with Brian is deemed to have been both tempestuous and hostile in twelfth- and thirteenth-century literary narratives in Irish and Norse. Brian's relationship with her can perhaps be dated to the 980s or 990s and may be associated with his attempts to extend his sway in Leinster. His later alliance with Echrad, daughter of Carlus son of Ailill, mother of his son Tadc, may also have been politically motivated. Since she belonged to the little known dynasty of Uí Áeda Odba in the region of the Southern Uí Néill, Brian's marriage to her gave him a foothold within the territory of his greatest rival, Máel-Sechnaill (qv) son of Domnall Donn (qv), strategically close to the important centre of Dublin, as has been noted by John Ryan (1894–1973) and Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin. History accords Echrad an even greater significance: as ancestor of Brian's grandson, Tairdelbach Ua Briain (qv) (son of Tadc), and great-grandson, Muirchertach Ua Briain (qv), she was the progenitor of the Uí Briain ruling line. No record has survived of any children Brian may have had with his fourth wife, Dub Choblaig, daughter of Cathal (qv) son of Conchobar (qv), king of Connacht. The close co-operation between the Munster king and her father in the early years of the eleventh century suggests that this partnership dates from that period; she predeceased Brian by five years.
The marital associations of some of Brian's known daughters similarly reflect his military activity. One of these, Bébinn, married the king of the Northern Uí Néill, Flaithbertach Ua Néill (qv), perhaps in the context of that ruler's submission to Brian in 1010. Another daughter, Sláine, was the wife of Sitriuc Silkbeard (qv), king of Dublin, at the time of the battle of Clontarf in 1014. Their alliance may date back more than a decade to the Norse ruler's reinstatement as king of Dublin by Brian in 1000, very much on the Munster king's terms. Sitriuc was the son of one of Brian's own wives, Gormlaith (by Amlaíb Cuarán (qv)), and his relationship with Sláine vividly demonstrates the close and complex interconnected web from which social ties were woven. A third daughter, Sadb, was allied with Cian (qv), whose father, Máel-Muad son of Bran, was instrumental in the murder of Brian's brother, Mathgamain, and may have challenged Brian's son, Donnchad, immediately after Clontarf. Whether their liaison reflects a period of more cordial connections between the two Munster peoples cannot be known.
Military campaigns, 979–1013 Brian's slaying of Cian's father, Máel-Muad, in the battle of Belach Lechta in 978 would certainly have soured relations between them for a while. This act, together with his attack the previous year on the other participants in Mathgamain's murder, the Norse of Limerick and Uí Fhidgeinti, established Brian as his sibling's successor. The following years were directed towards expansion, expeditions to Osraige in the mid 980s being particularly successful. Emboldened, he ventured further afield, plundering the midland territories of Mide and Uisnech in 988 and enjoying considerable naval success in Connacht in the same year. There were setbacks too, however, most notably at the hands of his principal rival, the midland ruler, Máel-Sechnaill son of Domnall. A hosting to Mide in the early 990s yielded ‘neither cows nor men’ (nir’ gab bai na duine) and Máel-Sechnaill defeated him some years later on Brian's home ground. Notwithstanding this, such was the power of the Munster king that his opponent agreed to come to terms with him in 997, a southern annalist (admittedly biased) claiming that Leth Moga, Ireland's entire southern half, was ceded to Brian. Further success followed, Brian gaining a major victory against the Dublin Norse at Glenn Máma in 999. This may have been in collaboration with Máel-Sechnaill, as some chronicle accounts claim; nonetheless, Brian increasingly took the field against his erstwhile ally. A foray into southern Mide in 1001 was unsuccessful and Máel-Sechnaill could call on the Connacht king in his attempts to repulse the southern ruler. Yet Brian succeeded in taking the hostages of both leaders the following year.
Brian's eyes were now directed firmly northwards, though attempts to march against Cenél nÉogain in 1002 and 1004 ended in defeat. He was more successful a year later, reaching Armagh and returning home co n-etire fer nErenn laiss (with the pledges of the men of Ireland). It was on this occasion, some annalists claim, that he left twenty ounces of gold on the altar at Armagh, aligning himself clearly with the primatial church. Supremacy over the north was demonstrated by him again in 1006 when he undertook another circuit there, and though his control was far from absolute — for example, he was forced to march against Cenél Conaill twice in 1011 — he succeeded in implementing some measure of authority there.
Clontarf, 1014 Beset by problems elsewhere, Brian turned his attention eastwards, engaging the Dublin Norse in a long, ultimately unsuccessful, campaign in 1013. Tackling unfinished business, he marched against them and their Leinster allies again the following spring in what later commentators were to portray as the defining encounter of his career, the battle of Clontarf. The battle was undoubtedly a significant struggle by means of which Brian sought to re-impose his authority in Dublin and the east. At stake was control of the lucrative trading network over which the Dublin Norse held sway and to which Máel-Mórda (qv) son of Murchad, king of Leinster, also sought access. That Brian himself lost his life there added to the renown of Clontarf. The part played by the ageing king in the actual battle is questionable, however, later sources ascribing the leading role to his son Murchad. Supporting him were his Dál Cais kinsmen, alongside other Munster forces; these were augmented by battalions from neighbouring southern Connacht. Additional participants, as recorded in various chronicle accounts, reflect later revisionist tendencies and bear witness to the reshaping of what was to become an increasingly fictionalised conflict. What began as ‘a great battle’ (cocad mór), in the words of a contemporary southern annalist, was transformed by imaginative authors into the triumph of Christianity over heathendom and of the Irish over the Vikings of the western and northern world. Not surprisingly, Brian's descendants, Uí Briain, played a dominant role in this literary endeavour. Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (The War of the Irish Against the Vikings), an account of Brian's career composed in the early twelfth century at the behest of his great-grandson Muirchertach Ua Briain, cast the Vikings as despicable, well-nigh invincible, heathen foes routed at Clontarf by the might of Brian and his Dál Cais kin. By creating an increasingly illustrious ancestor, his descendants sought to bask in Brian's reflected glory. As successors of the great ruler, their hold on power may have seemed somewhat more secure.
The story of Brian's demise was to have broader appeal. Drawing on Irish sources, Icelandic authors also preserved records of the conflict in which the status of the Munster king remained exalted. In the thirteenth-century family narrative Brennu-Njáls saga (The Story of Burnt Njáll), he is portrayed as a royal martyr, acquiring distinctly saintly traits. Transcending geographical boundaries, Brian came to symbolise proper Christian kingship, a righteous ruler for an ever-changing age. The conflict at Clontarf, ‘Brian's battle’ Brjánsorrosta, as it was termed in Norse sources, was essential to the evolution of the image of our king.
Legend and assessment This metamorphosis and in particular the liberty taken with facts in the formation of Brian's legend create difficulties when trying to access the historical ruler. Nonetheless, his skill as a military operator is not in doubt: he possessed a broad range of abilities that enabled him to overcome formidable opponents in a variety of ways. Casual raids (crecha) in which he inflicted slaughter are recorded alongside battles (catha) with relatively large numbers of casualties. He undertook land attacks with the removal of great prey (preit mór), as well as strategic naval raids (crechlonga). Defence was likewise a priority, and he fortified key structures at various points in his career. Coupled with his proven abilities as a warrior–leader were his undoubted political acumen and cunning. In his pursuit of power, Brian entered into a plethora of opportunistic allegiances that were also reflected in his marital alliances. Furthermore, he intervened decisively in the affairs of other kingdoms, for example deposing the king of Leinster in 1003 and replacing him with his own candidate, Máel-Mórda son of Murchad.
His intervention in the business of the Church is also noteworthy, his relatives occupying key positions therein, as has been shown by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. This ecclesiastical dimension is also seen in his seduction of Armagh, most clearly evident in his gift of twenty ounces of gold to that establishment in 1005. This served to undermine his northern rivals, Uí Néill, and specifically to link his own all-Ireland aspirations to the well-established concept of a national Church. That Brian's ambition extended even further may be suggested by the title imperator Scotorum accorded him at the same time, as Colmán Etchingham has noted. In describing him as such in an entry in the Book of Armagh made in 1005, Brian's confessor, Máel-Suthain (qv), may well have been taking the lead from his image-conscious lord. The appellation thus provides an insight into Brian's outward-looking perspective if, following Aubrey Gwynn (qv), we see in it a reflection of the similarly honorific label, imperator Romanorum, adopted by the Ottonion royal house during Brian's own time.
Notwithstanding possible imperial pretensions, the king that emerges from a careful reading of contemporary sources is a practical ruler who gradually grew into the role. Different challenges presented themselves at various times: Brian's response was for the most part appropriate to the task in hand. That he should first choose to avenge his brother's killing ensured that his standing among his own people remained secure. Perseverance was also his hallmark, the territory of Osraige being attacked by him three years in a row. A sense of caution is also in evidence, his focus being very much on the southern part of Ireland in the first decade or so of his reign. Yet opportunities were seized when presented, as his capture of Dublin after the victory at Glenn Máma attests. When he did venture northwards, he demonstrated the same tenacious approach, becoming statesmanlike on his circuits of that territory, as his authority grew more assured.
Dependent as we are for information on Brian's reign upon chronicles, a source-genre that is dominated by battles and death-notices, it is fortunate indeed that the record also echoes a range of responses on his part. That these were even more varied in reality can be expected; we are, after all, viewing the period through a single, coloured lens. Occasional glimpses are also afforded of real life. Mention in passing of Brian's suatrich (officials) suggests a well-ordered administration. It could hardly have been otherwise: running an increasingly large ship, Brian had to be in a position to exercise control over his vassals upon whom he relied in all manner of ways. Frequently absent on military campaigns, he had to depend on key personages to maintain control and social order. His descendants entrusted such business, at least partially, to their children: Brian's grandson, Tairdelbach son of Tadc, granting his sons, Muirchertach and Diarmait (qv), authority in Dublin and Waterford. What Brian's precise arrangements were in such matters is uncertain; it seems clear, however, that he ruled with an iron grip.
In its own terms, therefore, Brian's reign was an outstanding success, his status and that of his Munster kingdom being considerably enhanced by the time it ended. He was not the first southern ruler to have great expectations, nor was he the first to engage with the dominant northern dynasty, Uí Néill, and he may well have learned lessons from his predecessors in this regard, the Éoganacht kings, Cathal (qv) son of Finguine and Fedelmid (qv) son of Crimthann, in particular. His rivals also provided inspiration, most notably the ninth-century Uí Néill leader, Máel-Sechnaill (qv) son of Máel-ruanaid, whose description in his obituary as ri Herenn uile (king of all Ireland) set the standard to which later rulers, including Brian, might aspire. In death-notices Brian outshone him, the Annals of Ulster, in its list of those slain at Clontarf, entitling him ardrí Gaidhel Erenn ocus Gall ocus Bretan, August iartair tuaiscirt uile (‘over-king of the Irish of Ireland, and of the foreigners, and of the Britons, the Augustus of the whole of north-west Europe’). In this augmented entry, however, Brian's transformation from man of might to mythologised mogul is already underway. In his concern with image, manifested especially in his control of churches in whose important scriptoria reputations were made, Brian himself arguably set this process in train. Refined and greatly expanded by generations of descendants, his amplified legend has undoubtedly cast the historical figure in the shade. The most powerful of rulers in his day, Brian is certainly comparable with other outstanding leaders of previous and later times. What sets him apart is his superior story, skilfully recreated in different guises, at various times and in manifold places down through a millennium. Its enduring legacy is that Brian may well be Ireland's best-known king.