Brian Boru: King, High-King, and Emperor of the Irish
By David B. Beougher
PhD Dissertation, Penn State University (2007)
Abstract: This dissertation studies the career of Brian ”Bórumha” mac Cennétig from its beginning with his election to the kingship of his ancestral kingdom of Dál Cais in 976 until his death as the high-king of Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. He was arguably the most successful Irish king of the Middle Ages, and his sobriquet “bórumha” (“cattle tribute”), usually Anglicized as “Boru,” refers to his right to the reign over the island. Special emphasis is placed on the development of his military strategy as he progressed from regional prince to lordship over the entire island.
Brian’s career has not received the scholarly attention given to his contemporaries elsewhere. His reign is either dealt with superficially in brief essays or treated more fully by writers interested in sensationalism. A careful study of Brian’s strategy and operational method reveals that they continuously evolved during the course of his reign. This is contradictory to conventional wisdom that believes Irish military development to be static after the ninth century. Brian was a careful student of his enemies and neighbors. He increasingly relied on fleets, similar to the Vikings, to provide transportation and used a series of fortifications, in imitation of the Anglo-Saxons and Franks, both for defensive, as well as offensive operations.
An argument to be made here is that the evolution of Brian’s strategies can best be understood by examining his career in stages. The initial decade of his rule was spent gaining and consolidating authority within the southern province of Munster. From 985 to 1002, Brian overcame rebellion within Munster and then expanded his rule to include the southern half of Ireland as well as gaining the submission of the previous high-king and the Viking center of Dublin. The next decade reflected the mature campaigns of Brian as he moved into the northern kingdoms bringing them under his nominal control by the year 1012.
The final years of his life saw Brian responding to revolts and fighting his final battle at the field of Clontarf, just outside of Dublin. Another theme of this work is that Brian must be placed within the context of his European contemporaries. Whatever the typical Irish kingship might have been, Brian was using tactics and methods usually believed to have been limited to Anglo-Saxon or continental monarchs. He consciously attempted to expand and define his authority in terms similar to those used by the Holy Roman Emperors, the Capetian kings of Francia, and the Anglo-Saxon kings of the family of Alfred the Great. Brian’s use of fleets, fortifications, and mercenaries combined with his efforts to secure the support of the church; all reflect an awareness of historical precedent and inspiration from outside Ireland.
Contrary to the popular perception of Brian as the liberator of Ireland from foreign dominance, he purposely used outsiders to expand his authority. Brian “Boru” combined Irish tradition with innovation to become the most successful Irish king of his time.