Brian Boru

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


FEW historical names are more widely known among Irishmen than that of Brian the First—"Brian Boru, or Borumha;"[1] and the story of his life is a necessary and an interesting introduction to an account of the battle of Clontarf.

About the middle of the tenth century the. crown of Munster was worn by Mahon, son of Ceineidi (pr. Kennedy,) a prince of the Dalcas-sian family. Mahon had a young brother, Brian, and by all testimony the affection which existed, between the brothers was something touching. Mahon, who was a noble character—"as a prince and captain in every way worthy of his inheritance"—was accompanied in all his expeditions, and from an early age, by Brian, to whom he. acted not only as a brother and prince, but as a military preceptor. After a brilliant career, Mahon fell by a deed of deadly treachery. A, rival prince of South Munster—"Molloy, son of. Bran, Lord of Desmond"—whom he had vanquished, proposed to meet him in friendly conference at the house of Donovan, an Eugenian. chief. The safety of each person was guaranteed by the Bishop of Cork, who acted as mediator between them. Mahon, chivalrous and unsuspecting, went unattended and unarmed to the conference. He was seized by an armed band of, Donovan's men, who handed him over to a party of Molloy's retainers, by whom he was put to death. He had with him, as the sacred and (as it ought to have been) inviolable "safe-conduct" on the faith of which he had trusted himself into the power of his foes, a copy of the Gospels written by the hand of St. Barre. As the assassins drew their swords upon him, Mahon snatched up. the sacred scroll, and held it on his breast, as if, he could not credit that a murderous hand would dare to wound him through such a shield! But the murderers plunged their swords into his heart, piercing right through the vellum, which became all stained and matted with his blood. Two priests had, horror-stricken, witnessed the outrage. They caught up the blood-stained Gospels and fled to the bishop, spreading through the country as they went the dreadful news which they bore. The venerable successor of St. Fin Bar, we are told, wept bitterly and uttered a prophecy concerning the fate of the murderers, which was soon and remarkably fulfilled.

"When the news of his noble-hearted brother's death was brought to Brian at Kincora, he was seized with the most violent grief. His favorite harp was taken down, and he sang the death-song of Mahon, recounting all the glorious actions of his life. His anger flashed out through his tears as he wildly chanted—

"'My heart shall burst within my breast,
Unless I avenge this great king.
They shall forfeit life for this foul deed,
Or I must perish by a violent death.'

"But the climax of his grief was, that Mahon 'had not fallen behind the shelter of his shield, rather than trust the treacherous word of Donovan."[2]

A "Bard of Thomond" in our own day—one not unworthy of his proud pseudonym—Mr. M. Hogan of Limerick, has supplied the following very beautiful version of "Brian's Lament for King Mahon:"

"Lament, O Dalcassians! the Eagle of Cashel is dead!
The grandeur, the glory, the joy of her palace is fled;
Your strength in the battle—your bulwark of valor is low,
But the fire of your vengeance will fall on the murderous foe!
"His country was mighty—his people were blest in his reign,
But the ray of his glory shall never shine on them again;
Like the beauty of summer his presence gave joy to our souls,
When bards sung his deeds at the banquet of bright golden bowls.

"Ye maids of Temora, whose rich garments sweep the green plain!
Ye chiefs of the Sunburst, the terror and scourge of the Dane!
Ye gray-haired Ard-Fileas! whose songs fire the blood of the brave!
Oh! weep, for your Sun-star is quenched in the night of the grave.
"He clad you with honors—he filled-your high hearts with delight,
In the midst of your councils he beamed in his wisdom and might;
Gold, silver, and jewels were only as dust in his hand,
But his sword like a lightning-flash blasted the foes of his land.

"Oh! Mahon, my brother! we've conquer'd and marched side by side,
And thou wert to the love of my soul as a beautiful bride;
In the battle, the banquet, the council, the chase and the throne,
Our beings were blended—our spirits were filled with one tone.
"Oh! Mahon, my brother! thou'st died like the hind of the wood,
The hands of assassins were red with thy pure noble blood;
And I was not near, my beloved, when thou wast o'er power'd,
To steep in their hearts' blood the steel of my blue-beaming sword.

'I stood by the dark misty river at eve dim and gray,
And I heard the death-cry of the spirit of gloomy Craghlea;
She repeated thy name in her caoine of desolate woe,
Then I knew that the Beauty and Joy of Clan Tail was laid low.
"All day and all night one dark vigil of sorrow I keep,
My spirit is bleeding with wounds that are many and deep;
My banquet is anguish, tears, groaning, and wringing of hands,
In madness lamenting my prince of the gold-.hilted brands.

"O God! give me patience to bear the affliction I feel,
But for every hot tear a red blood-drop shall blush on my steel;
For every deep pang which my grief-stricken spirit has known,
A thousand death-wounds in the day of revenge shall atone."

And he smote the murderers of his brother with a swift and terrible vengeance. Mustering his Dalcassian legions, which so often with Mahon he had led to victory, he set forth upon the task of retribution. His first effort, the old records tell us, was directed against the Danes of Limerick, who were Donovan's allies, and he slew Ivor, their king, and his two sons. Foreseeing their fate, they had fled before him, and had taken refuge in "Scattery's Holy Isle." But Brian slew them even "between the horns of the altar." Next came the turn of Donovan, who had meantime hastily gathered to his aid the Danes of South Munster. But "Brian," say the Annals of Innisfallen, "gave them battle, and Auliffe and his Danes, and Donovan and his allies, were all cut off." Of all guilty in the murder of the brother whom he so loved, there now remained but one—the principal, Molloy, son of Brian. After the fashion in those times, Brian sent Molloy a formal summons or citation to meet him in battle until the terrible issue between them should be settled. To this Molloy responded by confederating all the Irish and Danes of South Munster whom he could rally, for yet another encounter with the avenging Dalcassian. But the curse of the Comharba of St. Barre was upon the murderers of Mahon, and the might of a passionate vengeance was in Brian's arm. Again he was victorious. The confederated Danes and Irish were overthrown with great slaughter; Brian's son, Morrogh, then a mere lad, "killing the murderer of his uncle Mahon with his own hand." "Molloy was buried on the north side of the mountain where Mahon had been murdered and interred: on Mahon the sun shone full and fair; but on the grave of his assassin the black shadow of the northern sky rested always. Such was the tradition which all Munster piously believed. After this victory Brian was universally acknowledged king of Munster, and until Ard-Ri Malachy won the battle of Tara, was justly considered the first Irish captain of his age."[3]

This was the opening chapter of Brian's career. Thenceforth his military reputation and his political influence are found extending far beyond the confines of Munster.


[1] That is, "Brian of the Tribute."

[2] M'Gee.

[3] M'Gee.