Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Brian Boru

Fig.1: Unlike Saint Patrick, Brian Boru thankfully doesn't
have a day where it is acceptable for people dress as
ugly, hairy leprechauns.
Ireland has been a notoriously difficult place to rule over, what with the constant rebellions and the parades to commemorate the rebellions (fig.1). Early on, it was even difficult for the Irish themselves to take charge over their own Emerald Isle! Irish politics in the first millennium After Doughnuts (AD) was reduced to families ruling over their own little parcel of land. Indeed, the only hope of advancement was to challenge other clans to bar fights, which typically ended with disembodied heads everywhere (thus why they introduced those unbreakable beer bottles). Things changed when a man known as Brian Boru rose to prominence. He began the process of uniting Ireland by, yes, cutting some heads, but also by forging a national identity and culture. He was also able to bring Irishmen together through their hatred of those blasted Vikings, who always cheated by bringing axes into the pub. While his accomplishments faded after his death faster than a college student's liver on St. Patrick's Day, he is revered as one of the first rulers of a united Ireland, a goal which some people are still trying to get even today! (History doesn't end, people.)

Fig.2: The five historic regions of Ireland were
further divided into kingdoms, which were 
divided into clans, which were divided into 
houses, which were divided into bedrooms, 
which were divided between brothers who 
fought over who really owned that Optimus 
Prime action figure under the Christmas tree.
The exact year of Brian's birth is unknown (scrapbook-keeping duties were very lax in those days), but it is surmised that it was sometime between the 920s and 940s. At this time, Ireland had about 150 kings for just 500,000 people; if you do the math, that's 3333 and 1/3 subjects per kingdom, which is not only puny but also very painful for that unlucky 3334th person. Of course, various kings sought to be the figurative big cheese of their respective region (fig.2), whom lesser rulers obeyed with just a hint of ire (where do you think Ireland got its name?). Brian's father, Cennétig mac Lorcáin, was the lowly king of Tuadmumu in modern-day County Clare, and was expected to pay homage to the Eóganacht clan who were the masters of Munster ("big cheese" here being literal and figurative). There was also a symbolic position called the High King of Tara, called so because a talking stone on the Hill of Tara would proclaim a man the rightful ruler (which even J.K. Rowling admits is less silly than a Sorting Hat). The High King of Tara was considered the most powerful ruler in Ireland, though in practice he had as much control over his subordinate monarchs as a substitute teacher in a 7th grade classroom after finals are over.

In 951, Brian's father died, and his brother, Mathgamain, took control of the kingdom. Mathgamain was not one to constantly pay lip service to his bosses (he would not have been good in the corporate world), and decided to challenge the Eóganacht for control over Munster. Brian participated in several battles on behalf of his brother, and in 964 they were able to capture Munster's sacred capital on top of the Rock of Cashel. Several of Munster's other kings resented Mathgamain's elevated status and attacked him in order to get a better cut of the cheese themselves. The most successful was Máel Muad mac Brain from Desmond in County Kerry, who captured Mathgamain in 976 and sliced him up as if he was a half-pound of the store brand. Brian took over as the leader of his brother's forces, and got his revenge on Máel Muad at the Battle of Belach Lechta in 978. Thus Brian became the King of Munster, and challenged all who didn't respect his authorita.

The biggest threat was not his fellow Irish, but a certain group of visitors from the north: Vikings had been viking around Ireland since the early 800s. At first they merely raided her coasts, but many Vikings eventually stayed to enjoy the fabled Irish hospitality. They established settlements such as Dublin and, in Brian's neck of the woods, Limerick, which was proclaimed accordingly:
We have founded the city of Limerick,
And we have settled the city real quick.
We Vikings are first-class,
So don't give us no sass,
Or guess where we'll give you a kick!
The Vikings were a mixed blessing to the Irish. On the one hand, they incorporated the island into their vast trading network of green lands (like Iceland) and ice lands (like Greenland), as well as introduced superior weaponry and technology. Of course, the Irish would use this superior weaponry and technology to kill each other more efficiently than before, but at least there wasn't as much of a mess to clean up afterwards. Often the Vikings had to be held in check, such as in 972 when Mathgamain and Máel Muad temporarily put aside their differences to prevent the Vikings from expanding and making stupid rhymes about other parts of Ireland. When Brian took over Munster, he routed a Viking force led by Limerick's King Ivar, killing the king, his sons, and his toothless dragon. This allowed Brian to earn the reputation as a Viking-slayer, convincing most of the various other Irish kingdoms in Munster to pledge loyalty to him (cause who wants to mess with a slayer of peoples who slay for a living?).

Fig.3: Brian preferred wearing full-
body armor less so to protect himself
from swords, but from the harmful
U-V rays that did a number on his
pasty Irish skin.
Brian's rise to power alerted the man who was supposed to have Power for a middle name: the High King of Tara, Máel Sechnaill. For twenty years, between 982 and 1002, these two head honchos duked it out for the symbolic control of all Ireland (because as your English teacher knows, symbolism matters more than reality). Brian struggled at first, losing minor skirmishes but was able to retreat without losing much more than a piece of his dignity (Washington would one day pick up on this idea as well). Eventually he learned a strategy that would become the basis for many military operations: he would use his army and navy in tandem, and use both to crush enemy from two sides. His navy was bolstered by the now-loyal Vikings in Limerick, who rowed along coasts and rivers like it was their thing. Thus Brian was able to pile up victory after victory against Máel Sechnaill; by 1002, the High King gave up his High Crown to Brian (sources disagree on whether this was a result of an epic battle on the Hill of Tara, or Máel Sechnaill had to take it off after losing a game of strip poker). So Brian claimed the most powerful position in Ireland, and solidified it by marrying Máel Sechnaill's former wife: Gormflaith, the most beautiful name ever conceived.

Brian reigned alongside a very popular co-ruler: peace. With a strong High King in control, the petty wars that often erupted in Ireland simmered down like rambunctious children after knocking over Grandpa's ashes. The various kingdoms began to work in cooperation with each other; roads and bridges, which many refused to build since it made invasions easier, began to crop up throughout the isle. Trade increased within and without Ireland, and Brian even sent diplomats to Britain in order to declare supremacy and collect tribute from their neighbors (though, in hindsight, maybe he shouldn't have given the British the idea for that whole thing). The biggest revitalization that took place under Brian's rule was that of religion. While the Catholic Church in Europe was characterized by a pope, a few cardinals, some bishops, a bunch of priests, and too many shrill prepubescent choir boys, the system was more unorganized in Ireland, where there were as many monasteries as there were Patricks. Brian changed this with his support of the Armagh monastery, which coincidently became the center of Irish Catholicism. Not only did this help give order to the religious fervor of the island, it also allowed Brian to extend his rule into Ulster in the north of Ireland, a region known for causing trouble as late as the 1970s. In addition, he rebuilt churches that were destroyed by Viking raiders, and put "Beware of Norseman-Eating Dog" signs all around so they would think twice about doing it again.

Fig.4: At least it was a nice day to dismember your foes!
Of course, when things are going good, there's always someone who wants to mess it all up (if you felt the need to correct my grammar just now, chances are you are that person). Máel Morda, formerly King of Leinster before Brian crushed him like candy on a lonely person's phone, allied with Vikings from both Dublin and outside of Ireland in order to take the High King down. Irish sources claim that this was an attempt by those Norsemen to conquer Ireland for good, but really it was yet another piece of Irish-on-Irish action with a little bit of Vikings added in to keep it interesting. The two armies met at Clontarf on Good Friday in 1014. Since Brian was now at least in his seventies, he commanded the troops from his favorite armchair far enough away from the action so that he could still listen to his favorite game shows. The battle was one of the bloodiest Ireland had seen in a while, lasting as long as the sun allowed the soldiers to see what they were stabbing (fig.4). While Brian's forces were triumphant, it was what snooty historians call a Pyrrhic victory: a win at such a cost that it might as well have been a defeat. Brian's son and heir, as well as his grandson and heir's heir, were both killed in the fray. And then, as some Vikings were retreating, they came across Brian's tent unguarded; the mercenary Brodir stormed in and split Brian's skull with an axe just as the elderly High King of Ireland was napping during the evening news.

Fig.5: The pinnacle of Connery's acting career
until his magnum opus, The League of
Extraordinary Gentlemen.
While Clontarf marked the last time the Vikings made a significant attack on Ireland, the loss of Brian's leadership spelled doom for the unity of the island. The various regions and kingdoms started doing their own things again (those things mostly being drinking and fighting), and were easy prey once the rulers of England set their sights on their westward neighbor starting in 1169. But the legend of Brian was not tossed aside, and the accomplishments made during his lifetime gained even more prestige long after he was gone (I sure hope the same doesn't bode true for this blog). Starting in the 1300s, Irish propaganda was written that hailed Brian as a great man who defended, united, and sobered up the Emerald Isle. It was during this time that he was given the cognomen Boru (or Bóruma), which literally means "of the cattle tribute," signifying that he was such a great chief that people should present him with cows (I prefer mine cooked and dressed with cheese and bacon between two buns, thank you). His descendants became known as the O'Brien clan, who became revered as great leaders and great late night talk show hosts. To top it all, a leprechaun-sized version of him appeared in the best Sean Connery film ever made: 1959's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (fig.5)! Highlander be darned!

While Brian doesn't get much respect outside of Ireland, and what little he does is typically exaggerated (leave it to the Irish), he is still an important figure in Ireland's early history. His accomplishments led to the beginning of an Irish culture that transcended the mere interests and traditions of local clans. Indeed, his reign in the late 10th and early 11th centuries may still be the closest Ireland ever came to political unity throughout the island, much to the dismay of the 6% of the world's Irish people who actually live in the Republic of Ireland. Maybe he was a visionary who believed that an integrated Ireland could withstand any challenge that might come its way. Or maybe he was yet another ambitious, arrogant male who desired more people to rule over, and more women to possess (though with a wife named Gormflaith, what more could you possibly want?).

1 comment:

  1. Hello Mr. Dave,

    I just stumble on your YouTube channel couple of weeks ago and I love everyone of them. Your style is charming and funny as the same time hahaha. I wish you the very best and hope you can resume your blog and upload more videos.

    best of wishes,
    AA from Kuwait :)