Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
March 17 is a special day on our calendar because it marks the return to God of our beloved patron saint in the year 461 AD. It was in that year that a humble missionary passed to his eternal reward. Today he is revered around the world as Saint Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, the Archdiocese of New York, the nation of Guiana, and hundreds of towns and parishes across the globe. But there are many other events which occurred on this day throughout history which also make it memorable; for example on March 17:
1014, High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, marched from Kincora, his stronghold at Killaloe, Co Clare, bound for Clontarf, and the battle that would break Viking power in Ireland;
1737, the first St Patrick’s celebration in America took place sponsored by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston;
1763, before the United States was even established, the first St Patrick’s Day celebration was held in New York City;
1766, it is recorded that a Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner in New York featured twenty toasts, the nineteenth of which declared “may the enemies of Ireland be tormented with itching, without the benefit of scratching“;
1776, the British evacuated Boston leaving the city to the American patriot army. General George Washington made the password of the day “Saint Patrick”;
1804, Jim Bridger, American scout, fur trader, and mountain man, was born;
1858, in a Dublin back room, James Stevens and Thomas Luby founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was supported by the Fenian Brotherhood in America;
1871, the first professional baseball league – the National Association of Professional Baseball Players was founded at Collin’s Saloon on Broadway and 13th Street in New York;
1889, Harry Clarke, the most celebrated stained glass artist of the age, was born in Dublin;
1899, An Claideamh Soluis (The Sword of Light), the official newspaper of the Gaelic League first appeared;
Many past march readings have discussed our Patron Saint, so this month we will focus on another great and glorious character from the pages of Ireland’s history and that is the first one listed above: the Emperor of the Irish: High King Brian Boru. Brian mac Cennetig was the youngest son born to Cennetig (Kennedy) mac Lorcáin, King of Thomond, and a prince of the Dal Cais Clan. His birthplace was near Killaloe, Co. Clare at about 940 AD. At the time, Ireland was besieged by Viking warriors who raided up and down Ireland’s rivers from their strongholds at Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and other seaside settlements. The tribal structure of the Irish provided no unified opposition and, as a result, some clans sided with the Norse out of fear, some clans fought the invaders, but only when they were threatened. Some clans even ignored the threat and continued to fight among themselves over local disputes.
Brian’s brother, Mahon, became King of Thomond following the death of their father in 959 AD and attempted to cement relations with the Vikings and establish a lasting peace, but his younger brother Brian shared no such desire. In fact, ever since Brian had learned of the death of his mother in a Viking raid when he was just a boy, he harbored a hatred against the Vikings that guided the rest of his life. Too young to participate in Clan activities at the time and too old to be treated as a child, he was sent to be educated – most likely at Clonmacnoise. There he studied Greek and Latin, but the parts he studied hardest were the battle tactics of Greek and Roman generals. When he returned to the Dal Cais, he urged the study of Viking weapons and battle methods with the idea of waging war on the invaders, but Mahon could not be convinced. When he was old enough, Brian broke away from his brother and with a band of followers, waged a guerrilla war on Viking settlements. A skilled tactician, he made use of mounted cavalry, which had never been used by the Irish before. He won many decisive victories and instilled fear in the enemy as well as the Irish clans who had allied with them.
Brian’s campaign gained popular support and many joined him, including his Brother Mahon, who finally renounced his truce with the Vikings. Their combined forces drove most of the Norse from Southern Ireland, including their leader Ivar. Eager for revenge, Ivar returned ten years later and captured and killed Mahon. Brian succeeded his brother to the throne of Munster, bringing with him a re-fueled hatred of the Vikings. Soon after, his forces met and defeated Ivar’s army, killing Ivar, and striking Viking influence in Southern Ireland a serious blow. Brian returned to his boyhood home at Killaloe and in 1002 built his fortress stronghold. It was called Kincora, deriving its name from the Irish Ceann Coradh, meaning ‘the head of the weir’. It was located on a hill overlooking the Shannon – a site now occupied by the Catholic Church. It guarded a part of the river that was wide enough to hinder an attack, yet shallow enough to drive cattle across. Brian ruled from Kincora and exacted a tribute from the Munster Clans in return for his protection. The cattle tribute was driven across that shallow part of the Shannon in the shadow of Kincora. Tribute in Irish is Boroimhe, and from this, Brian became known as Brian of the Tributes or Brian Boru. With this value from tribute, he paved new toads across the province, erected churches and rebuilt monasteries and monuments destroyed by raiding Vikings.
In the northern part of Ireland, Malachy the Second, followed Boru’s lead when his forces defeated a Norse army to take Dublin in 980 and Malachy became King of Meath. About the year 987, Brian was undisputed ruler of southern Ireland, yet he had no official title. In Ossory, in Leinster, and in Connaught, his voice and his arm were felt everywhere. But a divided authority is favorable to invasion, so the Viking power began to loom up to its old proportions. Sitrick ‘silken beard’ one of the ablest of Viking leaders, was then at Dublin, and his constant raids were so formidable, that they produced an alliance between Brian and Malachy. The alliance lasted three years, and in 997, with reinforcements from the North, the Vikings were routed by Brian and Malachy in Wicklow, with the loss of 6,000 men and all their chief captains. Immediately after this victory the two kings, according to the Annals, entered into Dublin, and the fort thereof, and there remained seven nights, burnt the town, broke down the fort, and banished Sitrick from thence.
Finding Brian’s influence still on the rise west of the Shannon, Malachy, having vainly endeavored to secure the alliance of the Northern Hy-Nial, submitted to Brian allowing Boru to peacefully take over his lands. Boru was granted the title “Ard Ri”, meaning “High King”. This made him one of the first – and last – kings to effectively unite Ireland under one monarch. The rivals to Brian Boru’s rule were numerous, however, both among the native Irish and the remaining Norse. In 1013, Maelmordha, King of Leinster, revolted and allied with the Vikings. They summoned reinforcements from Boru’s other Irish rivals and the Viking nations, as far away as Normandy and Iceland. On March 17, 1014, Brian Boru led his forces out of Kincora headed for Dublin and the pages of Irish history. The two forces met on Good Friday, April 23, 1014 on the field of Clontarf. Nearly 4,000 Irishmen were killed at the Battle, including Brian’s son Murrough, but the Viking/Leinster forces suffered even heavier losses. At the end of the battle, what little remained of the Norse forces retreated to their ships. But before all the invaders fled, a fleeing Norse leader, Brodar, came upon Brian’s tent and attacked the Irish leader in prayer thanking God for the victory. Then in his late seventies or early eighties, Brian was able to wound Brodar who struck Brian a mortal wound. Brodar was captured by Brians attendants and left tied to a tree by his own intestines.
With Boru gone and his strong influence absent, Ireland soon fell into chaos and anarchy. There would never be another king powerful enough to rule all of Ireland. In 1016, Connaught men raided and destroyed Kincora. As his descendants feuded among themselves in 1062 for the crown, Aodh O’Connor burned Killaloe and destroyed the rebuilt Kincora. He claimed it for himself and feasted on the two sacred salmon kept in a pool within the walls of the palace