21 Apr Béal Ború – Brian Boru’s Fort
“The refusal to lay the past to rest, the reduction of history to timelessness, and the idea that past histories endure as a living force in the present: all this is one of the hallmarks of myth.”
Joep Leerssen, Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century, 1997 1
Drag within the image to explore Béal Ború in virtual reality.
Conveying the symbolic importance of this ringfort, thought to be the birthplace of the most mythic figure in early Irish history, (St. Patrick excepted) is not an easy task. Can a 70-m (230-ft) circle of earth, so luxuriant with trees that one cannot discern its shape until on top of it, be an appropriate setting for the man who lost his life while winning the Battle of Clontarf a thousand years ago?
Can this overgrown mound of earth have once been the home of Brian Boru, who was called the “Emperor of the Gael?”2 If myth is indeed the “refusal to lay the past to rest,” then Brian Boru—and by extension his home at Béal Ború—have served to enlist uncounted generations in the struggle to establish the Irish nation. If upon examination the facts don’t quite measure up to the legend, then we’ll nevertheless celebrate the millennium of the legend.
The ringfort of Béal Ború (Béal Bóruma) is located on a bulge of land that would offer its ancient residents a reassuring and commanding view of the narrows where Lough Derg narrows into the River Shannon just a short distance above Killaloe. The fort may have been positioned to allow its forces to control an important crossing point from what was to become Co. Clare into Co. Tipperary, and also to monitor and interdict where necessary the traffic on the river. “Béal Bóruma” may mean “The Mouth of the Cattle Tribute,” and according to legend, was the spot where the Dál gCais (Dalcassian) tribal leaders collected their bovine taxes.3
That the property was for ages prior to the construction of the ringfort a place where hunters sought refuge may be noted by the evidence of some 800 stone axes and hammer stones found in the vicinity. Some were even found inside the fort in 1936, raising the possibility that a Stone Age settlement once occupied the site of Béal Ború.4
Michael J. O’Kelly, the fort’s excavator, wrote in 1962, “The visible monument was found to mask a completely different and quite unsuspected earlier structure.”5 This initial construction was shown to be a ringfort of the 10th – 11th centuries, which was destroyed by Turlough O’Connor around the year 1116. In 1207 the Anglo-Normans began to greatly enlarge the bank and construct a timber fortification on a mound (motte) inside the earlier ringfort. But this castle was never completed. The Annals of Clonmacnoise mentions, for the year 1207:
The English of Meath and Leinster with their forces went to Killaloe to build a castle there, near the Borowe, and were frustrated of their purpose, did neither castle nor other thing worthy of memory, but lost some men and horses in theire jorney, and soe returned to their houses back again.6
Another explanation is that the secondary construction was not intended to be a motte at all, but rather was completed as a “ringwork castle.”7 Click on the image to the right to view the two stages of construction at Béal Ború. in the gallery at the bottom of the page there is a sectional plan which identifies the two different stages.
Within a trench dug into the primary ringfort the 1961 excavation discovered evidence (postholes) of a rectangular wooden building with a central hearth near the western side of the enclosed area, situated perpendicular to the bank (see photo in gallery). It was approximately 4 m by 2.5 m (13 ft by 8 ft), with an entry passage paved with large slabs of stone, hollowed and polished from the generations of feet passing over them. Can this be where the “Emperor of the Gael” lived as a youth?
While the stones were slabs of the local slate and were not therefore an unduly hard material, the amount of polish was such as to suggest that the house had been in use for an appreciable length of time. The depths of the layer of habitation refuse which stretched from the hearth through the entrance to connect with an extensive rubbish dump outside and directly opposite the door, suggests the same thing.8
This rubbish layer yielded, among other finds, two Hiberno-Norse silver pennies, which allowed the excavator to confidently date the fort to the 11th century. Images of one of these coins, as well as an artisan’s slate “trial piece” used for practicing design work, may be seen in the gallery at the bottom of the page.
The original Béal Ború ringfort may have remained occupied into the early part of the 12th century. The bank of the present-day fort, the result of the secondary construction phase, ranges in height from 4 m (13 ft) to 8 m (26 ft). The exterior ditch is some 10 m (33 ft) wide, with a depth ranging from 1 to 2 m (3.3 to 6.5 ft). Because of the thickness of the bank and ditch, the actual amount of enclosed space in the fort’s interior is only about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter. The intended entrance to the enclosure is through its bank on the north, where there is also evidence of a causeway across the ditch. The base of the bank includes the remains of a stone facing, which also serves to delineate the entrance passage. While the excavator was able to cut a partial section into the bank, examination there was limited due to an agreement with the landowner not to disturb the mature growth of trees on and atop the fort’s banks. Most of this Béal Ború micro-forest survives today; aim the virtual-reality viewpoint upwards to see the extent of the growth.9
Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig, the future “Emperor of the Gael” was born around the year 941 CE. While his date of birth is indistinct, lost in the murky sources of the Medieval manuscript authors, his death on the field of battle at Clontarf, on Good Friday of 1014, has become a signal event in Irish history, establishing Brian Boru as the prototypical liberator in what was to become the long lineage of those fighting to free the land from outside rule.10
“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.”
David B. Beoughter, 2007 11
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
John Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962 12
Brian was one of 12 sons of Cennétig mac Lorcáin (d. 951), a minor king of the Dál gCais in what is today the south-east corner of Co. Clare, during an age when Ireland’s half-million people were ruled by no fewer than 150 regional kings. While he may have been born at Béal Ború, already a Dál gCais redoubt, some sources place his birth, and his later headquarters, at the nearby fortress of Ceann Cora (Kincora). There is no trace left of this site, also destroyed by Turlough O’Connor in 1116. Whether or not he began life in the riverside post of Béal Ború, his residence there gave him ample opportunity to gain an understanding of the importance of riverine commerce, and how the ways of the water could provide military advantage.
As depicted by a rather aggrandizing account a century after his death, Brian would have been enthralled as a youth, perhaps seated by the hearth in Béal Ború, hearing the legendary battles of Fionn mac Cumhail and Conn Céadchathach, stories that became his own when, around the age of 17, he joined the Dál gCais guerilla bands fighting the incursions of the Danes of Limerick.
“Gathering in the fastnesses, hunting across the plains and fishing in the innumerable mountain streams that feed the Shannon, they emulated the heroes of the old Irish sagas…Caves and mountain lairs formed a vital part of the geography of those sagas, and Brian’s followers precisely imitated the adventures of which they were composed. From lairs in the foothills of the Slieve Bernagh, they could sweep down under cover of dark to bring destruction to Danish outposts on the Shannon edge; retreating like goats along a labyrinthine system of trackways.” 13
When Brian’s father died, the Dál gCais leadership passed to Brian’s older brother Mathgamain, and when he was killed in 976, Brian inherited the Dál gCais kingship in a ceremony on the inauguration mound of Magh Adhair. He was thirty-five years old. His shifting military alliances, his strategic successes in unifying the warring tribes of Ireland (and the occasional overreaching failures) all seemed vindicated in 1002 when he wrested from the Uí Néill tribes the title of Ard Rí (High King) that they had held for nearly 600 years. Just a dozen year later came his military triumph and his death at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. For generations afterward his progeny of the Uí Briain, today’s O’Brian clan, laid claim on the title of the Ard Rí. What an amazing accomplishment for a man who came from “a branch of a branch of a branch of a branch of people who were…only vassals of the kings of Munster.“14
These details are all well documented online here, here, and here, and also in books such as the entertaining and romanticized Brian Boru, King of Ireland, from 1983. And the more thoroughly researched Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, published in 2013. On this page, however, we are providing an interactive timeline with succinct descriptions of the important dates in the life of the High King. Click on the timeline thumbnail, below left, to launch that feature in a new window.
Brian Boru lost his life—either during the battle or afterwards while in prayer—at the moment of his greatest victory over the “heathen Norse,” which would coincide nine centuries later with the bloody sacrifices of the Easter Rising of 1916, on the holy day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus. Acknowledged as the greatest of the Irish high kings, Brian has long been thought of as the first hero to unite and lead his native Irish armies to victory over their would-be conquerors from abroad. Thus the Battle of Clontarf came to be thought of as “the medieval equivalent” of the Easter Rising.15
Modern revisionist history has attempted to re-frame the Battle of Clontart as little more than a “bloody local quarrel,”16 the outcome of which did not free Ireland from Viking occupation simply because the country was never actually conquered by the Norsemen. The Viking raids, beginning at the end of the 8th century, ultimately resulted in these (now domesticated) seafarers establishing the first Irish cities, such as Dublin, Cork, and Limerick. The heathen Norse had in a few generations become Christian, intermarried with the natives, and spoke the Irish language.
But, as Professor Seán Duffy has pointed out, the Battle of Clontarf came at a time when the Norse had seen their hope of maintaining their rule in England begin to disappear, as the Danish conqueror there, Sveinn Forkbeard, had died and the native Anglo-Saxon King, Æthelred the Unready, was temporarily restored.
“Surely the vast Scandinavian fleet that descended on Dublin Bay in Easter Week had some of them among its ranks, anxious to make up for lost English ground in what they were no doubt promised would be a cakewalk in Ireland. Instead their voyage led only to the ‘slaughter of the Foreigners of the Western World’ at Clontarf.” 17
Even a Norse chronicle of the events of April 1014, contained in the text of the Vísnaskýringar, reveals the significance of Brian Boru’s leadership:
“I was fighting in Ireland. One could hear the swords singing in the battle. There was a sharp attack. Sigurður fell in battle. Brian fell and was victorious.” 18
The glory of the victory over the Vikings faded quickly with the realization that the death of Brian Boru would end the—perhaps illusory—dream of a unified Ireland whose population could agree on a sense of national purpose and a shared commitment to repulse all foreign invaders. With Brian’s son and intended heir Murchadh also killed in the battle, the Irish tribes soon returned to the pattern of bloody factional fighting. Yet the native culture had made a peace of sorts with that of the Vikings, and evolved into what we call today the “Hiberno-Norse.” And Brian Boru’s harp has become “the emblem of the nation, displayed on everything from our coinage and the presidential standard to Mr. Guinness’s pint of plain.”19
The spring of 2014 was the occasion of numerous events across Ireland—and within the far-flung Irish diaspora—to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. These ranged from the reenactment of the Battle of Clontart to the “World Premiere of Michael Rooney’s Boroimhe Suite, and the bone-chilling Kincora Call. The town of Clontarf itself was the scene of some of them. Trinity College Dublin hosted an international symposium to mark the millennium. Hugh Frazer’s emperor-sized 1826 oil painting of the battle was repatriated to Dublin (and may be viewed in detail, above left).20 And, while not directly connected to the Battle of Clontarf millennium, the President of Ireland made the country’s first state visit to Britain, bringing a symbolic coda to the centuries of enmity between the two nations. What would the “Emperor of the Gael” have thought about that?
“Brian’s policies and reforms, unusual when compared with the average politics of his age, were based on a genuine desire to bring peace and prosperity to his realm. He succeeded to a degree; had he been younger he may have achieved far more. Yet, had he not achieved as much as he did, would his name be so familiar today…?” 21
Click here to see all the notes from this page.
Béal Ború, Co. Clare
Nearest Town: Killaloe
Latitude: 52° 49′ 7.00″ N
Longitude: 8° 27′ 3.05″ W
Brian Boru and The Battle of Clontarf Millennium