The millennial anniversary of Good Friday 1014 is upon us today and when the legends are removed, the historic Brian Boru which emerges, shows us he was a genius at leadership and had a very good understanding of what we now call psychology. Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin in a recent newspaper article wrote, “[Brian Boru] overcame his rivals not usually in bloody battles and by main force (though he had that in reserve) but by psychological and symbolic warfare. From 977 to 999 he fought no major battle, yet by 983 he was dominant in the southern half of Ireland. In 988 he put set about gaining dominance in the other half or Ireland and put 300 vessels on the Shannon to harried the lands of the reigning High King Máel Sechnaill as far his dynasty’s sacred site of Uisnech. There was no major battle, but the message sent to Sechnaill could not be clearer.
When Brian Boru became king of Munster he first consolidated his position and then set about becoming High King. His first move was on Ossary which was a key territory needed in order to dominate Leinster. Of course this brought forth the wrath of Máel Sechnaill, who had recently claimed the throne of High King unopposed after defeating the Vikings of Dublin (980AD). Sechnaill took the High Kingship ( king of Tara) unopposed. He was easily on top of his game and the most powerful king in the land. Brian Boru was not intimidated with calm, cunning and ambition he set out to dominate Ireland and take the High Kingship for himself.
Boru preferred diplomacy backed with the threat of military force. He marched his army into his rival’s kingdoms and withdrew when he met serious military opposition but he soon returned with a bigger army. Members of opposing armies were negotiated into submission and those who submitted to Brian one day were appointed officers in Boru’s army the following day. In 988 when he put 300 vessels on the Shannon it was an act designed to intimidate Máel Sechnaill. No major battle occurred but Boru managed to outplay Máel Sechnaill and in 997 both kings reached a settlement known as the Lough Ree Accord. They divided control of Ireland between them, Máel retained control over the northern half with Brian now supreme in both Munster and Leinster, the southern half of Ireland. Three years later Brian marched into Tara which was not Máel Sechnaill immediate territory but the symbolic heartland of his dynasty. Within a year Máel Sechnaill submitted. This was highly significant as Máel Sechnaill was a member of the most powerful and longest ruling dynasty in medieval Ireland, the Uí Néill (O’Neills). Boru was now High King and only the loyalty of only one institution now needed to be ensured.
In 1005 Boru occupied Emain Macha, the heroic site of the deeds of Conchobar mac Nessa and Cúchulainn, conveniently a few kilometers west of the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, Armagh, his real target.
There Brian was shown the Book of Armagh, with its collection of early texts about St Patrick. Brian's secretary, Máel Suthain, wrote an inscription on the sacred book recording that it was “...in conspectu- Briani Imperatoris Scotorum”, “in sight of Brian Emperor of the Scots”. In Latin, the word ‘scot’ meant an Irish person, thus the valid translation is “Emperor of the Irish”.
The Dublin Vikings held many political alliances with other Viking kingdoms not only in Scotland, Isle of Man and England but in Ireland too. Many were married to Irish women and at the highest level of society. Máel Mórda mac Murchada the King of Leinster sister was married to Olaf Cuaran, the Viking king of Dublin and York. She is said to have scolded Máel Mórda for submitting to Brian Boru which was the reason why Máel Mórda joined with the Vikings in opposition to Brian Boru at the battle of Clontarf. Both Máel Mórda mac Murchada and Brian Bóruma died at the battle but Brian is celebrated as the hero for the entirety of the last millennium because the primary objective of the battle with the Vikings was achieved by the Irish, which was the prevention of a full scale Viking invasion of Ireland. Not the expulsion of the Vikings which is a common misconception.
Based on and containing extracts from “Brian Boru, master of psychological warfare” by Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Irish Times Sat, Mar 8, 2014. The article was a peer assessment of the work of Professor Seán Duffy, Associate Professor of Medieval History at Trinity College Dublin.