The Political Importance of Brian Boru

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating's General History of Ireland, printed in 1723.
Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1723)
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

The Battle of Clontarf was fought on the 23th April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin. The history of early Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (literally Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland though often known as The History of Ireland) by Geoffrey Keating gives one of the best known early descriptions of the Battle of Clontarf. A (heavily criticised) 1723 English language translation of the Foras by Dermot O’Connor contains the first printed image of Brian Boru, shown above. The original work was written in Irish.

Apart from its historical interest, the book plays a part in the history of Irish thought. The Feasa is intended not merely to document events but to put forward a particular viewpoint – to defend Ireland against criticisms going back as far as Gerald of Wales, to outline the relationship of Ireland to the English king and define Irish identity.

The work also includes the concept of rule by consent, an idea that became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries [FFÉ, p. 183]:

We do not read in the seanchas that there was ever any king of Ireland from the time of Slainghe to the Norman invasion but a king who obtained the sovereignty of Ireland by the choice of the people, by the excellence of his exploits, and by the strength of his hand.

The idea of kingship as a gift of the people, as a form of contract between the people and the sovereign , is found in Irish texts as early as the eighth century. It is interesting to conjecture if that was a factor in the Irish popularity of the similar concept in Locke, and its extension to the Irish situation.

The idea of the contract is evoked in Keating’s description of the Norman conquest. When Henry II arrives in Ireland Irish kings submit to him and do him homage. Thus, Henry’s rule is legitimated by consent of the nobles, not by the conquest of the Normans [FFÉ, p. 343]. This submission was invoked by many 17th and 18th century texts arguing for Ireland as a second kingdom of the English king, not a colony of England.

Keating adds a twist: Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, king of Leinster, went to Henry II in the first place to complain about his explusion from Ireland. The king gave him letters, says Keating, giving permission for any in his kingdom who wished to, to go with Diarmaid to reclaim his lands. [p. 321]. But why did Diarmaid approach Henry II in the first place? Because, says Keating,

Donnchadh, son of Brian Boraimhe, and the real nobles of Ireland were at enmity with one another concerning the mastery of Ireland from the time of Brian to that of Donnchadh, and hence they bestowed with one accord the possession of Ireland on Urbanus, the second Pope of that name, in the year of the Lord 1092; and the Pope of Rome had possession of and authority and sovereignty over Ireland from that time to the time when Adrianus, the fourth Pope of that name, assumed the successorship of Peter in the year of the Lord 1154

The Pope was the “High King” of Ireland from the time of Brian Boru until the title was bestowed on Henry II, according to Keating. This meant that the Normans who invaded were doing so with the permission of the High King who had been approved by the Pope. The acceptance of Henry by the Irish nobles then ratified that papal approval. This seems to be fiction. Donnchadh is not said by any earlier sources to have been High King and though he died in Rome, it was in 1064 before the election of Urban II. It was, however, a useful fiction. It made legitimate the actions Henry II and the Normans (and Keating was of Norman descent), without requiring the idea that Ireland was always under foreign control (Keating argued that preNorman history was of tribes arriving and being absorbed into the Irish people.)

The conflict between “Old English” and Gaelic Irish (which the sermons of Richard FitzRalph in the 14th century give testimony to) is explained away as the actions of a minority. Those actions then exonerate the resistance of the Gael. It is a history where both sides are made to look as good as possible.

Keating saw Ireland as originally “a kingdom apart by herself like a little world” [FFÉ, p. 343]; an ancient, autonomous kingdom where newcomers intermingled with existing people. It was a place of learning, not savagery. Its history was intimately connected with the papacy and the Catholic church.

A copy of Foras Feasa was found in John Colgan’s room in Leuvan after his death in 1658. Partially copied by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, the manuscript was annotated by Colgan identifying the sources used by Keating. The work of annotation was left unfinished. Perhaps Colgan was discouraged by the proportion of sources he had to label anonymus. While Colgan was aware of the tenuous nature of Keating’s sources, most readers did not know or care (Bernadette Cunningham (2000) The World of Geoffrey Keating, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 181-2).

Foras Feasa was highly influential, becoming the model for Irish history by the end of the 17th century. The ideas it contained were available not only to those who could afford manuscripts of the work in Irish, English or Latin, but though poetry that (either directly or though using the same sources) were popular among the general population. One such, “Tuireann na hEireann” (written between 1655 and 1659) is preserved in seventy-four separate manuscripts in the RIA alone (Cunningham (2000), pp. 192-3).

Foras Feasa in English translation “became popular among Irish Protestant readers in eighteenth century but it was, in essence, the myth of the origins of the Irish Catholic nation.” (Irish History).

Oil painting of the Battle of Clontarf
“Battle of Clontarf”, Hugh Frazer, 1826. Wikimedia, Public Domain

Further Reading

UCC Celt: Life and Work of Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn)

UCC Celt: The History of Ireland, by Geoffrey Keating (the text)

History Ireland: Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn outlines the contents and importance of the History.

RIA: Foras Feasa ar Éirinn about extant copies.

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