Brian Boru: Emperor of the Irish

1 Feb

Being a member of the O’Brien clan myself, my mum’s maiden name, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the history behind the name, which after a quick introduction in class, lead me to the Brian Boru exhibit within the National Museum of Ireland. Glass cases contained both visual and textual depictions of this Irish protagonist in both historical and contemporary times.


Brian Boru has become the figurehead responsible for the mighty feat of uniting Gaelic Ireland and extinguishing the Viking powers. However, I quickly realized that this emphasis on Brian’s impact may have been a glorified portrayal of history. The Brian Boru folk hero that is prevalent today on everything from coins to children’s books was a construction seized by the Nationalists in order to help shape a strong and cohesive historical narrative for Ireland. The view of the Battle of Clontarf as a battle to liberate Ireland from foreign oppression was first put forth by “Cogadh Gaedhel re Galbibh” written on behalf of Brian’s descendants the O’Briens.


By the 19th century this view of Clontarf was in tune with growing Nationalist feeling in Ireland and both the battle and Brian became Nationalist icons. The first major challenge to this view came in 1938 when the Irish historian, Fr. John Ryan, and the Dutch scholar, Albertus Goedheer, published works questioning the Nationalist interpretation of Clontarf. Since then historians have tended to see Clontarf and the events leading up to it in far more complex terms, however the older, simpler nationalist view remains popular in public perceptions. Therefore, although the win at the Battle of Clontarf is often romanticized, in reality there were no real winners. The battle led to a political stalemate and the high casualties on all sides ended the chances of anyone becoming dominant in Ireland.

However I’m still proud to be connected, albeit loosely, to a man with such a wonderful legacy and a hero who has been valued for trying to preserve true and unadulterated Irish culture.

-Ashley Hufnagle


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