The figure of High King Brian Boru stands astride the history of Gaelic Ireland like a colossus. Although not of the Uí Neill dynasty that had ruled Ireland since Niall Noígiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) in the 5th Century, Boru showed himself to be the strongest and most fit for the throne. It is a testimony to the cultural stability of Gaelic Ireland that Máel Sechnaill II, who had abdicated the High Kingship in his favour, was also his successor when his line was extinguished at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday, 23rd April, 1014.
Perhaps the greatest 'what if' in Irish history is 'what if Brian Boru had survived the Battle of Clontarf'. It is conceivable that Ireland could have taken a great leap forward towards unity or feudalism at a moment when Robert the Pious struggled to maintain his throne, even against his own sons, and when St. Henry II found it difficult to gain recognition for his claim to the Imperial throne. At the time, Spain was struggling for survival against the Moors and Richard, Duke of Normandy, grandfather of William the Bastard, was withstanding a revolt of peasants. An Ireland united culturally and spiritually under the leadership of a powerful and dynamic dynasty would surely have been a very different one from the one seen from Bannow Bay in 1169.
While a good deal of romanticism surrounds our perceptions of Boru and Clontarf - and over-simplification of issues - it should be noted that Gaelic Ireland avoided the fate of England, which received Canute as King the following year. It was another class of Viking, the Normans of Wales, who descended a century later to begin the most sorrowful chapters of Irish history.
The following is a poetical account by William Kennealy of the address of King Brian, holding aloft the Crucifix, to his troops before the Battle of Clontarf:
"Stand ye now for Erin's glory! Stand ye now for Erin's cause!
Long ye've groaned beneath the rigor of the Northmen's savage laws.
What though brothers league against us? What, though myriad be the foe?
Victory will be more honored in the myriads' overthrow.
"Proud Connacians! oft we've wrangled in our petty feuds of yore;
Now we fight against the robber Dane upon our native shore;
May our hearts unite in friendship, as our blood in one red tide,
While we crush their mail-clad legions, and annihilate their pride!
"Brave Eugenians! Erin triumphs in the sight she sees to-day-
Desmond's homesteads all deserted for the muster and the fray!
Cluan's vale and Galtees' summit send their bravest and their best-
May such hearts be theirs forever, for the Freedom of the West!
"Chiefs and Kernes of Dalcassia! Brothers of my past career,
Oft we've trodden on the pirate-flag that flaunts before us here;
You remember Inniscattery, how we bounded on the foe,
As the torrent of the mountain bursts upon the plain below!
"They have razed our proudest castles , spoiled the Temples of the Lord,
Burned to dust the sacred relics, put the Peaceful to the sword,
Desecrated all things holy, as they soon may do again;
If their power to-day we smite not, if to-day we be not men!
"On this day the God-man suffered - look upon the sacred sign;
May we conquer 'neath its shadow, as of old did Constantine!
May the heathen tribe of Odin fade before it like a dream,
And the triumph of this glorious day in our future annuals gleam!
"God of heaven, bless our banner, nerve our sinews for the strife!
Fight we now for all that's holy, for our altars, land and life,
For red vengeance on the spoiler, whom the blazing temples trace,
For the honor of our maidens and the glory of our race!
"Should I fall before the foeman, 'tis the death I seek to-day;
Should ten thousand daggers pierce me, bear my body not away,
Till this day of days be over, till the field is fought and won;
Then the holy Mass be chanted, and the funeral rites be done.
"Men of Erin! men of Erin! grasp the battle-ax: and spear!
Chase these Northern wolves before you like a herd of frightened deer!
Burst their ranks, like bolts from heaven! Down, on the heathen crew,
For the glory of the Crucified, and Erin's glory too!"
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