Brian Ború Festival Storms Armagh
The historical city marks the 1000th anniversary of the ancient Irish king's death with a series of events from April 22 to May 4
So many myths and legends surround the name of Brian Ború that it can be difficult remembering he was actually a real historical figure, born around 941 AD to Cennétig, a tribal leader in Munster.
Brian himself – the ‘Ború’ cognomen probably means ‘of Béal Bóraimhe’, a ringfort near Killaloe, County Clare – was destined to become High King of Ireland, at a period when there were 150 regional ‘kings’ presiding over an Irish population of approximately half a million people.
He got there as much through shrewdness as by the military toughness he is generally known for, and it was essentially realpolitik which lay behind Brian’s initial visit to Armagh, one of four Irish cities (Clare, Tipperary and Dublin are the others) currently celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the warrior king’s death at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday, 1014, when he was in his 70s.
‘He came to Armagh because it was the ecclesiastical capital of the island, with its St Patrick connections,’ is the way Assumpta O’Neill, marketing officer for Armagh City Council, puts it. ‘He wanted the people of Ulster to get behind him, so he could be High King.
‘He visited the city in 1005, and it’s thought he stayed at Navan Centre fort, which was the ancient capital of the province at the time. He went to the cathedral and left 22 ounces of gold on the altar, and stated that this is where he wanted to be buried.’
It was a clever gesture, as Seán Duffy, Professor of Medieval History at Trinity College, Dublin and an expert on Brian Ború, explains. ‘Armagh had for many generations been closely associated with the Uí Néill kings of Cenél nEógain, whom Brian was attempting to force into subjection,’ he states. 'But in 1005 the abbot of Armagh became a supporter of Brian.
‘The abbot needed the collaboration of the king of Ireland – irrespective of his background – to assert his own ecclesiastical hegemony throughout the island, and Brian of course knew that his own claim to political supremacy would be all the more persuasive if it came with the imprimatur of the country’s leading ecclesiastic.’
Navan Centre, Brian’s billet during that mutually beneficial 1005 visit, is one of several venues hosting Armagh’s millennial celebrations. On April 23, a thousand years to the day after the Battle of Clontarf started, the centre hosts The Arrival of Brian Ború, a free event running from 11.30am till 4.30pm.
It will, O’Neill promises, be a lively, interactive experience, made possible by the participation of Fingal Living History Society, a historical re-enactment group based in the Dublin area. ‘It’s basically telling the story of how an advanced party of warriors left the Battle of Clontarf and made their way to Armagh to announce Brian Ború’s death.'
Visitors will have the opportunity to meet fully armoured soldiers, hear tales from the battlefield, examine a scale model of the Clontarf battle area, and learn the craft of medieval coin making.
The Fingal re-enacters – 100 of them in authentic uniform – will also be responsible for constructing and inhabiting the Viking tented village, which will occupy The Mall in Armagh city centre over the weekend of May 3–4.
Vikings formed part of the army opposing Brian at the Clontarf battle, and had been mounting aggressive raids in Ireland for decades previously. So it’s appropriate that their significance in his military career is recognised in the millennial celebrations – Viking craft, weapon and cookery displays are all scheduled, along with storytelling and demonstrations of blacksmithery and falconry.
There will, additionally, be longboats, courtesy of another re-enactment society, the Ardglass Viking Association. These instantly recognisable ‘dragon-ships’, with the head of a wild creature juttting fiercely from the prow, will launch at the Loughgall County Park on April 24. Again a day of family fun and activity is promised, with rowing sessions, weapon training, and mock battles all available to sample.
Beyond the festival itself, there is also plenty of Brian-related activity. ‘We have an education programme going round the local schools,’ O’Neill adds. ‘The story of Brian Ború isn’t on the curriculum now, so it’s getting that story out there that he is buried here in Armagh, which a lot of people don’t realise.’
Adults, too, will have plenty of opportunity for involvement. ‘We have a community project called The Waking of Brian Ború, telling the story of Brian’s life, involving schools, community groups and locals.’ The project, co-curated by Armagh’s public library, county museum and observatory, will culminate in two performances at the Church of Ireland cathedral, on May 1 and 2.
In addition to the interactive, hands-on history, there are two more formal events happening. The first is The Bóroimhe Suite, a new work about the life of Brian Ború by composer Michael Rooney. ‘Armagh is the only Northern Ireland venue that will hear it,’ O’Neill comments. 'So it’s a big coup to have it.’
The performers are the National Folk Orchestra Ireland, comprising both traditional and classical instrumentalists from around the island, who will be joined by dancers, singers and actors. The setting is the acoustically splendid Church of Ireland cathedral, the date April 22, and early booking is advisable – it’s the only event in the festival you actually have to pay for.
On Sunday, April 27 the same venue hosts an Ecumenical Service of Commemoration based on Anglican choral evensong, marking the 1000th anniversary of Brian Ború’s death, and offering prayers for the Ireland of today and the future.
Brian was laid to rest, as he wished, in the grounds of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral. The Annals of Ulster record how ‘the body of Brian, king of Ireland, and the body of his son Murchad, and the head of Conaing and the head of Mothla’ were brought to Armagh from Swords, and buried in a new tomb. ‘For twelve nights the community of Patrick waked the bodies in honour of the king.’
A plaque in the north wall of the cathedral currently marks the great warrior’s supposed place of interment. Part of the legacy of the millennial festival will be the erection of a new sculpture of Brian on the site later this year, and Armagh City Council’s continuing involvement in the establishment of a Brain Ború Heritage Trail for the entire island.
Both projects will be a tangible legacy of Armagh’s millennial celebrations of Brian Ború, the soldier-king whose victories in his own particular medieval game of thrones made him an enduring national hero – in Seán Duffy’s estimation, ‘the most famous and, arguably, the greatest Irishman before the modern era'.
Brian Ború Festival Armagh runs in various venues from April 22 – May 4. Visit the festival website for more information.