FolkWorld article by Walkin' T:-)M:

The High King of Ireland

Maurice Lennon's musical portrait of Brian Bóru

The legendary High King Brian Bóru (941-1014) is without doubt the best known medieval figure in Irish history. Now Maurice Lennon applies for the High Kingship of Irish music. Aim high, try hard!

Brian Bóru, or Brian Bóroimhe mac Cennétig in Irish, was born in 941 at Béal Bórú, near Killaloe, Co. Clare, son of the head of Dál gCais. Brian Bóru - The High Ling of Tara, In 978 Brian became king of Munster, by 1002 he was inaugurated as árd rí, the High King of Ireland. It was probably his greatest achievement to end the domination of the Uí Néill dynasty and to become the first effective ruler to unite Ireland under one monarch. In 1013, the Leinstermen and the Dublin Norsemen revolted. The battle for the crown was to take place on Good Friday 1014 in Clontarf, four miles north of modern Dublin. Brian threw them back in the ocean, as the ballad goes, but unfortunatly he was slain himself. Ireland eventually fell back into a number of petty kingdoms, and soon afterwards the Anglo-Normans used that to good advantage to conquer the country.

Maurice Lennon is a fiddler from the Co. Leitrim tradition. His father is Ben Lennon, his uncle Charlie Lennon, equally renowned for a relaxed fiddle style,sensitive piano accompaniment, and excellent tunes. Maurice's brother Brian plays flute with Céide (-> FW#21), and you certainly know Maurice from 1980's outfit Stockton's Wing, named after a location in Bruce Springsteen's song "Backstreets". Since the end of the Wing era, Maurice has been concentrating on composing. His lovely tune "If Ever You Were Mine" has already circled the globe and been recorded by Cherish The Ladies, uilleann piper Jerry O'Sullivan, and Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster (-> FW#1). In the summer of 2001 Maurice produced the Ragus show from the Aran Islands which developed into a successful undertaking. Now Maurice paints a musical portrait of Brian Bóru - The High King of Tara.

I have always been fascinated by the legend of Brian Bóru and since reading [Morgan Llywelyn's] novel `Lion Of Ireland' [published by O'Brien Press] some twelve years ago my one wish has been to try and put his life story to music. However the problem was one of finding a new angle from which to approach such an idea, as during this time many outstanding works had been written about famous figures in Irish history. What we are attempting here is something that to my knowledge has not been previously tried - the concept of a traditional/contemporary musical. Brian Bóru, I didn't want to create another album of clashing swords, battles and death. I wanted to create a hopeful album because I believe he must given hope to an awful lot of people as a leader himself. People think of him as the warrior, and while I had that in mind, I thought of the human side, that he was actually a man and he did have feelings and maybe he did cry.
Maurice's suite follows Brian's life: "Brian's Theme" is a thread of dark melody [that] reflects life as a struggle, yet an irrepressible joy lies just beneath the surface, rising again and again. Young Brian witnessed the "The Burning of Boruma" (Béal Bóru), an Iron-Age ringfort on the west bank of the Shannon above present-day Killaloe, and the death of his mother by the marauding Norsemen. At "Saint Patrick's Cross" on the Rock of Cashel, Brian was inaugurated as King of Munster, while at the "Stone of Destiny" at the Hill of Tara, he became High King of Ireland. Finally, his dream ended at the "Tree of Sorrows" near the battlefield of Clontarf. He had done his best and crowned his life with an incomparable triumph. A different destiny would await Ireland. But Brian would not be there to shape it. The "Epilogue - Extracts from Kincora" (Kincora is the old name of Killaloe) concludes with a poem written by Brian's personal bard, MacLiag, shortly after his death (translated by James Clarence Mangan).

All pieces were newly written by Maurice, except the traditional "Brian Bóru's March". This piece was once thought by Dr. Sigerson to evidence Scandinavian musical influence, probably wrongfully. The march was in the repertoire of Patrick Byrne (1784-1863), whom Chief O'Neill called the last of the great Irish harpers. O'Neill quotes an account of a Byrne concert:

After quaffing a generous tumbler of punch, he would say, Patrick Byrne, `Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am going to play you the celebrated march of the great King Brian to the field of Clontarf, when he gave the Danes such a drubbing. The Irish army is far off, but if you listen Attentively you will hear the faint sound of their music.' Then his fingers would wander over the upper range of strings with so delicate a touch that you might fancy it was fairy music heard from a distance. Anything more fine, more soft and delicate than this performance, it is impossible to conceive. `They are coming nearer!' And the sound increased in volume. `Now here they are!' And the music rolled loud and full. Thus the march went on; the fingers of the minstrel's right hand wandering farther down the bass range. You find it hard to keep your feet quiet, and feel inclined to take part in the march music assumes a merry, lightsome character, as if it were played for dancers. `Rejoicing for the victory!' But this abruptly ceases; there is another shriek and dischord, jangling and confusion in the upper bass stings. The harper explains as usual, `they have found the old King murdered in his tent.' Then the air becomes much slower and singularly plaintive. `Mourning for Brian's death.' There is a firmer and louder touch now, with occasional plaintive effects with the left hand. `They are marching now with the brave old King's body to Drogheda.' The music now assumes a slow and steady tone, the tone is lowered, and grows momentarily louder and louder, till finally it dies away.
The German traveller Johann Georg Kohl heard "Brian Bóru's March" played on a harp at Drogheda in 1843:
The music of this march is wildly powerful and at the same time melancholy. It is at one the music of victory and of mourning. The rapid modulations and wild beauty of the air was such that I think this march deserves full to obtain a celebrity equal to that of the `Marseillaise' and the `Ragotsky.'
In Drogheda six men performed a dance to "Brian Bóru's March", called the "Droghedy March" or "Dancing Drogheda," each man wielding a stick or shillelagh, mimicking the appearance of a rhythmic fencing or battle.

Back to Maurice Lennon. The music is both dramatic and cinematic, but can erupt into a lively dance at times. I can only agree to John O'Regan who wrote: When listening to `Brian Bóru The High King of Tara' on disc shades of Donal Lunny, Shaun Davey and Bill Whelan's epic compositions seep through occasionally. However, Maurice Lennon's work is imbued with a greater concentration of the melodic nuances of traditional music. The guest list reads like a who is who of contemporary Irish music and guarantees a modern soundscape, yet deeply rooted in tradition: Donal Lunny (bouzouki, bodhran, guitar, keyboards, vocals), Anthony Drennan (lead guitar) Seamus Brett (keyboards, programming), Maírtín O'Connor (accordion -> FW#22), Noel Eccles (percussion), Greg Boland (programming), Tony Molloy (bass), Helen Davies (metal strung harp), Brian Lennon (flute, whistles -> FW#21), Mick O'Brien (uilleann pipes, whistles), Mikey Smith (uilleann pipes, whistles), Sean Keane (vocals -> FW#22).

I heard that Queen Elizabeth II claims descent from Brian Bóru, as does George W. Bush. In any case, Brian is known as the progenitor of the Clan O'Brien, through his four wives and thirty reputed concubines. Brian Bóru's name has been used for Irish pubs (e.g. in Portland, Columbus, and Chicago), a vodka brand, a champion Labrador, the 14th century Trinity College harp, a bagpipe (the Irish certainly didn't introduce the pipe to Scotland in 470, but it makes a nice story anyway), music groups (,, and songs. Of course, there was a festival celebrating the millennium of Brian's coronation (, and the Killaloe community's Féile Brian Boru. His portrait is only recently featured on a set of Irish stamps, displaying Brian leading his troops into battle, on board of the Shannon fleet, at the inauguration at Tara, and the bishop seat of Armagh.

But, I guess, Brian soon will be best remembered by Maurice Lennon's musical epic. Maurice himself says: Ironically, success would be walking down the streets of Milltown Malbay and hearing someone playing one of these tunes in a pub. May happen.

Listen to "Brian Bóru - The High King of Tara" or try to see Maurice performing with his Kincora band.

Ah, where, Kincora! is Brian the Great?
And where is the beauty that once was thine?
Oh, where are the princes and nobles that sate
At the feasts in thy halls, and drank the red wine,
Where, O Kincora?

Maurice Lennon "Brian Bóru - The High King of Tara" Tara Music; TARA3038; 2001.

Some Brian Bóru resources at the web:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, ...

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