This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

September 2001


2 September 1022:   Mael Sechnaill II “The Great,” High King of Ireland, died.

Though overshadowed by his rival Brian Boru, Mael Sechnaill (or Malachy) outlived Brian as the last formally inaugurated High King (Ard Ri) of Ireland. In many ways his achievement was greater than Brian’s, whose short-lived triumph was largely based on victories won by Mael Sechnaill.

The grandson of a High King, Mael Sechnaill was born in the royal province of Meath in the year 949, and eventually succeeded to the chieftainship of the Clann Cholmain of the southern Ui Neills. He began his ascension to power in an Ireland deeply riddled by the incursions of Norse and Danish invaders, who had carved out for themselves enclaves and territories along the Irish coast.

His first task was to secure the plains of Meath from the grasp of the invaders, which he succeeded in doing with his victory over the Danes at the battle of Tara in 979. The following year, having now risen to the High Kingship, he laid siege to Dublin. He wasn’t strong enough to crack the enemy hold on Dublin, but he relied on his skills at negotiation to wring success from disappointment, persuading the Danes to yield up their Irish captives in return for his quitting the siege.

This still might have been an anticlimatic end to an ambitious campaign, but Mael Sechnaill was also an early master of the art of “spin.” Returning home from the siege, he marked the moment by issuing a famous edict that cast his campaign as a war of liberation. “Every Irishman,” his statement read, "that is in slavery and oppression within the foreigners’ province, let him go forth to his own land in peace and delight." His reputation and hold on the High Kingship thus secured, he returned to attack Dublin again in 989. This time he again defeated the Danes in a battle outside the city walls and forced them to pay him tribute, but he still wasn“t strong enough to erase the Danish enclave altogether.

By now Mael Sechnaill’s advance was bringing him into potential conflict with another ambitious lad, Brian Boru, who was steadily expanding his territory northward from his power base in Munster. The two met at Clonfert in 997 and patched together a shaky truce, in essence agreeing to divide the country between them. This alliance bore fruit when together they won a major victory over the Danes in the battle of Glen Mama in Wicklow that further reduced the extent of Danish-held territory in Ireland.

But the alliance was basically unsatisfactory for two men who would both claim to be the High King of Ireland, and in 1002 Brian Boru’s aggression forced Mael Sechnaill to yield the High Kingship to him. Mael Sechnaill continued to be Brian’s ally, but was never a happy camper, and on the very brink of the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014 he abruptly withdrew his troops from Brian’s coalition. Brian went on to win a decisive victory over the Dublin Danes (along with their allied from Norway and the Isle of Mann), but in the aftermath of the battle Brian was assassinated as he knelt in prayer.

The battle of Clontarf marked the last defeat of the invading Norse, leaving Ireland free of invaders for the first time in generations. Upon the news of Brian’s death Mael Sechnaill sought to resume the High Kingship and to consolidate the gains won against the Danes in Ireland. He died on 2 September 1022 at Loch Ennell, Westmeath.

Amidst rivalry by various claimants, in the years to come the High Kingship of Ireland would no longer be a powerful political institution. Nevertheless, the independent Ireland left behind by Mael Sechnaill and Brian Boru would last nearly 150 years, until the Norman incursions in 1169.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2002 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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