High King in the Cathedral: Body of Brian Boru Uncovered?


Plaque commemorating burial of Brian Boru, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. (Image: Giorgio.Melina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Here’s some archaeological background regarding ongoing concerns over the mortal remains of Brian Boru – probably one of the most famous people in Irish history, who came close to being the first (and last) ‘High King’ of Ireland in the early eleventh century AD. Brian was killed just as his forces gained victory over his opponents at the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014 AD. Upon his death, the body of Brian Boru was subsequently conveyed to Armagh and interred in a stone/marble ‘coffin’ at, or near, what is now the cathedral’s exterior west wall of the north transept.

In January of this year, following minor flooding resulting from the severe weather systems that affected Ireland, cathedral authorities instigated  maintenance works in an effort to clear and improve existing underground drainage channels – some of which predate the buildings present facade from the 1830s. During the works, which were concentrated on the exterior of the Cathedral’s facade, the remains of a medieval stone lined grave, orientated East-West, was uncovered adjacent the exterior of the north transept. A consultant from Amlán Archaeology Ltd was subsequently brought in to monitor the works in progress.

As the grave exhibited signs of recent subsidence/water damage (at its western end) a limited examination of its contents was undertaken in order to assess the extent and nature of the problem. The examination revealed that the physical integrity of the grave had been previously compromised, most likely from renovations to the cathedral over the centuries.  Upon removing a portion of the covering cáeptha (‘capping stones’) the skeletal remains of an adult were revealed. Initial estimates of size, based on osteological indications, suggests the adult would have originally stood somewhere between 5ft 11, and 6ft, 2 inches tall.

Fragmentary Inscription under optimal lighting conditions (Image supplied to author in confidence)

During the examination, a fragmented flagstone (broken in antiquity) with partial inscription (‘IMP’) was also revealed. The abbreviation is well known as a Latin designation for the title Imperator (‘Emperor’) and the occurrence of such an inscription within the Armagh grave is astounding. Some years prior to his burial at Armagh, Brian Boru is thought to have been present at a donation to the church on his behalf in 1005 AD. The donation was recorded in the Liber Ardmachanus (‘Book of Armagh’) by his scribe, Máel Ammatán, who assigned him the title Imperator Scottorum (‘Emperor of the Irish’).


‘Brian Imperator Scottorum’ in Liber Ardmachanus, fol. 16v (Facsimile: ‘Irish Antiquarian Researches’ / British Library HMNTS 601.g.22. / BL Flickr Commons)

Given the nature of the graves position relative to that recorded as Brian’s by history, the size of the individual within, and the presence of the Imperator inscription – the authorities and archaeologists involved agreed that further tests should be carried out. Following a small scale excavation, the skeletal remains were removed and taken to a secure location for further analysis and carbon dating.

It is believed that cathedral authorities have insisted on a strict time limit for such analysis and are especially keen to have the remains re-interred as quickly as possible. However, in recent weeks, news of the extraordinary find (and the above details) has been quietly spreading within archaeological circles both north and south of the border – and privately – many are beginning to express reservations about the continuing veil of secrecy surrounding the matter.

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Belfast based archaeologist expressed the opinion that the removal of the skeletal remains was being deliberately kept quiet for several reasons:

If this gets out, it’ll make Richard the Third and Alfred the Crate look like a Punch and Judy show.  Every Tom, Dick and O’Brien will be crawling out of the woodwork laying claim to him. Coupled with that there are modern jurisdiction, cultural ownership and religious issues – not to mention huge economic potential and institutional promotional opportunities if a university manages to get involved. Digging up Brian Boru could literally be worth millions in research grants, you know.”

“Think about it, a university research unit could apply all sorts of cutting edge technology and state of the art analysis to the remains – such as: finding out if he suffered from some of the most widely common medieval diseases of his day or if he suffered from conditions associated with old age when he died in his 80s. Sure, with a few measly hundred thousand quid, they could even sequence his entire genome to see if he had grey hair, or not. Archaeologically, this a unique opportunity to prove once and for all, that everything we already know about Brian – is in fact true.”


Image: seriykotik1970/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

According to a Dublin based academic (also speaking on condition of anonymity):

“It’s an absolute disgrace. That shower of heretics up there have no shame, at all. They have him whipped up already and are trying to keep it quiet. Sure they love nothing better than rubbing our noses in things –  taking our jobs and our kings. They’ve been doing it for years, first with the Titanic and then with Game of Thrones. King of the world, me arse. This is our heritage, our birthright. If they can get away with this, you know whats next? Digging up St. Patrick, St. Bridget and St. Colmcille, that’s what. Mark. My. Words.”

Others, however, are more cautious in their reservations, seeing a potential for mutual co-operation and gain. According to sources within the Department of Heritage, Arts, Sports & Oversized Leprechaun Hats (with special responsibility for Riverdance Re-Runs, Generic Irish Childhood Misery, Michael Flatley’s Leather Pants and the Gaelteacht) cross border negotiations are already underway. “The 2014 millennium commemoration of the Battle of Clontarf is only a few weeks away”, said a spokesperson, speaking strictly off the record, “this is a unique opportunity for all concerned.”

“We’ve tabled a provisional proposal for Armagh to let us have the remains – strictly on loan – for the duration of the festivities. Despite what you’d think, they’re quite open to it. They have form of course – 20 ounces of gold, plus inflation, in return for co-operation. We are already planning a solemn and tasteful display of his skeletal remains involving an historical recreation of Brian’s last journey from Clontarf to Armagh – only in reverse.”

“He will be carried in formal procession on an open top bus, his bones cradled in the 6 Nations Trophy held aloft by the modern day King of Ireland and Clontarf native, Brian O’Driscoll. It’ll be quite a poignant moment, Ireland’s past and the present, united at last across time and space by two kings and namesakes.

Who gives a monkey’s if the bones are his or not. Sure you couldn’t buy this sort of publicity. Do you know how many Irish Americans are called O’Brien? At least 20 million. And those that aren’t will get free Irish passports that say they are. We’re thinking of going with: The Gathering 2.0 – Thank Bod for Brian.”

Proposed costume for Brian O'Driscoll...

Ireland’s Golden Age (In the Reign of King Brian Boru 1000) Image: Canada. Patent and Copyright Office / Bureau des brevets et du droit d’auteur; Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada; nlc-11379.

A spokesperson for the Clontarf Commemoration Committee expressed amazement at the news, followed quickly by dissatisfaction that they had not been informed.

“Why can’t we keep him? Why shouldn’t we keep him? He died fighting at Clontarf, he was waked in Clontarf, its only fitting that he should be re-buried at Clontarf. We’ve been saying for years that we need a world class heritage centre here and those bones would make a great centre piece – right beside the Boru Hotel, Conference Centre, Shopping Mall, Bowling Alley, Ice Rink, Casino, Roller Coaster and Open Air Viking Gladiatorial Arena. Oh wait, does this mean we might have to dig up the car park again? Feck.

On the other side of the country, the Kincora Residents Association are outraged at the news that Clontarf will be the focus of the return of Brian’s remains. According to their spokesperson:

“Typical Dublin centric gobshites who couldn’t organize a piss-up in St. James gate. There’s no such thing as Munster, I suppose? Not past Junction 6 on the M50, anyway, if you’re a Jackeen. Listen here now, Brian Boru was born and raised here and if there’s anywhere he would have wanted to be buried, its here in Kincora, among his own people. Not some jumped up smelly mudflat reclaimed from a stinking estuary surrounded by northsiders. For fecks sake, they’re the descendents of the original norseholes that killed him in the first place. “


A wretched hive of scum and villainy, aka ‘the northside’ – View from Clontarf, Dublin. (Image: infomatique / Flickr / CC BY-SA)

“We’ll be organizing our own  repatriation, thank you very much. Brian’s remains can go to Clontarf if they want, but he’s coming straight down here to Clare afterwards. We’re already planning a huge home-coming festival and with the greatest of respect, Brian O’Driscoll can feck off with himself. We have Keith Wood and Colm Meaney on standby to lead our procession.

Colm is going to recite the entire Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib while escorting the skeletal remains on top of a lavishly designed replica of the USS Enterprise’s Transporter Room, all the way from Clontarf to Killaloe – where the real Chief O’Brien will be waked for 21 days and nights. Oh yes, we’ll show them all exactly where the princes and nobles sate at the feasts in thy halls and drank the red wine.

Following the wake – he’ll be formally interred by Keith – in full Munster Rugby Regalia – in the chancel of St. Lua’s Church. Sure its just a mickey mouse reconstruction of what it used to be anyway, so its not going to cause any problems, you know? We know a man who knows a man.”

Rehearsing Traditional Irish Keening for the Chief O’The Brien’s, Kincora, Co. Clare (Image: Mild Mannered Photographer / Flickr / CC BY)

All is not quite harmonious in Munster however. There are growing indications that ecclesiastical authorities will soon start the process of making formal claims on Brian’s mortal remains. The Church of Ireland Cathedral Church of St. Flannel, Killaloe is believed to be putting together a bid to be the site of Brian’s eternal resting place, based on historical authenticity. While the Roman Catholic Diocese of Killaloe is also understood to be forwarding a claim for the cathedral church in Vennis, Co. Clare.

“It’s a question of historical accuracy and decorum”, said a spokesperson for the COI diocese. “We’re very concerned that the real issue at the heart of all this is being lost amidst all the competitive jostling for position”, said a spokesperson for the RC diocese:

“Brian Boru is one of Ireland’s greatest sons and historical figures. He’s a man renowned for his achievements and innovations – riding roughshod over rules – bullying, bribing, battering and blackmailing his way into a position of national influence whilst hijacking cultural historical symbolism in an attempt to brand, cement, and profit from, a false legacy of himself in his own lifetime – all culminating in a glorious internecine conflict between Irish & Vikings on one side and fellow Vikings & Irish on the other.”

“Is this really any way for modern Ireland to cherish and commemorate his sacred memory?”

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