Killaloe and Brian Boru

We were very happy to get an invite to Killaloe this June bank holiday from our good friends T & C. Of course this made me think of my last visit there when I was conducting the research for my book. Killaloe in Co. Clare and Ballina in Co. Tipperary lie on opposite banks of the river Shannon at the southern end of Lough Derg. The towns are connected by an 19th century bridge that used to have 13 arches, but 4 were removed to insert the navigation section. The settlements developed at an important fording point (now submerged) that has been utilised since the prehistoric period. The approach to these twin towns is spectacular. The lake narrows below Scarriff Bay, and is enclosed by the Slieve Bernagh mountains to the west and the Arra mountains to the east.

The River Shannon at Killaloe-Ballina

The River Shannon at Killaloe-Ballina

Perhaps the most famous son of Killaloe was Brian Boru, High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014. His palace of Kincora stood on the hill in Killaloe where the Roman Catholic church, the green and some of the nearby houses are today, but there is no trace of Kincora to be found.

Brian Boru was the leader of the Dál gCais sept of Co. Clare. In Irish he is called Brian Bórumha or Bóirmhe, which are variations of the word bóraimhe which means ‘cattle-tribute’. However, Dáithi Ó hÓgáin in his book ‘Myth, Legend and Romance’, mentions a poem that refers to Brian Boru as ‘Brian from Bórumha’. This could be Beal Bórumha on the right bank of the Shannon just north of Killaloe. This translates as ‘the port of the cattle tribute’, and Brian may have grown up there. Brian and his brother Mathghamhain (Mahon) battled constantly against rival septs and the Scandinavian invaders commonly called Vikings (although they referred to themselves as Ostmen). It is the struggle against the Vikings for which Brian Boru is probably most well known. Brian became leader of the Dál gCais on the assassination of his brother in 976 and went on to become the High King of Ireland. His reign came to an end in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf in Dublin.

Brian’s power in Ireland had remained unchallenged until a revolt by the Vikings and Leinstermen under Mailmora and Sitric of the silken beard (the son of Gormlaith who had previously been married to Brian Boru). The Vikings enlisted aid from the western isles of Scotland and from the Isle of Man, but to no avail as the forces of the elderly Brian Boru and his son Murrogh defeated them at Clontarf on Good Friday 1014. On the night before the battle a lady of the otherworld called Aoibheall came to the aged Brian and told him he would be killed the next day. As Brian’s forces were beginning to subdue the Leinstermen and their Viking allies, a fleeing Dane called Brodir saw Brian praying in his tent and attacked him. Despite severing Brodir’s leg with his sword, the Dane manged to smash Brian’s skull with his axe, killing the High King. The descendents of Brian Boru, the O’Briens, held the high kingship of Ireland for a while after Brian’s death, but eventually lost it to the O’Connors. The O’Briens remained Kings of Thomond for centuries, until they allied themselves with the English, when they were granted an Earldom. Brian is described in the Book of Armagh as Imperator Scotorum, ‘emperor of the Irish’.

Introducing The Nieuwe Zorgen

One of my modes of transport on this Shannon Journey was a 100-year-old Dutch Sailing Barge called Nieuwe Zorgen. This type of barge is known as a Skutsje Tjalk, and this particular one is my brother Eric’s home.

The Nieuwe Zorgen by Eric Kemp

The Nieuwe Zorgen by Eric Kemp

A Tjalk is one of a variety of Dutch commercial barges, each type built for a specific purpose. The Nieuwe Zorgen was designed for carrying cargo on the shallow lakes, canals and rivers of Friesland in the North of The Netherlands, thus the low stern and bow. To pass quickly under the many low canal and river bridges, the Skipper had to drop and raise the mast and sails repeatedly, so the mast has a counter weight which allows it to pivot. Probably the most distinctive feature of the boat are the fan-shaped leeboards.

We know that Nieuwe Zorgen was built in 1904, and started out as a freight carrier. Many of these sailing barges were confiscated during WWII to be used against the allies by the occupying forces, but the Zorgen  escaped this  fate when the owner sank her to stop the Nazis from getting their hands on her. She was then recovered when the war ended.

The Nieuwe Zorgen on Lough Derg

The Nieuwe Zorgen on Lough Derg

Nowadays these types of Tjalk are used for racing  in the annual Skutsjesil, a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century when the skippers used to race each other to get the best spots on the town quay.

By the way, in case you are wondering – Nieuwe Zorgen means ‘New Worry’. Don’t ask, we don’t know either!