Brian O'Neill and Brian Boru

This medieval poem lamenting the death of Brian O’Neill, chief of the O'Neills of Ulster, in the battle of Down in 1260 is an early example of a contemporary king being compared to Brian Boru, and the comparison is used to glorify O'Neill and present him as a heroic figure.

The poet, Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, wrote that O'Neill was buried in the same church as Brian Boru:

Brian Bóraimhe is in the church in the north; Brian Ó Néill of Aileach of the red weapons, the descendant of Conn of Cabha, is well to the west and his feet face Brian Bóraimhe.

He also drew parellels between O'Neill and Boru using the famous example of the stability and rule of law in Ireland under Boru's rule, whereby a woman could walk the length of Ireland carrying a golden ring and not be accosted. He writes that under O'Neill, the same was true:

Under Brian’s rule a woman would have walked from Sliabh Callainn to Coirrsbhliabh; travelling among the Irish is horrible to me since the hero of Ireland has departed."

Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe’s lament for Brian O’Neill in 'The Poems of Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe', ed. N.J.A. Williams (Dublin, 1980), pp 137-161.

Bardic Poets in Medieval Ireland

Bardic poets were highly-educated and respected members of the Gaelic elite. They wrote their poems for noble patrons who rewarded them for their service. Thus we cannot always trust what the poets said, as they were trying to please their patrons. One famous fourteenth-century poet, Gofraid Fionn Ó Dalaigh, acknowledged this, writing that:

There are two kindreds for whom poetry is composed in Ireland of the cool springs –
the Gaels, known to fame, and the English of Britain’s dewy isle.
In poetry for the English we promise that the Gael shall be banished from Ireland,
while in poetry for the Gaels we promise that the English shall be hunted across the sea."

Did you know? Gaelic bards were often accompanied by a harpist (as depicted in the image below) and occasionally with professional farters!



Thomas Mathews, The O'Neills of Ulster (3 vols, 1907).

T.E. McNeill, Anglo-Norman Ulster: the history and archaeology of an Irish barony, 1177–1400 (1980).

Emmett O'Byrne,  'Brian O'Neill' in Dictionary of Irish Biography

Katharine Simms, From Kings to Warlords: the Changing Political Structure of Gaelic Ireland in the Later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1987).

Katharine Simms, ‘Bardic Poetry as a Historical Source’ in T. Dunne (ed.), The Writer as Witness (Cork, 1987), pp 58 – 75.

Katharine Simms, ‘Tír Eoghain "North of the Mountain’ in G. O'Brien (ed.), Derry and Londonderry: History and Society (Dublin, 1999), pp 149 – 73.

Katharine Simms, ‘Late medieval Tír Eoghain: the kingdom of the Great O'Neill’ in C. Dillon and H.A. Jefferies (eds), Tyrone History and Society (Dublin, 2000), pp 127 – 62.

Late medieval bardic poets were highly paid: they might recieve a horse or a suit of armour for their work.