War over a Slight at a Chess Game?

Máel Mórda was king of the Uí Fáeláins, a dynasty from northern Leinster, whose main royal centre was at Nás (Naas, Co. Kildare) and regularly held the kingship of Leinster.

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The Leinstermen had long been under pressure from the Uí Néill to their north while the growth of the Viking settlement at Dublin saw the emergence of another powerful regional rival. By the late tenth century Brian Boru, king of Munster, was also putting pressure on Leinster and attempting to exert influence over the region and its rulers.

Family Connections and Brian as Overlord

In the year 999 Máel Mórda, acting in alliance with Sitric Silkenbeard, king of Dublin, clashed with Brian Boru.

The warring parties were family as well as rivals: Sitric was the son of Máel Mórda's sister, Gormlaith, and her first husband, an earlier king of Dublin, Amlaíb Cuarán.

Máel Mórda and Sitric clashed with Brian Boru near Dublin at the battle of Glen Máma but they were defeated.

Following this defeat, Máel Mórda only maintained his position as king of Leinster after having first submitted to Brian as his overlord.

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Máel Mórda's was not happy with Brian's overlordship and he and Sitric became allies again at the Battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014. While Sitric survived the battle, the Leinster king did not.

Mael Morda in the Cogadh

Máel Mórda’s character is introduced in the Cogadh being dragged from his hiding place in a yew tree by Murchad, Brian’s son, after the battle of Glen Máma.

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Interestingly, the yew tree was a symbol that would follow his characterization throughout the text; yew trees were associated with sacred sites and therefore, the laws of sanctuary.  Hiding would have been a monumental display of cowardice after a fierce battle; a future king hiding from his foes would not have been considered by the medieval Irish to be manly, honorable, or in the least bit acceptable. This is the Cogadh’s first allusion to Máel Mórda’s cowardice.

Gormlaith’s goading is often conceived as the cause of Máel Mórda’s declaration of hostilities upon the Uí Briain. But the Cogadh makes no such reference.

Instead, Máel Mórda declared war only after a chess game played with Brian's son, Murchad, and his cousin Conaing.

© Trustees of the British Museum

In this scene from the Cogadh, it appears that Máel Mórda was advising Conaing on what moves to make, which subsequently led into an argument between himself and Murchad. In a scene designed to highlight Máel Mórda’s cowardice, Murchad alludes to Máel Mórda’s cowardly behavior at the battle of Glen Máma, after which Máel Mórda becomes so angry that he storms off. Máel Mórda then proceeds to leave Brian’s court at Kincora in a rage, eventually declaring war against Murchad's father, Brian Boru.

In effect, according the the author of the Cogadh, Máel Mórda manipulated the men of Leinster into a declaration of war against Brian Boru because of an altercation over a chess game.


Francis John Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings  (Dublin, 2001).

Anthony Candon, 'Muirchertach Ua Briain: Politics and Naval Activity in the Irish Sea' in  Gearóid Mac Niocaill and Patrick F. Wallace (eds), Keimelia: Studies in Medieval Archaeology and History in Memory of Tom Delaney (Galway, 1988) pp 397-415.

Nial Mac Coitir, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore (Cork, 2003).

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, 'Bréifne Bias in Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib' in Ériu Vol. 43 (Jan 01, 1992), pp 135-158.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Brian Boru: Ireland’s Greatest King? (Stroud, 2007).

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, '"Cogad Gáedel Re Gallaib" and the Annals: A Comparison' in Ériu Vol. 47 (Jan 01, 1996), pp 101-126.

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Essex, 1995).

John Ryan, “Brian Boruma, King of Ireland' in Etienne Rynne (ed), North Munster Studies: Essays in Commemoration of Monsignor Michael Moloney (Limerick, 1967), pp 355-374.

James Henthorn Todd, ed, intro. and trans. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh = The war of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, or, The invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen (London, 1867).

In the medieval period Yew trees were associated with sacred sites and thus the laws of sanctuary were extended to them.