Saturday, March 17, 2012

Monarch Profile (St Patrick's Day Special): Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, High King of Ireland

King Mael Seachnaill II, King Malachy II or Malachy the Great is another one of those giant figures from the royal history of Ireland that, frankly, most people have probably never heard about. Many details about his life, especially his early years, remain a mystery but he was born probably in 948 AD into the Clann Cholmáin sept and became a tribal leader of the Uí Néill and later the King of Meath. This put him in the running to be King of Tara or High King of Ireland as the position usually alternated between the septs of the Uí Néill. In 980 AD he succeeded Domnall ua Néill as the High King of Ireland, which, it should be added, did not imply direct rule over every one of the minor Irish kingdoms but that he was generally recognized, symbolically at least, as the first among all the Irish kings and occupied the highest position in Ireland. This could but did not always translate to cooperative unity and such unity was something Ireland was in need of as this was at the height of the Viking invasions. All over the north of Europe the Norsemen were pouring down with a ferocity the likes of which most at the time had never seen before. Oftentimes these are portrayed simply as raids, intended for nothing more than plundering. However, while this was often true, the Vikings were also expanding and had established strong footholds in many foreign lands, including Britain and Ireland.

The same year Malachy II assumed the High Kingship the Viking King of Dublin, Olaf Cuarán, called in his vassals from across the Scottish isles and all his lands to attack Meath. A victory there would have taken the Vikings one large step closer to the eventual total domination of Ireland. However, King Malachy II was more than up to the challenge and he met the Vikings at the battle of Tara, one of the most pivotal clashes in Irish history. The fighting was fierce but, thankfully for the Irish, King Olaf and his Vikings were defeated, his own son and heir, Reginald, being killed in the battle. King Malachy II seized the initiative and launched an immediate counter-attack while the Vikings were in disarray and pursued the remnants of their army back to Dublin to which he laid siege. After only three days and three nights the city of Dublin surrendered and what was arguably the most prominent Viking bastion on the island passed into Irish hands. The overall struggle between the Irish and the Vikings was a long way from over but a powerful blow had been struck and King Malachy II earned great praise and widespread fame for his crushing victory.

As was usually the case in Ireland at this time, internal rivalries were often just as much a threat as external invaders and Malachy II began to take notice of an inspiring, up-and-coming warrior king named Brian Bóroimhe (the famous Brian Boru). In an attempt to keep the peace Malachy II called a special conference of the royal leaders at Clonfert in 997 and a deal was worked out by which Malachy II would remain the nominal High King of Ireland and have authority over the north of the island while King Brian Boru would have control over the south (excluding those areas ruled by the Vikings of course). Afterwards each side exchanged hostages they had taken fighting the Vikings as a symbol of their goodwill and cooperation. With their alliance secured they then worked together to continue the war against the Viking presence in eastern Ireland. The situation grew worse when the Leinstermen, already enemies of the Uí Néill, revolted against Munster and King Brian in cooperation with the Vikings. Brian and High King Malachy consolidated their forces and met the Vikings and Leinstermen at the battle of Glenmama on December 30, 999. The result was another solid victory for Malachy II, another serious setbacks for the Vikings of the Dublin region and it solidified the place of Brian Boru.

However, it was not long after that victory that the alliance between the two most powerful Christian Irish kings collapsed. Things deteriorated after the year 1000 and rivalry grew up between the pair. In 1002 Malachy II was defeated by the Munster forces and had to give up the High Kingship to Brian Boru. The new High King went on to numerous great deeds of his own and also dealt the Vikings a crushing blow but it was ultimately a war he won but did not survive. In 1014 at the battle of Clontarf Brian Boru and his son and heir were both killed along with many of his subordinate commanders in the bloody fighting that was nonetheless victory. Once again, Malachy II returned to the position of High King of Ireland with the help of loyal clan leaders in the north, however, this time his place was highly contested and he was unable to see much accomplished for Ireland because of it. The position of High King went into a period of decline and would not become very important again until several decades later.

Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, High King of Ireland, died on September 2, 1022 at Lough Ennel in County Westmeath and was buried in Armagh with all due reverence. Married twice, he had six children, half of whom survived him. Malachy the Great will always be remembered, in Ireland at least, for his great victory at the battle of Tara and that alone would be enough to ensure him an honored place in Irish history. It was a blow from which the Viking Kingdom of Dublin never really recovered from and although overshadowed by the later victory of Brian Boru at Contarf, it is possible that Brian would not have been successful then were it not for the earlier victory of his predecessor as High King at Tara. High King Malachy II deserves to be remembered as a great defender of Christian Ireland and a key figure in the ultimately successful struggle against the pagan Vikings which ensured the survival of the Irish people as they had been.


  1. Thank you for this post. He is remembered, at least by me. And I will raise my daughter to honour his memory too: Maelseachlainn Mor, son of Domhnall, son of Donnchadh, pillar of the dignity and nobility of the west of the world.

    I imagine he would not be impressed at the ersatz Irishness flaunted by the inhabitants of our native isle, were he to return today.

  2. Fantastic post MM and the appropriate day for it, too.

  3. Just noticed my family crest says mac Domnail


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