In the year 1014 there was a ferocious pitched battle, which rid Ireland of the Norse invaders who had been plaguing the country for over two hundred years. The event, better known as The Battle of Clontarf , sent shockwaves through the Viking world and ultimately sounded the death knell of their loose confederate style empire. An empire which held sway from Sweden down as far as Northern France. The hero of that day long battle which took place in Dublin Bay, was Brian Boru, the Greatest High King of Ireland.
Irish history subsequently took a different turn in 1169 when the French Anglo Normans invaded. Had that not happened however, it is likely that the present day, Conor O’Brien, who lives at Dromoland in Newmarket-of-Fergus, County Clare, would be the High King of Ireland. Conor O’Brien currently holds the title of the 18th Baron Inchiquin. A modest man, he rarely now uses his official title, preferring instead the ancient Gaelic “The O’Brien”.
As leader of the illustrious family, which predates the British German Hanoverian House of Windsor by centuries, the scattered descendents of the O’Brien clan now number over three quarters of a million worldwide:
“We have over 120 chapters around the world with new chapters increasing year by year, I get an awful lot of correspondence from around the world from members of the O’Brien family. Naturally I can’t answer them all, but we have a website though –www.obrienclan.com which allows people to keep in touch”, explained Conor O’Brien.
The family estate at Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus is now, no longer in their name:
“Unfortunately back in 1963 my late uncle Donough had to sell it because it was too expensive to keep running, the rates alone were £10,000 per year”,
The castle was subsequently bought by a wealthy Irish American millionaire for £65,000. With deep pockets, the ancient castle was saved by the new owner.
The hereditary Dromoland Castle is now listed as one of the top hotels in the world and is now graced by the modern day equivalent of royalty; as in the Hollywood show biz world and the Merchant Princes of commerce.
Conor O’Brien still lives within the shadow of the former family castle on the nearby 600 acre Dromoland estate. As Chief of the extraordinary Clan, the male lineage has remained unbroken for over 1000 years. Although not recognised as the real High king of Ireland – due to the constitutional disregard for royal titles – Conor O’Brien’s lineage is probably one of the oldest in the world.
The O’Brien’s lineage could be as old as 2000 years as far back as the times of Christ. And perhaps even further, to the Iron Age monarchs who resided at the ancient Hill of Tara, County Meath: “Irish history was only really recorded from the time of the 5th and 6th century onwards the rest is really only legend”, explained Conor O’Brien.
Although the clan he is titular head of, is vast in anyone’s language. Conor O’Brien is keen to point out that they are 6th down the line in terms of numbers:
“The Murphy’s are probably the largest, the O’Brien’s are probably at number six”.
Deeply proud of his illustrious ancestor, Brian Boru, he feels that in some ways the only ever “True” High King of Ireland was somehow relegated to the country’s forgotten people. Brian Boru, in his time was widely read and a serious student of Julius Caesar’s writings and theories of statesmanship. He was also considered a scholar and was deeply concerned with the concept of forging the rival chieftains into creating the modern idea of a nation state. A very advanced concept in its time.
Riding out from his Kincora Palace in the year 1002, he made a perilous journey into the deeply suspicious hinterland with the goal of uniting the five warring Kingdoms of Ireland. Despite many setbacks, he proved to be a brilliant diplomat and succeeded. To the amazement of his followers, he later came back alive, and as High King:
“Brian Boru is the man who got closest to unifying Ireland, his story needs to be told, he is in my view neglected by history”.
Ironically for such an historic figure, there isn’t even a statue to commemorate him at the place of his greatest achievement, Clontarf. The swamp where he beat the “unbeatable invincible” Leinstermen, and ultimately died in his tent during a lull in the latter stages of the battle when a young Viking Chief laid him low with an axe blade. The, then elderly king’s son also died, which ultimately put paid to the idea of one king for one land.
Conor O’Brien, despite his title as the Chief of the O’Brien’s has enjoyed a colourful upbringing. His father was in the RAF during World War II. His then eldest son, Conor, who was born in England was educated at Eton College and later went on to enjoy a military career in the British Army. Thereafter, at the relatively young age of 29, and having achieved the rank of Captain, Conor O’Brien decided to head off to the Far East and go into business. The lure of the ancient homeland beckoned however, and 9 years later in 1982 he decided to return to the wilds of Munster, home to the Clan for over 1000 years.
Deeply committed to the family’s illustrious ancestor. In 2002, Conor organised a huge O’Brien clan-fest with participants from the four continents of the world participating in the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of his crowning at Tara as the undisputed High king. Hundreds of the O’Brien Diaspora congregated at the ancient heartland of the ancient Kingdom of Thomond. A 10,000 square mile fiefdom -which in ancient times- comprised of Limerick, Clare and Tipperary.
After the fateful Battle of Clontarf, the family’s fortunes underwent a roller coaster of events, more often than not bloody. With the arrival of the Normans into Ireland, the Fitzgerald’s were a constant thorn in their sides. Finally in1543, Conor’s, great grandfather removed 18 times – Murrough O’Brien- the last King of Thomond, was forced under pressure of death and the loss of all his lands to submit to King Henry the 8th. As a reward for not rebelling, he was granted the title 1st Earl of Thomond for his lifetime only and 1st Baron of Inchiquin for his male heirs.
A hundred years later the clan were in trouble again during the Cromwellian wars, when after the disastrous Treaty of Limerick, their cousins, The Viscounts of Clare were forced to abandon Ireland for the continent. Out maneuvered, and out gunned , Conor O’Brien’s branch of the family had to make some accommodation with Cromwell’s murderous regime:
“Our branch changed religion, some survived and I guess others haven’t. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it they ultimately survived and are here today”. he explained.
Conor O’Brien and The O’Brien Clan Foundation, are gearing up for a series of major events to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the former High King’s death in 1014.
Transcript from article by Tom Prendeville – Sunday People 2003.