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Commissioning a replica of the Castle Otway Harp

Anyone who has ever visited The Long Room at Trinity College will have seen the Brian Boru harp. Fewer will be familiar with a second harp owned by Trinity College, known as the Castle Otway harp. This harp is not normally on public display, but every year, at the Historical Harp Society of Ireland’s Scoil na gCláirseach field trip, a small group of us get the rare opportunity to view the Castle Otway harp in the Henry Jones Room.

Simon Chadwick and members of the Early Irish Harp summer school 2019 examining the Castle Otway harp in the Henry Jones Room

The Brian Boru harp and Castle Otway harp are both surviving examples of old Irish wire strung harps. This tradition came to an end around 200 years ago, but there is growing interest in reviving and playing this old type of Irish harp with metal strings. Because this tradition was orally transmitted, the way of playing was lost. Present-day players therefore rely on research and on reconstructed playing techniques to learn the old Irish harp and to connect to past traditions.

Continue reading “Commissioning a replica of the Castle Otway Harp”

Brian Boru and the GAA in Dublin

?????????????????????????????Since an O’Brien played on the recent winning Kerry All Ireland football team, it seems like a good moment to highlight some of Brian Boru’s GAA connections, many of which (unsurprisingly) are linked to the Clontarf area and his native Co Clare.

Among the now defunct GAA clubs that once played in Dublin, two named Brian Boru were founded in the North Strand-Fairview and Clontarf areas (possible locations of the Battle of Clontarf) in the 1880s and 90s. And just as the current exhibition in the Long Room (Emperor of the Irish) features a poem on Brian by the Limerick-born American Civil War veteran Patrick Cudmore, so another American Civil War veteran, Joe Kavanagh of North Strand, was a hurling goalkeeper for Brian Boru G.A.C. as late as 1893!

Another defunct club, Kincora G.F.C. (named after Brian’s stronghold in Co Clare), played in Ballybough in the 1920s and 30s, the area where Sitriuc of Dublin’s army would have crossed the Tolka River on the way to Clontarf. Three Dublin clubs named Dalcassians (after Brian’s home kingdom of Dál Cais) operated between the 1890s and 1940s, in Balbriggan, Drumcondra and Inchicore (the latter was founded in 1913 by Claremen working on the nearby railway).

A special mention must also be made of the great nineteenth-century scholar (and Brian’s fellow Clareman) Eugene O’Curry, whose transcript of Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’) may be found in the first exhibition case. He too had the honour of a having a club named after him; the Eugene O’Curry’s G.F.C. competed for several years in junior and minor football competitions in the 1910s.

Sadly none of these clubs still exist. Nonetheless, Naomh Olaf GAA (St Olaf’s) in Stillorgan was founded in 1981 in an area known in Irish as Baile Mhic Amhlaoibh (‘The Town of the Son of Olaf’), and claim that the area was named for Sitriuc son of Olaf, Brian’s opponent at the Battle of Clontarf. Be that as it may, the saint in question was certainly not Sitriuc’s father (and husband of Gormlaith), but rather the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson, whose relics Sitriuc appears to have acquired for his principal ecclesiastical foundation, Christ Church Cathedral.

For fear of re-enacting the Battle of Clontarf, perhaps it’s just as well for all concerned that Naomh Olaf never met any of these clubs on the field — especially as Kincora G.F.C. was disbanded in controversy over player suspensions!

Denis Casey

[Main source: William Nolan, ed., The Gaelic Athletic Association in Dublin, 1884–2000 (3 vols., Geography Publications, Dublin, 2005); with thanks to Gerry Kavanagh of the National Library of Ireland].

The Exhibition Emperor of the Irish: Brain Boru and the Battle of Clontarf 1014 runs until 19 October 2014

Reading the Battle of Clontarf


So how do we know what happened at the Battle of Clontarf?  Or rather why do historians hum and haw and hedge their bets when you ask them what happened at Clontarf in 1014?

The answer is that historians try to reconstruct events from accounts in historic texts, and historic texts are a bit like newspapers — you shouldn’t believe everything you read in them!  Unfortunately, very few manuscripts survive from the Ireland of Brian Boru and often we are reliant on copies of copies of texts for our information (some written several centuries after the events they describe). A good example can be found on folio 55 recto of TCD MS 1282 (a sixteenth-century manuscript on display in the Emperor of the Irish exhibition in the Long Room and in the accompanying online exhibition). This is the account of the battle found in the Annals of Ulster, which is generally considered to be one of the most reliable historic texts from medieval Ireland.  Even so, if we look at the image of the manuscript page we can see that this text is not the same as it was when first written down in this manuscript, let alone when it was first composed several centuries earlier.

For example, one of the few facts that everyone can tell you about the Battle of Clontarf is that the Viking chief Brotor killed Brian Boru.  But did he?  Between the fifth and sixth lines from the bottom of the first column we find a revealing little bit of interlinear writing over Brotor’s name, which translates as who slew Brian.  The original author (in the larger text) simply tells us that Brotor was a leader of the Scandinavian fleet and that he fell in the battle.  A later scribe clearly thought it necessary to insert the ‘fact’ that Brotor also killed the Irish king; the original eleventh-century author may actually have been unaware of this ‘fact’ and indeed it may not even be true.  Another example can be found in the fourth line of the second column, where there are two gaps in the text.  It appears that words have been lost in the copying process over the generations, which should serve to remind us that our texts are not static, but subject to change (loss and gain) at every point of transmission.

And if you read through the entry carefully (in the original Irish or in translation) you’ll find that something else is also ‘missing’ — there’s no mention of Clontarf…

Denis Casey

The Emperor, the Princess and the Pig

?????????????????????????????Among the items on display in the Emperor of the Irish exhibition in the Long Room are a number of musical works that celebrate Brian Boru (died 1014), Ireland’s most famous king. The oddest of these must surely be Brian Boru: A Romantic Opera, which was published in Cincinnati by the Anglo-American duo Stanislaus Stange (words) and Julian Edwards (music), in 1896.

This highly anachronistic and fanciful work features Brian battling the English, after being betrayed by an English princess with whom he had fallen in love. A cast of leprechauns, fairies and drunken stage Irishmen accompanies him, and one of the latter (a henchman of Brian, named Pat O’Hara) owns a pig who dispenses matrimonial advice:

Paddy was a single man whin first he got this pig.
For all the gels in Oireland he didn’t care a fig.
At last he met a widdy, she smoil’d an’ call’d him Pat,
an’ said “Make me your Biddy”, shure the pig soon settled that.

“Paddy, yer off agin, Paddy look out!
Paddy, yer full a-gin, moind phat yer about.
Be actin loike a man av sinse,
and let the whuskey be;
shure if ye want to be a pig,
live in the stye wid me.”

Brian Boru received positive reviews and sold out when performed in New York, but fared less well on the West Coast: a reviewer for the San Francisco Call described it as ‘terrible’, an hour too long and declared that the ‘humor seems to center in that anatomical feature which is not mentionable in polite society’!

Denis Casey

Brian Boru and the Battle to get an Exhibition Ready

The current exhibition, Emperor of the Irish: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, involved months of work and collaboration with many different areas of the Library. Colleagues from the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, the departments of Early Printed Books and Special Collections, Conservation and Preservation, Digital Resources, the Librarian’s Office and Visitor Services were all involved in the preparations. Specially commissioned artwork for the exhibition and publications was produced by the animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Kilkenny. Exhibition design services were provided by Vermillion and the whole endeavour was supported by a grant from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The exhibition is also accompanied by a booklet, online exhibition and various articles published by Dr Bernard Meehan and Dr Denis Casey.

January 2014

The launch of the Battle of Clontarf Millennium Festival in the Long Room by the Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan. The Trinity College Library and National Museum of Ireland exhibitions were announced at this launch.22 January 2014 2

Initial meetings with animation studio Cartoon Saloon and designers Vermillion to discuss the shaping of the exhibition.

17 January 2014 1

February 2014

Conservation work including repairs, dis-binding and mounting of exhibition items

7 february 2014 2

Editorial work on text for labels, explanatory banners, online exhibition, booklet, posters and press release

13 Febryary 2014

March 2014

Photography of exhibits for online exhibition, to provide an accurate record of the exhibit, and inclusion in Digital Collections


Banner design drawings from Cartoon Saloon

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April 2014


2 April 2014 2


2 April 2014 3


Curator ‘walk through’ talk for Library and Visitor Services staff

9 April 2014 curator walk through for staff

And finally, the launch


Estelle Gittins

Emperor of the Irish: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf runs until October 2014.The exhibition is also available online.

Details of the Battle of Clontarf Millennium events are available  at