Diggin in the Dirt: Niall (sausage the second)

Niall...Continuing with the detailed exploration of Ireland’s most amorous homicidal maniac, Niall of the Nine Sausages, Blather.net’s graverobber in residence, Ender Wiggan, delves deeper into the sources behind the story of Niall.

The fifth century A.D. in Ireland has been called ‘the Lost Century’. In archaeological, historical and linguistic terms, there’s almost nothing in existence that can be definitely placed within that century. It’s a black hole where much of the discussion is prefaced by presumption and logical guesswork based on what came after.
Probably the earliest written evidence of actual historical reality is two documents attributed to the man called Patricius, who later would become St. Patrick. Though the earliest surviving forms of his ‘Confession’ and Letters to the ‘Soldiers of Coroticus’, are contained in the ‘Book of Armagh’, dedicated in 807 A.D., the use of the Latin language contained within them, are thought to be that of the fifth century A.D., and in particular, a non native speaker of Latin with Irish and British syntax. (Just as you might imagine a Romano-British ex-slave turned missionary, who spent a lot of life in Ireland would have probably written like.)
In his own words, “Our words have been translated into a foreign language as can be seen quite easily from the saliva of my writing”. The good news is that they are almost certainly written by the same individual, (although years apart) using similar expressions and style and almost identical syntax. The bad news is that while they are exquisitely written declarations of faith and service to God and the Irish people, he actually couldn’t have told us less if he had tried.
He mentions his birthplace in Britain (Still unidentified today), his fathers name and rank in the Roman civil service, his grandfather’s name, (a priest) and the place of his initial six years of captivity (the wood of Foclut, Co. Mayo). That’s it. In historical terms anyway.
So we have a fragment of what an educated Romano-British/Irish Man may have written like in 5th Century Ireland. Big deal. Well, hold that thought.
Linguistically, apart from Patrick’s writings, the next earliest identifiable writings and grammar styles are all centred around about 600 A.D. That’s the date of the earliest existing actual handwriting; known as the ‘Springmount Tablets’; some small pieces of wood coated with wax and containing handwritten (Vulgate) versions of Psalms 30-32. 600 A.D. is also the date of the earliest form of an ‘Insular Form of Latin’- Hisperic: a mostly pronounced form and deemed to be extravagant and distorted, contained in textbooks on teaching Latin Grammar by an author called ‘Asperius’. (Even then, we were kidnapping and abusing other people’s languages, and making them our own in the most unholy flowery way.)
Fast forward to the late sixth century and we have the earliest Irish monastic penitential (in Latin), governing rules on transgressions and penances in a similar vein to the early Irish secular law tracts. (The earliest version of such rules written in Irish is from the late eight century.)
After that comes the earliest versions of the ‘Lives of the Saints’ written in the late seventh century (Cogitosus-Life of Brigid, Adamnán’s- Life of Columba) as well as the collection of Patrick ‘material’ written by Muirchú and Tírechain (Where most of the Patrick myths concerning snakes, shamrocks and matrix-style showdowns with druids on Slane Hill come from. Not to mention the appearance of the Uí Néill King ‘Loíguire’, as High King of Tara.)
Next up are the earliest Irish annals and chronicles (diary like entries for important events in the year) also from the late seventh century. Again, like Patrick’s writings, the dating on these annals is based on linguistic terms, as they weren’t actually written within Ireland at the time, but on the Island of Iona. The ‘Chronicles of Iona’ is best preserved in the ‘Annales Cambriae’ (Wales), of which the oldest existing of them in Irish is actually tenth century in date.
Interesting to note though, that for the first hundred years after the foundation of Iona by Colm Cille, every abbot, with one exception, came from members of Colm Cille’s family. Colm’s real name was Crimthann and his father just so happened to be descended from Uí Neill (Are we seeing a pattern yet?) while his mother’s side was from Leinster (Laigin) royalty also. (Just for good measure).
This is where the secular law tracts come into the picture. Written between the seventh and eight centuries, they are not actually laws per say, but more text books for legal scholars who were training in specialist schools. (Anyone Irish who remembers being taught Catechism will be instantly familiar with their form- Questions and Answer formats. A bit like 12 times tables too). The first collection of these laws was only partially and not very accurately translated in the nineteenth century. And the whole complete ‘Corpus Iupis Hibernici’ has only been available since Binchy published his complete version in 1978.
Niall of the Nine sausages and Ender shall return in further articles
Full Diggin in the Dirt series
Niall on BBC
Niall on Wikipedia
The Táin Bó Cúailnge
Annals of the Four Masters
Artwork by miss w. tod
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1 comment

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