Welcome to Diggin in the Dirt: a new series of articles exploring all matters archaeological and historical, brought to you by archaeologist of the damned and Blather’s grave-robber in residence, Ender Wiggan. Excavations shall commence with a study of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the infamous 5th century warlord and serial-knobber.
Recently, many newspapers have been waxing lyrical about the latest genetic study from Trinity College, involving the tracing of an alpha-male type genetic ancestry in the northwest part of Ireland. Linked with the UÃ NÃ©ill Dynasty, and their mythical founder Niall of the Nine Hostages, impressive estimates now proclaim that one in twelve Irish males (one in three in Ulster) share direct descent from him. And worldwide, between two and three million males may also be able to trace a common genetic connection to him.
A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland
But just who was Niall when he was at home? What class of figure was he? What was so special about him? How did he find the energy to procreate in such quantities? Not to mention the time to rule, raid and pillage, like a good Iron Age Irish chieftain. Did he have a massive micky, or what? Was he a â€˜Good Goerâ€™? Aâ€˜Gaelic Gigoloâ€™? A â€˜Celtic Casanovaâ€™? At the end of the day, itâ€™s all very well for the one in twelve Irish males descended from him alive today; but where the fuck do the rest of the eleven of us come from?
Well, Iâ€™ll endeavour to tell you. In a very â€˜Grandpa Simpsonâ€™ long winded way of course. You may want to go the bathroom now. And perhaps get a cup of tea.
Son of the son of the son…
Niall of the Nine Hostages, (Niall NoÃgiallach, to his friends and enemies) is long credited as being one of five sons of Eochu MugmedÃ³n, who was the son of Muiredach TÃrech, who was the son of Fiachu Sraibtine, who was the son of Cairbre Lifechair, who was the son of Cormac, who was the son of Airt, who was the son of the legendary founder of Connacht, Conn CÃ©tchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles)…
Sometime in the late third, early fourth centuries, Fiachu Sraibtine, as king (see above) was killed by his nephews, but pardoned by the new king, Fiachuâ€™s son Muiredach TÃrech, (funnily enough – I wonder why?) who sent them to conquer the Ulaid who had long controlled Ulster. Following seven battles, they finally succeeded in forcing the Ulaid to retreat eastwards into modern County Down.
Their ancient capital, Emain Macha, mentioned in the Tain, was destroyed. This large tract of territory (most of south and west Ulster) then became known as the territory of the new overlords there, the Airgialla (Those who give Hostages), who of course paid the tribute to their new masters. There were nine tÃºaths, (single tribal units) making up the Airgialla. Hence, Noi (Nine) +Giallach (Hostages) = Niall of the Nine Hostages, or more correctly, Niall who receives the tributes of the Airgialla. Or in universal terms: Head Honcho. Numero Uno. El Presidente. Chairman of the Board. Bono.
Niall and his brothers soon continued the family tradition, expanding north, west and south in almost any direction they could, eventually taking over the territory around Tara. This displaced large tracts of land, previously held by the Laigin, or (Leinstermen), as well as the Connachta (Where they had come from) left behind in the rush to conquer Ulster.
Not content with this, he is also believed to have raided extensively in western Britain, whose wealthy settlements were â€˜rich pickingsâ€™ for the Irish privateers and pirates, following the withdrawal of Roman legions. Vast quantities of Booty and British slaves subsequently flowed back into Ireland, including one in particular, a Briton named Patrick, who would go on to make all sorts of commotion in Ireland. Niall is thought to have died around 450 A.D., some say while raiding in Britain, and reputedly is buried near Downpatrick.
His son, Ailill Molt, is credited as being the first UÃ NÃ©ill king to celebrate the Feis Temro (the Feast of Tara), a mythical and obscure form of kingship inauguration. So large was their territory, and so many tribes involved that from early on, they subdivided themselves in two distinct branches. The Northern UÃ NÃ©ill (Ulster) and the Southern UÃ Neill (North Leinster/Meath).
Throughout the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries they consolidated their power and from the start of the eight-century, the provincial kings (and sometimes claimants for high-kingship) of the UÃ NÃ©ill Dynasty, alternated with â€˜astonishing regularityâ€™ between two distinct ruling clans of the dynasty. The Northern â€˜CenÃ©l nEÃ³gain; and the Southern â€˜Clann Cholmainâ€™. They continued to be one of the dominant forces in nationwide power politics up to the coming of the Normans, and following after, within Ulster power plays until the Flight of the Earls in the sixteenth century.
The most important thing to remember about most of the above; is that it is mostly Bunkum. Tall tales. Myth. Legend. Pseudo-History, contained in the annals, genealogies, king-lists, hagiographies and sagaâ€™s compiled and formulated centuries later by ecclesiastical scholars attempting to;
1: reconcile the embarrassing lack of information regarding the origin of the Irish Church, while creating a legitimate history for the Church of Armagh to sue for primacyâ€¦
2: Include the leading tribal dynasties and contemporary secular powers of the day in their histories, in order to placate and influence them to provide protection, sponsorship and territorial land to the church.
3: Retrofitting Irish â€˜prehistoryâ€™, into the accepted world wide Christian biblical model of the time.
Niall NoÃgiallach, the man, myth and legend, fitted the bill perfectly. He still does today, as the latest genetic findings of the Trinity report shows. Why he was so suitable was as much a product of seventh century contemporary political, liturgical and technological advances.
Sausage the second
Sausage the third
Full Diggin in the Dirt series
Niall on BBC
Niall on Wikipedia
The TÃ¡in BÃ³ CÃºailnge
Annals of the Four Masters
Artwork by miss w. tod