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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Ten

                     The Sixth Century I

 Summary. Describes the political situation of Ireland in the Sixth Century and identifies the principle ruling
 families. The detailed description of the various clans and their warfare may be skipped.


Political Situation

Chiefdom of Tara

Over-Chiefs of Tara

Chiefdoms of the North

Chiefdoms in the South and West.


Political Situation


            This was the age of Justinian in Constantinople but the remnants of the Latin Empire were ravaged by wars. Clovis king of the Franks, a Germanic-speaking people, had become a Christian and adopted the Latin language as spoken in Gaul at the time, and was beginning to establish the powerful Frankish kingdom. However on his death in 511 the kingdom was divided into four (later three parts) and it was in the divided Frankish kingdom that Columbanus worked. The Ostrogoths, originally another Germanic-speaking people, continued to rule Italy despite the efforts of Justinian to recover it for the Empire. This Gothic kingdom was by no means barbarian, and the architecture at Raven was equal to that in Constantinople. In the second half of the century the Ostrogoths were displaced by the Lombards, yet another Germanic-speaking people.

             In Britain, for most of the century after the battle of Mons Badonicus the advance of the Anglo-Saxons was checked. After the battle of Deorham in 577 their advance recommenced. It was followed shortly afterwards by the general conversion of the Anglo-Saxon rulers to Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon rule was moving towards the west out of the Trent valley and building up the kingdom of Mercia. No doubt some battles were fought but we can assume that inter-marriage was common. As we noted earlier we cannot assume that conquest and extermination were the only or even the principal means of spreading the use of the English language. The Northumbrians were also exerting pressure on the British rulers and somewhat later c. 630 Edwin of Northumbria also attempted to conquer Man.

             In the north, three British/Welsh chiefdoms were emerging. The first was Strathclyde around Glasgow that was its ecclesiastical centre. The church in Glasgow was founded by St Kentigern (6th cent) but Christianity in the area dated at least from the time of St Ninian early in the fifth century. This was probably the chiefdom of Coroticus (Carodoc, or Ceredeg) to whose soldiers St Patrick wrote. The second was Gododdin, based on Edinburgh. The third, Rheged, was based on Carlisle. These latter two were to succumb to the Northumbrians in the 7th century.

             Further north, in the Highlands and in the north east, the rival over-chiefdoms of the Picts and Scots had emerged from among the Caledonian British chiefdoms of Roman times. It would seem that in Scotland as in Ireland and Wales the fracture between British/Welsh and British/Gaelic had not been neatly along the seashore. The Pictish language was always distinguished from British/Welsh. The Picti and Scotti of later Roman times were not races but the names of clans, usually but not invariably named after the ruling family. The Picti were also found in Ireland though there they always in historical times spoke Gaelic. The Scotti too may have spread to Ireland or even originated in Ireland, but the ruling over-chiefs in historical times came from the Dal Riata of north Antrim. The ruling family of the Scotti was supposed to be descended from a chief of the Dal Riata of Antrim called Fergus Mor mac Earca. (This Erc/Earca seems to have been the grandmother of the Erc who married Muiredach and whose son was Muircheartach Mac Earca if the genealogists can be trusted. But this connection was with the Cenel Eogain. But Erc apparently was married first to Fergus Cenn Fada son of Conall Gulban that would establish a link between the Cenel Conaill and the Scottish Dal Riata). The most important Scottish chief of the Dal Riata at this period was Aedan Mac Gabrain, and he was 'ordained' king by St Columcille on Iona in 574. Though Aedan Mac Gabrain drove the Ulaid out of Man he was more preoccupied with the war against the Northumbrians, and in this he received assistance from the Cenel Eogain. He was defeated and killed by the Northumbrians in 603. Bede noted that the defeat was so heavy that no further attacks were made on the Northumbrians up to his own day a hundred years later. In Scotland as in Ireland there was not centralised government within the provincial chiefdoms. The over-chief held sway and exacted tribute and assistance in war from the lesser chiefs when he was able. The Scottish Dal Riata were over-chiefs like the Ui Neill in Ireland

             In Wales the Roman legacy was stronger, and it took longer for the Roman administrative system to mutate into local chiefdoms. But even there the hereditary principal of rule by chiefly families was established shortly after the departure of the Romans. By the end of the sixth centuries the chiefdoms or petty states of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Powys, Brycheiniog,  Morganwg, and Gwent had been formed, and the Gaelic-speaking chiefs whose influence had extended inland as far as Brecon, had been brought under control. Wales enjoyed a period of peace in the post-Roman period and its people clung as far as possible to Roman things. Most of Wales was converted at the same time as Ireland. But Wales had been part of the Empire for several centuries while Ireland had not. As Evans remarked Wales enjoyed four centuries of peace after the departure of the Romans during which Christianity and learning flourished (p.100). About this time Wales was probably cut off from South West England by the Anglo-Saxon advance though what difference this made in practice is not clear. Chiefs at this time and for centuries to come looked only to their own families and made alliances against the strongest power. For most chiefs the advance of the Mercians or Northumbrians was no different from the advance of the Eoganacht or Ui Neill and the practical consequences for himself were the same.  The connection between Wales and the north British kingdoms probably survived longer until the Northumbrians reached the sea at Chester. The British kingdoms were under attack from all sides. This did not inhibit them from attacking their neighbours when they had a chance.

                Very little is known about the British chiefdoms in the southwest. They retained their independence until the Anglo-Saxon chiefdom of Wessex was strong enough to conquer them. This did not occur until Wessex was strong enough to conquer Mercia in the ninth century. [Top]

Chiefdom of Tara

The list of the over-chiefs or ard ri of Tara is important even though the office was purely symbolic and never had the significance attributed to it by nationalist historians in the past. There never was a chiefdom of Tara ruling the whole island. Tara was a religious shrine in the early Iron Age. It is likely that there was a local tuath in which Tara was situated. At some time in the Roman period the hill was occupied by a rich person, probably a merchant. But it could still be important if that was the place where each new over-chief had to be inaugurated and was the religious centre of the amphictyony. It would have been a sacred centre for the Laigin before the Ui Neill captured it. The chieftainship of Tara, which was to have an ever-increasing symbolic importance, was to be held by various branches of the Ui Neill until Brian Boru seized it in 1002. After that it symbolised the kingship of all Ireland. The succession of the chieftains of Tara, continuous from about 450 AD, forms a convenient basis for chronology. It is not obvious what the significance of the chieftainship of Tara actually was. The most that can be said is that the Ui Neill regarded it as signifying the overlordship of their group.

 The term ard ri (high chief) introduced by the Ui Neill meant only the temporary top chief of the Ui Neill group. (Similarly ard easbog originally meant high bishop or principal bishop, not technically an archbishop, though it came to have that meaning.) Ultimately, towards the end of the first millennium the nominal chieftainship of Tara came in some way to be regarded as the outward manifestation of the chieftainship of all Ireland. Kings of Connaught, Munster, and Leinster had to capture and control it. No chief of Tara ever before controlled the whole of Ireland, but when a chief of Munster like Brian Boru wished to be considered the legitimate ard ri or high chief of All-Ireland, he had to get the submission of the nominal chief of Tara. By the same token, the chiefs of the northern Ui Neill tried to get control of Armagh when it became recognised as the chief religious centre in Ireland.

Partly for this reason, partly because most of the early records come from this region, and partly because there is a complete list of over-chiefs of Tara giving a firm chronology, the chieftainship of Tara is given a central role in Irish history. It is not clear what the privileges of the ard ri or over-chief were. Like any other ruiri he had the right to receive the tributes from lesser chiefs of the adore tuatha, not of the Ui Neill, and to have had a right to the gifts given to a judge in disputes between members of the Ui Neill, the soar tuatha. He would also have a greater honour price, which marked everyone’s status.

Each branch had to sustain the chieftainship with its own resources and those of the lesser chiefs it had subordinated in its own area. An ard ri from the northern Ui Neill did not command the troops of the southern Ui Neill and vice versa. But by the same token they did not oppose him, and could co-operate with him and probably often did. There seems to have been for a time among the Ui Neill a family compact that each main family would be ard ri in turn. Had this compact not existed, and one branch of the family had succeeded in dominating the other, it is conceivable that Ireland, like England and Scotland, could have been united under one king. But as in Wales, no single chiefly family was able to dominate. From the point of view of uniting Ireland under a single king, it was unfortunate that two widely separated centres of power developed a hundred and twenty miles apart across largely impassable country. How they got from one centre to the other is not obvious, but no doubt depended largely on intimidating small tuatha on the way. We can only speculate on the military possibilities of the time. The chief of a small tuath, hearing of the approach of a hosting of the Ui Neill would doubtless have ordered his people to disperse with their cattle into the woods, while he himself greeted the passing army with a gift of a number of cattle to hurry them on their way. Among the Eoganacht no such compact existed, so the various branches in each generation wasted their strength fighting each other. 

Irish genealogists distinguished chiefs of the same given name by adding a memorable nickname. Naoi Giallach means the one who took the nine hostages; Glundubh means black knee. Brian Boromha (Boru) means Brian who exacted the tribute. The English had a similar custom for example Edward Longshanks and John Lackland. The Gaelic scribes never adopted the custom of numbering the chiefs. At times the name of a man’s father was the only distinction used. Sometimes his grandfather’s name is added as in ‘son of---the son of’. Even today these added names are very useful. Mac means son of.  Ua, pronounced O, means grandson of. Ui is the plural of Ua but is normally used generically to denote the entire four-generation family or clan. (In the twelfth century when fixed surnames were being adopted, the Ua form was preferred presumably because it referred to a particular head of a derb fine, and then all members of the derb fine adopted the same name.)  Clan means family, specifically the extended family or derb fine. It was principally used in Scotland. Later, from the twelfth century onwards O and Mac were used as surnames of both men and women especially where English was spoken. The names by which they are known are not those of tribes but of powerful families, like the Medici and Sforza families in Italy.  

In spelling, though not entirely consistently, I have followed O’Corrain, but preferred spellings with ‘o’ to those with ‘a’ as being closer to Anglicised spelling. My main aim is to be comprehensible to those with no knowledge of Irish. There is no easy way to combine the true Gaelic form of names with English other than in the nominative singular. When I give pronunciations it is with the aim of providing a recognisable sounds rather than an accurate one. Pronunciations in any case varied widely in different parts of Ireland and at different times. There was and is also the peculiarity that words in the northern parts of Ireland were strongly accented on the first syllable, and in southern parts on the second or third syllables. I have not felt it necessary to mark this stress. Only those who are confident of their use of Irish should use the accurate forms given in Moody, Martin and Byrne. Readers will notice that mac (son of) and other words are followed by a name in the genitive. These are however easily recognised. The nominative singular and genitive plural of tuath is the same. The genitive singular is tuaithe, and the nominative plural is tuatha. This term is not translated, partially because it was a particular social and economic entity, and partially because there is no equivalent for the word in English. It was roughly equal in size to a barony, but the connotations of the words were entirely different. [Top] 

Over-Chiefs of Tara 

Lugaid mac Loeguiri 485? -507 (Southern Ui Neill).

Muircheartach mac Earca 507-534/6 of Cenel Eogain grandson of Eogan mac Neill.       

Tuathal Maelgarb 534/6-544 son or grandson of Coirpre mac Neill (Southern Ui Neill)

Diarmait mac Cerbaill 544-564/5 grandson of Conall Cremthaine (Southern Ui Neill)

Forgus and Domnal Ilcalgach mac Muircheartaigh 564/5-566 of Cenel Eogain.

Ainmire mac Setnai 566-569 great grandson of Conall mac Neill of Cenel Conaill.

Baetan mac Muircheartaigh and Eochaid mac Domnail Ilcalgaigh 569-72 of Cenel Eogain.   

Baetan mac Ninendo 572-86, distant cousin of Ainmire of Cenel Conaill.

Aed mac Ainmerech 586-98 of Cenel Conaill.

Colman Rimidh mac Baetain of Cenel Eogain and Aed Slaine mac Diarmato 598-604 from whom Sil nAedo Slaine.

            This list is not absolutely certain, being in places only a best guess (Moody, Martin and Byrne). It was not until 566 that the Cenel Conaill succeeded in establishing their claim. It will be noted that between 564 and 598 that the northern Ui Neill held the chieftainship and that it was not until 598 that the southern Ui Neill regained a hold. From then until 743 when Clan Colmain succeeded in establishing its claim and excluding Sil nAedo Slaine, there was a three-way contest between Cenel Eogain, Cenel Conaill, and Sil nAedo Slaine. About the same time Cenel Eogain succeeded in excluding Cenel Conaill. Between 743 and 1002 there was an almost unbroken alternation between Cenel Eogain and Clan Colmain. Sil nAedo Slaine virtually excluded themselves by splitting into two chiefdoms, a fact that was to have other unfortunate consequences during the Viking raids. 

The territories or tuatha ruled over by the Ui Neill about the beginning of the sixth century have been described in chapter eight. In the sixth century the overchiefs of Tara, and consequently overchiefs of the Ui Neill, were as in the list above. The list is not absolutely certain. (Byrne, in Moody, Martin and Byrne gives the alternatives.) Facts are more certain in this century, and we are able to piece together snippets of information particularly with regard to the Ui Neill which allow us to describe the main events in the century in the northern half of Ireland. With the exception of Baetan mac Ninendo succession was normally from father to one of his sons within each branch. It must always be remembered that the various branches or derb fines of the Ui Neill always selected the overchief of their branch on the death of his predecessor even, as was mostly the case, he was not elected overchief of Tara. Byrne, in the valuable work cited above, gives partial lists of the chiefs of Cenel Eogan and Clan Colmain. (Cenel and Clan can be regarded as synonymous.) The genealogy of Baron O’Neill in Burke’s Peerage, makes a valiant attempt to list most of the chiefs of the northern Ui Neill. The genealogy of the O’Neills is traced in detail from Niall Naoigiallach to the present day, a remarkable record. O’Corrain gives several simplified genealogies.

In the lands of the Ui Neill the chieftainship of Tara after the death of Lugaid was confined to the families of three sons of Niall Naoigiallach, Conall Cremthaine in Meath, and Eogan and Conall Gulban in Donegal. The family of the first later split into two, Clan Colmain, and Sil nAedo Slaine the family of Aed Slaine. These two, with Cenel Eogain and Cenel Conaill, thus formed the four main branches of the Ui Neill. Later, Cenel Conaill in Donegal was excluded by their northern rivals the Cenel Eogain, and Sil nAedo Slaine became too weak to support the overlordship leaving a simple alternation between the Cenel Eogain and Clan Colmain. Later still, the Cenel Eogain split up and the main branch the Cenel Mhic Earca finally divided into the O’Neills and MacLoughlins. When the latter in turn were excluded at the beginning of the Middle Ages, various branches of the O’Neills strove for the kingship of Ulster but were never strong enough again to challenge for the overlordship of Tara by then firmly under the control of Dublin. (The medieval O’Neills were also called in Irish Ui Neill because they were the direct descendants of Niall Glundubh, a later king But Ui Neill in the earlier centuries refers to families claiming descent from Niall Naoigiallach.)

            To simplify, Niall Naoigiallach had sons three of whose families later became dominant, Eogan, Conall Gulban, and Conall Cremthaine and other sons among whom were Loeguire and Coirpre whose descendants could not establish themselves.  From Eogan came the chief northern branch of his descendants, the Cenel Eogain, through Muirchertach mac Earca (507-534/6). From Conall Cremthaine came the two main branches of the southern Ui Neill through Diarmait mac Cerbaill (544-564/5) namely Clan Colmain and Sil nAedo Slaine. The difference between clan and sil (sheel), seed of, was probably just popular usage. From Conall Gulban came early challengers through Ainmire mac Setnae (566-569), the Cenel Conaill. After 544, the death of Tuathal Maelgarb son of Coirpre, the overchiefs were all from these main branches. (If one disbelieves that Niall had two sons called Conall, he must remember that these tables were constructed by genealogists, and also that he probably had numerous wives.) It must be kept in mind that at this period the Ui Neill probably did not control more than half a dozen tuatha, three in Donegal and three in Meath. 

             Lugaid mac Loeguiri had succeeded Ailill Molt who was killed in 482, and the Ui Fiachrach of Connaught were excluded from the succession by the battle of Ocha. Most of the battles of the Southern Ui Neill were against the Leinstermen, as they probably had been for centuries. The more densely occupied parts of Meath were along its southern border, while the densely inhabited parts of Leinster were along its northern side. In places the boundary between them scarcely moved in a thousand years. Though recorded as fighting the Laigin probably only a few of the northern tuatha of Leinster were involved. Also, the battles were probably only with regard to small pieces of ground along the border. Lugaid was killed in battle with them in 507. (Dates become decidedly firmer in the sixth century.) He was succeeded by Muirchertach Mac Earca of Cenel Eogain, the first of the northern Ui Neill to succeed to the chieftainship and overlordship of Tara. He succeeded to the chieftainship in the time-honoured way by slaying his rival, Ardgal, son of Conall Cremthaine (MacNiocall 18f). The northern Ui Neill began their attacks on the edges of the lands of the Cianacht of Derry and the clans of the Oirgialla, and they were to spend the next thousand years grabbing land for their ever-growing number of followers. These small gains were apparently around about the present Derry city, and may have involved no more than seizing marginal lands useful for founding a monastery. (The monastery of Derry was founded by St Columcille of Cenel Conaill in 546.) Besides attacking the Oirgialla in the north Muirchertach Mac Earca had also to defend Meath against the Leinstermen, without doubt assisted in this enterprise by the southern Ui Neill. The southern Ui Neill made some gains in Westmeath.

            When Muirchertach mac Earca was murdered about 534 AD he was succeeded by Tuathal Maelgarb, grandson of Coirpre, son of Niall Naoigiallach.  Under him a joint attack was made by the northern and southern Ui Neill on the Ui Fiachrach Muaide, the branch of that family around Killala in north Connaught. The point in this joint attack is not obvious but it may be that the Ui Fiachrach had renewed a claim, backed by an armed force, to the chieftainship of Tara. The principal chief of Connaught at the time was called Eogan Bel, and he was killed by the northern Ui Neill in Tuathal’s reign.

             In 544 Tuathal Maelgarb was assassinated and he was succeeded by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, a grandson of Conall Cremthaine son of Niall Naoigiallach. A great plague had broken out in the Eastern Empire in 542 which is said to have killed a third of the total population. In 545 it reached Ireland. There it was called the 'First Plague' to distinguish it from the other great plague a hundred years later, or 'Blefed' or the 'Yellow Plague' or the Buide Conaill. It must be remembered that our present system of dating years from the birth of Christ was devised by the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525 AD and used by Bede at the beginning of the eighth century. Before that it was customary to link dates to notable events or great battles. The two plagues were such events to which lesser events could be related, but the precise dating of this first plague is doubtful.

             Diarmait is said to have been the last chief to celebrate the pagan rites at Tara. Thereafter we can assume that all the chiefs of Tara were nominally Christian at least. The pagan rites of inauguration were apparently maintained by the Cenel Conaill until at least the twelfth century according to Giraldus Cambrensis. Aed Oirnidhe (the anointed) in 797 is considered to be the first overchief of Tara to be inaugurated with a Christian rite, namely anointing. Diarmait was involved in the great battle at Cuildreimhne (Culdrevne) in 561 against the northern Ui Neill. This battle is chiefly famous for the fact that St Columcille supported his relatives, the northern Ui Neill, during the battle, and then allegedly went into self-imposed exile on the island of Iona. Diarmait was no doubt assisted in the northern battles by Forgus and Domnall Ilcalgach of the northern Ui Neill, but was killed by the Ulaid in 565. To get to the river Bann they had to bypass the still powerful northern Cianacht, and attempted only to seize lands from tuatha of the Oirgialla, subject to the Ulaid. The targeted tuatha seem to have been the Fir na Croebe and the Fir Li along the western bank of the Bann. As these survived after the seizure of land by the Cenel Binnig we can assume that the attacks were only partially successful. The various branches of the Ui Neill at this period seem to have been only nibbling at disputed border territories. For all we know, the Ui Neill may have been just trying to gain control over various tuatha formerly controlled by an earlier ruiri. But we have absolutely no information on the subject. There was no direct attack on the lands of the Ulaid themselves, nor does it seem that this was part of Ui Neill policy.

             After the death of Diarmait there followed a disturbed period. He was succeeded as overchief jointly by two brothers, probably twins, sons of Muirchertach mac Earca, Forgus and Domnall Ilcalgach of Cenel Eogain who lasted about a year until 566 and died of the plague. Though Domnall Ilcalgach was joint over-chief only briefly he was one of the most successful warchiefs of the period. With his brother, before they became overchiefs, he led armies into Connaught where they defeated and slew two successive chiefs of the Ui Fiachrach. It was probably with these two brothers that the awesome reputation of the northern Ui Neill for fierceness in battle began. Then they beat the southern Ui Neill overchief Diarmait mac Cerbaill at the battle of Cuildreimhne in 561, defeated the Ulaid in 562/3 at Moin Dairi Lothair and took some territory probably from their subject tribes west of the Bann, and defeated the Laigin in 563. This seizure of land west of the Bann coincides with the expansion of Clan Eochaid Binnig into that territory, but the connection of the events is obscure. The chiefs are unlikely to have grabbed land solely for the benefit of their cousins. The battle in 562 was apparently the first clash between the Ui Neill and the Ulaid. As noted above, Diarmait was killed in battle against the Ulaid in 565.

 After them, in 566, followed Ainmire mac Setnai of Cenel Conaill who lasted three years, 566-569, before he was slain by Fergus Mac Nelline in a domestic dispute. He was the first of the Cenel Conaill to become overchief. His father Setna, chief of the Cenel Conaill had at least two sons, Ainmire from who were descended the O’Gallaghers, and Lugaid from whom were descended the O’Donnells. St Columcille was also of this family. He was succeeded by Baithen mac Muirchertaig and Eochaid of Cenel Eogain, a son and a grandson of Muircheartach Mac Earca. As these were said to have been slain by the Cianacht of Glengiven (Dungiven) in 572 it is clear that the Cenel Eogain had not yet advanced very far out of Inishowen in the future county Donegal. The overlordship of the Northern Ui Neill over deserted Tara at this period was probably nominal only, or at least that it meant no more than collecting the tributes. They would not have resided there nor got possession of the lands about it. They were succeeded, according to some authorities, by Baetan mac Ninnedo (son of Ninid) of the Cenel Conaill.

            Though Baetan Mac Ninnedo remained the Ui Neill overlord, the most powerful man in Ulster was in fact Aed mac Ainmire of Cenel Conaill, son of the murdered overlord Ainmire mac Setnai. He began making a name for himself in 580 by attacking and killing the Cenel Eogain chief, Colgu mac Domnaill (Ilcalgaich). He succeeded Baetan mac Ninnedo as overlord in 586 when the latter was killed in battle. The regular alternating succession had not yet been established, or else the Cenel Eogain were unable to put forward a plausible successor. He became involved in the dispute between the Dal Riata and their alleged overlords the Ulaid. At the so-called 'Convention of Druim Cett''  Aidan Mac Gabrain, the powerful chief of the Scottish Dal Riata, sought the assistance of Aed Mac Ainmire against  Baetan mac Cairill, chief of the Ulaid. He secured an agreement from Aed regarding the exemption of the Scottish lands from war service and tribute to the Ulaid, and agreed to assist Aed with his war fleet when required. It is clear that the Irish chiefs on the coasts had retained and developed their war fleets, and were continuing to use them aggressively. MacNiocall in fact considers control of the fleet was the important point in the dispute (77f). (A conclusion would seem to be that piracy was always an important factor on the Irish coasts and did not begin in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. It would also explain the earlier interest of the Cenel Eogain and Clan Binnig in the area.) It was agreed that those of the Dal Riata in Ireland owed their military service to the 'men of Ireland' without stating who these were. No allegiance was pledged to the Ui Neill at this stage, though it might be demanded in the future. Aed had however secured a fleet if he ever needed to attack the Ulaid. The Ui Neill were clearly not yet powerful enough, or could not muster enough support from dependent chiefs, to conquer either the Ulaid or the Irish Dal Riata. The improvement in shipping and navigation skills which enabled Irish and Scottish tribes to by-pass the Roman defences had obviously continued. The Irish Sea joined rather than divided. Control of the Irish Sea had passed from Roman hands. (Some ancient sources list Baetan mac Cairill of the Ulaid as overchief of Tara at this time. Whatever about that, there seems little doubt that the Ulaid were still the most powerful group in the northern half of Ireland at this time, and that the Ui Neill were not strong enough to attack them directly. Neither side gave a priority to attacking the other.)

            Aed Mac Ainmire then turned his attention to collecting the alleged tribute due from the Laigin, being spurred to do so by the murder of his son. Conquering Leinster and exacting its tribute seems to have been the major pre-occupation of all the branches of the Ui Neill at this time and not the conquest of either Ulster or Connaught. Kings and chiefs in every age found more enthusiasm for attacks on rich provinces than on poor and barren ones. Success however came easier in the poorer regions. The border between Meath and Leinster remained virtually unbroken until the Leinstermen allied themselves with the Normans at a time when the southern Ui Neill had virtually disintegrated. He was resisted by Bran Dubh, chief of the Ui Chennselaig and Laigin, and was killed in 598. But his family provided the overlord of the Ui Neill on seven occasions up to 734 when the Cenel Conaill were excluded by the Cenel Eogain. Aed mac Ainmire's son Conall was defeated by Colman Rimidh of Cenel Eogain in 594(?). Colman Rimidh however shared the overlordship with Aed Slaine son of Diarmait mac Cerbaill of the southern Ui Neill from 598 to 604. There is little doubt that the Ui Neill had devised a system of rotating the overlordship, and if necessary dividing it between two claimants. Doubtless then each joint overlord retained the tributes and summoned the hostings from his own zone. The great preoccupations of an overchief of a province were to collect the tribute from that province and to secure sufficient warriors for his own hostings. Warfare was by no means confined to battles between provincial chiefs. It was endemic everywhere. [Top]

Chiefdoms of the North

There are abundant references in the old manuscripts to the various clans or septs in Ireland between 400 AD and 800 AD and we can determine which were the major or dominant families, and which the subordinate. But those writing the manuscripts took for granted that their readers were acquainted with the Irish political and social schemes, and so did not describe them. We know too the basic structure of the farm, and of the tuath and of the election of chiefs, and the hierarchy of lords within a tuath, and the hierarchy of chiefs of the various tuatha. But it is very difficult to see how they fit together. It is also very difficult to fit them into the scheme of the political and social structure, with their different grades of chiefs. As the scheme was changing all the time it is very difficult to determine conditions in the fifth century, and how they had changed by the ninth century. Though by the ninth century we are getting closer to the recognisable conditions of just before the coming of the Normans, where there was one recognised provincial chief in each province, and a recognised kingship of all Ireland.

Some larger groups like the Laigin and the Ulaid were geographically compact and formed united fronts which made them almost impossible to conquer. Yet the structure within these groups was the same as everywhere else. In other places there were numerous small families or tribes, which could be picked off one by one. Other family groupings like those of the Ui Neill and the Eoganacht appear to have been very loose. The formation of larger groupings from the original 150 tuatha seems to have been progressing steadily. But it is hard to find out if a small group like the Luigne or Gailenga controlled only a single tuath or a group of contiguous tuatha. Was there a strong esprit de corps in a group of tuatha or was obedience rendered to an over-chief only sulkily and unwillingly. What was the size of the forces employed and so on? We do know that by the year 1000, there was a single family in a province which controlled the whole province, paid tribute, and joined the chief’s hosting either cheerfully or reluctantly. We know too that the number of relatively independent chiefdoms had been reduced to around thirty, which formed the basis of the twelfth century dioceses. We know too, especially among the Ui Neill that some of the septs cheerfully followed the provincial chief and demanded their position in the armed host. We know that other septs were almost invariably hostile to the provincial chief and opposed them whenever they could. The antagonism between the Cenel Eogain and the Cenel Conaill was maintained between the O’Neills and the O’Donnells until the seventeenth century, with the O’Donnells usually supporting the king in Dublin against their overlords. But in the fifth century, apart from the names of the greater and lesser chiefs and where their territories were, we know little.

In Ireland the history of the various provinces proceeded separately, as it was to do until at least the seventeenth century. There was only a handful of leading families in each province. Minor chiefs ur-ri (subordinate chief or urragh) were either junior branches of the leading family, or were survivors from before the time of the conquest of the leading families. Struggles, in the first centuries, before the Viking invasions were within the provinces, and thereafter between the leading families in different provinces. But until the end of the Middle Ages, each provincial chief had to secure his position first within his province before striving for mastery outside it.

 There was great continuity. Families identified as important in the sixth century were often still important in the sixteenth century, but not necessarily occupying the same places. For example, the Cenel Eogain of Donegal were represented by the O’Neills of Tyrone in mid-Ulster in the sixteenth century. The MacCarthys of Cork represented the Eoganacht of north Munster in the sixteenth century. The Deisi of county Waterford had become the O’Briens of county Clare. Some once great families like Clan Colmain might be confined to a single parish by the sixteenth century. So it is worth while taking time to identify the great families in each of the provinces in the sixth century. (By the same token, the leading families in the sixth century AD may have been the leading families in the sixth century BC though there is no evidence to prove or disprove such a theory.) Though only a handful of the families or dynasties listed below had any historical importance it is useful to list them to provide a context for the actions of the important players. It is impossible for example to understand the course of the Viking raids without some idea of the fragmented nature of Irish society. 

The North or in Gaelic Leath Cuinn Conn’s half) can here be defined as being north of a line running roughly from Dublin to the Shannon, and following the Shannon south to the sea. It must be remembered that the struggles of the over-chiefs of Tara to extend their power was less important militarily than the struggles of the individual branches of the family to get more land and power for themselves. Most of the effort of the Ui Neill septs was put into this ceaseless search for more land

In the fertile area, the Southern Ui Neill continued to conquer territory and extend their overlordship. . We have seen in chapter eight how in the fifth century they held small and relatively contiguous tuatha or groups of tuatha across central Meath and extending into Westmeath. As among the northern Ui Neill, only two families rose to major importance. The first, Sil nAedo Slaine in the eastern part was the more powerful until 743 AD and after that date Clan Colmain. The other branches of the southern Ui Neill descended from Niall dwindled into insignificance. Despite the power and rapacity of the various branches of the Ui Neill most of Meath was not in their hands. They owned the richest lands in Meath, but in wilder, more forested, or more boggy places the older clans held on for a very considerable time.  Also in Meath, there was a struggle between Fiacha, supposedly another son of Niall Naoigiallach and a chief of the Ui Failge (Laigin) for the possession of Westmeath that Fiacha won. Westmeath was thereafter firmly held by the Ui Neill. But the Ui Failge (Offaly) never gave up the claim and several hundred years later were still trying to regain their lands

Around them, in the directions of the woods and bogs were the lesser families.  The woodland and bogs, were mostly cultivated in parts, with the population thinning out towards the great barriers of woods and bogs, that cut Meath off from the other provinces. Among the other families the Gailenga and their associates the Luigne and Saithne were widespread. There were also Delbna, Cairpre, and Cuircne and also remnants of the Deisi. The form of these names is quite different from those of the branches of the Ui Neill or of the clans of Connaught, or the group with -rige in Munster. They were ruling Leinster families before the advent of the Ui Neill. (See also Loigse in the northern part of south Leinster, and the Mugdorna, Conaille, Cuailgne, and Boirche in south Ulster. The same families are found in Connaught along with the Conmaicne. The Cianacht of Brega around Duleek in Meath held on for a long time though specially targeted by Sil nAedo Slaine who coveted their land, and who gradually dispossessed them. A remnant of the Cianacht took refuge in county Louth, and became known as the Fir Arda Cianacht. These later, it was said, marched with the Oirgialla. The form of their name is the same as the Connacht and Eoganacht, and all three may have been originally religious amphictyonies with names derived from deities not ancestors. The chiefs of the lesser tuatha were gradually reduced to the state of subordinate chief (ur-ri) and paid tribute. But the southern Ui Neill do not seem to have been a greedy or ruthless as the Northern Ui Neill who advanced like a plague of locusts across the province.

While the northern Ui Neill were largely confined to county Donegal the Oirgialla occupied much of counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, and Monaghan, and Louth, while the remaining two counties in Ulster were under the Ulaid. Who exactly these were is difficult to say, for the name collectively is interpreted as ‘hostage-givers’. It would seem that these comprised the tuatha in mid-Ulster to the west of the Ulaid. Mid-Ulster was largely sparsely populated mountain, forest and bog, but there were cultivated lands in the valley of the Bann, along the shores of Lough Neagh, at Ardstraw near Strabane, in the Clogher valley in south Ulster around Clogher, and in the border area in south Ulster and north Leinster. It is doubtful if any of these were powerful or extended over more than a few tuatha. This does not mean that they were particularly backward, and Christianity in Ulster first spread among them. The dioceses and monasteries of Armagh, Ardstraw and Clogher were in their lands. It may be that these tuatha originally paid tribute to the Ulaid, and then to the over-chiefs of Tara, and finally after 827 to the Northern Ui Neill. The history of Ulster for the next thousand years was largely an account of the struggles between the Ui Neill, the Oirgialla, and the Ulaid, with the Normans butting in from the 12th century onwards, largely eliminating the Ulaid. It was the misfortune of the Oirgialla that they stood in the path of the greediest, cruellest, and most ambitious families in Ireland.

The Ui Meic Cairthinn were to the east of Derry city, Ui Fiachrach were north of the Cianacht of Ardstraw (near Newtown Stewart, in Co. Tyrone), the Fir Luirg on Lower Lough Erne, the Ui Cremthainn around Clogher, the Ind Airthir or Ind Oirthir (Orior) in Armagh, the Ui Meith (Omeath) in Co. Monaghan, the Mugdorna  (Mourne) in Monaghan and south Armagh. Fragments of these latter were to survive in the Mourne mountains, and in the Carlingford mountains. The Dartraige (Dartry) and Fernmag (Farney) in south Ulster left their names recorded permanently as place-names, along with Cremorne of the Mugdorna. The Fir Rois were around Carrickmacross in Co. Louth. The small clans in the Bann valley, the Fir Li, the Fir Craibe, and the Ui Tuirtre were victims of an early Cenel Eogain expansion by Clan Binnig (Binny).

The Oirgialla did not include all the clans in mid-Ulster One great exception was the northern Cianacht around Dungiven in county Derry who long resisted absorption by the Ui Neill. The Cianacht seem not to have been of the Oirgialla, but to have been displaced from Meath, probably by the southern Ui Neill, but also possibly by the Laigin. They were around Dungiven and also in the barony of Ferrard in county Louth (Fir Arda Cianachta). In general, where family or tribal names are scattered it is impossible to say if this was the result of earlier conquests, or dispersion after defeat.

Much of St Patrick's missionary work had been among the Oirgialla. After his death the Ulaid and the Ind Oirthir disputed the possession of his church. It is possible that there were early bishoprics, or at least parishes, among the Ui Neill at Raphoe in Donegal, among the Cianacht at Ardstraw, and among the Ui Cremthainn near Clogher, among the Ind Oirthir at Armagh, and the Ulaid near Downpatrick. These are by no means certain but the land of the Oirgialla was one of the places where Christianity was first widely established. 

It is difficult to determine who or what the Ulaid were. They occupied counties Antrim and Down, the two counties later seized by John de Courci when he was invited to assist one of the warring factions there, and which later formed the Earldom of Ulster. It may be that they are connected with the Voluntii mentioned by Ptolemy. It may be that they and other closely-knit groups like the Laigin, were powerful confederacies of tuatha electing a common chief from time to time.  It was once believed that they controlled the whole of Ulster from a citadel at Eamhain Macha (Navan fort near Armagh) but it is now clear that that was a religious shrine not a fortress. They however have a central role in the Tain, where they are represented as occupying a royal fortress at Eamhain Macha. (The Tain probably either originated or was adopted in the territory of the Ulaid in the seventh century, but may contain earlier oral material such as descriptions of chariot fighting.) The earliest reliable date of a chief of the Ulaid is 537, but there were clearly chiefs before that going back to the Voluntii. The principal ruling families were not given a common ancestor, and appear to have been quite separate. The Dal nAraide (Dal naree) and the Ui Eachach Cobo (Evach cobo later Iveagh) were counted as Cruithin a word also used to describe the Picts in Scotland, though it seems they spoke Gaelic in the fifth century. We no longer know what the genealogists meant by the term. The Dal Fiatach supplied most of the chiefs. The Dal Riata (Dalriada) were a related group in north Antrim.

The Ulaid in east Ulster were still powerful at this period, and some Ulster genealogies claim the kingship of Tara for their king, Baetan Mac Cairill 572-81. Like the Laigin in Leinster they controlled a definite geographical area, and were united against external aggressors. Though their organisation into tuatha, and derb fine was the same as in other parts of Ireland, the fact that they could show a united front to outsiders made them militarily quite strong. They were also an expansive group. At this time their objective was across the sea towards the Isle of Man, and the Dal Riata in Ireland and Scotland had ambitions in that direction also. If the Oirgialla were ‘hostage givers’ rather than ‘tribute payers’ we can conclude that the Ulaid demanded hostages from them to protect their backs when they went overseas.

Attempts to exact tribute from the Laigin and the Ulaid seem rarely to have been successful. In fact the pattern of conquest at this stage in Irish history closely resembled that of the Normans seven centuries later. They may have at one time established an overlordship over the tribes in mid-Ulster, known collectively as the Oirgialla. Though their power was in county Down (dioceses of Down and Dromore), they may have in the sixth century controlled and protected, much of Antrim (diocese of Connor), and also much of Louth, though the people of Louth were normally counted with the Oirgialla (Oriel). It would seem they were overlords of the minor clans like the Fir Li and the Ui Tuirtre in that region. It would also seem that they were the overlords of the Dal Riata  (or at least claimed to be) at the time, and like the Normans much later they, or their subjects the Dal Riata may have controlled the northern coast as far as Derry. If this latter is assumed it would explain an early conquest of land around Derry by Muirchertach mac Earca. After the battle of Moin Dairi Lothair (562/3) where a confederacy of seven tuatha of the Ulaid was defeated, the Ui Neill claimed the overlordship of some lands west of the Bann, probably the parts conquered by Clan Binnig. At this time the Ulaid were trying to conquer the Isle of Man which up to that date had been probably been ruled by the British kings of Rheged. In this ambition they had rivals in the Dal Riata  (Riata) of county Antrim. The connection between the Dal Riata and Cenel Conaill is obscure, and also their mutual ambitions in Scotland. St Columcille belonged to the Cenel Conaill who apparently also claimed ownership of Iona and the right to the appointment of abbots from that clan exclusively. The Dal Riata on the north Antrim coast were largely engaged in fighting on the opposite coast of Scotland, scarcely more than a dozen miles distant, but also became quite a considerable power in Ulster. Their Ulster possessions were later to become very important for they came into the possession of a Scotsman, and led to a large-scale migration of Scots into Ulster. They also provided the chiefs in the parts of Scotland they had conquered. As in Wales it is impossible to say if the Gaelic language was spoken there before their arrival. The Dal Riata in Ireland were nominally subject to the overlordship of the Ulaid who also claimed tribute from their lands in Scotland. 

In North West Ireland, where the Northern Ui Neill had established themselves, power was fairly equally balanced between the Cenel Conaill and the Cenel Eogain. The great expansion of the sub-tribes of Cenel Eogain began which over the next thousand years was to bring them ownership of nearly all of mid Ulster. It is dated by the annalists to the battle of Moin Dairi Lothair in 562/3 after the Ui Neill crossed Lough Foyle from Inishowen to Magilligan Point (Doherty 40). The Cenel Eogain had by this time established their principal fortress or palace at Grianan Oiligh (Greenan Elly) commonly known as Aileach. The chiefs of Cenel Eogain were also called chiefs of Aileach. It is surrounded by a thick drystone wall which survives to this day, the wall apparently being built in the sixth century AD which is very late for this kind of structure. According to the genealogists Eogain had three sons, Muiredach, Fergus, and Eochaid Binnig (Ochy Binny). Clan Binnig set out along the north coast to seize new lands in the sixth century. From Fergus descended Cenel Fergus who also conquered lands  for themselves in the Bann valley and in East Tyrone. These families seem to have been the chief beneficiaries of the victory of Forgus and Domnall Ilcalgach of the Cenel Eogain at Moin Dairi Lothair. The story of the expansion of Clan Binnig is a curious one. They were perhaps the first of the Northern Ui Neill to break out of Donegal and establish themselves in mid-Ulster. The fact that the overchiefs of Tara were involved in this enterprise would lead us to assume that their primary object was to control as much of the coast as they could, so ensuring that all merchants had to pay them customs dues. (The Ui Neill later successfully excluded the Vikings from this part of the coast thus ensuring that no town was ever built on it. Even to the end of the Middle Ages, when the chiefs of the O’Neills wished to go shopping, they had to go to Carrickfergus or Dundalk on the east coast. Derry and Coleraine date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.)

The distance from Lough Foyle to the next secure port at the mouth of the Bann is not great. It is also possible to assume that the Dal Riata invited their assistance to relieve them of the imposts of their overlords the Ulaid. The inducement would have been assistance against minor tuatha on the Derry side of the Bann. By this time the Cenel Eogain would have controlled the war boats on their own part of the coast, but welcomed the assistance of the stronger Dal Riata fleet. The Ui Neill never set themselves up as merchants or traders, preferring to conquer land. The volume of trading was never great, but there were always luxury items like wine in demand.

They seem to have started at the mouth of the Lower Bann, having avoided the strongly held lands of the Cianacht, and advanced upstream conquering minor clans in a thinly populated area. Their most successful branch was the O’Hamills who established themselves precariously on the borders of Tyrone and Armagh. Their lands seem to have been all conquered later by their more powerful cousins of Cenel Mhic Earca, and the O’Hamills sought refuge as poets and learned men to the O’Hanlons of Orior (Ind Oirthir) (Mullin and Mullan, Brady, Doherty in O’Dowd, Walker and Bell). Other later septs claiming descent from Clan Binnig were the O’Toners and the O’Brollys. This was in accordance with the rule that with every succession the oldest generation dropped out, was excluded from the major chieftainship, took a new name, and established a new minor chieftainship, or sept as it came to be called.

            Alongside Clan Binnig came Clan Fergus from whom the O’Hagans, O’Mellans, and O’Quinns who settled west of Lough Neagh around Tullaghogue west of Lough Neagh They were to form an essential part of the army of Cenel Eogain. Later the main branch of the O’Neills, descendants of Muircheartach mac Earca and chiefs of Cenel Eogain, had their principal headquarters in the same area before settling in Dungannon.  Tullaghogue was centuries later to be the place where the chiefs of Cenel Eogain were installed, but obviously was not the original place for installation. The later septs presumably were dispersed to more marginal lands as the senior branch of the O’Neills took the best lands. As usual it was a case of dog eat dog.

            The main branch of the northern Ui Neill that provided the chiefs was derived from Muiredach son of Eogan son of Niall Naoigiallach. Muiredach had three sons, Muircheartach mac Earca, Moen, and Feredach who established sub-clans of their own. They probably at first took the lands of the Cenel Enda who never amounted to much.  (According to the genealogists, as noted in an earlier chapter, the northern Ui Neill originated from three sons of Niall Naoigiallach, Conall Gulban, Eogan, and Enda.) From Moen came Cenel Moen who struck southwards from Lough Foyle in the direction of Strabane, and later were known as the powerful sub-tribe or sept of the O’Gormleys. (Some centuries later the O’Gormleys were in a position briefly to mount a challenge for the overchieftainship.) From Feradach came the Cenel Feradaig, who also struck southwards, from whom the McCawells who settled around Clogher.  As some branches of the Ui Neill struck eastward along the coast, and others struck southward, we can assume that the Sperrin Mountains that lay between them were virtually uninhabited.

From Muircheartach mac Earca came Cenel Mhic Earca, which was to become the principal line of the northern Ui Neill. This line was in turn to divide into three. Fergal, the Ui Neill over-chief from 710 to 722 had three sons, Aed Allan from whom the O’Lavertys, Niall Frossach from whom the O’Neills, and Connor from whom Clan Connor of Magh Ithe  (the Laggan) and later the O’Cahans. (It should be noted that Fergal married as his second wife a daughter of a chief of the Cianacht, and her sons were Niall and Connor. It is likely that it was from her that Clan Connor derived a claim to the Cianacht lands which they later conquered.)  Down to 700 AD the chieftainship of Cenel Eogain alternated between Cenel Feradaig and Cenel Mhic Earca, after which the latter monopolised it. The only overchief of Tara from the Cenel Feradaig was Suibhne Menn (615-28). The Cenel Mhic Earca also managed later to exclude the Cenel Conaill from their turn as overlord of Tara (Mullin and Mullan 20). (This is only one example. The pattern was repeated among all the major families in Ireland who ruthlessly and systematically murdered and robbed their lesser neighbours.) Muircheartach mac Earca was always called by his mother's name. She was Eirc a daughter of a chief of the Scots of Argyle  (Dal Riata), and was married at first to a British chief. She, by her third husband Fergus Cennfada mac Conaill mac Neill, was reputed to have had two sons, one of whom was the father of St Columcille. Divorce and wife-swapping were not unknown, to say the least.

            Cenel Conaill ultimately was not so successful as Cenel Eogain but at one point seemed to be the dominant partner. The latter had the geographical advantage of controlling one of the two easy routes into Ulster. The Cenel Moen (O’Gormley) branch of Cenel Eogain could fairly easily reach Lough Erne by advancing up the valley of the Foyle. It took the Cenel Conaill several centuries to gain even a foothold on Lough Erne through the mountains of Donegal. A large-scale map of Lower Lough Erne shows that county Donegal just manages to touch the lough. Cenel Conaill were forced to look back in the direction from whence they came, and they became perpetually, and with uneven success, embroiled in the affairs of North Connaught. It is difficult to estimate the precise amount of hostility between the various branches of the Ui Neill, but St Columcille, of the ruling family of Cenel Conaill, seems to have been widely accepted among all the branches of the Ui Neill before the disputes which led to Cuil Dreimhne broke out. The Oirgialla seem to have come under the domination of the over-chief of Tara, and it was not for some centuries that they were placed under the northern Ui Neill. The Ui Neill also seem to have claimed overlordship of the Dal Riata. But the history of the fifth century is too obscure to provide explanation. 

            It does not seem that the Ui Neill had made much progress in their conquest by the end of the century apart from the settlements and conquests of Clan Binnig in the valley of the lower Bann. Nevertheless, as a military power, they were at least the equal of the old-established Ulaid. [Top]

Chiefdoms in the South and West.

            The annalists have provided us with quite detailed information about the northern half of Ireland. Reliable information about the rest of Ireland is scarce. These were the chiefdoms in Leath Mogha, the southern half of Ireland, as well as west of the Shannon.

The whole of the present province of Leinster seems to have been under the dominance of the Laigin or Lagenians at the beginning of the fifth century, but the north-eastern part, including the sacred site at Tara was seized from them by the Southern Ui Neill at some point. As noted earlier, the Laigin were probably a confederation of tuatha. Legends about St. Patrick place the Ui Neill in occupancy of Tara, but there is great doubt about the dates of his mission. At some stage too the Ui Neill tried to impose and enforce a tribute from the Laigin which was always resisted.      

The Lagenian chiefs of the reduced Leinster were a match for the Ui Neill. Their northern frontier was well-protected by wide-spreading bogs. Surprise attacks from either side was out of the question. An advancing army would have to take a circuitous route to the east or west of the bogs through tuatha held by tribes which were at least neutral and which would take care to notify the defending chief in good time to prepare his host. Their southern frontier was similarly well protected by mountains, bogs, and woods. It was to become even better defended when the Osraige (Ossory) established themselves in rough country between the Nore and the Suir, and formed a doubly effective barrier against the Eoganacht.  Leinster, thus guarded, was like a separate island.

The leaders of the Laigin in the fifth century were the Dal Mesin Corb but they were later displaced, and dispersed. St Kevin was from this family being the eighth in descent from Mesin Corb. The family would have still been powerful in the sixth century. There was another family called the Ui Dega that was also reduced to underchiefs. Other tribes like the Loigse and the Ui Failge who seem to have established themselves at least as mesne chiefs or ruiri by the fifth century and remained powerful local cattle-raiders until the end of the Middle Ages. Their names survive in the counties Laoighis or Leix and Offaly where they were respectively dominant. The Ui Failge seem to have belonged to the confederacy of the Laigin and to have claimed kinship with the later dominant Ui Dunlainge, from whom they had to defend their territories as well as from the Ui Neill. For only two brief periods in the next thousand years did Leinster chiefs aim at the domination outside their province. Once was in the twelfth century under Diarmait MacMurrough, and the other was in the late Middle Ages under Gerald Fitzgerald, the Great Earl of Kildare.

The ri ruirech or provincial chief, when such developed, was normally from the northern part of the province, namely Kildare, where the Fitzgeralds were later to establish their great stronghold. The list of the Leinster over-chiefs goes back to the fifth century. The first on which modern historians rely was Cathair Mor, who was followed by his son Fiachu mac Cathair and grandson, Bressal Belach mac Fiachach who died about 435. A complete list of dates of regnal years is not found before 597. The six chief ruling families from whom the over-chief was elected, the Ui Mail, the Ui Bairche, the Ui Enechglaiss, and the Ui Garrchon, and the two families descended from Bressal Belach, grandson of Cathair Mor, the Ui Dunlainge and the Ui Chennselaig (O’Kinsella), were given a common ancestor called Cu Corb. Bressal Belach is given a date for his death in 435/6 AD. Until the eleventh century the chieftainship was virtually monopolised by the Ui Dunlainge who were from the north of the province, around Kildare. But the first of them does not appear until 527. It is impossible to determine how many tuatha, if more than one, that these families controlled in the fifth or sixth centuries.

The Ui Failge were to continue until the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58) when their lands were confiscated, though the Ui Neill and Ui Dunlainge had been replaced to the east and north of them by Norman and English lords. The Ui Chennselaig as the MacMurrough Cavanaghs, though deprived of the overlordship of Leinster, survived until the reign of Elizabeth as chiefs in south Leinster. They were driven out of the fertile lands into the more forested and boggy lands. Then, like most of the other Gaelic chiefs, they made their peace with the crown, became Protestants, and occupied places of importance under the crown until 1921. Not all of the clans identified in the sixth century survived in power until the twentieth century, but a surprising number did. 

            Munster is not easy to describe. It seems to have been thinly populated. Like the other provinces it was protected by a thick barrier of woods, bogs, and mountains. But for no obvious reason, much of it seems to have been unoccupied.

Almost nothing is known of Munster after Oengus mac Nad Froich of Emly. Emly, later overshadowed by the richer diocese of Cashel, was perhaps the first diocese in Munster. In an account of St Colman of Cloyne, it is stated that Aed Caomh was baptised and became the first Christian king of Cashel in 570, and there may be some truth in this. But it is clear from the Life of St Brendan of Clonfert for example that Christianity had been firmly established in Kerry and Limerick long before that. Feidlimid mac Tigernaig of the Eoganacht Raithlind who died in 590 is the first king of whom there are reliable annalistic accounts. The common ancestor assigned in the genealogies to the various branches of the Eoganacht was Conall Corc father of Nio or Nad Froich. The only Munster chief in the fifth century assigned a somewhat reliable date is Oengus mac Nad Froich (d. 49/492). So it is likely that the expansion of the Eoganacht, like that of the Ui Neill occurred in the fifth century. This may just have been a coincidence and not connected with any wider disturbances. On the other hand, a period of intense slave-raiding was liable to produce rich and powerful leaders of warbands who were then able and willing to conquer their weaker neighbours at home. 

But like the Ui Neill in the North the various branches of the Eoganacht (Owenacht) and the Deisi continued to establish themselves at the expense of the other chiefly families. There were several branches of the so-called family that may have been in origin separate warbands connected only by the name of their deity.

Like the Ui Neill they were divided into two major groups a northern one and a southern one. The southern one comprised the Eoganacht Loca Lein around Killarney in western Kerry, and the Eoganacht Rathlind in south Cork. In more than one instance in this part of Ireland one gets the impression that communication was by sea. The mariners who supplied information to Ptolemy knew where the mouth of the Shannon was. So we could look on these coastal communities as nest of pirates, a tradition that was maintained until the seventeenth century when the West Indies proved more lucrative and less risky. The northern or eastern group included the Eoganacht Caisil (Cashel), Eoganacht Aithir Cliath, Eoganacht Aine, and the Eoganacht Glenamain. Their territories stretched along the Suir and its tributaries. This was a compact group though they never succeeded in occupying all the land within their territory. There were also several smaller dispersed families of the Eoganacht who never amounted to much. The Eoganacht never seem to have had the same ruthless desire to expropriate the property of others clans such as was shown by the Cenel Eogain in the North, and later by the Deisi, but contented themselves with tribute and assistance in warfare.

The Eoganacht seem to have had closer links with Britain than the chiefs further north. The Eoganacht league, with their subordinate warrior bands known as the Deisi seem to have established an overlordship over earlier families like the Corcu Loegde, the Altraige (Altree), the Muscraige (Muskerry) and the Ciaraige (Kerry). Some place the place of origin of the Eoganacht around Killarney. Others give them a British origin. As the Deisi were found around Waterford it is possible that they had close connections with south Wales. Service in the Roman army would have given them and their masters the Eoganacht an edge in battle. Cashel, the stronghold of the Eoganacht, and not a sacred site, is said to be derived from the Latin castellum. It is in the parts of Munster controlled by the Deisi that the majority of 'ogham' inscriptions are found. These inscriptions are based on the Latin alphabet. There are also common in south Wales. They are dated between 350 and 600 AD and record the oldest form of Irish. Little is known about Munster before the second half of the sixth century.

The expansion of the Eoganacht and Deisi need not ante-date the fifth century, i.e. after the withdrawal of the Roman armies from Britain in 410 AD. The history of Munster for the next thousand years was that of the expansion of these two groups of tribes, and then their contest for supremacy, with the Normans intervening from the 12th century onwards. But in the early part of the period the domination of these two groups, which seemed to have lacked the internal cohesion of their northern counterparts, was far from complete. From the Eoganacht came the O’Kirbys, the O’Moriartys, the O’Cahills, the O’Carrolls, the O’Flynns, the O’Donoughues, the O’Mahoneys, the various MacCarthys, the O’Sullivans, the O’Callaghans, and the O’Keefes, who in the Middle Ages were to occupy most of Munster. From the Deisi came the O’Briens, O’Kennedys, the O’Ryans, the MacMahons and MacNamaras. The Deisi were subordinate to the Eoganacht. Their original home in Munster was in Waterford, in an area called the Decies. Some think they were originally from Meath where there was a small tribe with a similar name. They conquered lands on the north bank of the Shannon, forcing the original occupants further west and north. Gradually they became more powerful than the Eoganacht and forced them out of north Munster into south Munster. Their most famous chief was to be Brian Boru who achieved kingship of all Ireland in 1002. From him came the O’Briens, chiefs and earls of Thomond.

By the end of the sixth century the Osraige seem to have established their independence of their Corcu Loegde overlords and begun establishing the middle-ranking border chiefdom of Ossory. Just south of the Shannon estuary lay the lands of the Ui Fidgente. They became mesne chiefs in the area, and were powerful for several centuries. Then the chiefdom broke up into warring factions, and their lands, after being disputed over by the O’Briens and McCarthys, were finally distributed to Norman adventurers. There seem to have been other groups competing with the Eoganacht for dominance, but ultimately unsuccessfully. Among these were the Muscraige (Muskerry) and the Ciaraige (Kerry), and the Corcu Loegde, who established themselves outside their home tuatha in various places. They too may have originated in confederations of warbands raiding Britain. The Muscraige were along the river Lee. In the very north of the province, almost in the centre of Ireland were small peoples, many probably no larger than a tuath, who never succeed in growing. Some of them may have taken refuge in uninhabited areas when their lands were taken by the more successful groups. The most important of these was the Eli. 

Finally, there was the province of Connaught The history of Connaught was linked with that of the Ui Neill, and so we have considerable knowledge of it. The leading families were the Ui Fiachrach, and the Ui Briuin. The Ui Briuin did not establish their dominance over the Ui Fiachrach, until at least the middle of the eighth century. These, along with the Ui Neill, were assigned a common ancestor called Echu Mugmedon. Another leading family was the Ui Maine, who ruled parts of the province as mesne kings. Tradition had it that by the battle of Ocha, forty three years after the coming of Patrick, the Connaught families were excluded from the group from which the chief of Tara was selected. Whatever was the nature of the chieftainship of Tara the Ui Fiachrach claimed a right to it, and one, or perhaps two members of the Ui Fiachrach, Nath I and Aillil Molt attained that honour in the 5th century before the battle of Ocha. Succession lists and genealogies are as complete as those of the Ui Neill and are without the gaps or omissions common in the other provinces. The first provincial chief of Connaught of whom we can be reasonably certain is given as Amalgaid mac Fiachrach. (From him is derived the name Tir Amalgaid (Tyrawley.) Though no dates are given for him he preceded Nath I mac Fiachrach (d.445) and Aillil Molt mac Nath I (d. 482). Aillil Molt succeeded Amalgaid as provincial over-chief. The third over-chief in the fifth century is given as Daui Tengae Umai mac Briuin of the Ui Briuin.

Domnall Ilcalgach of the Northern Ui Neill killed Eogan Bel, the fourth provincial chief of Connaught in 538 (or 543 or 547), during a joint attack by the Ui Neill but this we know from the northern annals. Domnall Ilcalgach slew the next king of Connaught Aillil Inbanda the son of Eogan Bel in 549 or 550, and with his death the line of Aillil Molt came to an end. The Ui Briuin Ai provided the over-chiefs for the rest of the sixth century.

From other sons of Nath I came the Ui Fiachrach Muaide and the Ui Fiachrach Aidne who provided overchiefs in the seventh and eighth centuries. After Daui Tengae Umai (d. 502) the Ui Briuin split into the Ui Briuin Breifne, the Ui Briuin Ai, and the Ui Briuin Seola. The Ui Briuin Ai were in Roscommon, (seen by some as the common original place of the ruling families of Connaught and of the Ui Neill), the Ui Briuin Breifne across the Shannon in north west Leitrim, and the Ui Briuin Seola east of Lough Corrib. The first two were in the eastern strip of dioceses, while the latter lay between the two branches of the Ui Fiachrach in the western strip. The Ui Fiachrach Muaide were around Killala, the Ui Fiachrach Aidne in south Galway, From the Ui Briuin Seola came the O’Flaherty sept in the Middle Ages after having being forced to the west of Lough Corrib, from the Ui Briuin Ai came the O’Connors, the dominant Gaelic sept in the Middle Ages in Connaught, and from the Ui Briuin Breifne came the O’Rourkes of Breifne. The Ui Briuin Ai spread out into the western strip of dioceses that clearly had the best land. This strip was to be occupied by the Normans.

Also in Connaught were the Ui Maine. These latter claimed descent from the Oirgialla. Smaller clans were the various branches of the Conmaicne, the various branches of the Ciaraige, and the Luigne and Gailenga. As in north Munster there were quite a number of the smaller tribes, so some historians conclude that they were broken or dispersed clans. Various stories indicated that the Fir Bolg were at this time being displaced, and finally rooted out of their last stronghold in the Aran Islands. The Fir Domnainn (Dumnonii?) and the Fir Bolg (Belgae?) were both associated with this province. That the Belgae and the Dumnonii, both living in southern Britain, should have invaded Ireland about the same time would not be surprising, but why did they end up in Connaught?



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.