Researching my heritage I didn’t have to look far to find the name Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages.) In researching possible connections to the O’Neills and McNeils in my own genealogy I looked at Niall’s. He is a fascinating figure in Irish History and Legend, and, as you might expect, this is true of the genealogical connections to this Ard Righ (High King) of Ireland.
Within the scope of this discussion are a legendary (but could it be credible?) connection deep into antiquity, all the way back to Adam. Christian monks recorded this connection, but was the adding of this part of the genealogy a fabrication or an inescapably obvious connection to the oral tradition that substantiated his right to rule?
Niall was a Milesian King and there are some who would doubt the historicity of this as much as they might the Tuatha de Dana or the Partholonians. The Book of Invasions would seem somewhat pointless if it was based on nothing at all. How much of what is put down to myth was real and what impact did this have on Niall in particular, but Ireland in general?
Niall raided Britain and perhaps as far as the Continent, among his abductions was a certain boy named Succat, a boy who would become a transformational force in Ireland known to the world as St. Patrick, the patron of Ireland. Niall’s son, Loegaire, met this escaped slave brought to Ireland by his father. As such, I think Niall, the Ui Niall, and Ireland generally faced transformation because of his actions and his descendants continued the process. One of the most famous Early Irish Churchmen was Columcille who was himself a prince of the Ui Niall dynasty.
I think it is undeniable that Niall Noigiallach is a transformational figure. In Irish History and Legend he holds a place between the two. In addition to the title “Nine Hostages” the epithet “Semi-Legendary” is applied to Niall. Some don’t believe he was all that the Four-Masters said he was, but DNA forces most to admit that, if nothing else, he was.
There is no end of argument about the Ard Righship of Ireland. Many if not most experts doubt that in the imbroglio that was Irish pre-Christian politics a true over-king that ruled the entirety of Ireland was possible. Many even argue that nobody back then claimed the title and that it is an invention of later imaginative documentation and dynastic justification after the fact.
All these may be true, but Niall stands at a crossroads in history where, while once, in the dim pagan past, every small Tuath had its king, afterward is seen the unification and record keeping of Christian monks that made claims a bit more testable, at least to historians.
Strange too (a Christian like me would say miraculous)that Milesian Ireland, so violent, so war prone, should be converted to Christianity so readily and with so little blood-shed. Christianity’s story is one of violent repressions failing to halt the spread of the Gospel, one after another, after another. Why in Ireland, where among the elite, war was very nearly a religion of its own, would Christianity conquer bloodlessly? Why in Ireland did the Irish, feeling they were not made to suffer, invented new sorts of martyrdom, Green and White, that influenced not only the Irish, but the Continent as well?
It may be that Niall, standing at this crossroad, holds some light to shed on this miracle.
PS. This is an introduction of sorts. I have been working on a post that has swelled to many thousand words. My goal here should be shorter posts and as time passed and new posts went wanting I realized that I needed to change my approach to this vast topic. The above is long on assertion and hints, but short on facts. I’ve broached a myriad of topics in this one little post which I will link to from this as I produce them a bit at a time.