If asked to name three Irish kings it is likely that the names Brian Boru, Conn of the Hundred Battles, or Niall of the Nine Hostages would come up in the conversation. Conn, because he just sounds like he’d rock, I mean “Hundred Battles,” yeah.
Niall would come up because there is a pretty good chance you are related to him. So, because I’m one of his relations (and thereby Conn Cetchathach), I’d like to talk about Niall Noigiallach.
The Real Niall
There are those who would place Niall under the heading of “Legendary Kings,” and by this they would mean that Niall of the Nine Hostages was a fabrication, not historical. I think that is just stupid. I’m sure his relatedness to so many might account for some embellishment, but don’t tell me he didn’t exist, that makes no sense at all. One of the reasons that I tend to believe some of these old tales, especially as they concern hereditary claims to royal titles is this excellent book available free online: After the Flood by Bill Cooper.
But to pare the man from the legend let me say that he was the son of Eochaid Mugmedon. There have been a lot of Eochaids in Irish History and so, like his son, Nine Hostages, Eochaid had a descriptive bye name that meant “Slave Lord.” Also of interest in understanding the family dynamic is that Eochaid came to his kingship after killing the man who had taken it from Eochaid’s father only the year before.
Niall’s mother was Cairenn Chasdub (of the dark curly hair) who was reputed to be the daughter of Sachell Balb, king of the Saxons. Apparently, poor Cairenn was a bit out of her depth in the Slave Lord’s household, because Eochaid the king had another wife, Mongfionn, who forced Cairenn into virtual slavery and forced her to expose Niall, that is to abandon him to the elements.
Likely Eochaid was off enforcing the Boroma (cattle tribute) in Leinster or fighting off somebody’s son who he’d had to shorten by a head for high-kingship. Although, he might have known all this and not really cared, it is hard to attribute a high degree of paternal affection from the name “Slave Lord.”
Anyway, this would be a much shorter tale had Mongfionn succeeded in getting rid of Cairenn’s son. Left to the elements, Niall was saved and raised by Torna, a poet. Being raised by a poet usually works out well. This theme of notable personages being raised by poets might be the sort of exaggerations that kept poets in high regard, even reverence.
Mongfionn, for her part, went on to try to poison her brother or Niall, or perhaps both. She is remembered so fondly that she became a goddess celebrated and associated with Samhain, perhaps for her maternal advocacy, but more likely for killing herself in her efforts to get her oldest son Brian the kingship. Anyhow, she is remembered when the dead come near and the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, perhaps as a warning, perhaps because a woman so implacable could not be stopped by something so mundane as death.
A small aside here. Though I certainly do not condone Mongfionn’s attributed actions, it does occur to me that if you were going to have a mom, I’d much prefer a fierce, take no prisoners, advocate like Mongfionn to a milk-toasty Cairenn leaving poor Niall out by the well to get pecked to death by birds. Perhaps being raised by a bard looks pretty good compared to that model of maternal indifference. Interestingly, the Irish had a strong tradition of fosterage among their elites. Perhaps this of Mongfionn is a source of that. Perhaps it is the inevitable effect of multiple marriages.
Niall returns from his poetical upbringing and has somewhere learned the sort of things that keep him alive, frees his mother, the Saxon princess, and puts him in favor of his father, the Slave Lord. I’m pretty sure these skills must have included a fair amount of skill with objects with sharp edges as that seems the sort of competence that would most please Eochaid.
I should also point out that there is a tradition among Celts of supporting or elevating individuals of competence to positions of leadership instead of purely relying on blood-lines. If Cairenn were truly Saxon and not just a
British King’s child who would one day be overrun by Saxons it would be all the more pointed, that the Ard Righ should be half Saxon over all Ireland would be amazing.
And yet it is amazing even at that. Cairenn, no matter the race of her parentage, was not Irish, she had no political power that might follow in her train, or even keep her out of abject servitude.
Mongfionn on the other hand was an Irish Princess, daughter of the king of Munster. She obviously had some power as she moves, first to have her brother rule in her son’s stead, and then to remove him by poison when he didn’t step aside. More to the point, no matter the truth of her, that is Mongfionn, she is the mother of Mugmedon’s sons who would found the Connachta.
So how could Niall achieve what he did? How could he even survive much less take his father’s position? Legends relate two events that speak to this question of how. First, the sons of Eochaid are set a test. They are locked in a forge which is lit afire and then the boys are judged as to what they choose to save out of the fire. Niall is judged to be the winner.
Next they are sent out hunting. They all grow thirsty and one at a time they go in search of water. Not far off, a hideous hag, guards a well and demands a kiss to get water. Most refuse, Niall gives her a proper kiss (or much more than that if some tellings are true) and the loathly lady turns into a beautiful woman who is the Sovereignty of Ireland. For hundreds of years it will be the Ui Niall who control Tara and stand as high kings of Ireland.
You can read these tales and more from the Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon.
Niall founds the Ui Niall or rather, in following in the fine tradition of Eochaid Mugmedon, he raids, and dominates, and fathers sons who will hold leadership in Ulster and Meath for hundreds of years. Such is the power of this one man, Niall of the Nine Hostages, or at least that division of the Irish that claim him.
I think his significance doesn’t end with his relation to the leadership of pagan Ireland. He is involved in the foundation of Christian Ireland as well. It is Niall’s raiding in Britain that brought a young Succat to Ireland. God works in mysterious ways. It is Niall of the Nine Hostage’s own son, King Laoghaire, who, confronted with a magic beyond his understanding, converts to Christianity.
The conversion, begun near the hill of Tara, arguably the spiritual center of Ireland, sticks. Perhaps the most notable church leader after Patrick is himself a prince of the Ui Neill, that is Columcille.
So Niall Noigiallach sits at this cusp of Irish history. He is a notable culmination of Irish political power despite being the son of a foreign princess. He raids outside the insular boundaries of the five fifths of Ireland taking hostages and holding sovereignty in Scotland, Britain, Mann, and perhaps Brittany on the European mainland. Perhaps the origin of his name was more provincial, the name Noigiallach, that one of his first conquests brought a hostage from each of the nine Tuatha of Airgialla in the south of Ulster. Whatever the truth of it, Niall’s influence and his raiding went out from there as far as the continent even if Airgialla was the source of his bye name.
I have imagined the Airgialla origin of his name as the beginning of the symbol that seems to follow his legacy as well, that of the Red Hand. Read the Red Hand Of Niall, Or my re-imagining of a more traditional legend about the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster.