Niall of the Nine Hostages

From New World Encyclopedia

Niall Noígíallach (Old Irish, "having nine hostages," pronounced noí, nine; gíall, a human pledge or hostage; the possessive suffix -ach, also spelled "Noí nGiallach," "Naígiallach," "Naoighiallach."[1]) was an Irish king, the eponymous ancestor of the Uí Néill kindred who dominated Ireland from the sixth century to the tenth century. The rise of the Uí Néill dynasties and their conquests in Ulster and Leinster are not reliably recorded but have been the subject of considerable study and attempts to reconstruct them. Although generally supposed to be a historical personage, very little can confidently be said of Niall's life. The sources for the details of Niall's life are genealogies of historical kings, the "Roll of Kings" section of the Lebor Gabála Érenn, Irish annals such as the Annals of the Four Masters, chronicles such as Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn,[2] and legendary tales like "The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon" and "The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages."[3] These sources date from long after Niall's time and their value as history is limited at best.

Niall is placed in the traditional list of High Kings of Ireland, where his reign is dated to the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The Annals of the Four Masters dates his accession to 378 and death to 405.[4] The chronology of Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn broadly agrees, dating his reign from 368-395, and associating his raiding activities in Britain with the kidnapping of Saint Patrick.[5] However, the traditional roll of kings and its chronology is now recognized as artificial. The High Kingship did not become a reality until the 9th century, and Niall's legendary status has been inflated in line with the political importance of the dynasty he founded. Based on Uí Néill genealogies and the dates given for his supposed sons and grandsons, modern historians believe he is likely to have lived some 50 years later than the traditional dates, dying circa 450. Niall's story, from a time before Ireland became a British possession, served to inspire the Irish people to reclaim their independence. For some, it feeds the dream of a reunited island. Above all, Niall represents an iconic, heroic figure towards the beginning of Ireland's story in whom people can take pride, a high king who not only ruled Ireland but whose over-lordship was recognized by other kings as well. The Irish as a people can hold their heads high among the free nations of the world.

Legendary biography

Early life

A legendary account of Niall's birth and early life is given in the eleventh century saga Echtra mac nEchach Muimedóin (The adventure of the sons of Eochaid Mugmedón). In it, Eochaid Mugmedón, the High King of Ireland, has five sons, four, Brión, Ailill mac Echach Mugmedóin, Fiachrae and Fergus, by his first wife Mongfind, sister of the king of Munster, Crimthann mac Fidaig, and a fifth, Niall, by his second wife Cairenn Chasdub, daughter of Sachell Balb, king of the Saxons. While Cairenn is pregnant with Niall, the jealous Mongfind forces her to do heavy work, hoping to make her miscarry. She gives birth as she is drawing water, but out of fear of Mongfind, she leaves the child on the ground, exposed to the birds. The baby is rescued and brought up by a poet called Torna. When Niall grows up he returns to Tara and rescues his mother from her labor.[6]

Although it is anachronistic for Niall's mother to have been a Saxon, O'Rahilly argues that the name Cairenn is derived from the Latin name Carina, and that it is plausible that she might have been a Romano-Briton. Mongfind appears to have been a supernatural personage: The saga The Death of Crimthann mac Fidaig says the festival of Samhain was commonly called the "Festival of Mongfind," and prayers were offered to her on Samhain eve.[7]


Seeing Niall's popularity among the nobles, Mongfind demands that Eochaid name a successor, hoping it will be one of her sons. Eochaid gives the task to a druid, Sithchenn, who devises a contest between the brothers, shutting them in a burning forge, telling them to save what they can, and judging them based on which objects they choose to save. Niall, who emerges carrying an anvil, is deemed greater than Brión, with a sledgehammer, Fiachrae with bellows and a pail of beer, Ailill with a chest of weapons, and Fergus with a bundle of wood. Mongfind refuses to accept the decision.

Sithchenn takes the brothers to the smith, who makes them weapons, and sends them out hunting. Each brother in turn goes looking for water, and finds a well guarded by a hideous hag who demands a kiss in return for water. Fergus and Ailill refuse and return empty-handed. Fiachrae gives her a quick peck, but not enough to satisfy her. Only Niall kisses her properly, and she is revealed as a beautiful maiden, the Sovereignty of Ireland. She grants Niall not only water but the kingship for many generations—twenty-six of his descendants will be High Kings of Ireland. Fiachrae is granted a minor royal line—two of his descendants, Nath Í and Ailill Molt, will be High Kings.

This "loathly lady" motif appears in myth and folklore throughout the world. Variations of this story are told of the earlier Irish High King Lugaid Laigde, in Arthurian legend – one of the most famous versions appears in both Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale"[8] and the related Gawain romance, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell—and in John Gower's Middle English poem, Confessio Amantis.[9]

In another story, the succession is not settled when Eochaid dies, and Mongfind's brother Crimthann takes the High Kingship. But while he is away on a tour of his lands in Scotland, Mongfind's sons seize Ireland. Crimthann returns to Ireland intending to give battle. Mongfind, purporting to make peace between her brother and her sons, holds a feast, at which she serves Crimthann a poisoned drink. Crimthann refuses to drink it unless she does too; they both drink, and both die. Niall succeeds to the High Kingship, and Brión becomes his second in command. Another version has Mongfind try to poison Niall, but she takes the poison herself by mistake.[10]

While Niall is High King, his brothers establish themselves as local kings. Brión rules the province of Connacht, but Fiachrae makes war against him. Brión defeats Fiachrae and hands him over as a prisoner to Niall, but Fiachrae's son Nath Í continues the war and eventually kills Brión. Niall releases Fiachrae, who becomes king of Connacht and Niall's right hand man. Fiachrae and Ailill then make war against Crimthann's son Eochaid, king of Munster. They defeat him and win great spoil, but Fiachrae is wounded in the battle and dies of his wounds shortly afterwards. The Munstermen renew the battle, capture Ailill and cut him to pieces, and war continues between Munster and Connacht for many years.


The Lebor Gabála Érenn says there was war between Niall and Énnae Cennsalach, king of Leinster, over the bórama or cow-tribute first imposed on Leinster by Tuathal Techtmar.[11] Énna's son Eochaid mac Ennai is named as Niall's killer in all sources, although the circumstances vary. All sources agree he died outside Ireland. The earliest version of the Lebor Gabála says Eochaid killed him on the English Channel, later versions adding that Niall was invading Brittany when this happened.

In the saga "The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages," Eochaid's enmity with Niall begins when he is refused hospitality by Niall's poet, Laidchenn. He makes war and destroys the poet's stronghold, killing his son Leat. Laidchenn responds by satirizing Leinster so that no corn, grass, or leaves grow there for a year. Then Niall makes war against Leinster, and peace is concluded on the condition that Eochaid is handed over. Niall chains Eochaid to a standing stone, and sends nine warriors to execute him, but Eochaid breaks his chain and kills all nine of them with it. He then kills Laidchenn by throwing a stone which lodges in his forehead. Niall exiles him to Scotland. The story then becomes confused. Niall makes war in Europe as far as the Alps, and the Romans send an ambassador to parlay with him. Abruptly, the tale then has Niall appearing before an assembly of Pictish bards in Scotland, where he is killed by an arrow shot by Eochaid from the other side of the valley. His men carry his body home, fighting seven battles on the way, and his foster-father Torna dies of grief. His body is said to have been buried at Ochann, now known as Faughan Hill in County Meath. He is succeeded by his nephew Nath Í.

Niall's death might have taken place during a raid on Roman Britain. Irish tradition had forgotten that the Romans once ruled Britain, and relocated his remembered confrontations with the Empire to continental Europe, with Alba, the ancient name for Britain, being confused with Elpa, the Alps, or being understood with its later meaning of Scotland. A poem by the eleventh century poet, Cináed ua hArtacáin in the Book of Leinster credits Niall with seven raids on Britain, on the last of which he was killed by Eochaid "above the surf of the Ictian Sea;"[12] a poem attributed to the same poet in Lebor na hUidre credits him with going to the Alps seven times.


Niall is said to have had two wives: Inne, daughter of Lugaid, who bore him one son, Fiachu mac Néill; and Rignach, who bore him seven sons, Lóegaire mac Néill, Éndae mac Néill, Maine mac Néill, Eógan mac Néill, Conall Gulban, Conall Cremthainne and Coirpre mac Néill. These sons are the eponymous ancestors of the various Uí Néill dynasties: Eógan of the Cenél nEógain and Conall Gulban of the Cenél Conaill, making up the northern Uí Néill; Fiachu of the Cenél Fiachach dynasty, Lóegaire (the king who Saint Patrick is said to have converted) of the Cenél Lóegaire, Maine of the Uí Maine, Eógan of the Cenél nEógain, Conall Gulban of the Cenél Conaill, Conall Cremthainne of the Clann Cholmáin and the Síl nÁedo Sláine, and Coirpre of the Cenél Coirpri, making up the southern Uí Néill.

Origin of his epithet

There are various versions of how Niall gained his epithet Noígíallach. The saga "The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages" says that he received five hostages from the five provinces of Ireland (Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Meath), and one each from Scotland, the Saxons, the Britons and the Franks.[13] Other accounts have various lesser kings sending their sons to his court, less as hostages than as a symbol of their vassal status. This was a common strategy to avoid war, since one did not attack the city where one's son and heir was living. These legends represent Niall as overlord of other kingdoms.


Other famous descendants include Niall's great-great grandson Saint Columba, Saint Máel Ruba, the Kings of Scotland, the Kings of Ailech, the Kings of Tir Eogain, The Kings of Tír Conaill, Chieftain and Earl Hugh O'Neill, Clan Chief and Earl Red Hugh O'Donnell of the O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, military leaders of Confederate Ireland Owen Roe O'Neill and Hugh Dubh O'Neill and Sir Phelim O'Neill, Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland Aodh MacCathmhaoil (also known as Hugh MacCaghwell), Spanish Prime Minister Leopoldo O'Donnell 1st Duque de Tetuan, Sir Cahir O’Doherty, Sir Donnell Ballagh O'Cahan, musician Turlough O'Cahan, Shane O'Neill, Sir William Johnson of the O'Neills of the Fews, in addition to numerous officers in the armies of France, Spain, and the Austrian Empire.

The current British royal family claims a link.[14]

African American scholar and historian, Professor Henry Louis Gates is a descendant of Niall through slavery.[15]

In January 2006, scientists suggested that Niall may have been the most fecund male in Irish history, and second only to Genghis Khan worldwide. In northwest Ireland as many as one-fifth of men have a common Y chromosome haplotype that lies within the haplogroup R1b.[16]

Haplogroup R1b1c7 was shown to be especially common among family names which claim a descent from Niall, for example, O'Boyle, Bradley, Campbell, Cannon, Canane, Caulfield, Mongan, McCaul, McCord, McCawell, Connor, O'Doherty, O'Donnell, O'Gallagher, Flynn, McKee, Devlin, Donnelly, Egan, Gormley, McGovern, Hynes, O'Kane, McLoughlin, McManus, McMenamin, Molloy, Muldoon, Nolen (Nolan), O'Neill, O'Reilly, O'Rourke, O'Lunny, and Quinn.[17]

Family tree

Bold indicates a High King of Ireland.

Tuathal Teachtmhar
Fedlimid Rechtmar
Conn of the Hundred Battles
Art mac Cuinn
Cormac mac Airt
Cairbre Lifechair
Fíacha Sroiptine
Muiredach Tirech
Eochaid Mugmedon
Niall Noigíallach
Conall Gulban
Conall Cremthainne
Muiredach mac Eógain
Cormac Caech
Lughaid mac Loeguire
Fergus Cerrbel
Muirchertach mac Ercae
Tuathal Máelgarb
Diarmait mac Cerbaill

Legacy and significance

The story of Niall of the Nine Hostages is part of the founding myth of Ireland. His story pushes the existence of a unified kingdom further back into history. This feeds the hope of a unified island of Ireland, for which some people North and South of the 1922 Partition border strive. It also provides a founding myth that posits unity as an ancient legacy. The story depicts Niall as a powerful ruler, to whose court other rulers sent their sons as a symbol of their own loyalty and vassalage. For centuries, Ireland would find herself under British rule. Here, for the Irish who struggled for their freedom was inspiration in a story of a long-ago time when the Irish were not only free but a power in the world beyond the island's shores.


  1. Dictionary of the Irish Language (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, ISBN 0901714291).
  2. Geoffrey Keating and David Comyn, The History of Ireland = Foras feasa ar Éirinn (London: Irish Texts Society, 1987, ISBN 9781870166041).
  3. Cunningham (2007); Cross and Slover (1988).
  4. University of College, Cork, Annals of the Four Masters M378-405. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  5. Geoffrey Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn 1.48, University College, Cork. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  6. Cross and Clark, "The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon." Ancient Irish Tales (London: G.G. Harrap). Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  7. Mary Jones, The Death of Crimthann son of Fidach. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  8. Luminariam, The Wife of Bath's Tale. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  9. Myles Dillon, Myles, The Cycles of the Kings (London: Oxford university Press), pages 38-41.
  10. James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 9780198691570), pages 305-306.
  11. R.A. Stewart MacAlister (ed. & trans.), Lebor Gabála Érenn (Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1956), page 349.
  12. Edward Gwynn (ed. & trans.), "Ochan," The Metrical Dindshenchas (1906), pages 37-41. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  13. Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover (eds.), "The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages," Ancient Irish Tales (New York: H. Holt, 1936), pages 514-517. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  14. Joan Veon, Joan Veon, "Prince Charles: The Sustainable Prince," The Women's international media group. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  15. PBS, African American Lives 2. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  16. New York Times, "Percentage of men in Ireland who are believed to be descended from King Niall of the Nine Hostages," New York Times. Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  17. New Scientist, "Medieval Irish warlord boasts three million descendants." Retrieved September 21, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cunningham, Bernadette. 2007. O'Donnell Histories: Donegal and the Annals of the Four Masters. Rathmullan, IE: Rathmullan and District Local History Society. ISBN 9780954088842.
  • Cross, Tom Peete, and Clark Harris Slover. 1988. Ancient Irish Tales. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 9780389202547.
  • McCaffrey, Carmel, and Leo Eaton. 2002. In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish, from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books. ISBN 9781561310722.
  • Sykes, Bryan, and Bryan Sykes. 2006. Blood of the Isles: Exploring the Genetic Roots of our Tribal History. London: Bantam. ISBN 9780593056523.
  • Wiley, Dan M. 2008. Essays on the Early Irish King Tales. Dublin: Four Courts Press. ISBN 9781846820458.


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