In our early literature there are many traces of an abiding tradition that already before St. Patrick’s mission there were Christians and small Christian communities here and there in Ireland. Some of the statements, especially as to the founders of certain sees, have been discredited, being imputed to a desire to make out that these sees, alleged to have been founded before St. Patrick’s time, were therefore independent of the jurisdiction and claims of Armagh, especially of the temporal claims for revenue. It was claimed in particular for St. Ailbhe and St. Iubhar, of the see of Emly, St. Declan of Ardmore, and St. Ciarán of Saighir that they were already bishops in St. Patrick’s time. These things are stated in documents in which other things are said that cannot be reconciled with historical fact. The date of St. Iubhar’s death, according to the Annals of Ulster, was 500, 501, or 504; of St. Ailbhe’s, 534, or 542; and SS. Ciarán and Declan are both said to have lived into the sixth century. Saint Iubhar appears to have been the earliest of them and there is evidence that he received episcopal consecration at the hands of St. Patrick. The case, however, does not rest wholly or mainly on such unstable premises.
The genealogists of Corcu Loegdae, or Dáirine, claim that the people of that state were the first in Ireland to receive Christianity; and the claim at all events cannot be dismissed on the ground of improbability. The diocese of Ross appears to represent the extent of this little state in the twelfth century, but in earlier times its territory covered a much larger area. Dwelling around several good havens, which were most favourably situated in relation to the old Atlantic trade route, the people were always a sea-going people. We read of an O’Driscoll at the head of his fleet attacking the English of Waterford. One of their chiefs takes his distinctive byname from Gascony, another from Bordeaux. Thomas Davis’s spirited ballad on the Sack of Baltimore brings home to our minds how direct hostile relations could exist between this region and the Mediterranean; and where such hostile relations were possible, trade relations may be taken as normal. It is by no means unlikely, then, that where the Crescent could come on pirate galleys from Algiers, the Cross might well have come in some early merchant ship from the Loire or the Garonne.
St. Patrick himself, in his Confession, seems to testify by implication to the existence not merely of individual Christians but of Christian communities with their clergy in and before his time in Ireland. “For your sake,” he writes, “I have faced many dangers, going even to the limits of the land where no one was before me, and whither no one had yet come to baptise or ordain clergy or confirm the faithful.” This surely implies that there were places in Ireland, not in the remoter parts, places where some had come before Patrick and had performed the purely episcopal functions of ordination and confirmation.
More definite still is the evidence of Prosper’s Chronicle—direct testimony, for the chronicler was in Rome at the time. Under the year 431, the chronicle has this entry: “To the Scots believing in Christ, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, Palladius is sent as first bishop.” The natural interpretation of this statement, I think, is that some Irish Christians sent a request to Rome to have a bishop sent to them. The mission was considered an important one, for Palladius, before his consecration as bishop, held a high ecclesiastical office at Rome. He had also interested himself in the religious concerns of Britain, having induced Pope Celestine two years earlier to send a special mission to Britain to counteract the teachings of a Pelagian bishop. In another work, St. Prosper refers to these two missions together. Pope Celestine, he writes, “while he laboured to keep the Roman island (i.e. Britain) Catholic, also, by ordaining a bishop for the Scots, made the barbarous island Christian”—barbarous meaning external to the Roman Empire. Even this does not necessarily imply that before Palladius there were no bishops in Ireland, but it does imply that these particular “Irish believing in Christ,” to whom Palladius was sent, had no bishop in communion with Rome.
Pelagius, the author of the Pelagian heresy, was, according to St. Jerome, a man “of the Irish nation, from the vicinity of the Britons,” and St. Jerome again, in his vigorous style, speaks of Pelagius as one “swelled out with the porridge of the Irish.” Other contemporary witnesses say that Pelagius was a Briton. This leaves us in doubt, for, on the one hand, these may have applied the term Briton to anyone from any part of the Pretanic islands, and on the other hand, St. Jerome’s language about Pelagius is the language of rhetorical depreciation, and from what I have quoted from him in the foregoing lecture, we may perhaps judge that by calling Pelagius a Scot, he thought the more effectually to discredit him. The known career of Pelagius lies between the years 398 and 418. One thing comes out clearly enough from the contemptuous phrase—the Irish were known abroad in St. Jerome’s time as eaters of porridge.
The late Professor Zimmer, finding a somewhat obscure early reference to the flight of learned people from Gaul during the Gothic and Frankish invasions and to their finding a place of refuge in another country, founded on this an interesting theory regarding the early stages of Christianity and letters in Ireland. It was in Ireland, he contends, that the refugees found a home, for Ireland was the only land in Western Europe that escaped the Germanic invasions. To Ireland they brought with them a certain devotion to the ancient literatures of Greece and Rome. The limits of date for this learned migration, according to Zimmer, are the years 419 and 507, and he holds that it actually took place about midway between those dates, i.e., about the middle of the fifth century.
To make this theory of a learned migration from Western Gaul to Ireland more easily accepted, Zimmer gives a valuable collection of facts in historical evidence, showing that there was a regular course of trade between the two countries at this time and for centuries before and after it.
Zimmer applies his theory to the explanation of certain remarkable facts. In the first place, he explains by it the pre-eminence in the knowledge of Latin and Greek that belonged in the following age to Irishmen and the pupils of Irishmen. Secondly, he explains by it the reference made by St. Patrick in his Confession to certain critics who despised his rusticity, i.e., his want of a classical grounding in Latin. St. Patrick calls these critics “rhetoricians,” a term which certainly seems to imply that they belonged to a professional academic set. Zimmer thinks that these “rhetoricians” were some of the learned refugees from Western Gaul. A third fact which Zimmer explains by his migration theory is the fondness of the early Irish poets and grammarians for certain artificial super-refinements of language and grammar, and in particular for the production of a learned jargon in Irish by making deliberate changes in the form of words, substituting one letter for another, and adding, transforming or removing letters or syllables. This trait, he argues, was adopted from a certain learned school of Aquitaine, who played similar tricks with Latin, and produced by such means not one but a dozen Latin jargons; and Zimmer goes so far as to insist that the supposed Irish poet-grammarian who is named “Fercertne the Poet” was actually and personally identical with one of the chief exponents of this artificial Latinity, Virgilius Grammaticus.
The difficulties I find in accepting this theory of Zimmer are chiefly two. The first is that Zimmer, when he set out to establish a novel theory, was quite as ingenious in weaving an argument as Virgilius Grammaticus could be in concocting a Latin jargon. My second difficulty is that, if such a school of foreign Latinists existed in Ireland in St. Patrick’s time, I cannot understand why neither the school itself nor any individual belonging to it is mentioned in any Irish document. St. Patrick does not say that his critics lived in Ireland.
On the other hand, in a passage which Zimmer has not noted, there is reference to a high degree of Christian learning in Ireland possibly as early as St. Patrick’s time. It is in a letter on the Paschal controversy written by St. Columbanus of Bobbio within the years 595 to 600. It may be remarked that St. Columbanus writes in a remarkably pure Latin style, founded on good sound Latin teaching, and in no way reflecting the ingenuities and puerilities of the Aquitanian school. He is speaking expressly in this letter about the chronological system devised by Victorius of Aquitaine, who flourished in the middle of the fifth century. “Victorius,” he writes, “was regarded with indulgence, not to say contempt, by our masters and by the ancient Irish philosophers.” Here, in the last years of the sixth century, we find an Irishman placing a higher value on the Christian learning of “ancient Irish philosophers” than on that of a noted Aquitanian scholar.
I do not propose here to deal with the life and work of St. Patrick. Let me escape with the apology made by the writer of the Irish Nennius: “It would be carrying water to a lake, to relate the wonders of Patrick to the Men of Ireland.”
Let the beginnings of letters and literature in Ireland now occupy our attention. Cæsar’s testimony will be remembered in regard of the Celts in Gaul: “They make use of Greek letters in almost all their affairs, both public and private.” This use of the Greek alphabet is corroborated by the fact that the oldest Celtic inscriptions in Gaul are in Greek characters. The accompanying sculptures also demonstrate Greek influence. This influence radiated, no doubt, from the early Greek colony of Massilia or Massalia (Marseille) and its daughter colonies along the Mediterranean coast. It extended as far as to the Helvetii in the modern Switzerland, among whose spoils Cæsar captured a census of the entire people written out in Greek characters. On the other hand, the Cisalpine Gauls in Northern Italy used the Etruscan alphabet, from which the Roman alphabet was also in part derived, and a number of their inscriptions in the Etruscan characters have been discovered.
We can trace no such early use of the alphabet in Britain or Ireland. The earliest known use of letters in Britain appears to be in the coinage of the sons of Commius.
Tacitus has told us that the states of Britain were governed, not by kings, but by nobles and factions—just as Rome was governed in the later centuries of the Republic. In Gaul also there were no kings. It is interesting to examine how, in the period between the temporary invasions of Britain by Julius Cæsar and the permanent Roman conquest of southern Britain about a century later, a people of the southern seaboard happen to have kings, and these kings happen to have a coinage inscribed after the Roman fashion.
One of the Belgic States that had an offshoot in Britain was that of the Atrebates close to the Straits of Dover. The town of Arras preserves their name. In Britain, they were settled in the valley of the Thames and their chief place was Calleva, now Silchester in the north of Hampshire. Cæsar took a special interest in the Atrebates, perhaps for the two reasons, that their territory was so near to Britain and that a part of their people were settled in Britain. In the early and insecure stages of his conquest of Gaul, he did not find it practicable to establish at once the Roman form of government. Instead he adopted a device which had already succeeded in the case of the Galatian republic in Asia. The Romans changed Galatia into a monarchy under a Galatian king Deiotaros, believing that they would secure their own authority more effectually by making one of the Galatians, so to speak, their chief policeman. A son and grandson of Deiotaros succeeded him as kings, and after these Augustus abolished this appearance of autonomy and made Galatia a Roman province under Roman governors. Cæsar, having overcome the resistance of the Atrebates on the Continent, appointed one of themselves, Commius, a noble of great influence, to be their king. Commius, he tells us, was a man both courageous and politic, and he considered him loyal. He afterwards used Commius as his intermediary in treating with the Britons, and through him received the submission of Cassivellaunus, whom the Britons had chosen to command their forces. After this service, Cæsar freed Commius from tribute, restored the rights and laws of his people and gave him sovereignty also over the Morini, a neighbouring state on the Belgic seaboard. In the sixth year of Cæsar’s command, B.C. 53, a wide revolt of the Gallic states took place, and this time Commius took the side of his fellow-countrymen and was one of the four chiefs to whom they committed the principal charge of the war. In the suppression of the revolt, Commius was one of the last to hold out. He called in the help of the Germans, and when all failed, he took refuge among the Germans. Hirtius, the continuator of Cæsar’s narrative, relates how Labienus, one of Cæsar’s generals, considered that, in view of the disloyalty of Commius and his entering into conspiracy to revolt, it would be no perfidy to have him done away. Accordingly he sent one Volusenus to him in the guise of an envoy but with private instructions to have Commius murdered. The plot failed, and Commius declared that he would never again consent to speak to any Roman. He continued the war, and had the satisfaction of once meeting and wounding the treacherous envoy Volusenus in single combat. At last he was forced to submit upon terms and to give hostages, but even in his submission he made it a condition that he would not be required to hold direct intercourse with any Roman. He seems to have taken refuge finally in Britain.
Under the rule of Commius over the Atrebates, coins were struck bearing his name in its Celtic spelling Commios, but in Roman lettering, probably about the earliest examples of the use of the Roman alphabet in northern Gaul. Three of his sons appear to have reigned as kings in southern Britain, where, as already said, a colony of their people the Atrebates was settled. Their names, Tincius (or Tincommius), Eppillus, and Verica or Virica, are on numerous coins found in the south-east and middle south of England. One of these coins bears the name of Calleva, chief place of the Atrebates in Britain, now Silchester. The coins are inscribed with Roman letters, the name of Eppillus has already exchanged a Celtic for a Latin ending in the nominative, and the letters R and F, abbreviations for the Latin rex and filius, appear on most of the coins. In this way the Latin alphabet found a foothold in Britain about the beginning of the Christian era.
No use of letters nearly so early can be traced in Ireland. When Irish traditions began to be written, the Ogham alphabet was thought to be of remote antiquity, its invention being ascribed to the eponymous god Ogma. This god is apparently identical with the Gaulish Ogmios, a god of eloquence, about whom there is a remarkable passage in the Greek writer Lucian. In the story of Táin Bó Cuailngi, Cú Chulainn cuts a message in Ogham on a branch and sets it up in the middle of a ford for his approaching enemies to read. Nevertheless, I think that the use of Ogham characters cannot be quite as old as the Cú Chulainn period. I see two reasons for thinking so. The first is that the Ogham alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet. The second is that, if the Irish god Ogma mac Eladan (“son of science”) is to be identified in any way with the Gaulish Ogmios, god of eloquence,—and it seems impossible to dissociate them—then the name of the god must have come into the Irish language at a very late date before the use of writing. Philologists tell us that, when g was followed by m in the early unrecorded stage of the Irish language, g disappeared, and the preceding vowel, if short, was lengthened “by compensation,” as it is called. Accordingly, an ancient name Ogmios would be represented in early MS. Irish by Óme not Ogme, and in later Irish by Uama or Uaime not Oghma.
At first sight, it may appear too much to say that the Ogham alphabet was founded on the Latin alphabet. Why, let us ask, might it not have been a quite independent invention? A little reflection will convince us that it could not have been an independent invention. There is no limit, practically, to the possible varieties of alphabet, i.e., of graved or written symbols used to represent words. There are pictorial systems, and derived from these the so-called hieroglyphics, systems in which every word has a distinct syllable, systems in which each character stands for a symbol, systems in which no vowels are written, and systems which have distinct symbols for vowels and consonants. To the last class belong the Greek and Latin alphabets. There are systems in which the long and short vowels are distinguished, for example, in Pitman’s shorthand alphabet; and this is partly the case in the Greek alphabet. The Ogham alphabet belongs to the class in which there are distinct symbols for vowels and consonants. All its consonants but one are found in the Latin alphabet. Except for this one, representing the sound of ng in song or sing, it is content with the Latin consonants, though each of them has to express two very distinct sounds in Irish, the mute or stop sound and the spirant or “aspirate” as it is popularly called. Lastly, it has the five Latin vowels, without distinction of long or short. Hence its Latin origin is hardly open to question. Until Cæsar’s time, the Greek, not the Latin, alphabet was in use among the Gauls, the nearest people to Ireland by whom writing was then used. The Ogham alphabet and the Latin alphabet differ, generally speaking, in the same respects from the Greek alphabet. The latter therefore cannot have furnished the Irish model. The conclusion is that the Ogham alphabet, based on the Latin, was devised at some time later than the introduction of the Latin alphabet into neighbouring countries, that is to say, about the beginning of the Christian era or some what later. It was suitable only to the purposes for which it is known or related to have been used, i.e., for brief inscriptions or brief messages or statements. It was not suitable for the ordinary expression of written thought, for literature in the wide sense.
The range of the use of Ogham in inscriptions outside of Ireland corresponds to the range of Irish settlements and of Irish influence, at the time of the collapse of the Western Empire. In general the range is that of the Irish language at the time, but a number of Ogham inscriptions are also found in parts of Scotland which at that time were inhabited and ruled by the Picts. Apart from the Pictish instances, the farthest outlying Ogham that has been discovered is curiously enough found at Silchester, the ancient Calleva, the capital of the Atrebates in Britain, and the place in which the coins of the sons of Commius were struck, the coins that exhibit the earliest known use of the Roman alphabet or of any alphabet in Britain.
The dating of the extant Ogham inscriptions is a matter of very great difficulty, and the more closely I have attempted to examine them, the greater the difficulty has become. I shall only say that the latest forms of Irish names that they contain appear to be about identical in their stage of phonetic change with the earliest forms found in Irish writers, for example in the Life of St. Columba by Adamnanus who quotes from older documents—probably forms of the latter part of the sixth century. The weight of evidence, in my opinion, goes to show that the cult of the Ogham inscriptions was mainly associated with Paganism.
The manuscript literature of Irish does not come in a line of continuity from the Ogham writing. The system of spelling in the oldest specimens of MS. Irish has its basis in a British pronunciation of Latin—that is, in Latin modified and changed as a spoken language among the Britons during the centuries of the Roman occupation. One of the tasks incidental to the work of St. Patrick and his helpers in missionary work in Ireland was to give lessons in Latin to those who were to be the future clergy of the country. Thus we read again and again that St. Patrick wrote an alphabet for this and that convert—alphabet in this case meaning a primer or possibly a book of psalms—at all events a set of lessons in Latin. It is easy to show that a similar pronunciation of Latin prevailed in the early Christian schools of Ireland and in Britain at the same time; that this pronunciation differed systematically from the Italian pronunciation; that the differences represent changes which had taken place also in the British language, though not in Irish; and that the orthography of Old and Middle Welsh and also of Old and Middle Irish was moulded by this modified British pronunciation of Latin. The peculiarities of spelling produced in this way do not appear at all in the Ogham inscriptions; and on the other hand, there are peculiarities in the orthographic system of the Ogham inscriptions which leave no trace in Irish MS. writing. The oldest Irish grammarians speak of the Ogham method of writing as the Irish method and of the MS. method as the Latin method; and they report current sayings which show that among the early Irish Christians the use of the Irish method was regarded as profane and even tainted with impiety—meaning, beyond doubt, that it was closely associated in their minds with heathenism. On the other hand the earliest specimens of written Irish are distinctively Christian. The oldest known piece of Irish MS. writing is, or was until recently, preserved in Cambrai and is ascribed to the seventh century—but pieces as old or older exist in various transcripts.
In a paper on the Annals of Tigernach, I have shown that a chronicle of the world, written in continuation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, Jerome, and Prosper, and embodying a skeleton of Irish history, was brought to conclusion in Ireland in the year 609. From certain indications this chronicle would appear to have been commenced in the closing years of the sixth century—say between 590 and 600. Part of this chronicle is embodied in the Annals of Tigernach and in the Annals of Ulster, and extracts from it in the Annals of Innisfallen. What survives of it with relation to Ireland is the oldest known history of Ireland. From its manner of dealing with Irish affairs, I think we must conclude that even before its time, a certain body of Irish heroic literature existed in MS. and consequently that the writing of this literature had already begun in the course of the sixth century. There are other evidences that during the sixth century a blending of the old heathen lore and learned tradition with the new Christian learning was taking place—the native schools of poets, originally druids, becoming Christian and adopting the apparatus of Christian learning. St. Columba, we are told, had a poet named Gemmán for tutor, and we may be quite certain that the friendship which Columba is said to have shown to the poets as a body in the Assembly of Druim Ceata in 575 was not extended to a class which he associated with heathenism.
Nevertheless, a good deal of specifically heathen practice and teaching was preserved, more or less covertly, among the secular poets of Ireland for centuries after St. Columba’s time.
In the seventh century, writing in Irish appears to become very common, but Adamnanus, about the beginning of the eighth century, writing from the standpoint of Latin and Christian learning, still speaks of his native tongue in depreciation. This sentiment did not extend to the Irish secular school of literati. An old grammar of Irish, dating in part from the seventh century, speaks of Irish as a “choice language,” and proclaims its superiority over other languages. In the seventh century, too, new metrical forms in Irish poetry, based on Latin hymns, make their appearance, and afterwards develop into a varied and elaborate system of metric.
Let us now return to the political side of Irish history. I have endeavoured to trace the stages by which the Pentarchy of the old heroic tales became broken up and transformed into a quite different state of things when the early Christian period is reached. The chief agencies in this transformation were the extension of the power of the Connacht dynasty and its branches over northern Ireland, and the rise of the Eoghanacht dynasty in southern Ireland, with its seat at Cashel. The growth in power of the two ascendant dynasties, those of Tara and Cashel, is marked by a sort of colonising process. Offshoots from each dynasty are planted in authority over petty kingdoms, displacing or rather depressing the rulers previously in possession.
Something similar took place in later times under the Feudal system. In virtue of the supposed Donation of Constantine, now long recognised to have been fabulous, but accepted as genuine in the Middle Ages, the Popes claimed temporal dominion over all the islands of the ocean. In exercise of this temporal claim, Adrian IV conferred the lordship of Ireland on Henry of Anjou. But in virtue of the same supposed right, Adrian had already an immediate feudatory for Ireland in the person of the king of Ireland—Ruaidhri. Henry thus took the place of a “mean lord” or intermediate feudatory between the existing lord and the overlord. Henry himself repeated this process. He granted the lordship of Ireland to his son John, and this grant was confirmed by the Pope then reigning, Alexander III. Sir John Gilbert has pointed out that, had the issue of John’s elder brothers survived, John would not have become king, and the lordship of Ireland would have been separate from and independent of the Crown of England, and subject only to the feudal overlordship of the Pope while it lasted. The result of granting the lordship of Ireland to Henry II was that the existing possessor was depressed in rank, not dispossessed—this apart from the cession of rights which Ruaidhri made to Henry by the short-lived Treaty of Windsor.
An almost identical process was a staple part of the policy of Irish kings from the beginning of the fourth century until the middle of the sixteenth. Such lordships can be shown to have been created either by Shane O’Neill or his father Conn, acting as king of Ulster. During the whole intervening period, we can trace the same process, the creation of mean lords, in every part of Ireland under Irish kings. In most cases the new lord was a member of the king’s family, a brother, a son, or other near relative. A number of very clear and noteworthy instances of this exercise of royal dominion by Irish kings took place in consequence of the Norman conquest.
Events of this kind are not recorded in the Irish annals, except in a few instances when the exercise of power was somewhat abnormal. Since we have now reached a point at which the annals begin to figure as chief witnesses, some notice of the general character of the annals will be in place. At first sight, the pages of our native chronicles appear as a sort of trackless morass to the inquirer after Irish history. The reason is this—the chroniclers hardly ever tell us anything that an Irish reader of their times could be expected to know as a matter of course. They say almost nothing about institutions or about anything that is normal. Just as they record earthquakes, comets, eclipses, excessive frosts or floods or droughts, but say nothing about the normal course of the stars or the seasons, so, in regard of human affairs, they are silent about all that is regular or institutional, about matters of common knowledge in their time, and they are silent also, as a rule, about the institutional aspect, so to speak, of events which they relate. We are told, for example, that a certain king puts a prince of his own house to death—and that is all. From some subsidiary document we may learn that the act was a judicial act, done after trial and sentence. Or we are told that a certain king leads his forces against another king and how the battle went—but we have to consult some other source to find that the action was taken in consequence of the refusal to pay tribute according to ancient claim and precedent.
Among the subsidiary material which helps to explain the annals, and to give their events a place in historical sequence, the genealogies have the highest importance. In particular, they throw a great deal of light on the process above-mentioned, the extension of the power of dynastic families by the creation of lordships over the head of existing feudatories—to use a borrowed term.
An early instance of the process in question is found in an account quoted by O’Donovan from a MS. life of St. Greallán. Maine, he tells us, from whom the sept of Ui Maine took its name and descent, was settled in the territory of Ui Maine by a king of Connacht in the fifth century, dispossessing the “Firbolg” king of that district. (This instance, by the way, further exemplifies the unity still subsisting at that time between the different branches of the Connacht dynasty. Maine, to whom a kingdom in Connacht was thus granted by the king of Connacht, belonged to the Oriel branch of the royal house, a branch which had settled in Ulster early in the preceding century.) When O’Donovan, or the narrative which he quotes, says that the dispossessed king was of the Fir Bolg stock, he uses the term Fir Bolg in its late and wide application. The older possessors of the territory were Picts. Moreover, they were depressed rather than dispossessed, for the descendants of the ancient rulers continued to dwell as subordinate chiefs in their old territory. The family of Ó Mainnín, called Manning in English, is one of those descended from the ancient Pictish rulers of this district, which comprised the southern part of County Roscommon and the south-eastern part of County Galway. Still earlier appropriations of this kind can be traced to the time of Niall of the Nine Hostages, his brothers and sons. The old territory of the Fir Domhnann in northern Connacht became Tír Fiachrach, “Fiachra’s Land,” being appropriated to Fiachra, brother of Niall, and his descendants. Another branch of Fiachra’s sept become possessors of the kingdom of Aidhne, lying between Galway Bay and the old Pictish territory before-mentioned. From Brión or Brian, another brother of Niall, is named Tír Briúin or Brión’s Land, extending over parts of the counties Roscommon, Leitrim and Cavan. Brion’s sept, the Ui Briúin also obtained a territory in the district of Tuam and another territory called Umhall, around Clew Bay. From a third brother of Niall named Ailill is named Tír Ailello, “Ailill’s Land,” represented by the barony of Tirerrill in Co. Sligo. In like manner, various territories were appropriated to sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages. The western part of Ulster, which was not brought under conquest by the settlement of the Airghialla, and which is now represented by Donegal county, was partitioned among three sons of Niall, Conall, Énda, and Eoghan, and bore afterwards their names Tír Conaill, “Conall’s Land”; Tír Énda, “Enda’s Land”; and Tír Eoghain, “Eoghan’s Land.” It should be noted that the original Tír Eoghain was the peninsula now called Inis Eoghain. The country now called Tyrone was then a part of Oriel. This settlement of the sons of Niall in western Ulster was, however, rather by way of conquest than of grant. No element of conquest enters into the settlements of the other sons of Niall or of the septs descended from them.
Cairbre, or his sept, for we have no record by which the grant can be dated, obtained that territory in the north-eastern corner of Connacht, bordering on Ulster, which still retains his name in that of the barony of Carbury in Co. Sligo. A second territory appropriated to Cairbre or his sept was around Granard in Co. Longford. A third was on the Leinster border, and it still preserves the name in that of the barony of Carbury in the north of Co. Kildare.
Loeguire, son of Niall, who became king of Ireland, obtained, or his near descendants obtained, a territory on the Connacht side of Loch Erne, another in Westmeath, another in East Meath or Bregia. Maine, son of Niall, obtained a territory on the east side of the Shannon; Fiachu, son of Niall, a territory in Westmeath; Ardgal, a grandson of Niall, a territory in East Meath.
It seems quite clear that no appropriations of this kind took place before the time of Niall, the close of the fourth century. Had there been earlier appropriations in Connacht or Meath, then there must have been royal septs, offshoots of the Connacht-Meath dynasty, in possession of the appropriated territories and claiming descent from earlier kings of Connacht or Meath. Nor was this claim of descent likely to be forgotten, for, as the Book of Rights shows, in each of the principal group-kingdoms, the kings whose kinship to the principal dynasty was acknowledged, were free of tribute to the principal king. The Book of Rights shows that, except the descendants of Niall and of his brothers, all the petty kingdoms of Connacht and Meath were tributary to the over-kings; and the genealogies show that the ruling families of the tributary kingdoms were as a rule of quite distinct lineage from that of the over-kings. The natural inference from these facts is that this process of superimposing new lords of the dominant dynastic blood over old rulers of a different lineage begins in the time of Niall of the Nine Hostages, about A.D. 400.
Some of the petty dynasties thus created were themselves in later times subjected to the same process and reduced to a lower degree. Thus when the O’Conor family, which was itself a branch of the sept of Brión above-mentioned, acquired exclusive succession to the kingdom of Connacht, one of its branches, bearing the distinctive name of O’Conchubhair Ruadh, obtained the lordship of Cairbre in north-eastern Connacht, over the heads of the ancient lords descended from Cairbre son of Niall. In like manner, Ailill’s land, Tirerrill, after having been ruled for centuries by his descendants, passed under the lordship of the families of MacDonnchadha and MacDiarmada, descendants of his brother Brión, whose line held the kingship of all Connacht. The sept of Ailill, reduced in degree, gradually passes into obscurity. About the thirteenth century, even the genealogists cease to be interested in them; and in the seventeenth century, the last genealogist of the old school, Dubhaltach Mac Fir-Bhisigh, says that those who then remained of Ailill’s race are no longer reckoned among the nobles of the territory. Let me repeat that, with the help of the genealogies, it is possible to trace this process at work in various parts of Ireland from the fifth century until the abolition of Irish law in the sixteenth century. I shall have to recur to these facts when I come to deal with the so-called “clan-system” or “tribal system,” convenient terms with which some modern writers contrive to fill up the vacuum of their knowledge in regard to the general political condition of ancient and medieval Ireland.
Breifne, under the rule of Brión’s sept, was regarded as permanently annexed to Connacht. In its early extent Breifne comprised about the northern half of Co. Leitrim and the western half of Co. Cavan; these territories having been annexed from the ancient Ulster. In later times, when the O’Ruairc and O’Raghallaigh chiefs extended their power, Breifne comprised the whole of the present counties of Leitrim and Cavan.
The territories of the sons of Niall were separated by Breifne and Oriel into two groups, a north-western group and a Meath group. The north-western group of Niall’s descendants are called the Northern Ui Néill, the Meath group the Southern Ui Néill. One frequently meets with the error of supposing Ui Néill to mean the Ó’Néills—I find it in a paper of Zimmer’s published after his death. It is true that Ui Néill, as a matter of grammar, is the plural of Ó’Néill, but it is not the plural of the surname Ó’Néill in Irish usage. The sept-names with Ui prefixed belong to an earlier age than surnames like O’Neill. The surname O’Neill belongs to the descendants of Niall Glúndubh, king of Ireland, who was reigning a thousand years ago. The sept-name Ui Néill includes all the descendants in the male line of Niall of the Nine Hostages who reigned 500 years earlier.
The chief king of the Northern Ui Néill was called king of Aileach, from the prehistoric stone fortress of Aileach near Derry, which was occupied by kings of that line as late as the tenth century. They are sometimes called kings of the Fochla, fochla being an old Irish word meaning the North. Their territory in the fifth century comprised the county of Donegal and possibly also Cairbre’s country, the northern limb of Co. Sligo.
The eastern side of Ulster nominally constituted another chief kingdom, which was regarded as the remnant of the ancient Ulster, and so is sometimes called by chroniclers “the Fifth” or “Conchubhar’s Fifth.” It seems, however, to have consisted of four practically independent kingdoms, no one of which held any permanent authority over the others. These were Dál Riada in the North-East, on the Antrim seaboard; Ulaidh, on the Down seaboard—retaining the name of the ancient dominant people of Ulster; Dál Araidhe, at the head of a Pictish people, occupying the inland parts of Down and Antrim and also the Derry side of the Bann valley from Loch Neagh northward to the sea; and Conaille, likewise a Pictish kingdom, in the north of Co. Louth.
The remainder of Ulster, excluding Breifne, the kingdom of Aileach, and the eastern group, formed the kingdom of Airghialla or “Oriel.” It should be borne in mind that this ancient Oriel of the fifth century extended northward to the mouth of Loch Foyle, and included the present Tyrone and most of Co. Derry, which were afterwards annexed to the kingdom of Aileach.
The territories of the Southern Ui Néill lay in the counties of Meath, Westmeath, Longford, King’s County, and Kildare; they were not continuous, being merely appropriated portions of the kingdom of Tara.
Connacht extended eastward to the Erne and its lakes and to Loch Ramor in Co. Cavan.
Munster comprised its present extent and also the two southern baronies of King’s County.
The northern boundary of Leinster ran by the Liffey, its tributary the Rye, south of the barony of Carbury in Co. Kildare, and included part of King’s County bordering on Queen’s County and Kildare.
There were then seven chief kingdoms in Ireland, each of them containing a number of minor kingdoms. The seven chief kingdoms were (1) the kingdom of Tara, the midlands east of the Shannon; (2) the kingdom of Leinster; (3) the kingdom of Cashel or of Munster; (4) the kingdom of Cruachain or of Connacht; (5) the kingdom of Aileach, the Fochla, or the Northern Ui Néill; (6) the kingdom of Ulaidh or the lesser Ulster; (7) the kingdom of Oriel.
In Munster, a sort of partitioning or appropriation was effected by the ruling Eoghanacht dynasty, similar to what has been described as taking place in Connacht and Meath. At the head of all was the Eoghanacht of Cashel. Cashel was surrounded by a zone of tributary States, whose rulers were not of the Eoghanacht lineage. Westward of these was a belt of Eoghanacht States extending across Munster from the Shannon to the southern coast. These comprised the Ui Fidhgheinte in County Limerick, the Eoghanacht of Aine, in the middle, and the Ui Liatháin to the south in parts of Cork and Waterford counties. There was another Eoghanacht kingdom in the region of Bandon. Finally there was the Eoghanacht of Loch Léin in the region of Killarney, called also the Eoghanacht of West Munster. I have already shown reason to think that the Eoghanachta represented a relatively late immigration from Gaul; that their original settlement was probably in the west of County Waterford; and that their conquest of south-western Leinster and occupation of Cashel may have taken place about the beginning of the fifth century. I have no means of fixing the date of their occupation of other parts of Munster, but these settlements are not likely to have been later than the fifth century.
In like manner, we find located in various parts of Leinster the septs that branch out from the royal line. I shall not cumber your attention with the details, which can be found in O’Donovan’s notes to the Book of Rights. A much larger proportion of Leinster was appropriated in this way than of any of the other chief kingdoms, except Oriel. Oriel, being the main part of Ulster conquered by the Connacht-Meath princes in the fourth century, was treated entirely as a land of conquest, no portion of it remaining under the rule of its earlier dynasts.
In the case of Leinster, the relative lateness of these appropriations is proved by one fact. The septs that became possessed of territories in this way all belonged to the old ruling house of South Leinster, but the territories appropriated to them are very largely situate within the bounds of the old kingdom of North Leinster. Hence the resettlement of these territories took place after the extinction of the North Leinster kingdom and the unification of what remained under the South Leinster dynasty. This shows that the process belongs to the same period in Leinster as in Connacht, and Meath, and Munster.
Though the annexation of Tara and Bregia was a fully accomplished fact long before St. Patrick’s time, and though in his time the monarchy of Connacht origin was securely seated in Tara, the annals, whose details of history begin with St. Patrick, show that the claim to their northern territories was not yet relinquished by the Leinstermen. Time after time they invaded the lost land, and battle after battle was fought by them on its borders and even far within its borders. This continued struggle to recover possession is perhaps most clearly seen in a list of the battles from the year 432 onward—before that year we have no details.
A.D. 452. A great slaughter of the Leinstermen.
A.D. 453. The Leinstermen defeated in battle by Loeguire son of Niall [i.e. by the King of Tara].
A.D. 458. The battle of Áth Dara. Loeguire, king of Tara, is defeated by the Leinstermen and taken prisoner.
A.D. 464. Leinstermen win the battle of Ard Corann.
A.D. 473. Ailill Molt defeats the Leinstermen at Brí Éile. Ailill was king of Tara at this time. Brí Éile was in the kingdom of Meath.
A.D. 474. The Leinstermen defeat Ailill Molt at Dumha Aichir.
A.D. 486. Battle of Granard. Finchath, a Leinster king, was defeated and slain. The sept of Cairbre, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, was victorious. This sept held territory around Granard, and they were therefore resisting invasion by the Leinster king.
A.D. 487. Battle of Gráine in Kildare. Muirchertach, king of the Northern Ui Néill, defeats the Leinstermen.
A.D. 494. Battle of Tailltiu (=Teltown, near Navan). The Leinstermen are defeated by the sept of Cairbre, son of Niall.
A.D. 498. Battle of Inne Mór in Kildare. Leinstermen defeated by Muirchertach, king of the Northern Ui Néill.
A.D. 499. Battle of Slemain, in Westmeath. Leinstermen defeated by the sept of Cairbre, son of Niall.
A.D. 501. Battle of Cenn Ailbe in Kildare. Leinstermen defeated by the sept of Cairbre.
A.D. 503. Battle of Druim Lochmhuidhe. The Ui Néill defeated by the Leinstermen.
A.D. 510. Battle of Fremu, in Westmeath. The Leinstermen are victorious over the sept of Fiacha, son of Niall.
A.D. 517. Battle of Druim Derge. The Leinstermen are defeated by the sept of Fiacha. This was regarded as the final and decisive battle, which forced the Leinstermen to relinquish their attempts to recover the lost territory in Meath. “By it the plain of Meath was lost and won,” says the poet-historian Cenn Faelad in the following century.
Thus we see that the Leinstermen maintained a prolonged struggle to recover possession of the midland country that belonged to them under the Pentarchy when a Leinster king reigned in Tara. There are no recorded particulars of this struggle before the year 452, but from that date onward, during two-thirds of a century, fourteen battles were fought on one side or other of the border. In four of these battles, the Leinstermen were victorious. The septs of Cairbre and Fiacha, which appear so prominently in the defence of the conquered territory, were among those descendants of Niall who were settled in the lordship of lands in Meath. One Leinster dynastic sept continued to hold its territory in Meath, in submission to the new rulers. It is known by the name of Fir Tulach, “Men of the Mounds,” and the name is perpetuated in that of the barony of Fartullagh in Westmeath.
While this struggle was going on, another event took place, which is marked as an epoch in Irish history by the ancient annals. The event is thus related:
A.D. 483. The battle of Ocha, in which Ailill Molt fell, was won by Luguid son of Loeguire and Muirchertach MacErca. From Conchobhar MacNessa to Cormac son of Art, 308 years. From Cormac to this battle, 206 years.
This summing of years in the old chronicle is in direct imitation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, upon which the Irish chronicle was founded. In Eusebius, or at all events in St. Jerome’s Latin translation—for the original Greek chronicle now exists only in fragments—it is customary to divide the course of history by epochs connected with great events. As each of these epochs is reached, a summary of the years between all the preceding epochs is set out. Hence we see that the chronicler from whom this entry is taken—his name is Cuanu—had in his mind three principal epochs of Irish history. The first was the reign of Conchobhar MacNessa, the celebrated king of Ulster. The second was the reign of Cormac. The third was the battle of Ocha.
The epoch of Conchobhar MacNessa in the chronicle is interesting as a further proof of the primacy, so to speak, which the Ulster hero-tales acquired in the earliest age of our written literature.
The reign of Cormac is an epoch, because, as I have shown in the fourth lecture, it is associated with the dissolution of the Pentarchy, the annexation of Tara to the realm of Connacht and Uisneach, and the definite beginnings of the Monarchy.
What then is the epochal significance of the battle of Ocha, in which Ailill Molt, king of Ireland, is defeated and slain, and Luguid son of Loeguire and his cousin MacErca, king of the Northern Ui Néill, are the victors?
Ailill Molt was son of Nath-Í, that king of Ireland who died somewhere on the Continent, whither he had led an expedition in 429, and whose body was brought back to Ireland by his men and buried at Cruachain in the ancient cemetery of the kings of Connacht. Nath-Í, who succeeded Niall of the Nine Hostages, was the son of Niall’s brother Fiachra, whose descendants were settled in Fiachra’s Lands in the north-west and south-west of Connacht. The line of Fiachra was closely associated with Connacht and had no settlement elsewhere. At this period, the line of Fiachra alternated with the line of his brother Brión in the succession to the kingship of Connacht, until, by the operation of a law of succession which I shall have to describe in a later lecture, the descendants of Brión obtained exclusive possession of the kingship. Thus, Ailill Molt, who was cut off in the battle of Ocha, in 483, may be described as a king of Ireland from Connacht.
Who were the victors in the Battle of Ocha? They were Luguid, son of Loeguire, son of Niall, and Muirchertach, grandson of Eoghan, son of Niall. Luguid, son of Loeguire, thereupon became king of Ireland. His ally in the battle, Muirchertach, appears from this time forth at the head of the Northern Ui Néill, he is king of Aileach. Luguid, since he succeeded to the monarchy, must have been at the time recognised head of the Southern Ui Néill, his patrimony being in Meath. Consequently, this battle is the outcome of a combination of the Ui Néill, north and south, whose lands are outside of Connacht, against their kinsfolk, whose lands are in Connacht. From this date, 483, until the eleventh century, no king from Connacht became monarch of Ireland, and the monarchy remained in the exclusive possession of the Northern and Southern Ui Néill. That is why the battle of Ocha is marked as an epoch by the ancient chronicler.
The line of Niall in like manner is excluded from the kingship of Connacht, which had been held by Niall himself and by his son Loeguire, before they became kings of Tara. Henceforth there is no longer a joint dynasty of Connacht and Meath.
The clue to the main path of Irish history during the partly obscure period of the first five centuries of the Christian era is the gradual expansion of the power of the Connacht dynasty over northern Ireland from the occupation of Uisneach until this year 483, when expansion reached the point of rupture. To trace this process and the concurrent or partly concurrent growth of the Eoghanacht power in Munster, has been the matter of my fourth, fifth, and sixth lectures. It is evident that the chronicler Cuanu, who wrote early in the eighth century, had some such general view before his mind of the history of this period based on the traditions and records known to him. His three epochs stand good as bearings for our guidance—first, the Pentarchy at the height of its traditional celebrity; second, the extension of the Connacht power to Tara, and the rise of the monarchy; and third, the disconnection of Connacht from Tara and the monarchy, and the dominant position acquired by the line of Niall. The old chronicler, with his three epochs, saw something more in the dim morning twilight of those centuries than a procession of names and dates and disconnected anecdotes. He saw something of a story with its sequence, a drama in three acts; and we are entitled to share in his satisfaction.