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Irish of Ulster (1455-89): a to 2010. She is author of ... · PDF file in Gaelic Ireland from the thirteenth to the fifteenth Dr Mary Katherine Simms delivered this lecture Henry O’Neill,

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  • Henry O’Neill, Prince of the

    Irish of Ulster (1455-89): a

    missed opportunity?

    MARY KATHARINE SIMMS Lecturer in Medieval History

    Dr Katharine Simms is a Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College

    Dublin, where she was a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History

    to 2010. She is author of From Kings to Warlords: the

    Changing Political Structure of Gaelic Ireland in the Later

    Middle Ages, and Medieval Gaelic Sources together with

    numerous articles on the kings, clerics and learned classes

    in Gaelic Ireland from the thirteenth to the fifteenth


    Dr Mary Katherine Simms delivered this lecture Henry

    O’Neill, Prince of the Irish of Ulster (1455-89): a missed

    opportunity? At the first Mid Ulster Study visit in September


    This following is the text of her lecture with a short list of

    suggested further reading.

    Dr Simms retains copyright and no content within can be

    copied, abbreviated, altered or used in any way without

    her prior approval which can be sought through the

    project coordinator.

  • 1) Origins of the Northern Uí Néill

    The term ‘Uí Néill’ was used in the early middle ages to describe a group

    of related royal dynasties ruling a series of kingdoms in West Ulster and

    the midlands of Ireland from about the fifth century into the high middle

    ages. They styled whichever of their number emerged as the most

    powerful king among them in each generation as ‘king’ or ‘highking of

    Tara’, and sometimes ‘king of Ireland’, though in reality this meant no

    more than the most powerful king in Ireland.

    In recent years geneticists have discovered that something like a fifth of

    the population in the north-west of Ireland, including Sligo, Donegal and

    Tyrone, O’Donnells, O’Dohertys, O’Devlins, O’Donnellys, MacLaughlins

    and so on, are actually descended in the male line from a single ancestor

    who lived about 400 A.D. This ancestor had a distinctive twist to his DNA

    which was passed on in the male line via the Y-chromosome. The publicity

    surrounding this discovery identified the ancestor figure as Niall of the

    Nine Hostages (Niall Noígiallach), reputed forefather of all the Uí Néill

    dynasties in the north and midlands, who may have flourished in the late

    fourth or early fifth century A.D. Since, however the same distinctive DNA

    signature is also found among O’Rourkes, O’Reillys and some O’Conors,

    the origin of the mutation may go back at least as far as Niall’s legendary

    father, King Echaid Muigmedón (‘Lord of the Slaves’), identified by the

    medieval genealogists as the common ancestor of both the Uí Néill of the

    north and midland kingdoms, and the Uí Briúin royal dynasty of Connacht,

    through Niall’s elder brother Brión.

    From this scientific finding, first published in the American Journal of

    Human Genetics in 2006, it is possible to argue that the legendary account

    of the origins of the northern Uí Néill may have a good deal of truth in it.

    According to legend three sons of King Niall of the Nine Hostages, princes

    from the royal line of Connacht, invaded Ulster by way of the pass below

    Ben Bulben mountain in Sligo a century or so before the arrival of St

    Patrick, at a time when the province of Ulster was still ruled by the Ulaid,

    a people based in Eastern Ulster, who dominated the mid-Ulster group of

    smaller tribes known as the Airgialla.

    Ulster in 6th century from Liam de Paor St Patrick’s World, p. 292

    The story goes that the eldest brother was Conall, who founded the kingdom of Tír Conaill,

    that is, all Donegal except the peninsula of Inishowen (Inis Eógain), while his younger

    brother Eógan took possession of Inishowen itself. Although later tales show these two, and

    a third brother Enda, defeating the Ulaid in a series of great battles and conquering all Ulster

    in their own lifetime, earlier sources give a different picture of gradual expansion over time.

    The Annals of Ulster, and Adomnán’s Life of Columba, record a great battle fought in 563

    between rival groups of the Ulaid themselves, at Móin Doire Lothair in north Derry. The

    winning side in this civil war had employed Cenél Conaill and Cenél Eógain as mercenary

    soldiers, Cenél meaning the kindred, or descendants of the princes Conall and Eógan. The

    victorious ‘Cruthin’ (Irish Picts) kings of Ulaid rewarded Cenél Eógain with lands in north

    Derry, Ard Eolargg and Fir Lí, that is lands from Magilligan’s Point to the banks of the Lower

    Bann, the first time that Cenél Eógain had spread beyond the peninsula of Inishowen itself.

  • This began a major change in the balance of power. Up to then the Cenél Conaill,

    had dominated the Northern Uí Néill, ruling three cantreds of Tír Conaill, while

    Cenél Eogain had only one cantred in Inishowen. Cenél Conaill were still in the

    lead a hundred years later when King Domnall mac Áeda meic Ainmirech, a cousin

    of St Columba, who was king of Cenél Conaill, and over-king of the Uí Néill group

    of kingdoms, finally defeated the Ulaid at the battle of Mag Roth or Moira, Co.

    Down in 637 A.D., permanently confining them to the Antrim-Down area

    henceforward, after which the annals call Domnall ‘King of Ireland’, (rí Érenn)

    though his power would have been limited to the north and midlands, including

    the symbolic site of Tara, settled by the kindred princes of the southern Uí Néill.

    However, as the descendants of Eógan began to extend their power southwards

    from the north coast of Derry to conquer and colonise the Airgialla in mid-Ulster,

    re-naming the area Tír Eógain (Tyrone) as against the Tír Conaill

    (Tyrconnell/Donegal) of the Cenél Conaill dynasty, they ended up in possession

    of a larger, more fertile kingdom than the Cenél Conaill, with much closer access

    to the even more fertile midlands of Meath and Westmeath, where the other

    branches of the Uí Néill were prepared to acknowledge the overkingship of the

    kings of Cenél Eógain as alternating in the highkingship of Tara with their own


    Diagram showing alternating highkingship between the

    kings of Meath and Tír Eógain

    The Cenél Conaill found themselves boxed into Donegal, deprived of the over-

    kingship and subject to constant attempts from the kings of Cenél Eógain to

    conquer and dominate them, which they as constantly resisted. The mountainous

    nature of Donegal made their heartland almost impossible to conquer. Moreover

    the most powerful kings of Cenél Conaill were able to compensate themselves to

    some extent by spreading their authority south of BenBulben into Carbury

    Drumcliff in north Sligo as far as Ballysadare Bay.

    2) The rise of modern surnames and the Anglo-Norman invasion

    The Ulster surnames we are familiar with today developed gradually between the

    tenth and twelfth centuries, and at this point it must be made quite clear that

    whereas the whole federation of Uí Néill dynasties north and south took their

    dynastic appellation from their fourth or fifth-century forefather, Niall of the Nine

    Hostages (Niall Noígiallach), the medieval O’Neills traced themselves to a more

    modern ancestor, Niall Glúndub or Black-knee, king of Cenél Eógain and high-king

    of Tara, who died in 919. His grandson, the high-king Domnall of Armagh who

    died in 980 was the first to call himself Domnall Ua Néill, or Domnall grandson of

    Niall (see diagram above). The first O’Donnell to use their surname was King

    Cathbarr Ua Domnaill (d. 1106), a local king of Cenél Luigdech near Kilmacrenan,

    whose name is inscribed as patron on the shrine of the Cathach of St Columba.

    It was not until 1200 that Éiccnechán O’Donnell became the first of his surname

    to rule all Tír Conaill, overcoming the claims of the older established royal families

    of O’Cannon and Dorrian (Ó Canannáin and Ó Máeldoraid). It was also around

    1200 that Áed Méith O’Neill rose to be king of Tír Eógain in defiance of the claims

    of his distant kinsmen, the MacLaughlins of Inishowen. By this date Anglo-

    Norman barons had invaded Ireland in 1169, followed by King Henry II’s

    establishment of a lordship there 1171-5. Eastern Ulster (Ulaid) had been

    conquered in 1177 by the baron John de Courcy, and elevated to an earldom for

    Hugh de Lacy the younger in 1205. However the two newly established O’Donnell

    and O’Neill kings cooperated successfully to resist the attempts of Bishop Grey,

  • deputy of King John of England, to complete the conquest of Ulster between 1211 and 1214.

    As fast as he built motte and bailey castles round the borders of Ulster they demolished


    The unspoken price for this cooperation from the O’Donnells was the transfer of

    all lands west of the Mourne/Foyle river, that is the peninsula of Inishowen and the Finn

    Valley, to Tír Conaill, and this claim was to be resisted by the O’Neills for centuries, leading

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