There is a lot of confusion over the life of Niall Noigiallach as historians have different theories on when he was born, died etc. It has been said that he was one of the High Kings of Ireland and that he reigned sometime at the end of the 4th century or the beginning of the 5th.
His name, Niall Noigiallach, is an Irish term meaning, Niall of the nine hostages.
Early life of Niall of the nine hostages
Niall was the only son of Euchaid Muighmedon, another Irish High King and his mother was Catharann, who was possibly the daughter of an English king. He was possibly born around 342AD.
Euchaid, had another wife named Mong-Fionn and they had four sons named Brian, Fiachra, Ailill and Fergus. Legend states that Mong-Fionn was extremely jealous of Niall as she wanted Brian to succeed to the throne and forced the young Niall to be outcast from the royal court and his mother, Catharann, to work as a servant.
What happens next in the life of young Niall is unclear but he returns to the court as a young man and is welcomed by his father. On his return the first thing Niall does is to have his mother reinstated to her rightful place in court.
Trials of Strength
Mong-Fionn is obviously angered by the return of Niall and demands that Euchaid choose his heir. Euchaid sets the boys some tests of strength and character and whoever succeeds will inherit the throne.
It is said that one of these tests involved the boys going out hunting, when they come across a hideous old hag guarding a well. She demands a kiss from them in return for water which sends Aillil and Fergus running for the hills. Only Brian and Niall remain, Brian gives the hag a quick peck on the cheek whereas Niall goes for it and kisses the hag passionately wherein the hag turns into a beautiful woman who is actually the Sovereignty of Ireland and she rewards Niall not only with the water but promises him, he, and twenty-six of his descendants will rule Ireland.
When Euchaid dies, Mong-Fionn arranges it that her brother, Crimthann, takes the throne until Brian is old enough to succeed but Crimthann decides to double-cross his sister and takes full control for himself. According to legend he is a very good king and reigns over Ireland for 20 years.
Niall’s Accession to the Throne
Niall’s accession to the throne possibly took place around 379AD. He earned his name, Niall of the nine hostages, by being able to subdue his enemies by taking members of their family and refusing to give them back until they admitted defeat.
The Picts tired of Nialls’ ways and attacked the small Lirsh colony of Dalriada, which is now Scotland.
Niall retaliated by going to Scotia Minor which was the land of the Picts, here he took royal hostages and refused to give them back, so the Picts were forced to admit defeat.
Next Niall and his Scot and Pict allies marched south and it was here that he took a youth by the name of Succat hostage and took him to Ireland. This was to have an enormous impact of the Irish for ever more, because that youth later was to become St. Patrick, who is now the patron Saint of Ireland.
Niall managed to take control over a northern part of Ireland and it was here that he created a dynasty that was to keep his descendants High Kings of Ireland for 600 years at the Hill of Tara.
Niall’s military abilities and well planned out attacks saw him lead the Irish into battles that saw them take control of Alba and a large part of Britain. He was responsible for damaging the tight control the Romans had on Britain and even managed to take control of some territories in France.
There is nothing set in stone as to when Niall died or even where. One source said that he died at sea but there is nothing concrete. He died around 405AD.
It has been said that Niall was not just prolific on the battlefield; genetic studies into D.N.A have said that 1 in 12 men are descendants of his.
Strange as this may sound his successor was not from his loins but was in fact his nephew, Dathis, who not only succeeded the throne but also managed to eclipse Niall’s greatness as a High King of Ireland.
This article was first published on 21-02-2010 and last modified on 25-10-2015.