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Drawing by Albrecht Dürer of Irish soldiers.

Niall of the Nine Hostages, One of the Most Fruitful Kings in History

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Niall Noígíallach or Niall of the Nine Hostages in English, was an Irish king believed to have lived during the 4th / 5th century.  The Uí Néill dynasties, which dominated the northern part of Ireland between the 6th and 10th centuries, claim descent from him. It is assumed that Niall was a real person, though much of the information preserved about him is legendary in nature, thus blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Perhaps the most tangible evidence of Niall’s existence is his estimated two or three million descendants who live around the world today, a figure obtained from genetic research.

The Irish annals and chronicles date Niall Noígíallach’s reign to between the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Modern scholars, on the other hand, have suggested that Niall actually reigned about half a century later than the sources report. In any case, Niall is recorded to have been the son of Eochaid Mugmedón, the High King of Ireland (this title, however, is anachronistic, as the High Kingship only became a reality much later during the 9 th century). The Irish king’s first wife was Mongfind and together they had four sons. Niall’s mother was the king’s second wife, Cairenn Chasdub, the daughter of Sachell Balb a Saxon king.

Hill of Tara - monument honoring the High Kings of Ireland. (JohnJDuncan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hill of Tara - monument honoring the High Kings of Ireland. (JohnJDuncan / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Abandoned At Birth

When Cairenn was pregnant with Niall, she was forced by Mongfind to carry water from the well, hoping that the heavy work would cause her to miscarry. Mongfind’s plan, however, did not work and Cairenn gave birth one day while on her way to the well. She left the baby on the grass and continued her chore, drawing the water and bringing the filled buckets back home. Cairenn did not return for her child, nor did anyone dare to pick it up, for fear of the queen. Eventually, a poet by the name of Torna came along, recognized that the baby would become a great king and took the child. Torna named the baby Niall and raised him in secret.

When Niall was old enough, Torna brought him back to Tara, the seat of the High Kingship, so as to reclaim his heritage. After all these years Cairenn was still forced to carry water. When her son saw this, he told her to drop the buckets, took her inside, dressed her in purple robes, and placed her on a high seat. No doubt, Mongfind was furious when she heard this, but the king was delighted to hear of his son’s return. Mongfind tried to ensure that one of her sons would be heir to the throne, but she failed to do so, and Niall eventually succeeded his father as king.

When Niall returned his mother was still forced to carry water. He dressed her in purple robes and placed her on a high seat. (cindygoff / Adobe)

When Niall returned his mother was still forced to carry water. He dressed her in purple robes and placed her on a high seat. ( cindygoff / Adobe)

Niall As King

As king, Niall fought many wars against his neighbors, defeated them, and brought them under his control. In order to ensure peace, Niall took hostages from each of the areas he conquered. According to one version of the story, Niall took hostages from the five provinces of Ireland (Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Meath), from the Scots, the Saxons, the Britons, and the Franks. As the number of hostages was nine, Niall earned the epithet ‘of the Nine Hostages’. Another version of the story states that Saint Patrick was one of Niall’s hostages.

Niall’s story becomes rather confusing towards the end. Although there is much disagreement between the various sources, they all agree that Niall died outside of Ireland, and that he was killed by Eochaid, the son of Énnae Cennsalach, King of Leinster. In one version of the tale, Niall was fighting against the Romans. His campaign brought him as far as the Alps and the Romans sent an ambassador to negotiate for peace. In the next instance, however, Niall was in Scotland before an assembly of Pictish bards, where he was killed by an arrow fired from across the valley by Eochaid.

Kingdoms of Ireland. (ZyMOS / Public Domain)

Kingdoms of Ireland. (ZyMOS / Public Domain )

The jumble between fact and fiction has certainly cast doubts on the existence of Niall. It is likely that he was a historical figure, though various legends were added to his story by those who wrote about his life. A genetic study done in recent times has provided support for the existence of Niall.

Niall’s Descendants

A very common Irish surname is O’Neill (Ui Neill in Gaelic), meaning ‘descendant son of Niall’. A team of geneticists at Trinity College, Dublin surveyed the DNA, in particular the Y-chromosome of 60 Irishmen. The researchers found that a small number of Y-chromosome types predominate in Ireland. One of these types was found to be very common, i.e. one in five men, in the northwest, an area which coincides with the ancestral seat of the Ui Neill family. By extrapolating the data, the researchers estimated that there are two or three million men in the world today with the same Y-chromosome. It seems that all these people are the descendants of a single male ancestor, Niall of the Nine Hostages being a plausible candidate.

Irish Gaels, possibly descendants of Niall. (Иван Дулин / Public Domain)

Irish Gaels, possibly descendants of Niall. (Иван Дулин / Public Domain )

Top image: Drawing by Albrecht Dürer of Irish soldiers. Source: Dżogobella / Public Domain .

By Wu Mingren

References

bardmythologies.com, 2019. Niall of the Nine Hostages. [Online] Available at: http://bardmythologies.com/niall-of-the-nine-hostages/
Curious Ireland, 2019. Niall of the Nine Hostages (c.370 – 450 a.d) Ireland’s great King with millions of decendants. [Online] Available at: http://curiousireland.ie/niall-of-the-9-hostages-c-370-450/
IrishCentralStaff, 2017. Three million people in the world are descended from one Irish High King. [Online] Available at: https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/niall-took-no-hostages-43038522-237784201
McLysaght, A., 2014. The genetic imprint of Niall of the Nine Hostages. [Online] Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-genetic-imprint-of-niall-of-the-nine-hostages-1.1771373
New World Encyclopedia, 2008. Niall of the Nine Hostages. [Online] Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Niall_of_the_Nine_Hostages
Wade, N., 2006. If Irish Claim Nobility, Science May Approve. [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/18/science/if-irish-claim-nobilityscience-may-approve.html
www.yourirish.com, 2015. Niall Of The Nine Hostages. [Online] Available at: https://www.yourirish.com/history/ancient/niall-of-nine-hostages

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