Millions of people around the world today are descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the legendary 5th century A.D. High King of Ireland. Wherever the Irish have settled, also live King Niall’s posterity. Niall was a wise, stout and warlike man, fortunate in all his achievements and conquests, and was therefore called “Mór“ (meaning “Great”). He was also called “Niall Naoi-Ghiallach”, meaning “Niall of the Nine Hostages”, from the nine royal hostages held by him from lands and peoples that he had conquered and made tributary: Munster; Leinster; Connacht; Ulster; Britain; the Picts; the Dal Riada; the Saxons and the Morini (a people of France near Calais and Piccardy).
Niall was the son of Eochaid Mugmedón, King of Tara, and Carthan Cais Dubh (also known as Carinna, who was supposedly the daughter of the Celtic King of Britain). According to legend:
“Young Niall had to survive the malice of his wicked stepmother, Mongfhinn, who left him naked upon a hillside to die. He was found and raised by a wandering bard named Torna Eices. In a prophecy, “Sithchenn the Smith” foretold that Niall would eventually become High King. As a young man, Niall encountered an old hag, who demanded that he and his companions give her a kiss; only Niall had the courage to do so; then the hag turned into a beautiful woman named Flaithius (Royalty), the personification of sovereignty and then prophesied that Niall would become the greatest of Ireland’s High Kings.”
Niall succeeded his uncle Crimthann to become the 126thHigh King of Ireland. The Irish Annals of the Four Masters states that “Niall began to reign in 379. He was not only the paramount king of Ireland, but one of the most powerful to ever hold that office, and was therefore one of the few Irish kings able to mobilize great forces for foreign expeditions.” Niall travelled to Scotland in order to extend his power and to obtain alliances with the Scots and Picts. He supposedly organized the Dal Riada, which became the name for this conglomeration of Irish, Scots and Picts. He marched to Laegria and sent a fleet to Armorica (France) to plunder. Keating, in his History of Ireland, states that “St. Patrick was brought as a captive to Ireland in the ninth year in the reign of Niall” while Niall was on a raiding expedition to Scotland and France. An Irish fleet went to the place where Patrick (then age 16 and known as Mewyn Succat) lived and, as was the custom of Irish raiders, brought a large number of hostages back to Ireland with them, including Patrick, his two sisters, Lupida and Daererca and approximately 200 other children.
Niall married twice. His first queen was Inne, the daughter of Luighdheach; and his second queen was Roigneach. Niall had at least twelve sons:
- Eoghan- who gave his name to the kingdom of Tir Eoghain (Tyrone), ancestor of the O’Cahan, O’Cane, O’Daly, O’Crean, Grogan, O’Carolan, O’Gormley and O’Luinigh. Eoghan was baptized by St. Patrick at the Grianan Aileach, and his foot was pierced by the Bacchal Iosa during the ceremony. Eoghain’s son and heir Muireadach (Murray) married Earca, daughter of King Loarn of Dal Riada in Scotland, and by her had many sons and daughters; one of whom was Fergus Mór Mac Earca. From this Fergus Mór descended the kings of Scotland, and through his descendant Queen Matilda, the kings of England, including the royal houses of Plantagenet and Stuart.
- Laeghaire(Leary) – the 128thHigh King, in the 4th year of whose reign St. Patrick returned to Ireland to spread the Christian faith in A.D. 432;
- Conall Crimthann- ancestor of the O’Melaghlin kings of Meath;
- Conall Gulban- ancestor of the O’Donnell princes, lords, and earls of the territory of Tirconnell (Donegal), and of the O’Boyle, O’Dogherty and O’Gallagher;
- Fiacha- ancestor of the O’Molloy, O’Donechar and Donaher (Dooner), and for whom the territory from Birr to the Hill of Uisneach in Meath is called “Cineal Fiacha” and ancestor of the MacGeoghagan lords of that territory;
- Main- whose patrimony was all the land from Lochree to Loch Annin, near Mullingar, and from whom are descended the Fox lords of the Muintir Tagan territory, the MacGawley, O’Dugan, O’Mulchonry and O’Henergy;
- Cairbre- ancestor of the O’Flanagan of Tua Ratha and “Muintir Cathalan” (Cahill);
- Fergus- ancestor of the “Cineal Fergusa” (Ferguson) and O’Hagan;
- Ualdhearg; and
- Fergus Altleathan.
During his long reign, High King Niall pillaged Wales, Scotland, England and France. Irish annalist Keating stated that “Niall having taken many captives returned to Ireland and proceeded to assemble additional forces and sent word to the chief of the Dal Riada, requesting him to follow with all his host to France.” Niall set out on this new adventure with Gabhran, chief of the Dal Riada, to plunder France. Also with this group was Eochaida (son of Enna Cinsalach, King of Leinster), who had been banished from Leinster, and who had ambitions to replace Niall as the next High King of Ireland. Niall marched with his victorious army of Irish, Scots, Picts, and Britons into France, in order to aid the Celtic natives expel the Roman Legions, and to conquer that portion of the Roman Empire. Encamped on the River Leor (now called the Lianne) near Boulogne-sur-mer in 405 A.D., as Niall sat by the riverside, he was assassinated by Eochaida, supposedly in revenge for some “wrong” done to him by Niall. The spot on the River Lianne where Niall was murdered is still called the “Ford of Niall.” Niall had been High King of Ireland for twenty-seven years. He played an important role in breaking Roman power in Britain and France. Keating states that “Wales ceased to be controlled by the central government from 380-400 due to Niall.”
Niall died a pagan, but after the spread of Christianity in Ireland, his descendants (the Uí Néill) became foremost in promoting and endowing the early Christian Church in Ireland; and nearly 300 of them were canonized as saints. He was the founding ancestor of the great Uí Néill (O’Neill) royal dynasty that would control most of Ireland for the next 1200 years as kings, chieftains, earls, abbots and bishops. For nearly 700 years, the Uí Néill stronghold was the Grianan Aileach, a massive ring fort still standing atop Greenan Mountain, five miles west of modern day Londonderry (Derry).
Curiously, part of Niall’s story occurred in England in 1919. That year, archeologists discovered a hoard of Roman silver, dating from Emperor Valens (365-378 A.D.) to the early reign of Emperor Honorius (395-423 A.D.). This find was comparable to 1,506 Roman silver coins from a 1854 excavation in County Londonderry, which dated from the reign of Emperors Constantius II to Honorius. The hoard created great debate among English historians as to how these coins came to be in England. These and other hoards had coins from earlier times up to Honorius, but none beyond. There were approximately 13 finds altogether. Who brought these coins to England and Northern Ireland? After Roman Emperor Theodosius I died, Franks, Saxons, Picts, Scots and Irish began to sack the European Continent. Honorius eventually succeeded his father Theodosius as Roman Emperor and then sent the Roman legions, under the command of the Vandal Stilcho north to deal with the raiders. Stilcho was successful in putting down raiders on the Continent, but he could not stop the raiders coming from Ireland. The Roman historian Claudian makes it clear that “the most formidable onslaught had come from Ireland under one powerful leader acting in co-operation with the Picts and Saxons.” Professor Sir William Ridgeway stated that the coins found in the excavations mentioned above were brought back by Niall’s companions after his death and buried. The interest created by the coin hoards helped uncover much that is now known about Niall.
Even 1600 years after the assassination of King Niall, a surprisingly large percentage of the population of northern and western Ireland remain his posterity.
A study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics(February 2006 issue),conducted at Trinity College Dublin, revealed that a striking percentage of men in Ireland and Scotland share the same chromosome, suggesting that one in twelve Irishmen are descendants of Niall. In this study of the Y chromosome, which is passed down only through the male line, scientists found a hotspot in northwest Ireland where 21.5% of the male population carry Niall’s genetic fingerprint, says Brian McEvoy, member of the research team at Trinity College. This hotspot coincides with the historic stronghold of the Uí Néill. “The Y chromosome in question appears to trace back to just one person” says McEvoy. “There are certain surnames that seem to have come from the Uí Néill. We studied the association between those surnames and the genetic profile. It is his (Niall’s) family.”
Modern surnames tracing their ancestry back to Niall include (but are not limited to) (O’)Boyle, Bradley, (O’)Cahan, Campbell, (O’)Cane, Cannon, (O’)Carolan, (O’)Connor, (O’)Crean, (O’)Daly, (O’)Devlin, (O’)Dogherty, (O’)Donaher (Dooner), (O’)Donechar, (O’)Donnell, (O’)Dugan, Ferguson, (O’)Flanagan, (O’)Flynn, (Mc)Kee, (O’)Donnelly, Egan, (O’)Gallagher, (Mc)Gawley, (O’)Gormley, (Mc)Geoghagan, Grogan, (O’)Hagan (O’)Henergy, Hynes, (O’)Kane, (O’)Lunney, (Mc)Caul, (Mc)Caully, (Mc)Govern, (Mc)Loughlin, (Mc)Manus, (O’)Melaghlin, (Mc)Menamin, (O’)Molloy, (O’)Mulchonry, (O’)Neill, (O’)Reilly, (O’)Rourke and Quinn.
The study also confirmed the genealogical and oral traditions of Gaelic Ireland, and is a “powerful illustration of the potential link between prolificacy and power.” Though medieval Ireland was Christian, divorce was allowed, people married early and concubinage was practiced. Illegitimate sons were claimed by their fathers and their rights were protected by law. “As in other polygamous societies, the siring of offspring was related to power and prestige.” The study points out that one Uí Néill chieftain, who died in 1423, had 18 sons with 10 different women and counted 59 grandsons in his male line alone.
The “Niall” chromosome has also been found in 16.7% of men in western and central Scotland and has turned up in multiple North American population samples, including 2% of European-American New Yorkers. “Given historically high rates of Irish emigration to North America and other parts of the world, it seems likely that the number of descendants worldwide runs to perhaps two to three million males,” said the study.
The genetic signature of the Uí Néill can be found at www.ysearch.org: http://www.ysearch.org/research_comparative.asp?uid=G4EF6&vallist=M5UKQ
There is a Facebook page, Descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, at: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=21196410630