In 627 AD Congal Claen or “One Eye,” a Prince of the Cruthin, became the Over-King of Ulster. He had ruled in Tara until his blinding by bees put him from his kingship as the king could not be physically infirm in any way. The following year Congal slew the High King of the “Ui Neill” and in 629 he strengthened his claim to the whole of Ulster by killing the King of Dalriada who was an ally of the “Ui Neill”. This resulted in the Battle of Dunceithirnn in Londonderry later that year, when the north-western Gaels under their new High King, Domnall, son of Hugh, defeated Congal and crushed the Cruthin. Congal was forced to flee to Scotland where he succeeded in reversing the Dalriadan (Epidian Cruthin) alliance with the “Ui Neill”.
On 24th June, 637 AD therefore was fought the famous Battle of Magh Rath (Moira) in County Down against Domnall, son of Hugh, by the allies of Ulster. Sadly, however, Congal was killed and Domnall Brecc (Freckled Donald), King of Dalriada, lost all his Ulster territories. In this way the “Ui Neill” consolidated their power in Ulster and the Cruthin further declined. One of the finest passages from the epic of the Belfast poet and antiquarian, Sir Samuel Ferguson, on Congal is the soliloquy of Ardan, the great friend of Congal, to his dead king following the battle.
“I stand alone,
Last wreck remaining of a power and order overthrown,
Much needing solace;
And, ah me!, not in the empty lore
Of bard or druid does my soul find peace or comfort more;
Nor in the bells or crooked staves nor sacrificial shows
Find I help my soul desires,
Or in the chants of those
Who claim our druids’ vacant place.
Alone and faint, I crave,
Oh, God, one ray of heavenly light to help me to the grave,
Such even as thou, dead Congal, hadst;
That so these eyes of mine
May look their last on earth and heaven with calmness such as thine.”
The grave of Congal Clane is unmarked today but surely his memory should be kept alive in Ulster for he was the last Cruthinic king to provide an effective opposition to the Gaels in the north of Ireland. Congal had fought above all others for the People of Cruthin. Bangor could only remain strong while the Cruthin remained strong and the complete defeat at the Battle of Moira signalled the inevitable decline of the Bangor monastery. Thus it was that the Cult of Patrick eventually moved from Connor in Dalaradia to Armagh. Abbot Comgall himself had once said that he also would pray only for the People of the Cruthin, his own people, but Comgall was no more. And then in 645 the great and gentle St. Gall died quietly beside the River Stinace.
The Annals further state that in 663 AD Segan, son of Uacuinn, died. Segan was described as being “a great physician of scripture.” Due to their great understanding and learning, coupled with a deep faith, the Bangor monks, particularly Columbanus himself, were accredited with the powers of healing, both of the body and of the soul. The word “medicum” (physician or healer) is the Latin equivalent of the Aramaic “Essene” and of the Greek “Therapeutae”, which exactly describe those communities in Palestine and Egypt upon which the true vine was ultimately modelled.
Dalaradia (Dál nAraidi in Gaelic)— which should not be confused with Dál Riata, Latinised as Dalriada –was a kingdom of the Cruthin (Cruithni in Gaelic) in the north-east of Ireland in the first and early second millennia. The lands of Dalaradia appear to correspond with the Robogdii of Ptolemy’s Geographia, a region shared with Dál Riata. Fiachu Araide was their eponymous founder. It was centred on the northern shores of Lough Neagh in mid and south-east Antrim and included modern Belfast. Its kings contended with the Dál Fiatach of North Down for the high-kingship of Ulster for some centuries. Belfast enters history at the Battle of Bel Feirste in 667 between the Ulidians of Dal Fiatach and the Cruthin, where Cathasach, son of Laircine, son of Congal Claen, was slain. This was an attempt by the Ulidians to encroach on the Cruthin territory of Trian Congail. the “third of Congal”, which encompassed territory on both sides of the Lagan, corresponding more or less to Upper and Lower Clandeboye, including modern Belfast. Cathasach was Congal’s grandson. The battle was the first mention of Belfast in Irish history.
The Bangor Antiphonary itself may be dated from Cronan, the last Abbot listed in the commemoration poem, who, according to the Annals, died on 6 November, 691 AD. Cronan was alive when the Antiphonary was written so that it follows that it can be dated some year between 680 and 691. The manuscript was given its present title “Antiphonarium Benchorense” by the great Italian scholar, Muratori. It remains the only important relic of the ancient monastery of Bangor and was taken from Bangor to Bobbio at some time between its composition and the plundering of the monastery by the Vikings in the ninth century.
Indirect evidence of the work of the Bangor monks, however, is found in early Christian ornamentation. Pictish artwork is strongly characterised by intricate network interlacing. This is apparent in ornamental stones found on the east coast of Scotland and England from Shetland to Durham and in parts of Ireland. Identical features are also found in the great contemporary illuminated gospels of Durrow, Lindesfarne and Kells. The Book of Durrow is named after the Columban foundation of Durrow near Tullamore in Offaly. It is generally regarded as having been made towards the end of the seventh century, perhaps in the 670s, and Cruthinic influence was outstanding.
But the finest surviving example of the Pictish art form lies in the Lindesfarne Gospels which were written in honour of St. Cuthbert by Eadfrith who was made Bishop of Lindesfarne in the year of our Lord 698. These were bound by Bishop Ethilward and ornamented by Bilfrith the anchorite. The great work was preserved with the body of the saint at Lindesfarne and then carried in flight before the fury of the Vikings. Having rested some years at Durham, it was finally returned to Lindesfarne Priory where it stayed until the Dissolution.
The Book of Kells is generally assigned to the early ninth century when it may have been written and illuminated by the scribes of Iona. Subsequently it was brought to Kells where it was known in the eleventh century as “The great gospel of Colum Cille (Columba).” There are many influences apparent in its design, notably the Coptic (Egyptian), Cruthinic (Pictish) and Celtic, all three of which were prominent in Bangor until its destruction. For example, Christ is symbolised by the Greek letters “Xp” (Chi Rho) in both the Book of Kells and the Bangor Antiphonary.
Yet because of its location on the shores of Belfast Lough the great monastery lay open to attack by the Vikings. They first came raiding in the year 810 AD and between 822 and 824 the tomb of Comgall was broken open, its costly ornaments seized and the bones of the great saint “shaken from their shrine.” St. Bernard related that on one day alone 900 monks were killed. It is unlikely that following this time the Laus Perennis was ever sung again