The Ulster Kingdoms: 9 – Trian Congal (Belfast)

The Annals of the Four Masters record  that in 665 AD, the Battle of Farset (Belfast) took place between the County Down Dal Fiatach, self styled Ulaid, and the Pretani or Cruthin where Cathasach, son of Laircine, was slain. This was an attempt by the Dal Fiatach 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 story of Congal Cláen has a bearing on another aspect of Irish history — the question of the ‘high-kingship’ of Ireland. Late seventh century writers claimed that the “Uí Néill” had held the high-kingship of Ireland for many centuries. Yet in the study of that early period of Irish history little evidence is found of a centralised monarchy. Indeed, at any given time between the fifth and twelfth centuries there were probably no less than 150 tribal kings throughout the island.

Francis Byrne has commented: “In later ages this multiplication of monarchies caused some embarrassment to patriotic Irishmen who had been brought up to believe in the glories of the high-kingship centred in Tara… The title ard-rí… has no precise significance, and does not necessarily imply sovereignty of Ireland… It is now evident that Niall and his descendants for many centuries can in no real sense be described as high-kings of Ireland. The claims made for them… must be discounted as partisan: few other contemporary documents show special deference being afforded to the “Uí Néill” outside their own sphere of influence, and the laws do not even envisage the office of high-king of Ireland.”Ironically, the only reference to Tara throughout all the Old Irish legal tracts concerns, not a member of the Uí Néill dynasty, but Congal Cl¡en of the Cruthin. Bechbretha, an eighth century law tract, details, among many other matters, how blame should be apportioned for bee stings, stating the following:

“If it be an eye which it has blinded, it is then that it (the injury) requires the casting of lots on all the hives; whichever of the hives it falls upon is forfeit for its (the bee’s) offence. For this is the first judgement which was passed with regard to the offences of bees on Congal the One-eyed, whom bees blinded in one eye. And he was king of Tara until [this] put him from his kingship.” The matter of Congal losing the high-kingship refers to the prohibition on anyone with a blemish holding this position.

As Francis Byrne comments: “This is the only reference in the law-tracts to Tara (and) it runs directly contrary to the accepted doctrine that it was a monopoly of the Uí Néill… When we remember that the Ulaid and Cruthin were still powerful in County Londonderry and possibly still ruled directly in Louth as far as the Boyne in the early seventh century; that they cherished memories of their former dominance over all the North; that they considered the Uí Néill recent upstarts… it is not difficult to imagine that they could with some justice lay claim to Tara.”

However, whatever arguments the Ulstermen could have produced to support such a claim were immaterial after 637. The Battle of Moira effectively put an end to any hopes they might have harboured that they could undo the “Uí Néill” gains. For although the Ulstermen were still to retain their independence in the east of the province for another 500 years, the Uí Néill were now firmly entrenched as the dominant power in the North.

As well as their continued victories against the Ulstermen — the Ulaid suffered a severe defeat at Fochairt near Dundalk in 735 — the “Uí Néill” also continued to encroach upon the territory held by the Airgialla in the centre of the ancient province. It was probably their alarm at this continuing advance which explains why the Ulstermen fought alongside the Airgialla at the battle of Leth Cam (near Armagh) in 827, in which the “Uí Néill” emerged victorious yet again, with many kings of the Airgialla being slain. Whatever autonomy had been held by the Airgialla was now destroyed and their kings became mere vassals of the “Uí Néill”.

Despite these reverses, the Ulstermen were still determined to resist, and in 1004 another great battle was fought at Cráeb Tulcha (Crew Hill Glenavy), in which the Cruthin king, the Ulaid king, and many princes of Ulster, were killed — indeed, complete disaster was possibly only averted because the victorious “Uí Néill” king was also one of the fatalities. The Annals of Ulster thus record the event:

The battle of Craebh-telcha, between the Ulidians and Cinel-Eoghain, where the Ulidians were defeated, and Eochaid, son of Ardgar, King of Ulidia, and Dubhtuinne his brother, and his two sons, viz., Cuduiligh and Domnall, were slain, and a havoc was made of the army besides, between good and bad, viz., Gairbhith, King of Uí-Echach (Iveagh), and Gilla Patraic son of Tomaltach, and Cumuscach son of Flathroe, and Dubhslanga son of Aedh, and Cathalan son of Etroch, and Conene son of Muirchertach, and the elect of the Ulidians besides. And the fighting extended to Dun-Echdach, and to Druim-bó. There also fell there Aedh, son of Domnall Ua Neill, King of Ailech, (and others, in the 29th year of his age, and the 10th year of [his] reign). But the Cinel-Eoghain say that he was killed by themselves. Donnchad Ua Loingsigh, King of Dal nAraidi (Dalaradia), was treacherously killed by the Cinel-Eoghain.

No doubt many of the original peoples of Ulster remained in the territories now dominated by the “Uí Néill” overlords, but their former dynastic leaders from within the Cruthin and the Ulaid were confined to that area which today comprises counties Antrim, Down and north Louth. Yet, so long as these Ulster kingships endured, no matter how reduced might be the realm over which their suzerainty could lay claim, the “Uí Néill” could never call themselves kings of Ulster. Cruthin and Ulaid kings shared in the high-kingship of this reduced Ulster, though at times the strains within the alliance would lead to open warfare (it was a battle between the Cruthin and Ulaid, recorded in the Annals of Ulster as having been fought at the ‘Fearsat’ in 667 which gave Belfast its first mention in history). The independent territories became known by the names of the ruling dynasties, prefixed by the term in Gaelic for ‘a portion’ —‘Dál’ (Gaelic by now being the dominant language throughout Ireland).

Within the Ulaid the dominant dynasty were the Dál Fiatach, who ruled over the maritime areas between Dundrum Bay and Belfast Lough, with the centre of their power established at Downpatrick. Another grouping, the Dál Riata, held territory in the north-eastern part of Antrim, called Dalriada.

It was, however, the Cruthin who formed the bulk of the population, and their territories comprised the remainder of the area of Antrim and Down, although for some time after the initial “Uí Néill” advances they had managed to retain their hold on territory northwards to Lough Foyle and southwards to Dundalk Bay. There is evidence of the existence of from seven to nine petty kingdoms of the Cruthin around the sixth century. Their main dynasty was the Dál nAraidi, and the area they ruled over became known in English as Dalaradia (not to be confused with Dalriada in the north-east). The kings of Dál nAraidi resided at Ráth Mor, where a ringfort remains to this day, just east of Antrim town. Another group within the Cruthin who also provided over-kings of Ulster were the Uí Echach Cobo, who inhabited the present baronies of Upper and Lower Iveagh and Kinelarty.


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