My watch list  

Niall of the Nine Hostages

Niall of the Nine Hostages (Irish: Niall Noigíallach) was a High King of Ireland who was active from the mid 4th century into the early 5th century. The date of his death, according to medieval Irish sources, is c. 405. He is said to have made raids on the coastlines of Britannia and Gaul. The roughly contemporary dates have lead some to suggest a link with the kidnapping of Saint Patrick as a youth.[citation needed]

The fifth and youngest son of Eochaid Mugmedon, an Irish High King, and Cairenn Chasdubh (curly black), the enslaved daughter of Sachell Balb (Sachell the stammerer), a British king, he was the eponymous ancestor, through his sons Conall Gulban, Endae, Eógan, Coirpre, Lóegaire, Maine of Tethba, Conall Cremthainne and Fiachu Fiachrach, of the Uí Néill dynasties.



The sources for the details of Niall's life are genealogies of historical kings; the "Roll of Kings" section of the Lebor Gabála Érenn; Irish annals such as the Annals of the Four Masters and chronicles such as Seathrún Céitinn's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn; and legendary tales like The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon and The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Early life

According to legend, Niall was the son of the High King Eochaid Mugmedon and his second wife, Cairenn, daughter of Sachell Balb, king of Britain in the year 385. When Cairenn became pregnant, Eochaid's first wife, Mongfind, was consumed with jealousy and made Cairenn do heavy work in the hope of forcing her to miscarry. Out of fear of Mongfind, Cairenn exposed her baby, but he was rescued and fostered by Torna the poet. Niall returned to Tara as an adult and rescued his mother from the heavy labour Mongfind had imposed on her.

Mongfind demanded that Eochaid name a successor, hoping it would be one of her sons. Eochaid gave the task to a druid, Sithchenn, who devised a contest between the brothers, shutting them in a burning forge, telling them to save what they could, and judging them based on the objects with which they emerged. Niall, who emerged carrying an anvil, was deemed greater than Brion, with a sledgehammer, Fiachrae with bellows and a pail of beer, Ailill with a chest of weapons, and Fergus with a bundle of wood. Mongfind refused to accept the decision.

Sithchenn made the five brothers weapons and they went out hunting. Each brother in turn went looking for water, and found a well guarded by a hideous hag who demanded a kiss in return for water. Fergus and Ailill refused and returned empty-handed. Fiachra gave her a peck, but not enough to satisfy her. Only Niall kissed her properly, and she was revealed as a beautiful maiden, the Sovereignty of Ireland. She granted Niall not only water but the kingship for many generations. Fiachra was granted a minor royal line. After that, Mongfind's sons deferred to Niall.

This "loathly lady" motif appears in myth and folklore throughout the world. Variations of this story are told of the earlier Irish High Kings Lugaid Laigde and Conn Cétchathach, and recur in Arthurian legend. One of the most famous versions appears in both Geoffrey Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale and the related Gawain romance, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. The "loathly lady" theme can also be found in the stories of Percival and the Holy Grail.

Another tale tells of Mongfind's attempt to poison Niall; she died after accidentally taking the poison herself.

King and High King

There are various versions of how Niall gained his epithet Noígiallach. The oldest is that he took a hostage from each of the nine túatha or petty kingdoms of the Airgialla. The later, better known story is that he took a hostage from each of the five provinces of Ireland (Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Meath), and one each from the Scots, Saxons, Britons, and French (or one each from Dál Riata, Caledonia, Strathclyde and Northumbria).

Irish sources describe Niall's expeditions to Britain and France, and his reign, as given in the Irish Annals, which is roughly contemporaneous with the foundation of Dál Riata in Scotland by Irish migrants and the raids by "Scots" on late Roman and sub-Roman Britain.

Niall and Saint Patrick

According to later tradition, during one of his many raids on Britain, Niall captured the future Saint Patrick and brought him in bondage to Ireland. Many years later Patrick succeeded in escaping to Britain, but he eventually returned to Ireland and played an important early role in the conversion of the Irish to Christianity.


There are various traditions regarding the circumstances of his death. The earliest has him dying at sea in the English Channel, at the hands of the Leinster king Eochaid mac Enna, as he was attempting a raid on Armorica (modern Brittany) in Roman Gaul. Other sources say he died in battle against the Picts in Scotland, or even in the Alps. All traditions agree that he died outside of Ireland. According to legend his followers carried his body back to Ireland, fighting seven battles along the way, and whenever they carried Niall's body before them they were unbeatable. The graveyard of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Iskaheen, Inishowen, bears a plaque laying claim to be the burial site of Eoghan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. No particular grave is specified.


The Northern and Southern Uí Néill dynasties, which provided most of the High Kings for centuries, descended from Niall. Other famous descendants include Niall's great-great grandson Saint Columba, Saint Máel Ruba, the Kings of Scotland, the Kings of Ailech, the Kings of Tir Eogain, The Kings of Tír Conaill, Chieftain and Earl Hugh O'Neill, Clan Chief and Earl Red Hugh O'Donnell of the O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, military leaders of Confederate Ireland Owen Roe O'Neill and Hugh Dubh O'Neill and Phelim O'Neill, Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland Aodh MacCathmhaoil, Spanish Prime Minister Leopoldo O'Donnell 1st Duque de Tetuan, Sir Cahir O’Doherty, Shane O'Neill, Sir William Johnson of the O'Neills of the Fews, in addition to numerous officers in the armies of France, Spain, and the Austrian Empire. The current British royal family claims a link.[1].

In January 2006, scientists suggested that Niall may have been the most fecund male in Irish history, and second only to Genghis Khan worldwide. In northwest Ireland as many as one-fifth of men have a common Y chromosome haplotype that lies within the haplogroup R1b.[2]

Haplogroup R1b1c7, was shown to be especially common among family names which claim a descent from Niall, e.g. O'Boyle, Bradley, Campbell, Cannon, Mongan, McCaul, McCawell, Connor, O'Doherty, O'Donnell, O'Gallagher, Flynn, McKee, Devlin, Donnelly, Egan, Gormley, McGovern, Hynes, O'Kane, McLoughlin, McManus, McMenamin, Molloy, Muldoon, O'Neill, O'Reilly, O'Rourke,O'Lunny and Quinn [3].

The profile (also see Genetic Results List):


Family tree

Bold indicates a High King of Ireland.

Tuathal Teachtmhar
Fedlimid Rechtmar
Conn Cétchathach
Art mac Cuinn
Cormac mac Airt
Cairbre Lifechair
Fiacha Sraibhtine
Muiredach Tirech
Eochaid Mugmedon
Niall Noigíallach
Conall Gulban
Conall Cremthainne
Cormac Caech
Lughaid mac Loeguire
Fergus Cerrbel
Muirchertach mac Ercae
Tuathal Máelgarb
Diarmait mac Cerbaill


  • "Irish Kings and High Kings", John Francis Byrne, Dublin, 1973.
  • Lebor Gabála Érenn
  • Annals of the Four Masters
  • Foras Feasa ar Eirenn, Geoffrey Keating, 1636.
  • High King Niall: the most fertile man in Ireland, The Times Online, 15 January, 2006
  • Laoise T. Moore et al, A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland Am. J. Hum. Genet., 78:334-338, 2006
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Niall_of_the_Nine_Hostages". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE