It is difficult to write on the topic of my thesis. The political history of 7thC northern Britain is complicated, with threads of alliances marking the map in my mind’s-eye like one of those webs spiders spin when on hallucinogens. Whenever I try and explain one piece of the puzzle, I find I must explain some half a dozen other items first- but in order to explain those, I must start with the first.

The human mind evolved to eat gazelle and flee lions, not think about things. Sheesh. This post is therefore awfully rough, and kept briefer than I’d like, stripped of my precious footnoes and the bibliography left to squint in the sunlight without any historiography to give the nuance. Questions would be helpful.

It has been some time since I wrote, so as a reminder: my thesis on the raid sent in 684 by Ecgfrith of Northumbria to Ireland- specifically, his soldiers raided the area called Mag Breg, a túath within the territories of the Southern Úi Néill. The month appears to have been June. The leader of the army/raiding party/gang of violent thugs was a chap called Berht whom I have mentioned previously. This raid is fascinating, not least because it is the first such recorded attack on Hibernia prior to Strongbow, but because we don’t know why. Bede just says that it was unprovoked and the Irish never did nothin’ to nobody.

A few scholars seem to suspect Ecgfrith’s successor and older half-brother Aldfrith. Certainly he had very close ties with Ireland -son of an Irish princess- and one could, as some have, make an argument that he was plotting against Ecgfrith and so the king sent troops into Ireland to take captives for use as hostages. Certainly the swift movement of Aldfrith from Iona to Northumbria to be crowned, after Ecgfrith’s death in (modern) Scotland is supicious.

The problem with this hypothesis lies in Aldfrith’s supposed connection to the area laid waste by the English swords. Mag Bega lay within the overlordship of the Southern Úi Néill, a group of people who claimed descended from Nial of the Nine Hostages. Aldfrith’s mother’s people, on the other hand, were among the Northern Úi Néill. Specifically, theCenél nEógain.

While in exile amongst the Irish, the father of Ecgfrith and Aldfrith, Oswiu (the famous ‘Synod of Whitby’ Oswiu) fathered a son on a daughter of the Northern Úi Néill king, Colmán Rimíd. The specific evidence for this must be considered very carefully, as the genealogies of royal families are suspect to tampering and this is particularly true when the king in question (i.e., Aldfrith) is famous. The specific genealogy in question reads as follows:

Cōic meic Bāetāin meic Muirchertaich .i. Fergus a quo Clann Fergusa, Forannān a quo Hūi Fairennāin, A[i]lill pater Cind-fāelad, Māel-huma in rīgfēinnid. Colmān Rīmid athair Fīna, māthair īside Flaind Fina meic Ossu regis Saxonum.

[Five sons of Báetán son of Muichertach; that is Fergus from whom [comes] Clann Fhergusa; Forannán from whom [comes] the Uí Fhorannáin; Ailill the father of Cenn Fáelad; Máel Umai rígféinnid. Colmán Rimíd the father of Fína, the mother of Flann Fína son of Ossu king of the Saxons.]1

Flann Fína is the Irish name for Aldfrith, and the two are specifically conflated in his obit in the Annals of Tigernach:

Altfrith mac Ossa .i. Fland Fína la Gaedhelu, echnaid, rex Saxonum.

[Aldfrith, son of Oswiu, called Fland Fína by the Gaels, a wise man, king of the Saxons.]2

Ossu is the Irish form of Oswiu, and can be verified by comparing Bede and the Annals of Ulster. Muirchertach can be traced back to the founder of the Cenél nEógain, Eógan, and thus to ancestor of the Uí Néill, Nial Noígiallach.5 While there is uncertainty about which túath Oswiu dwelled amongst while in exile, and therefore the specific political circumstances which led to the fathering of Aldfrith, this discussion is quite complicated enough. We can say with certainty that Aldfrith is descended on his mother’s side from a túath of the Northern Uí Néill, specifically the Cenél nEógain. Aldfrith therefore has close ties with the Northern Uí Néill.

Early Christian Ireland AD 400-700.

Taken from John Haywood, Atlas of the Celtic World, (Thames & Hudson: London, 2001), p.97.

It is tempting to conflate the Northern and Southern Uí Néill, but the two are titles claimed by overlordships. Connacht and Airgalla were also provincial overlordships, and one could not make this attempt to tie Aldfrith to them.

Túatha even within kingdoms were not completely unified, as the Cenél nEógain fought against their own cousins in the Northern Uí Néill during battle of Mag Roth (637). While there were alliances among the Uí Néill and people in (what is now) Scotland, all of these alliances -broken and otherwise- are among túatha of the Northern Uí Néill, not the Southern. Any connection between Aldfrith and the Irish of Scotland and Ireland does not lead us inevitably to Mag Breg.


1. The rough translation is my own, with the gratefully received assistance of Professor A. Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae ed. M.A. O’Brien, (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1962), p. 135.

2. Translation mine. Whitley Stokes, “The Annals of Tigernach: Third Fragment,” in Revue Celtique 17 (1896): 119-263, p. 219.

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Reading: Sources

Annals of Ulster: To A.D. 1131. Edited and translated by Seán Mac Airt and Gearóid Mac Niocaill. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1983.

Bede. Historica Ecclesiastica. Translated and edited by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Various. Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. Ed. M.A. O’Brien. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1962.

Stokes, Whitley. “The Annals of Tigernach: Third Fragment.” Revue Celtique 17 (1896): 119-263

Scholarship

Bannerman, John. Studies in the History of Dalriada. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974.

Byrne, Francis J. “The Ireland of St Columba.” Historical Studies 5 (1965): 37-58

Byrne, Francis J. Irish Kings and High-Kings. 2nd edition. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001.

Charles-Edwards, Thomas. Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Duncan, Archibald A. M. “Bede, Iona, and the Picts.” In The Writing of History in the Middle Ages, 1-42. Ed. R.H.C. Davis and J.M. Wallace-Hadrill. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Haywood, John. Atlas of the Celtic World. Thames & Hudson: London, 2001.

Ireland, Colin. “Aldfrith of Northumbria and the Irish Genealogies.” Celtica 22 (1991): 64-78

Miller, Holly. “Eanfrith’s Pictish Son.” Northern History 14 (1978): 47-66.

Moisl, Hermann. “The Bernician Royal Dynasty and the Irish in the Seventh Century.” Peritia 2 (1983): 103-26