A Window on Early Christian Ireland

The Story


"Cath Almaine" is a wonderful story written in Middle Irish which was composed some time after 950 A.D. based on a battle which was fought in 722 A.D.  In that year, the High-King Fergal mac Máele Dúin demanded the bóramha or ''cattle-tribute'' from the Laighin.  The Laighin and their king Murchad mac Brain refused.


The High-King called on Conn's Half (i.e., on the Uí Néill, the Airghialla, and the Connachta) to come together to invade Leinster.  But, according to the story, the warriors of the North were reluctant.  They said that they should wait to see what Donn Bó would do, the young man who was best in Ireland for the composition of lays, the telling of stories, the harnessing of horses, the riveting of spears, and the plaiting of hair.  But Donn Bó didn't get permission from his mother to go on this hosting until she got a promise from Máel mac Failbe, coarb of St. Colm Cille, that Donn Bó would return to her safe and sound.


The host of Conn's Half entered Leinster.  The host insulted Áedán, a leper in Cluain Dubhail.  Áedán said that God would avenge him upon the Uí Néill forever.  Donn Bó became terribly discouraged.  He refused to sing or recite for Fergal that night, but he promised that he would sing a song for him the next night no matter where they might be.


The hosts came together on December 11, 722 at Cnoc Almhaine, the ‘Hill of Allen’, in Co. Kildare.  St. Brighid showed herself over the hosts for the sake of the Laighin and St. Colm Cille showed himself above the hosts for the sake of the Uí Néill.  Brighid won the day.  The battle was broken on the Uí Néill.  Fergal mac Máele Dúin was killed along with thousands of others on the Uí Néill side.  Many of them were beheaded, including Donn Bó.  That night while the Laighin were celebrating, the Laighin warrior Báethgalach went out to the field of slaughter.  There in the dark, he heard the head of Donn Bó singing sweetly for Fergal in fulfillment of his promise.  At last, through a miracle of Colm Cille, the head of Donn Bó was placed back on his neck and he came home safe and sound to his mother. 


A Window on Early Christian Ireland


For a good part of the ancient beliefs, norms, relationships, and rituals found in the story called "Cath Almaine", we can find corroboration in various fields such as archeology, DNA research, and European history. Let's look at some of these cultural characteristics, particularly those which are corroborated by new research.


     A.  Donn Bó and his Hair


...is uad bud ferr rann espa ocus ríg-scéla for doman. Is é bud ferr do glés ech ocus do innsma shleg ocus d'fhige fholt. 


... he was the best in the world in composing lays and telling royal stories.  He was the best at harnessing horses, rivetting spears, and plaiting hair.


We can see from these lines that the Gaeil had significant interest in the appearance of their hair in the early Christian period. We now have definite evidence that such interest came down from the centuries before Christ.


A human sacrifice was found in 2003 in a bog in Clonycavan, Co. Meath. According to radiocarbon dating done on this "Clonycavan Man", he was alive at some time between 392 BC and 201 B.C. During his lifetime, he gave much attention to his hair and he used a kind of hair-gel made from plant oil and resin imported from SE Europe. 


We know that the human head was important in the religion and ritual of the Celts.  It is easy to understand, therefore, that hair and its appearance were also important.


There were others in Europe in the Iron Age who were interested in hair-plaiting and hair-styles. In 1948, "Osterby Man" was found in a bog near Osterby, Germany. He was a warrior of the Suebi, a warrior of the Germanic tribe mentioned by Tacitus and renowned for the 'Swabian Knot' in their hair. "Osterby Man" was alive about the first century after Christ.


     B.  Connachta, Uí Néill, Airghialla, and DNA


Ba trom trá la Fergal sin .i. Laigin do nemchomall a n-gellta fris, co rofhuacrad sluaiged dírecra dímór uad for Leith Chuinn .i. for Eogan ocus for Conall ocus for Airgiallaib ocus Mide ... do thobach na bórama.     


That was onerous to Fergal, i.e., that the Laighin did not fulfill their promise to him, and he called on Conn's Half for a great hosting, i.e., on the Cinéal eoghain and Cinéal Chonaill and the Airghialla and Míde... to levy the Bóramha.


In this sentence, we can see reference to the "official genealogy" of the Dál Chuinn created by the seanchaidthe of the Uí Néill which claims that the Connachta, Uí Néill In Tuaiscirt (with Cinéal Chonaill and Cinéal Eoghain among them), Clann Choirpre mhic Néill (which is not mentioned in this sentence), Mide (.i. Uí Néill in Deiscirt), and Airghialla, descend from Conn Chéadchathach.


In 2006, geneticists at Trinity College, Dublin, suggested that most of the Uí Néill descend from someone who lived some 1700 years ago and that person was the "most fecund" man in the history of Ireland. As we would expect, it's thought that this was Niall Naoighiallach.


Between 2006 and 2009, it was confirmed that most of the Uí Néill and Connachta descend from one common ancestor.  In those studies, the geneticists had plenty of DNA samples from the Uí Bhriúin and the Uí Fhiachrach, but it was difficult to find DNA samples from the Uí Ailella and the Uí Fergusa.  (As for Fergus, only the Síl Fergusa Cháecháin descend from him.)  In the genealogies, as we know, Eochu Mugmedón was the common ancestor of the Connachta and Uí Néill. But it is also possible that this common DNA comes down from an ancestor of Eochu, unknown or legendary (e.g. Muiredach Tírech, Fiachu Sraiptine, Cairbre Lifechair, 7rl.).    


The Uí Ruairc are an important exception. We expect from Seanchas that they would descend from the Uí Bhriúin, but they have a distinct DNA 'haplogroup'; i.e., they do not descend from the Uí Bhriúin.  Also, despite the official genealogies of the Uí Néill (and as predicted by T.F. O'Rahilly and other authors), there is no blood relationship between the Airghialla and the Connachta.  And as Byrne shows with the following verse (written in a text of Féineachas in the 8th Century), there was no consanguinity either between Dal Chuinn (i.e., the Féini) and the Ulaidh, or between the Dal Chuinn and the Laighin:


Batar trí prímcheinéla i nHére, .i. Féini 7 Ulaith 7 Gáilni .i. Laigin.

There were three primary kinships in Ireland, i.e., the Féini and Ulaidh and Gáilióin, i.e., the Laighin.


     C.  The Human Head as a Trophy


Is ann-sin roráid Murchad mac Brain: "Do-bérainn carpat ceithre cumala ocus mo ech ocus m'errad don láech noragad isin n-ármach ocus do-bérad comartha chucainn as."   "Ragat-sa," ar Báethgalach ...  


Then Murchad mac Brain said:  "I would give a chariot worth four cumhal and my steed and my battle dress to the warrior who would go into the place of slaughter and who would bear a trophy to us out of it."  "I will go," said Báethgalach...


Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that we can find head-hunting or head-taking in virtually every early Irish story except in those of naomhsheanchas. (Even in the area of the Faith, we can see images of heads on churches as at Díseart Uí Dheághaidh.) There is corroboration for our head-taking among the Celts outside Ireland in accounts written by Poseidonius, Strabo, Livy, Ammianus, Diodorus Siculus, and others. Celts took the heads of famous commanders such as the Roman general Postumius and the Greek king Ptolemy Keraunos.


But in the story "Cath Almaine", when the warrior Báethgalach said he would go out to bring back a trophy from the field of slaughter, Murchad mac Brain said nothing about a human head.  Based on newly-discovered remains in a Celtic sanctuary at Ribemont-sur-Ancre, France, we can imagine that the word "comartha" was non-specific, just as is the word 'comhramh' in Modern Irish and the word 'trophy' in English. In this sanctuary, built around 260 B.C. in honor of a Celtic god and in memory of a battle in which tribes of the Belgii won a victory over Armorican tribes, the enclosure is crowded with row on row of hundreds of warriors, decapitated but still in their battle-armor. 


     D.  Pious Lepers


I did an electronic search in the annals for "clamh", "lobhar", "leper" and their variations. There is no reference to any leper in the Annals of Tigenach or the Annals of Loch Cé, but I found the following references in other annals.


          1.  Annála Ríoghachta na hÉireann:    


551.2   S. Neasan Lobhar d'écc. 

551.2  St. Neasan the leper died.


722. For this year, a summary of the story "Cath Almaine" was written in which we find reference to "the cow of the leper", but Áedan the leper is not named. 


          2.  Annála Uladh: 


A.D. 921.8  Indredh Aird Macha ... o Gallaibh Atha Cliath, .i. o Gothbrith oa Imhair, cum suo exercitu, ...  & na taigi aernaighi do anacal lais cona lucht de cheilibh De & di lobraibh... 

A.D. 921.8  Invasion of Ard Macha ... by the Foreigners of Áth Cliath, .i. by Gothfrith grandson of Ímar, with his army, ... and the houses of prayer were spared by him with their culdees and of lepers...


A.D. 952.3  Cele clam & ancorita ..

A.D. 952.3  Céile, leper and anchorite, died...


          3.  Annála Inse Fáithlenn: 


A.D. 556.1  Nistán leprosus obíit. 

A.D. 556.1  Nistán (St. Nessan) the leper died.


          4.  Annála Chonnacht: 


A.D. 1232.9  Fachtna h. hAllgaith comarba Dromma Mucado & oificel h. Fiachrach, fer tigi aiged & lubra & leginn & lesaigti tiri & talman, in hoc anno quieuit.

A.D. 1232.9  Fachtna Ó hAllgaith, coarb of Drumacoo and Official of the Uí Fiachrach, who kept a guest-house and a leper-house and was (a man) of learning and a benefactor of the countryside, rested this year.


          5.  Chronicon Scotorum: 


A.D. 557   Nessan leprosus quieuit. 

A.D. 557  Nessan (.i. San Neasan) the leper rested.


As we see above, there is a close link between lepers and Christianity in the Annals, perhaps influenced to some degree by the stories of the care given by Jesus to lepers in the New Testament.


     E. Brigid and Colm Cille making war on each other


The monasteries (and saints) made war on each other often enough in the early Christian period. For example, in the Annals of Ulster:


A.D. 760.8  Bellum hitir muintir Clono 7 Biroir i mMoin Choisse Blae. 

A.D. 760.8 a battle between the monastery of Clonmacnoise and the monastery of Birr in Móin Choise Blae


A.D. 764.6  Bellum Arggamain inter familiam Cluana Mocu Nois 7 Dearmaighe ubi ceciderunt Diarmait Dub m. Domnaill 7 Dighlach m. Duib Liss 7 .cc. uiri de familia Dermaige.  Bresal m. Murchada uictor exstetit com familia Cluana. 

A.D. 764.6  The Battle of Argamain between the family of Clonmacnoise and (the monastery of Colm Cille) at Durrow in which fell Diarmait Dub mac Domhnail and Dighlach mac Duib Liss and 200 free men of the family of Durrow.  Bresal mac Murchada and the family of Clonmacnoise came out of the battle as victors.


And it was said that Colm Cille made war for the sake of Cinéal Chonaill through the ages each time the Uí Dhomhnaill brought his Cathach into battle with them.




"Cath Almaine" is a wonderfully rich story, filled with the world-view (. i. 'weltanschauung') of the Gaeil.  With improvement in areas like archaeology and DNA research almost every day, I expect we will learn more about this story and its ancient beliefs, practices, relationships, and rituals in the coming years.


Copyright © 2015 by Gerald A. John Kelly

All Rights Reserved - No reproduction without written permission of the author



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