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6th century Politics and Power in the North of Ireland

The sixth century is still a poorly understood period in Ireland. The country was just beginning to emerge from the strictly ‘prehistoric’ period, that is, the time when there were no native written documents which would allow us to reconstruct its ‘history’. Writing and literacy and, and with them ‘history’, were introduced to Ireland in the concluding years of the Roman Empire. Ireland was never part of the empire, but there are various earlier partial accounts about Ireland composed by (often prejudiced or misinformed) Greek and Roman authors rather than by writers from the country itself. As it happens the first documents (or the oldest that now survive) which emanate from within Ireland are the two fifth-century texts by the man we have come to know as St Patrick, who actually came from Roman Britain. Christianity is fundamentally a religion of a book – the Bible – and it cannot exist without a basis of literacy, at least among the elite. Writing – specifically chronicle or ‘history’ writing – was part of the cultural package that arrived as part of the conversion of Ireland to Christianity alongside other related practices originating in the late empire. Paradoxically, Columcille and other members of his important monastery on Iona seem to have played a significant role in the development of history-writing along with other forms of literacy, most notably those connected with the new religion and the church. It is those developments – specifically the writing of the texts we now call the ‘annals – that allow us to attempt a reconstruction of the politics and power bases in sixth century Ireland and also, to some extent, in Scotland. The earliest Irish and Scottish annals that we now know about is the lost text known to modern scholars as the Iona Chronicle which covered the period from the mid-sixth century up to about AD 740, and which survived only because it was copied into later texts that do still exist.

Those annals reveal to us that at the time that Columcille was living, politics in Ireland seems to have been changing from a system based on small tribal kingdoms originating back in the Celtic Iron Age to one in which powerful dynasties from various parts of the country were beginning to exert greater authority and hegemony. That change was itself possibly influenced by contacts with and influences from the Roman Empire. The small kingdoms – of which there seem to have been about a hundred and fifty at any one time – did not disappear, but the rising dynasties set about welding them together into confederations and provincial kingdoms which in turn became the bases for seeking greater authority. The situation was completely fluid and changed in accordance with realpolitik – power politics – rather than in accordance with any set legal or constitutional system. The ultimate goal and prize seems to have been an over-riding kingship which claimed – even if it could never exactly implement – rule over the whole island. That idea of a single Irish sovereignty seems to have been propagated – perhaps even ‘invented’ – by the confederation of monasteries established by Columcille, led from Iona. Adomnán’s life of the saint, the Vita Columbae written around AD 700, has a number of clearly propagandistic references to the (largely hypothetical) kingship of Ireland. Almost certainly that idea was also borrowed in imitation of the perceived stability of the Roman imperial system, and advanced by a Christian church that was itself quite hierarchical in imitation of that empire within which it had developed. Practically speaking, the kingship of Ireland was often attempted and claimed but never actually attained throughout the whole of the Middle Ages.

The idea of a single king of Ireland, as outlined by Adomnán and other contemporary writers, was equated with the even-then ancient sacral kingship of Tara and with a largely fictitiously created group dynasty which came to be called the Uí Néill. These people all claimed descent (for the most part again probably fictitiously) from a legendary figure called Niall Noígiallach or Niall of the Nine Hostages. We cannot be certain if such a character ever really existed but what is certain is that those who claimed to be descended from him were among the most powerful people in early medieval Ireland. The Uí Néill came to be understood as being divided into a southern group based in the east midlands (around Meath and Westmeath) and a northern group – effectively the combined kingdoms of Donegal. Among the latter, the kingdom of Cenél Conaill – to which both Columcille and Adomnán belonged – was the most dominant before the middle of the eighth century. The Cenél Conaill provided several important kings of Tara.

It is clear that in late Roman times also there was a lot of movement of peoples across the Irish Sea in both directions. Groups of people from several Irish kingdoms along the east coast had established themselves in the western parts of Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries. Among the small kingdoms in the north of Ireland at the time was the Dál Riata, settled in what is now county Antrim. It is generally believed that around this time they were responsible for establishing a colony in what is now Argyll, although occasionally it has been suggested that the movement was actually in the opposite direction. Whatever happened (and we can probably never know the full truth as it happened before ‘historic’ times) it appears that the Dál Riata were responsible ultimately for the spread of what would become the Gàidhlig language (the Scottish version of Q Celtic, closely related to the Irish language) and perhaps also for the transfer of the appellation Scot to Scotland and the Scottish. In late Roman and early medieval times Scotia and Scotti were actually names for Ireland and the Irish. Again, whatever the truth, it appears that it was the Dál Riata with their ‘capital’ at the hillfort of Dunadd in mid-Argyll that facilitated Columcille’s taking over of the island of Iona as the headquarters of a monastic confederation. That monastery and its associated churches was to be highly influential in Ireland, Scotland and the north of England (as well as further afield) throughout the second half of the first millennium.

Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Project, Dublin

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