At the western edge of inhabited Europe Ireland was in a unique position; all of its trade and any outside information had to first go through Britain. Throughout Ireland’s history that had caused no real hardship – the Britons and the Irish were distant cousins after all. They had traded, raided, and swapped stories and myths with each other.
However, during the Roman occupation the Irish’s perspective of Britain had changed. Trade had still occurred, but Irish raiding parties had no chance against a single Roman ship. Roman legionnaires moved too efficiently and fought too intelligently to make good targets, and Roman cities were always well guarded.
The Picts had enjoyed similar relations with the Britons during the pre-Roman period, but unlike Pictland, the Irish had never been threatened with invasion. This meant that the Irish were never forced to band together into a loose confederation so that they could remain independent. Instead, the lesser threat implied by Rome stimulated a slow and stable centralization of Irish power into four major kingdoms – Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster. These kingdoms would remain stable and intact throughout the medieval period.
As the author mentioned above, when the security of Britannia began to weaken during the fourth century the Irish, Germanic tribes, and Picts united to make attacks on it. The dramatic change from difficult to easy and profitable target might have been all the incentive the Irish needed to elect or fight among themselves for the position of over-king. Muiredach Tírech and his father Fiacha Sroiptine are the most likely rulers during the raids of 367 and 383. Legend and tradition say very little about what they actually did, though. Nor do they give us much about Eochaid Mugmedon and Crimthann mac Fidaig, who followed them. We can guess at their power, though. They might have had the respect of every king in Ireland. They might have even collected tribute from all the kingdoms sporadically. However, high-kings could not have actually ruled all the Irish kingdoms in any sense we would understand. Instead, it is probably better to see the position as more of of first among kings than the political equivalent of an emperor, if it even existed. The simple fact that Patrick had non-Irish colleagues in Ireland demonstrates that political fact.
Niall, son of Eochaid Mugmedon and known to history by his epithet “of the Nine Hostages”, followed Crimthann. Active in the second quarter of the fifth century, Niall was probably the most powerful Irish king of the post-Roman period. Legend says he made raids into Gaul, but that is impossible; Gaul was still a part of the Roman Empire at that time and there is no mention of him on the continent. Other historical evidence indicates that he attacked Pictland.
Niall was not the only Irishman leading raids into Britain during the fifth century. In fact, as we will see below Irish raids and occupations occurred all over the western coast of the island during the fifth century. These were each led by different people coming from different kingdoms with no clear strategy, making it clear there was no true over-king controlling the attacks.
There seems to have been a single mindset to most of the attacks though; they were not initially interested in conquest and settlement from the outset. If they had been, the entire western seaboard south of Hadrian’s Wall would have been open to them as the British kingdoms would not develop kingdoms for decades after 410.
More likely, the attacks were initially for prestige and money. The author mentioned above that succession worked through ithagenic inheritance; all male descendants of a previous king were eligible for the kingship up to three generations. Within that group of candidates, kings were chosen based on popularity, war-band size, wealth, and success in battle. Given that set of priorities, the Britain of the late fourth century and the early fifth century would have been a bonanza, the easiest way for a prince to gain a battle reputation and earn enough wealth to become an attractive candidate.
However, soon there were raiding camps in Britain; bases from which to launch a series of attacks and collect their loot before the voyage home. Dind Traduí in Cornwall may have been one of them; it was close enough to Tintagel that it could have raided the tin, oil, and wine going to and from it. Likely the Dyfed and Gwynedd kingdoms started off as convenient places to stage attacks on Roman trading vessels heading up the western coast of Britain. Brycheiniog originated as an inland Irish kingdom. The Vita Columba suggests that Dal Riata, in modern Argyll, began as a pirate haven for several clans or clanless groups.
Niall was succeeded at about mid-century by his son Lóegaire. Tradition has it that he was the high-king that Patrick converted, so it only makes sense that we know more about his activities than those of any predecessors. Strangely, the records of Lóegaire’s era contain not a single raid into Britain. This suggests two possibilities; either Ireland became an easier place to gain a reputation or Britain became a more difficult target in his time. Lóegaire’s several known insular battles on the one hand and the rise of kingships (see below) on the other suggests that both options might be accurate appraisals of the situation.
Lóegaire probably died about a decade later. From that time, his brothers appear in several battle references. The picture their notices create is of Niall’s clan fighting to retain its position as the most powerful family in Ireland. The annals say Coirpre the son of Niall succeeded Lóegaire, but was followed by Aillil Molt of the Uí Fiachrach only a few years later. The outsider high-king is connected with many battles against Niall’s grandsons according to the Irish annals before finally dying at Faughan Hill over two decades later.
The details of the Irish struggles are beyond the purview of this book. What is important here is that during the last half of the fifth century Ireland went from politically stable to unstable. For Irish princes that would have meant that their home had plenty of opportunities to win the fame and warriors necessary to become a king and Britain was no longer necessary. The Cornish site was abandoned before 500 and Anglesey was conquered from the Irish by the Gwynedd dynasty around then as well. Presumably the reason that a fledgling king was able to do so was because the Irish were no longer committed to keeping it.
The dynasties in Dyfed and Brycheiniog managed to remain on the island permanently. Our limited records indicate that by 500 they had both intermarried with native dynasties at that point and assimilated to the British culture before the sixth century. That possibility will be explored more fully below.
The cause and effect of the Irish in Britain is only speculation of course, we don’t have any personal memoirs or even enough official records to really know what was happening in the British Isles, let along why. What the theory above does have going for it is that it meets with the facts as they are currently understood. In the latter half of the fifth century the Irish were fighting amongst themselves and by about 500 the Irish had lost enough interest in their British holdings for them to be abandoned or easily conquered. Apart from a branch of the Connaught family migrating to Dal Riata in the mid-sixth century, Britain would be relatively safe from the Irish for the rest of the early Middle Ages.
Dal Riata itself would be a different story. As a scattered grouping of islands, peninsulas, and shallows the region was a perfect home for pirates because it was a difficult area to navigate. Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, Dal Riatan raiders probably attacked Pictish, Irish, and British targets without any serious reprisal. Dal Riata’s geography simply made an invasion too hazardous. Even the Pictish kings, intent as they had been on attacking all areas to the south during the fifth century, seem to have left the neighboring region of Dal Riata alone.
On the other hand, the very same geography that made Dal Riata a difficult target and therefore an excellent base for pirates would also make it a problematic region to bring under one king. It would take nearly another century and a strong-willed Irish abbot to manage that feat. Until then, Dalriada’s pirates would remain an economic thorn but a political nonentity in Britain.
1 All along the Roman Empire’s borders, her simple presence seems to have inspired political turmoil and eventual unity as cultures struggled to present a united front against it in hopes of better resisting conquest. Ireland was simply longer lived in its unity because it was never touched by the Germanic migrations of the fourth and fifth centuries.
2 Byrne argues that the position of high-king did not become a political reality until the ninth century; Byrne, The Irish Kings and High-Kings, (Dublin, 2001), 70.
3 Patrick is traditionally given four ecclesiastical colleagues in Ireland – Auxilius, Iserninus, Secundinus, and Benignus – and they were already operating in Ireland when he arrived. However, there is also no question that Patrick converted the “high-king” Lóegaire. If the high-king had actually ruled all the Irish kingdoms then any Christian missionary coming to Ireland would first need to convince him that Christianity was the superior religion. As that clearly had not happened, Lóegaire at least could not have been the over-king he claimed to be.
4 Byrne, The Irish Kings and High-Kings, (Dublin, 2001), 78-9; Hughes, “The Church in Irish society, 400-800”, A New History of Ireland Vol I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, ed. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, (Oxford, 2005), 306-8.
5 Byrne, The Irish Kings and High-Kings, (Dublin, 2001), 76-8; O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, (Dublin, 1946), 220.
6 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 36-8 and 132-5.
7 Hughes, “The Church in Irish society, 400-800”, A New History of Ireland Vol I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, ed. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, (Oxford, 2005), 306-8; Byrne, The Irish Kings and High-Kings, (Dublin, 2001), 81.
8 It was traditionally believed that Einion Yrth, son of Cunedda, had completed the conquest of Anglesey from the Irish at about this time. Professor Koch’s work on Marwnad Cunedda has demonstrated that Cunedda was a figure specifically from Berneich, leaving his traditional son Einion Yrth as the founder of the Gwynedd dynasty as well as the man who forced the Irish out of Anglesey; Isaac, “Cunedag”, BBCS 38 (Cardiff, 1991), 100-1; The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cxxi-cxxiii; Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 72-3.
9 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 122-3, 127-8, and 134-5.