Text: The Violent Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages

According to later Irish tradition, Niall Nóigíallaig [“of the Nine Hostages”], the founder of the Uí Néill dynasty, was a king of Ireland from 379-405 CE. We must be careful of later legends created by the Uí Néill and the people in their employ, as they were constantly elaborating and changing details. The oldest text dates to the ninth century. Regardless of the time gap, these texts are likely to reflect even if remotely the comings and goings between Ireland and Britain during the late Roman occupation of Britain. The identity of Niall’s parents themselves are revealing: his father was nicknamed Muig-medón “Slave-master” and the second element is actually Brythonic (not Gaelic) in origin; in this tale his mother is said to be a Saxon princess, while in another tale about Niall (Echtra Mac nEchach Muig-Medóin), she was said to be a British slave.

The following is a revised translation by Michael Newton based on the edition in Kuno Meyer, “Stories and Songs from Irish Manuscripts.” Otia Merseiana 2 (1900-1):84-92.

This is the Violent-Death-Tale of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the son of Eochu Muig-medón, by the hand of Eochu the son of Enna Censelach, who shot at arrow at him from a Saxon fortress while he was between Pictish bards at Carn Fiell.

Eochu the son of Enna [of Leinster] once went from the house of Niall southwards towards his own land. He went to the house of Niall’s file [“high-poet”], Laidcenn the son of Bairchid, in order to ask for food. The file refused him hospitality. Eochu returned from the south, destroyed the file’s house and killed his only son, Leat. The file then spent a whole year satirizing, ridiculing and cursing the men of Leinster with the result that neither grass nor cereal nor foliage would grow until the end of that year.

After that, Niall took his battle troops to Leinster and he said that he would not leave until Eochu was given to him as a hostage. Eochu was therefore taken to Ath Fadat in Forthairt Fea [modern Forth, Co. Carlow] on the bank of the Slaney River and was left there in front of Niall with a chain around his neck which was attached to a stone pillar. Nine warriors went towards him to kill him.

“This is evil!” said Eochu. And at that, he gave himself a twist and caused the chain to break in two. He grabbed ahold of the iron bolt that went through the chain and walked forward to confront the warriors. He hammered them with the bolt and killed the nine men. The others ran away from him down the hill. The men of Leinster ran after them and killed them.

After that, Niall returned southwards again and reached Inis Fail [Begery Island, Wexford?].

Laidcenn said, “Let Eochu come out alone and unarmed; the men of Leinster must agree not to use their weapons for as long as a cow is being milked.”

Eochu answered, “It will be done.” And his weapons were taken from him.

Laidcenn the file [poet] then began to satirize Eochu and the men of Leinster until they started wasting away [from the power of his satire]. During this satire, the young Eochu threw a warrior’s stone that he had tucked in his belt and it hit Laidcenn in the forehead and stuck in his skull, killing him. A stanza was composed about this:

“A warrior’s hand-stone – as is well known – was hurled,
Eochu son of Enna threw it at Laidcenn the son of Bairchid.”

After having raided Leinster, Niall went home and Eochu was exiled from Ireland for as long as Niall was king. He went to the house of Erc the son of Eochu Munremar [in Scotland].

Niall wanted to extend his command as far as the continent of Europe [Letha] and Italy. He was called “of the Nine Hostages” because he had five hostages from Ireland, one from Scotland, one from the Saxons, one from the Britons, and one from the Franks. Thus it is said (in the poem):

Eochu’s son of great dignity, noble Niall of fierce shout,
Seized the kingship of Ireland and Britain,
He had a hostage from every province throughout Ireland
He brought to his command, without complication, four hostages from Britain;
Therefore he was called amongst the troops of battle-hardened warriors
In the series of bountiful kings “combative Niall of the Nine Hostages.”

When they got as far as the Alps, there was a huge river, the Loire, in front of them which they could not cross. They sat down on its banks. As they were sitting there, they saw a warrior coming towards them. He wore a crimson, five-pleated cloak. In his hands he held two five-pronged spears. He had a bent, rimmed shield with a boss of gold. On his belt hung a tusk-hilted sword. His long hair was plaited over his back.

“Welcome to the hero we do not recognize!” said Niall.

“That is why we have come,” said he.

“Why have you come?” replied Niall.

“I was sent by the Romans to talk to you and in two weeks their hostages will come to you. Until they arrive, I serve as a substitute hostage for you,” he said.

Some say that the hostages were gathered in the house of Erc son of Eochu Munremar, the king of Alba, and that that is where Niall was killed amongst the poets of the Picts as he was exhibiting his body to them. Or it might have been the women of the Franks who wished to see his body.

Then Erc went over to the assembly. “I will go with you,” he said, “to see my brother on his royal throne before the men of the world.”

When they arrived, Erc said, “There he is over there!” There was a glen between them (Niall and the company in which Erc was). Without Erc noticing it, Eochu shot an arrow from a bow so that King Niall fell dead from that single arrow.

After that the Franks attacked the Gaels and the men of Alba went in defense of them because of their kinship. They returned to Ireland, carrying the body of Niall with them. Seven battles broke off when the body of the dead king came upon them on its way home.
Cairenn of the dark, curly hair, the daughter of the Saxon Sachel Balbh, was the mother of Niall. Torna, the poet of the [kingdom of the] Ciarraige Luachra, had fostered Niall. When he heard that he had been shot dead, Torna’s son Tuirn, said this stanza:

“When we would go to the assembly with the son of Eochu Muig-medón
The hair on Cairenn’s son was as yellow as the primroses.”

About Michael Newton

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