Niall Noígiallach (‘of the nine hostages’)
Niall's wives included Indiu daughter of Lugaid, and Rígnach daughter of Meda, both traced to Dál Fiatach. Altogether, he is credited with fourteen sons, of whom eight are accorded significance as eponymous ancestors of the group of dynasties later known as Uí Néill. These include Conall Gulban (qv), Éogan (qv), and Énnae, as ancestors of the ‘Northern Uí Néill’, and Cairpre (qv), Conall Cremthainne (qv), Lóegaire (qv), Fiachu, and Maine, as ancestors of the ‘Southern Uí Néill’. The identification of several of these individuals as sons of Niall seems to be the product of genealogical engineering carried out sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries, the purpose being to link the dynasties in question to the power-structures of the period. There are indications that the two Conalls were duplicates of each other, and that the northern and southern dynastic groupings emerged gradually – probably from the mid seventh century onwards. Chronological difficulties were exacerbated by various propagandists representing dynasties that claimed descent from sons of Niall, as they sought to bring their eponymous ancestors into direct contact with St Patrick (qv) in order to bolster their political legitimacy.
It was claimed that although he was the youngest of Eochaid's sons, Niall himself attained a royal dignity of a higher order than that of his father or brothers in being the first of his line to attain the kingship of Tara. He is included as such in the Old Irish regnal poem ‘Baile Chuinn’ and in the later ‘Baile in Scáil’. One story, doubtless invented to explain the suzerainty later enjoyed by his descendants, relates how he impressed his father by salvaging the anvil and smith's tools from a burning forge, while his brothers settled for items of lesser value. In the Middle Irish tale ‘Echtra mac nEchdach Mugmedóin’, Niall manfully embraces an ugly hag whom his brothers could scarcely bring themselves to kiss; she is thereupon transformed into a beautiful maiden, the personification of sovereignty. Till well into the twentieth century, historians believed that Niall was responsible for the initial Connachta expansion into the north-west, otherwise assigned to the first three of his ‘sons’ named above, and for the settlement of the midlands by the others. In an effort to explain his sobriquet, Niall was represented as the recipient of hostages from the nine Cruthin kingdoms of mid-Ulster, which later formed the mesne-kingdom of Airgialla. Conquest of the Connacht–Ulster marchlands was accredited to his brother Brión, whose descendants (it is said) included the Uí Briúin dynasties of Bréifne and of Mag Aí, which later produced the royal line of Ua Conchobair.
Traditions linking Niall to raids on Roman Britain were embroidered in the tenth century by the poet Cináed Ua hArtacáin (qv). It was believed that he met his end on such an expedition, slain in Muir nIcht (the English Channel) by a Leinster king, Eochaid son of Énnae Cennselach (qv). In some sources his death is assigned to 404 (which helped to synchronise some of his alleged sons with St Patrick), but it might be more reasonable to suggest a date around the middle of the fifth century. Clearly there are serious difficulties in reconciling the chronologies assigned to Niall and his sons. It is surely significant that a supposed ‘Testament of Niall’ bequeaths his sovereignty and primacy to his sons Conall and Crimthann, probably to be identified with Conall Gulban and Conall Cremthainne, who may be seen as duplicates. According to the Middle Irish king-lists, Niall was succeeded in the kingship by his nephew, Nath Í son of Fiachrae.