One of the most fearsome leaders of the early 5th century was not a war general or a dictator. No, he was the short, illegitimate son of an Irish king. His story is often overlooked in history books and little is known about his personal life, but his legacy lives on along with his name: he is Niall of the Nine Hostages.
Niall was not born for the throne, yet he was born into a royal family. Son of King Eochaid and Cairenn, Princess of the Saxons, Eochaid had two wives: Cairenn, his second and least favored wife, and Mongfind, his preferred wife, with whom he had four children.
Mongfind despised Cairenn with a hatred that could put modern celebrity feuds to shame. When Cairenn became pregnant, Mongfind was determined to make the Saxon princess’ life miserable. Mongfind forced the pregnant Cairenn to do back-breaking work with the hope that she would ultimately miscarry.
One day, after bringing water from a well, Cairenn collapsed in pain. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to a boy—a son, a prince. Cairenn feared what would happen to herself and her baby if Mongfind found out the baby’s sex. Hoping to protect him, Cairenn left her son on a hilltop in the city of Tara.
Shortly thereafter, a travelling poet named Torna found the child, recognized him as a future king, and named him Niall. Torna swore not to bring Niall back to Tara until he was old enough to claim the crown.
If you have one of these surnames, you might also be a Descendant of Niall!
- (O')Donaher (Dooner)
Eventually, Torna did just that. She helped Niall journey back to Tara, where he declared his intent to take the crown. To do so, he had to face his brothers—Mongfind’s children—in a series of challenges set up for them by their father’s druid seer, Sithchenn, and their uncle, who held the title of “High King.”
Once he was named king, Niall set out to conquer as much of the world as he could. From each kingdom he conquered, took a princely hostage. Niall held the throne for some time. While he ruled, he had many sons and grandsons. The society in which he lived was polygamous, which meant that Naill could take as many wives as he wanted.
After Niall died, his descendants ruled for hundreds of years until they were eventually defeated by the British. Nowadays, historians suggest that this infamous King likely has more than three million descendants worldwide. In fact, many surnames that exist widely today can be traced back to King Niall, including Campbell, (O’)Connor, and (O’)Flanagan. Also, the last name “O’Neill” specifically means “one descended of Niall.”
Overall, and despite the fact that he was never meant to ascend the throne in the first place, Niall was a fearsome leader. And maybe, just maybe, his ancient bloodline flows through your veins, too!
[Sources: Bard Mythologies; The Irish Time; Florida Irish Heritage Center]