The battle of Moira and the origins of Scotland

As Scotland ponders its future with or without the rest of the UK, I was taking a walk around the village I live in and it occurred to me that this was the very spot where (arguably) we all first came together in the proto-guises of our current national identities. Naturally it was for a fight.

Today Moira is the sleepy Northern Irish village I live in, right on the edge of Counties Armagh and Down. It was once blown to bits by the IRA but apart from that nothing much has happened here recently. However, Moira was the scene of considerable slaughter in the past. The battle of Moira occurred in 637 AD. It was a bloody affair and notable enough that it was reported not just in the Irish annals but also in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, and the fight was the subject of a particularly fine painting by the artist Jim Fitzpatrick:

The reason for its widespread fame was not just the level of carnage but the participants. On one side there was an army from the south, led by an O’Neil who was High King of Ireland. Against them stood a coalition of forces led by a King of Ulster but comprising warriors and princes from the north of Ireland and what is now Scotland, as well as a contingent of Anglo-Saxons and even a few Welshmen (well, Britons).

This possibly comes as a surprise to some. Surely our incessant wars began 800 years ago with the arrival of the English (or rather the Normans), not 1377 years ago when we all lived in a misty poetic utopia? With that in mind we should take a further look at the combatants. 

Congal had been High King of Ireland, but an accident involving a bee sting resulted in him being blinded in one eye. No longer physically perfect, this meant he could no longer hold the High-Kingship which even in the Christian-era had sacred connotations. Like a lot of modern Ulstermen would have done, he sued the owners of the bees for compensation (the ancient law tract still survives). However he was to say the least “put out” by the affair. Before long he was at war with his successor (and foster father), Domnall mac Áedo of the Clan Connell who took his place as High King. They met in battle in 629 at the Battle of Dún Ceithirn and Congal lost. Having nowhere left to go in Ireland he fled across the sea to his cousins in Scotland.

Roman writers and Geographers placed the tribe called the Scots as living in Ireland. Similarly, Saint Patrick’s writings in the 5th and 6th centuries place the Scots in the north of Ireland. By the 7th century, however, the northern Irish kingdom of Dalriada had spread itself from its original powerbase in North Antrim across the sea to the islands and shores of western Scotland, taking their language and culture along with them. It was among these folks that Congal, still King of Ulster, took refuge and brooded on his revenge.

Eventually he came back and claimed his throne again. War inevitably followed and conflict raged across Ireland for several until Domnall once more marched north, determined to rid himself of his disgruntled rival once as for all. Hopelessly outnumbered but the advancing army form the south, Congal called on his friends and relatives overseas and an army came to his side. The politics of North Britain were such at the time that the Dal Riadan prince (also called Domnall) could call on allies from neighbouring kingdoms too so along came some British princes from the Brythonic tribes of the Old North (in Welsh, Hen Ogledd), possibly the Gododinn or Ystrad Clud ). Theses were the rump of ancient British kingdoms who had not yet succumbed to the Anglo-Saxons invading from the south. These men spoke an ancient version of the Welsh language. Amazingly, given that all these folks were fighting for the same pieces of land in what is now Scotland, a contingent of Anglo-Saxons came along too. One of this crowd brought along a cavalry cohort, which raises intriguing possible connections to a son or grandson of one of the historical figures (Artuir mac Aedan) identified as a candidate for the inspiration of the legend of King Arthur, recently outlined by David Pillings here: . As we will see, this is not the only Arthurian connection to the battle.

As always in Ireland, there seems to have been a religious element to the whole affair. Domnall's army included a Christian Saint in its ranks, Ronan Finn. Ancient accounts of the battle of Moira mention kings among the Ulster army who are pagans. The ancient poems about the battle abound with pagan celtic spirits and omens. Old Gods like Mannan MacLir and the Morrígan, the celtic battle goddess, make appearances. This is an interesting point. The battle was taking place 200 years after Saint Patrick had supposedly made Ireland Christian and 74 years after Saint Columba had founded Iona, yet supposedly parts of the north still followed the old ways. 

Readers of Irish legend, Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien, Joseph Heller and Neil Giaman’s “American Gods” will be familiar with the character of “Mad Sweeney” , a pagan Dalriadan King who is driven insane in the heart of battle and goes and spends the rest of his days living in the woods thinking he is a bird until he eventually suffers a threefold death. Arthurian and Welsh scholars will see direct parallels with the story of Merlin and the Battle of Arfderydd . I will no doubt return to this subject in a future post. Suffice to say, the battle where Sweeney went mad was Moira. By co-incidence there are still a few with the Sweeney surname in and around Moira and Lisburn. Whether they are related or not I can’t say.

After several days of heavy fighting Congal was killed and his army was defeated. The result was that Domnall and the O’Neils extended their influence over the north, which they ruled for the next 1000 years until the Flight of the Earls in 1607. The Dal Riadans lost their remaining Irish lands and from then on their energies were focused in north Britain in the foundation of the fledgling Kingdom that eventually became Scotland.

Moira still bears some echoes of the battle. In the 1830s a newspaper report mentioned the finding of large numbers of human and horse bones during the construction of the railway line near Killultagh. A similar account mentions another vast quantity of human bones being found near the Lime Kilns on Claire Hill. There are old townland names within the village that point to further clues: Carnalbanagh translates as “Grave (Cairn) of the Scots” - or rather “Of those from Alba”, the old name for Britain. Beside it is Aughnafosker, usually translated as “field of slaughter”. Moira itself means “Plain of the raths (ancient ringforts)” and at one time there were many of those in the area. Unfortunately most of them have been destroyed by over-zealous farmers and property developers.
A few survive, like the one in the middle of the roundabout:

Or the huge Pretty Mary's Fort, the ramparts of which are still impressive:

Aughnafosker is mostly covered by the housing development in which I live and last week work began on covering the final green field part of it beneath 70 new houses. 

Can anyone lend me a metal detector?


Cory Marinan said…
Interesting stuff, Tim!

Do you think that the Manannan mentioned above could be one of the other three Manannans mentioned in the Yellow Book of Lecan, and not the deity?
I ask because Manannan is the root of my surname. Until recently, I thought my people took this as a surname with the deity in mind, due to having some maritime prowess. But reading the above link, and finding out that I have several distant Y-DNA matches with men with the Nichols surname, and reading that the Nichols clan has origins in the Ullapool area has me wondering if one of these Manannans could be an actual primogenitor.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts,

Cory Marinan

Popular Posts