Niall of the Nine Hostages was the greatest king that Ireland ever knew. His reign was epochal, and was the Irish equivalent of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. He not only ruled Ireland greatly and strongly, but carried the name and the fame, and the power and the fear, of Ireland into all neighbouring nations. He was, moreover, founder of the longest, most important, and most powerful Irish royal dynasty. Almost without interruption his descendants were the High Kings of Ireland for 600 years. Under him the spirit of pagan Ireland leaped up in its last great flame of military glory. In later generations, this was to be superseded by another great flame, less fierce but just as powerful; which spread to the bounds of neighbouring nations to the uttermost ends of Europe. That was the flame kindled by Patrick, which was to expand and grow for centuries. Niall of the Nine Hostages, or Níall Nóigiallach, was the youngest son of Eochaidh Mugmedon (King of Connacht), by his second wife. He succeeded Criomthainn as king. He became the 126th High King of Ireland. His brothers were Fíachra and Brian. Niall became High King in 445 A.D., and reigned until his death in 453 A.D. Niall was said to have ruled over Tara, but modern historians think it more likely that Niall’s descendants founded Tara, and that Niall himself actually set up his kingdom at Uisnech, another "royal hill" in Meath.
In Niall's time, Ireland was governed in a loose federal arrangement of four large provinces (Ulster, Munster, Leinster & Connacht). A fifth province, known as Meath (the centre) bordering all four of the other provinces, and joining the sea to the Shannon river, was set aside as the central governing area ruled from Uisneach at first, and later from Tara. The four provinces each had their own King, and central control fell to the most powerful of these, who would become High King. The four provincial Kings would, at least nominally, be subservient to the High King. One of the first verifiable historical Irish leaders, Niall Noígillach, died still High King King in 453; His brother Fiachra's children were Amalgaid macFiachrach, Dathaí macFiachrach, and a third son whose name is unknown. Dathaí went on to also become King of Ireland. Niall was grandson of Muiredeach Tireach. This grandfather Muiredeach Tireach was the 123rd Gaelic monarch of Ireland. His father, Eochaid Muig Medon, son of Muiredeach, became High King mid way of the fourth century, becoming the 124th Gaelic monarch. By his second wife, Carthann or Carinna, daughter of a British king, Eochaid had the son Niall, his youngest offspring, who thereby inherited royal blood on both his paternal & maternal lines. By his first wife, Mong Fionn, daughter of the King of Munster, Eochaid had four sons, Brian, Fiachra, Ailill, and Fergus. It was no lowly pedigree - Niall's father, and his grandfathers back to those other legendary figures Cormac MacAirt and Conn of the 100 Battles represented an unbroken line of royal Irish kings. Niall went on to become the 126th king of all Ireland, and had 12 sons by his two wives, Inné and Roighneach.
It is said that Niall was responsible for having captured the young boy, later to be St. Patrick, along with his 2 sisters during a raid along the coast of Britain. In 405, Niall led an expedition against Britain, where it is thought that he may have captured the young Romano-British boy named Succat but becoming known as Patricus,son of Calpurnius, a local magistrate, from somewhere in the region of the modern Milford Haven. A son of Niall, who later followed his father as High-King at Tara circa 427-430, welcomed St. Patrick to his court in 432. Patricus later came to be known as St.Patrick. And in the 27th year of his reign, this Patrick was first brought into Ireland at the age of 16 years, among 200 children brought by the army out of Britain. He carried back hostages, many captives, and great booty from these expeditions and from his excursions into Britain, Armorica & Gaul. Yet how often out of evil cometh good. It was in one of these marauding expeditions that the lad Succat, destined under his later name of Patrick to be the greatest and noblest figure Ireland ever knew, was taken in a sweep of captives, carried to Ireland and to Antrim, there to herd the swine of the chieftain, Milcho, on Slieve Mish.
From Ireland & Britain, Niall marched with his victorious army of Irish Scots, Picts and Britons further into Gaul (France) in order to the conquest thereof; and he was the first that gave the name of Scotia Minor to Scotland and ordained it to be called so ever after, till then (and still by the Irish) called Albion. Niall must have made many incursions into Britain and indeed several into Gaul. Many and many a time, in Alba, in Britain, and in Gaul, must Niall have measured his leadership against the best leadership of Rome, and pitted the courage and wild daring of his Gaelic hosts against the skill of the Imperial Legions. And the Nine Hostages? In his time, it was usual to for victorious conquerors to take captives, usually of exalted rank, as hostages for the good (i.e. subservient) subsequent behaviour of the vanquished. Niall is said to have taken princely hostages from the nine great kingly regions he subdued. These were the Irish in Ulster, Munster, Leinster & Connacht; the Saxons of Britain, the Picts of Scotland; the Morini of Gaul and of Picardy.
Niall was famed and feared for his raids on Britain along with his brothers and sons. He eventually came to control most of the Northern half of Ireland. He conquered the Uliad aristocracy, which ruled in Ulster, and by this victory and subsequent consolidation of power was able to found a dynasty, the Uí Neill, which gave rise to the O'Neill clan. Three of his sons founded kingdoms in Ulster (collectively the Northern Uí Neill), other sons founded kingdom in the Irish midlands (the Southern Uí Neill). His children included Conall macNéill, after whom Donegal was names Tír Conaill; Eóghan (Owen) macNéill, after whom the Inishowen peninsula is named; Coirpre macNéill, who went on to also become King of Ireland; Laoghaire (Leary) macNéill, another to succeed as King of Ireland; and Conall Cremthainne macNéill. His own brother Brian established the dynasty which provided the kingship, nobility and the aristocracy of Connacht for 600 years, and through that kingship, the frequent high-kingship of Ireland right up to the 12th century.
As he was encamped at the River Loire in Gaul, Niall was treacherously slain by Eochaidh, who was a son of Eanna Ceannselaigh, the King of Leinster, as he sat by the riverside; in revenge of a former wrong by him received from the said Niall, A.D. 405. Yet his fall in a foreign land was to be brought about, not by the strategy or might of the foreign enemy, but by the treachery of one of his own. Niall was killed by Eochaidh, Prince of Leinster while in Gaul (France) in a ford of the river Leon (now called Lianne) that spot is now called the Ford of Niall near Boulogue-sur-mer. He fell by the hand of Eochaidh; who, from ambush, with an arrow, shot dead the great king in revengefor some ancient wrong. Niall was the first to refer to Alba (Scotland) as "Scotia Minor" and Inis Ealga (Ireland) as "Scotia Major". Niall had no children with his first wife Inné, but had 12 sons with his second wife Roighneach. These sons were called Eoghan, Laoghaire, Conall Gulban, Aliall, Fiachadha, Máine, Cairpire, Fergus, Aonghus, Ailthearg and Fergus Ailtleathan.
The importance of Niall for succeeding generations, apart from the heroic exploits which give him legendary status, has been in the way his conquests are reflected not only in place-names across all of Ireland, but also in the clann names which preceded the present-day surnames or family names of so many Irish families of Gaelic origin, as well as a great many of the proper-names/first-names too. Literally hundreds of Gaelic forenames & surnames derive directly from this extraordinary king and his immediate family, siblings, successors and descendants. Although the names are far too numerous to list fully, they do include not only the O'Neills dynasty all over Ireland, but more locally, they include the Kellys, the MacEgans, the Donellans, the Maddens, Larkins, Finnertys, Cosgraves and Mooneys - and that's just in the territory of Hy Many (Uí Máine, named for Niall's son, Máine Mór, who conquered this territory from the pre-Celtic Fir Bolgs in 457 A.D.). In the neighbouring territory of Uí Fíachrach, (Named for Niall's brother, Fiachra) one can add the distinguished clans of the O'Hynes and O'Shaughnessys; as well as the Kilkellys, Fahertys, Kineaveys, Phelans, Keans & Coynes. The Uí Brían region (named for Niall's oldest brother Brían) gave us the nobilities of Síl Murray, and the great clans of the O'Connors, McDermots, O'Flaherty, O'Rourke, O'Reilly and McManus. The territory of Cinéal Fiacha (named for Niall's grand-nephew, son of Dathí the High-King) gave us the great Gaelic clans of the Geoghegans, Molloys and Donoghers. And so it goes, in each of the great regions of Gaelic Ireland where Níall Mór left his lasting imprint, now spread all over the world; and recalled wherever the exiles' children raise a glass.