The Wool-Growers

To date, this site has received 2,583 visitors. Not bad for a remote little corner of the Internet. It’s fun to see what you all search for here. About half the time it looks like you’re finding your search topic. As for the other half – I’m hard at work on that.

Gaelic tribes circa 800 AD.

Recently, there have been searches for information on specific Gaelic tribes. So, first up, the Ulaid – tribes who have been wandering around in my head and in my notebooks for the past twenty years. What follows is a list of major tribes of the Ulaid confederation, along with their known territories and leaders at the beginning of the historical period (600-800 AD). It was a period of contention, expansion, and numerous boundary disputes. The map here is used by permission from Wikipedia. If you click on it, you’ll get a slightly higher resolution, but that’s as good as it gets. There’s a far superior map in Irish Kings and High Kings by Byrne, but due to copyright restrictions, I can’t post it here. If this topic interests you, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on this work, which is still the go-to source for early Irish historical studies, but be prepared to shell out big bucks! There’s a copy on Amazon selling for $45 and another for $312! Really?

The Ulaid or “Wool-Growers” were a group of Gaelic tribes who gave their name to the modern Province of Ulster. They included the Dál nAraide, Dál Fiatach, Dál Riata, Uí Eachach Cobo, Uí Eachach Arda, the Latharna and the Fir Eilne.  They were further divided into two distinct genealogical groups – the Érainn peoples, who migrated from Mumu (Munster), and the indigenous Cruithin.  The Érainn consisted of the Dál Riata and the Dál Fiatach, while the Cruithin were composed of the Dál nAraide and the Uí Eachach Cobo.  Emain Macha was the royal seat of the Ulaid until they were forced north and east by aggressive Uí Néill expansion around 450 AD.  Political relations within the Ulaid confederation were unusual and often strained, for no single dynasty emerged as dominant among the ruling class.  Instead, the kingship passed between the Dál Fiatach and the Dál nAraide.  According to the kinglists, all but 10 of the 62 overkings came from the Dál Fiatach nobility.  Apparently, the Dál Riata were too busy holding their ground against Uí Néill encroachment and establishing a foothold in Albu (Scotland) to compete for the overkingship.  By the beginning of the seventh century, the rí ruirech of the Ulaid and the rí ruirech of the Dál Riata had equal status as overkings and were allies.

The Dál nAraide    (DALL NAR-adge)     “The People of Araide;” one of the two major Cruithin peoples of the Ulaid tribes, which occupied the southern half of the modern county of Antrim.  Their territory was sandwiched between the Dál Riata to the north and the Dál Fiatach to the south.  A northern faction of the Dál nAraide dwelt on the Mag Eilne between the River Bann and the River Bush, while a southern faction ruled from Dún Eadradh, located east of the town of Antrim on the Six-Mile-Water.  The Dál nAraide traced their descent to Fiachu Araide, who was said to have defeated Cormac mac Airt, High King of Éiru from 227 to 266 AD.  The Dál Riata were the primary allies of the Dál nAraide.  The other major dynasty of the Cruithin peoples was the Uí Echach Cobo, who dwelt in the area of Iveagh in the modern county of Down.
The Dál Fiatach   (DALL FĒ-ah-taχ)   “The People of Fiatach;” a successful dynasty among the Ulaid tribes.  Fifty-two of the sixty-two Ulaid overkings named in the kinglists came from the Dál Fiatach line.  Their greatest king was perhaps Báetán mac Cairell, although his reign lasted but a few short years between 572 and 581 AD.  He held the Isle of Man under his control for a while and built up a naval force, challenging both the sea-power of the Uí Néill and the Dál Riata.  Later annalists went so far as to claim that he was High King of both Éiru and Albu, which clearly was not the case.  One account mentions that Áedán mac Gabráin paid homage to him, but two years after Báetán’s death, Áedán seized the Isle of Man, and Báetán was succeeded by two princes of Dál nAraidean lineage.  Although his fortress has been located at Knocklayd near Ballycastle, the main stronghold of the Dál Fiatach was at Dún-dá-leth-glas (Downpatrick) in County Down.  The Dál Fiatach occupied what is essentially all of modern-day Down.
The Dál Riata   (DALL RĒ-ah-tah)    “The People of Riata;” a dynasty among the Ulaid tribes which colonized southwestern Scotland early in the sixth century.  It maintained ties with its Irish half until the upheavals of the Norse invasions in the eighth century.  At the time of their migration, the Dál Riata were squeezed into a territory measuring about 450 square miles, bordered to the west by the River Bush, to the north and east by the sea, and to the south by the Latharna.  This squeeze resulted from the pressures of Uí Néill expansion, and the Dál Riata sought relief in the land that was to become Scotland with their leader – according to legend – Fergus Mór mac Ercca.  However, there is another legend of a migration led by Riata, who a century or more earlier delivered some of the Erainn peoples from a famine in Mumu.  They settled for a time in the modern county of Antrim and then crossed the sea to Argyll in Scotland.  Riata’s people would have had to form a relationship with the British kingdom of Stratclut, a major power source in the region.  The kings of Stratclut may have welcomed Dál Riatan settlement to serve as a buffer between themselves and the Picts.    By the seventh century, three major families, or houses, developed among the Dál Riata in Scotland.  Cenél nGabráin emerged the strongest, supplying most of the dynasty’s kings, while Cenél Loairn contributed a few, and Cenél nÓengusa scarcely figures in its history.

     In 575 AD, a pact was drawn up by the Dál Riata’s most famous king, Áedán mac Gabráin, and the Uí Néill, who thought themselves overlords of the Irish Dál Riata. The agreement reached was this:  the Dál Riata dwelling in Ireland were to provide military service to the Uí Néill but their tribute belonged to Áedán (and his successors) as their rightful overking.

     The Dál Riata’s greatest allies were the Dál nAraide, while they often butted heads with the Dál Fiatach.

Fir Eilne   (FEAR ELL-nyeh) “The Men of Eilne;” a northern branch of the Dál nAraide; their territory stretched between the River Bann and the River Bush.
The Latharna  (LARN-nah)  “The People of Lathair;” they gave their name to the modern city of Larne on the northeast coast.  Lathair was their common ancestor, a son of the legendary king Ugaine Mór, who divided his land between his twenty-five children.
Eachach Arda(EE YOχ-aχ ARD-dah) “Descendants of Eochaid Ard;” a branch of the Dál Fiatach, occupying the Ards Peninsula of modern-day County Down.
Uí Eachach Cobo(EE YOχ-aχ CO-vah) “Descendants of Eochaid Cobo;” inhabited the western reaches of County Down, west of the coastal territory of the Dál Fiatach.


Byrne, F. J. (1973). Irish kings and high kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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