The Spear-Mighty

Overshadowed in legend by their contemporaries to the north, south, and west, the history

Gaelic tribes circa 800 AD.

Gaelic tribes circa 800 AD.

of the Laigin tribes is no less rich. The land of these confederate tribes formed roughly what would become the Province of Leinster in southeastern Ireland. “Their ancestor figure was Labraid Loingsech or Labraid Móen, a legendary prince who was tormented by Cobhthach, his evil uncle. Cobhthach slew Labraid’s father and forced the boy to eat his heart, an ordeal that robbed the young prince of the power of speech. Seeking revenge, he enlisted the assistance of a force of Gaulish warriors, who helped him to depose Cobhthach, and it was from the Gauls’ distinctive broad spears (laighne) that the name Laigin derived” (Zaczek, 2000, p. 52).

In this post, we’ll take a brief look at the Laigin (pronounced LAH-yin) and their territories at the beginning of the historical period (400-800 AD).  Much of what survives in the annals are lists of battles from about 452-516 in their struggle against the southern Uí Néill for control of Tara and the Middle Kingdom (Míde). Although they put up a good fight, the Laigin inevitably lost that struggle. In addition to annalistic documents, other early literary sources include a collection of regnal poems which “are specific in their claim that the Laigin were entitled to be kings of Tara” (Byrne, 1973, p. 142). More to come about these works in a future post. Below is a list of major Laigin tribes along with some specifics about their territory and early history.

Uí Cheinnselaig(EE XENN-shal-oik) “Descendants of Cennsalach;” a southern tribe centered on the River Slaney near Ferns. The tribe’s ancestral home was at “Ráith Bile in Carlow along the western foothills of the Wicklow mountains in the region of Baltinglass” (Byrne, 1973, p. 149). They enjoyed a certain independence from the northern rulers (the rí ruirech or overking of the Laigin ruled from the Liffey Plain). Their king Brandub mac Eachach defeated Áed mac Aimmerech of the Uí Néill at the Battle of Dún Bolg in 598, putting an end to Uí Néill expansion into Laigin territory.
Uí Dúnchada(EE DOON-χad-dah) “Descendants of Dúnchad;” a subdynasty of the Uí Dúnlainge whose territory reached northeast to Dublin; their royal seat was at Liamain (Castlelyons on the Dublin-Kildare border) (Byrne, 1973, p. 150-151).
Uí Dúnlainge(EE DOON-loin-yeh) “Descendants of Dúnlaing;” After pushing the Uí Failgi to the northwest and the Uí Garrchon, Uí Erechglais, Uí Máil, and the Uí Briúin Chualann to the east, the Uí Dúnlainge maintained a strong hold on the Life (LIffey) Plain. They held the overkingship of the Laigin from 738 until 1042 (Byrne, 1973, p. 150).
Uí Enechglais(EE ENN-eχ-gloiss) “Descendants of Enechglas;” This tribe failed to protect the interests of the Laigin in the midlands and were driven eastwards across the mountains in the sixth century AD (Byrne, 1973, p. 130).
Uí Fáeláin(EE FAY-loin) “Descendants of Fáelán;” a subdynasty of the Uí Dúnlainge; descended from Fáelán son of Murchad mac Brain. Their stronghold was at Naas, from which they ruled the eastern part of the Plain of Life (Airther Liphi) (Byrne, 1973, p. 150).
Uí Failgi(EE FALL-yee) “Descendants of Failge;” The monastery of Kildare was located in their territory. To the northwest of Kildare stood the ringfort of Ráith Imgain (Rathangan), the royal residence of the kings of the Uí Failgi. They lost their hold on the LIffey Plain and were pushed to the northwest by the Uí Dúnlainge, losing territory in Offaly and Westmeath (Byrne, 1973, p. 142-153).
Uí Garrchon(EE GARR-χonn) “Descendants of Garchonn;” Another tribe which lost their hold on the Liffey Plain in the sixth century and retreated east across the mountains (Byrne, 1973, p. 130).
Uí Máil(EE MOIL) “Descendants of Máel;” They retreated east across the Wicklow Mountains into political impotence after losing their control of the Liffey Plain to the Uí Dúnlainge in the eighth century AD (Byrne, 1973, p. 130).
Uí Muiredaig(EE MIR-eek) “Descendants of Muiredach;” a subdynasty of the Uí Dúnlainge; descended from Muiredach son of Murchad mac Brain. The tribe was “centered at Maistiu (Mullaghmast) in south Kildare, which was the original home of the Uí Dúnlainge” (Byrne, 1973, p. 150).

According to Zaczek, the Laigin are “thought to be one of the most ancient races of Celtic invaders, second only to the Erainn” (2000, p. 54). We’ll consider the Erainn next as we continue our circuit around ancient Ireland. And we’ll revisit the Laigin later this year when we take a look at those archaic regnal poems.

SOURCES

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

Zaczek, I. (2000). Ireland: land of the Celts. London: Collins & Brown.

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