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Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaidlocked

(d. 862)
  • T. M. Charles-Edwards

Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid (d. 862), high-king of Ireland, was king of Mide before succeeding Niall mac Áeda (Niall Caille) as king of Tara (high-king) after the latter's death in 845. His mother was Aróc, daughter of Cathal mac Fiachrach from a neighbouring Uí Néill dynasty in northern Brega. His father, Máel Ruanaid mac Donnchada (d. 843), had been king of Mide (modern Westmeath, with parts of Meath and Offaly) but was one of the least effective rulers to come from the great midland dynasty of Cland Cholmáin. In 841 Máel Sechnaill defeated a coup against his father mounted by his cousin Diarmait mac Conchobair. When Máel Ruanaid died two years later, Máel Sechnaill succeeded, apparently without much opposition.

Threats to Mide

The situation for Mide and for its ruling dynasty was exceedingly dangerous. The establishment of the fortified 'ship-ports', longphuirt, at Dublin and Lind Duachaill in 841 had shifted the main sphere of viking attacks from the north to the midlands. The vikings had temporary wintering camps, as on Lough Neagh in 839 or Lough Erne in 924–5; but Dublin became the principal permanent base of the vikings in Ireland, comparable with Kiev on the Dnieper, while Lind Duachaill in Louth was occupied until 927. The situation of the two early longphuirt of Dublin and Lind Duachaill—astride the low-lying eastern coastlands between the Mourne and Wicklow mountains—posed a direct threat to the kingdom of Máel Sechnaill. In 841, two years before Máel Sechnaill succeeded his father as king of Mide, the vikings of Lind Duachaill marched right across the midlands to Tethbae (approximately the modern co. Longford), immediately to the east of the Shannon. Tethbae, however, was perhaps the most important of the Uí Néill client territories which had to be controlled by Cland Cholmáin, whose own lands lay further east around Lough Ennell. The capacity of the vikings to strike so far west threatened the authority of the king of Mide by revealing his inability to defend his principal clients.

Since 829 Mide had been under severe pressure from the king of Munster, Feidlimid mac Crimthainn. By 831 he had secured overlordship of Leinster, normally a perquisite of the Uí Néill; and, from 832, he began a series of attacks on the border kingdoms of Fir Chell (containing Durrow, Lynally, and other major churches) and Delbnae Bethra (containing Clonmacnoise). His intention was evidently not just to make the kingdoms tributary but to obtain control over major churches normally aligned with Cland Cholmáin. By 840 he appears to have attained this objective, however temporarily. Neither Máel Sechnaill's uncle, Conchobar mac Donnchada (high-king of Ireland; d. 833), nor his father, Máel Ruanaid, were able to repel Feidlimid's attacks. By 843, however, when Máel Sechnaill succeeded his father as king of Mide, the tide of Munster power was on the ebb: Feidlimid was by now an old man and would die in 847. The most immediate threat was, therefore, the vikings, who were now at the high point of their military activity in Ireland and were, moreover, concentrating their attacks on the southern Uí Néill, rulers of the midlands, perhaps precisely because they had been weakened by Feidlimid's attacks.

Military successes

Under such severe pressure, the Irish rulers appear to have perceived the necessity of co-ordinating their efforts. In 845 Máel Sechnaill captured a viking leader Turgéis (Turges), who had established himself on the Shannon, and drowned him in Lough Owel (drowning seems to have been the method of execution used for kings who had flouted normal political standards). The year 848 saw a series of viking defeats at the hands not just of Máel Sechnaill but also of the new king of Munster, Ólchobar, of Tigernach, king of southern Brega, and of the Éoganacht of Cashel. These successes were on a scale sufficient to merit notice in the continental annals of St Bertin. In 849 Máel Sechnaill and his ally, Tigernach, were able to sack Dublin itself.

In the years from 849 to 853 neither the Irish nor the vikings maintained any dependable unity. One of the southern Uí Néill rulers, Cináed mac Conaing, king of Ciannacht Breg, 'rebelled against Máel Sechnaill by virtue of the power of the Foreigners' in 850, 'and plundered the Uí Néill from the Shannon to the sea' (Ann. Ulster). He took particular care to sack the crannog of the rival Síl nÁeda Sláine king of south Brega at Lagore and to burn the adjacent church of Trevet. If Síl nÁeda Sláine as a whole, namely the Uí Néill of the eastern midland area known as Brega, had defied the authority of the Cland Cholmáin over-king and had sought an alliance with the Dublin vikings, Máel Sechnaill might have been in severe difficulties, but, as usual, the internal rivalries of the Uí Néill of Brega—shown by the sacking of Lagore and the burning of Trevet—came to his rescue. In the very next year, 851, the power of the Foreigners, in which Cináed mac Conaing had trusted, was not enough to prevent him from being executed by drowning at the command of Máel Sechnaill and Tigernach mac Fócartai, king of Lagore. The inability of the vikings to protect Cináed may have been due to their own divisions. In 849 a fleet of 140 ships 'of the household of the king of the Foreigners' (Ann. Ulster) 'came to enforce his power over the Foreigners who were already there and they threw the whole of Ireland into confusion'. Under the year 851 the annals of Ulster record the arrival of 'the dark heathens' in Dublin, where 'they made a great slaughter of the fair foreigners' and plundered the longphort. They also attacked Lind Duachaill in the same year, but with less success. The identity of 'the dark heathens' and 'the fair heathens' has been a matter of uncertainty since the eleventh century. What is clear is that the division originated outside Ireland, that it caused some disarray among the vikings for a few years, but that it was soon rendered ineffective by the Scandinavian royal leaders who entered Ireland from 853.

The first of these leaders, Olaf (Amlaíb, Óláfr), is described by the annals of Ulster as 'the son of the king of Laithlind'; and they add that 'the foreigners of Ireland gave hostages to him and tribute was paid by the Irish'. Yet in the next year, 854, Máel Sechnaill led an army into Munster and took the hostages of the Munstermen, a clear demonstration, apparently, that he was not merely still king of Tara, in spite of the hostages given to Olaf, but also that he proposed to make that kingship into an effective monarchy of Ireland by means of military power: he had survived the viking onslaught and could now take revenge on Munster for the humiliations inflicted by Feidlimid mac Crimthainn on his father and uncle. He made another expedition to Munster in 856 in the very year in which the annals of Ulster record 'a major war between the heathens and Máel Sechnaill who was supported by Norse-Irish [Gallgoídil]'. These 'Norse-Irish' appear in the annals for the first time in this year. In 858 he 'came with the men of Ireland to the lands of Munster', and, after defeating the kings of the Munstermen, 'he took their hostages from Bélat Gabráin in the east to the Bull Island in the west, and from the Old Head of Kinsale in the south to Inisheer in the north' (Ann. Ulster).

The annalist, almost certainly writing in the territories of the southern Uí Néill, was not disposed to minimize Máel Sechnaill's achievement. Yet it is worth examining carefully what he says. He suggests that the victory was not won over the king of Munster, but over 'their kings', one of whom was left dead on the battlefield. Moreover, even if due allowance is made for rhetorical exuberance, the point of saying that hostages were given from the four quarters of Munster must be that the client kings of Munster, not just their provincial king, had been made to submit personally to the king of Tara. In effect, Máel Sechnaill was bypassing the political authority of the king of Munster, just as Olaf, in taking the hostages of the Irish, had bypassed the authority of the king of Tara.

Assembly at Rahugh

In 858 Cenél Fiachach, a client people in Mide, and the Gallgoídil of Leth Cuinn were defeated by Cerball, king of Osraige, himself allied with Ímar, one of the principal viking leaders. Cerball was the brother of Máel Sechnaill's wife, Land (or Fland; d. 890), mother of his heir, Flann Sinna. Máel Sechnaill responded directly, and in an unprecedented way, to this continued defiance from the king of Osraige. In 859 he held a royal meeting at Rahugh, a church within the kingdom of Cenél Fiachach, at which the king of Munster, Máel Guala, entered into a formal contract, for which he appointed sureties. The terms of this contract were that Osraige was to be permanently alienated to Leth Cuinn (the lands under more direct Uí Néill overlordship) and would thus come under the direct authority of Máel Sechnaill. Cerball himself made his own formal acknowledgement of the authority of Patrick's heir and the community of Armagh.

The royal assembly at Rahugh in 859 was the high point of Máel Sechnaill's reign as king of Tara. He was to die in 862; and, as often in the history of the Uí Néill, an ageing high-king was challenged by his successor. In this instance the challenger was Áed Findliath of Cenél nÉogain. The habitual alternation between Cland Cholmáin and Cenél nÉogain was maintained, with its usual warlike flurries as one reign ended and another began. What was significant on this occasion, however, was the inability of the vikings to use the growing weakness of Máel Sechnaill to offer their own challenge. There was no question of Olaf or Ímar becoming the next king of Tara. Instead, vikings became part of a distinctively Irish pattern of military and political activity. Moreover, because they became part of that Irish pattern, their military power served the purposes of an Irish king.

Last battles and death

In 859, at the great meeting at Rahugh, the ecclesiastical supremacy of Armagh echoed the political supremacy of Máel Sechnaill. Armagh, however, was the traditional ally of Cenél nÉogain rather than of Cland Cholmáin. It looks as though Áed Findliath must subsequently have put pressure on Armagh to revert to its customary allegiance. In 860 Máel Sechnaill mounted the last of his great campaigns. He was able to secure contingents from Leinster, Munster, and Connacht as well as from his own southern Uí Néill. With them he marched north towards Armagh. Close to his destination he was attacked during the night by Áed Findliath in alliance with Flann mac Conaing, king of Ciannacht Breg. Máel Sechnaill, however, defeated the attackers. In 861 Áed went further and harried Mide, Máel Sechnaill's own kingdom, in company with vikings. In this instance, later in the year, Máel Sechnaill responded to this intervention on behalf of his rival by defeating 'the Foreigners of Dublin' in a battle fought on the north-western frontier of Leinster. It was his last success: in 862, with Máel Sechnaill only a few months away from his death, Áed Findliath again invaded Mide with the aid of Flann mac Conaing and of the vikings of Dublin. A new reign had effectively begun; yet when Máel Sechnaill died on 30 November he was described by the annalist as king of all Ireland; and in support of that title more direct military force had been assembled than by any other king of Tara in living memory.


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