Áed Oirdnide mac Néill
- T. M. Charles-Edwards
Áed Oirdnide mac Néill (d. 819), high-king of Ireland, was the son of Niall Frossach (d. 778); he was king of Cenél nÉogain and subsequently the last king of Tara (high-king) before the viking attacks began to accelerate. In his rule can be seen a further development of the military power of the Uí Néill already visible in the reign of his predecessor and rival, Donnchad mac Domnaill of Cland Cholmáin.
Donnchad mac Domnaill, father of Áed's queen Euginis, died in 797, probably early in the year. His authority, at its height in the 780s, was beginning to decline when Áed Oirdnide made his first attempt to assert his military prestige further south. In 794 he attacked the minor kingdom of Mugdorna Maigen, around Domnach Maigen (now Donaghmoyne to the north of Carrickmacross, co. Monaghan). If he could establish his power in this area, he would find it easier to influence the church of Armagh, by now a traditional ally of his lineage. In 789 Dub dá Leithe, abbot of Armagh, had brought some of the most precious relics of his church to an assembly, probably that of Tailtiu; Donnchad mac Domnaill, an ally of the familia of Columba, rather than that of Armagh's Patrick, publicly dishonoured both abbot and relics at Ráith Airthir, the royal fort nearby. Some years later, Áed Oirdnide would work closely with Dub dá Leithe's son, Condmach, when he, in turn, became abbot of Armagh. Donnchad's death in 797 was rapidly followed by Áed's victory over his sons and their allies in a battle in Brega, just to the south of Tailtiu and within a mile or two of the place where Dub dá Leithe and the relics of Armagh were dishonoured. Later the same year Áed ravaged Mide, the heartland of Cland Cholmáin power, and the annals of Ulster date his reign as high-king of Ireland from that second expedition, not from his victory earlier in the year. The principal rival dynasty from among the Uí Néill had first to be compelled to submit.
The strength of Áed Oirdnide's authority as high-king is illustrated by two very different achievements. The first was the absence of any major viking attacks on Ireland during his reign after 798; the second was his ability to divide and rule. In 802, immediately after the death of Donnchad mac Domnaill's brother, Muiredach, king of Mide, Áed led an army into Mide and divided it between two sons of Donnchad, Ailill and Conchobor. In 804 Áed harried Leinster; military aggression was followed in the same year by a demonstration of ecclesiastical power: the synods of the Uí Néill met at Dún Cuair, a fort just to the north of the Leinster frontier under the presidency of Condmach, son of Dub dá Leithe. The activities of 804 were followed the next year by Áed's division of Leinster between two rivals, both from within the ruling Uí Dúnlainge.
The scale of Áed Oirdnide's military achievements were signalled by an unprecedented reaction. In 808 Conchobor mac Donnchada, by now established as the king of Mide, brought an army of the Connachta, led by their king Muirgus mac Tommaltaig, to challenge the authority of the high-king. The Connachta had not intervened within the territory of the Uí Néill since the sixth century. The annalist, unusually, shows his sympathy when he records that 'after three nights they fled in haste, and Áed son of Niall moved to meet them, and he burnt the borderlands of Mide, and their flight was compared with that of goats and kids' (Ann. Ulster, s.a. 808).
There were no more challenges to Áed Oirdnide's secular authority. Opposition was, however, voiced by two influential monastic communities. The first was the notably ascetic monastery of Tallaght in northern Leinster. In 811 the community of Tallaght prevented the holding of the assembly and fair of Tailtiu, 'so that there arrived neither horse nor chariot on the part of Áed mac Néill' (Ann. Ulster, s.a. 811); the precinct of Tallaght had been invaded by the Uí Néill, and it required many gifts to undo the insult.
Áed Oirdnide also fell foul of the Columban federation. In 817 the annals of Ulster have two entries, formally independent but presumably parts of a single transaction. In the first they record the killing of the head of Raphoe, a church next door to the home kingdom of Áed Oirdnide, but which looked to Adomnán, abbot of Iona and member of the Cenél Conaill, as its founder, and thus part of the community of Columba. That community, therefore, 'went to Tara to excommunicate Áed'. An offence committed in the north-west, the home of both offender and victim, was penalized by an excommunication pronounced at Tara, symbol of a secular overkingship, in the eastern midlands and more than 100 miles from Raphoe.
These episodes do not imply a consistent pattern by which relations with churches other than Armagh were cool if not hostile. If sources of uncertain date and authority are to be believed, Áed Oirdnide freed the churches of Ireland from military service, perhaps on the occasion of the meeting of the synods at Dún Cuair in 804. He is said to have done this at the request of ‘Fothad of the Scriptures’, a renowned exegete. There is also the matter of Áed's own by-name, Oirdnide. The obvious translation, 'ordained', may give a misleading impression. The term 'ordain' was used for any act by which a person's status was enhanced, whether that was a secular or a religious act, such as a blessing or an anointing. Áed was given this by-name in the king-lists, but it does not occur in the contemporary entries in the annals of Ulster. On the other hand, Áed Oirdnide was the contemporary of Charlemagne, there were contacts both ecclesiastical and secular between Francia and Ireland, and innovation in forms of royal or imperial inauguration was the order of the day. Moreover, a king of Munster of the same period may have had some form of ecclesiastical inauguration.
Áed Oirdnide mac Néill died in 819, reputedly at Áth dá Ferta in Conailli Muirthemne (modern co. Louth); there is no record of his burial place. His wife Euginis had died in 802.
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