Dan M. Wiley

title.none: Lacey, The Donegal Kingdoms (Dan M. Wiley)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.025 08.04.25

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dan M. Wiley, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Lacey, Brian. Cenel Conaill and the Donegal Kingdoms, Ad 500-800. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006. Pp. 351. $55.00 1-85182-978-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.25

Lacey, Brian. Cenel Conaill and the Donegal Kingdoms, Ad 500-800. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006. Pp. 351. $55.00 1-85182-978-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dan M. Wiley
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

The modern county of Donegal, located in the northwest of Ireland, was home in the medieval period to no less than twelve different peoples. Two of these peoples, Cenél Conaill and Cenél nÉogain, were to have a profound impact on the course of Irish history, an impact that lasted for over a thousand years. In medieval sources, particularly the genealogies and the sagas, these dynasties are often referred to collectively as the "Northern Uí Néill" because of their supposed kinship with the Southern Uí Néill dynasties of Brega, Mide, and Tethba. However, in his recent monograph Cenél Conaill and the Donegal Kingdoms, A.D. 500-800, Brian Lacey advances the rather controversial claim that the two groups were unrelated to one another. Instead, he suggests that the so-called Northern Uí Néill dynasties-- Cenél Conaill and Cenél nÉogain in particular--originated as separate peoples in their native Donegal homelands--not in Connacht as tradition suggests--and were only later attached to the greater Uí Néill line through a genealogical fiction devised some time in the eighth century, perhaps during the reign of Áed Allán (149). Though these claims may at first take some readers aback, they are nevertheless worthy of serious consideration: The manipulation of genealogical material for political and other purposes is a demonstrable phenomenon in early medieval Ireland, and historians of the period have long been suspicious of the tidy picture of Uí Néill origins presented in the extant sources. The issue here, though, is whether or not Lacey is able to make his case given the limitations of his sources and the speculative nature of his conclusions.

In sketching out the early history of the Donegal kingdoms, Lacey makes expert use of the sources at his disposal--the annals, the genealogies, Tírechán's Collectanea, the Notulae from the Book of Armagh, and the occasional narrative. When citing the annals, he is always careful to distinguish, whenever possible, between contemporary and retrospective entries, and his treatment of the topography and archaeology of Donegal--both important sources for his tentative reconstruction of early political boundaries--is nothing short of impressive. (Lacey directed the archaeological survey of Co. Donegal from 1979 to 1983, and his knowledge of his material is second to none.) However, as the author himself is quick to acknowledge, these sources provide nothing like a clear picture of the emergence of the Donegal kingdoms--no extant sources do--so Lacey must often resort to speculation to flesh out his arguments. As a result, the conclusions he draws are necessarily tentative, and it is important for the reader to bear this in mind, for despite their speculative nature, many of these conclusions have much to recommend them. Particularly compelling, in fact, is his treatment of Cenél nÉogain propaganda in the annals (146 ff), the problematic figure of Muirchertach Mac Ercae (167-75), and the famous battle of Cil Dreimne (176-85). Nevertheless, there are places in the text where readers are likely to question Lacey's conclusions. This is most often the case when the evidence he cites is open to a more canonical (i.e. less controversial) interpretation or when the claim he makes is premised almost entirely on conjecture.

In his discussion of the genealogical affiliations of the northern dynasties, Lacey attempts to demonstrate that Cenél mBógaine, one of the lesser Donegal kingdoms, was unrelated to Cenél Conaill, despite the testimony of medieval sources. After acknowledging that the genealogies and the saga Echtra Conaill Gulban "agree that Cenél mBógaine was part of Cenél Conaill," he says that "it is much more likely that [Cenél mBógaine] originated as a separate and quite independent kingdom. Almost certainly, the annals allow us to see the Cenél Conaill attempting to conquer and expand into Cenél mBógaine territory" (82). He then goes on to provide evidence of this aggression (82-3). Thus, if I have understood him correctly, Lacey is implying that Cenél Conaill would not have expanded into Cenél mBógaine territory if the two people were genealogically related. However, kin-slaying was an all too common part of early Irish politics, particularly internal Uí Néill politics, so the invasion of the one by the other does not--in the absence of further evidence-- preclude the possibility that the two dynasties were related, especially when the genealogies say otherwise.

In another part of the text, Lacey constructs a highly conjectural argument designed to show that Cenél Conaill might well have been related to Uí Echach Cobo, one of the Cruithen dynasties of Ulster. He begins this controversial discussion by drawing attention to two Donegal kings mentioned in the Collectanea, one named Fergus, the other Fothad (66). Although Tírechán does not give their patronymics, Lacey suggests that the Fergus in question is to be identified with Fergus mac Conaill, son of the eponym of Cenél Conaill (66), and that Fothad is to be identified with Fothad mac Conaill, a member of Uí Echach Cobo (68). (The precise reasoning behind these identifications is complicated but not implausible.) However, after settling on these identifications, Lacey poses the following question, saying "We know that in later historic times...the Uí Echach Cobo were located east of the Bann...but is it possible that their ancestors...did originally live in Donegal and that Fergus son of Conall and Fothad son of Conall were brothers?" (68 and 156). He then goes on to construct a genealogy showing the conjectured relationship and to use it as the basis for further speculations (68-9, 156-7). Given the lack of evidence for an Uí Echach presence west of the Bann, it seems to be a bit of a stretch to suggest, even tentatively, that Fergus and Fothad were brothers, let alone to use this speculation to support the much more controversial claim that Cenél Conaill was related to the Cruithni of east Ulster, but that is the argument advanced.

It takes a bold scholar to attempt a history of the formative period of the Donegal kingdoms, and one cannot help but admire the amount of thought and research that went into the production of this book. Although different aspects of his argument are necessarily hampered by the lack of contemporary and reliable evidence, Lacey's central thesis--that the Donegal kingdoms were unrelated to the dynasties descended from Niall Noígiallach--remains tenable and intriguing. Whether or not it will gain wide acceptance remains to be seen, but it is sure to spark a lively debate that will ultimately transform our current understanding of early Irish history.