410AD is largely regarded as the date for the end of Roman Rule in Britain. Throughout the final years of disintegrating Roman administration, letters were sent complaining of raids into the north of the Province of Britannia by a tribe called the Scoti, or Scots. These raiders were not from Scotland, however, which did not yet exist as a united realm under that name. They lived in the north east of Ireland.
These Scots seem to have acted like ancient vikings – arriving in ships, attacking nearby settlements and towns and leaving with their ships laden with plunder and captives bound for a life in slavery in Ireland. One of the more famous of these stolen people was the son of a Roman Decurion now known as Saint Patrick. According to legend, the young Patrick during his enslavement worked as a shepherd on the slopes of Slemish in what is now County Antrim, an area that falls within the borders of an ancient kingdom called Dal Riada.
Like the later vikings, the Scoti at some point seem to have stopped leaving the scenes of their crimes and began to settle down. The Annals of Tigernach, have an entry for the year 501 AD/CE that states “Feargus Mor mac Earca cum gente Dal Riada partem Britaniae tenuit, et ibi mortuus est” – Fergus Mor (“Big Fergus”) MacErc with the people of Dal Riada took part of Britain and he died there. Another legend says he died at Carrickfergus in County Antrim but regardless of that it signals the start of a kingdom that spanned the north east of Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. A dynasty of Kings ruled both sides of the Irish sea for the next hundred and fifty years. There appears to be some debate among modern scholers about which side of the Irish sea Dal Riada actually originated on, but by the end of the seventh Century the Gaelic language and to an extent culture existed both in north east Ireland and western scotland and the isles.
The kingdom was divided among several clans or kindreds: Cenél nGabráin (kindred of Gabrán) based in Kintyre, the Cenél Loairn (kindred of Loarn) in north and mid-Argyll and the Cenél nÓengusa (kindred of Óengus) based on Islay. In Ireland the centre of power was at Dunseverick on the north coast of County Antrim. The picture below was taken not far from there and illustrates how close the two countries are at that place. In a time when the fastest way to get about was by water, standing on the north Antrim coast, the mull of Kintyre was closer and easier to get to than Belfast.
In Alba, as they called the island of Britain at the time, as they expanded their influence, the Dalriadans came into conflict in the north west with the Kingdom of the Picts. To the south west they fought the Old Britons of Alt Clut and the English, who were expanding north themselves. In 603 they clashed with King Æthelfrith of Bernicia. The Dal Riadan army was led by their King, Áedán mac Gabráin, who Bede refers to as “King of the Irish in Britain”. Despite having fewer men, the English won the day and effectively ended Dal Riadan expansion to the south. On the face of it this could be seen as a clash between English and Irish, but as usual though (like for example the battles of Brunanburgh or Clontarf) the picture is murky when you start to poke into it. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle mentions, for example, that Herring, Æthelfrith’s cousin and a Bernician prince, led part of the Dal Riadan army against the English.
Áedán is said to have had a son called Artúir, and some bloke called Dave Pilling :-) wrote about him as one of the potential candidates for the “historical” King Arthur (http://pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.co.uk/…/real-arthurs.… ). This isn’t the only tentative Arthurian connection to Dal Riada, there is another I’ll mention later. If you are still reading by then.
Another significant defeat for Dal Riada followed in the next generation, this time in Ireland. In 637 AD one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history occurred at Magh Rath (modern day Moira in County Armagh, and the village I live in).
Congal Cláen, King of Ulaidh (Ulster), had been High King of Ireland, but an accident involving a bee sting resulted in him being blinded in one eye. No longer physically perfect, this meant he could no longer hold the High-Kingship which even in the Christian-era had sacred connotations. Before long he was at war with his successor (and foster father and owner of the bees that blinded him), Domnall mac Áedo of the Clan Connell who had taken his place as High King. Congal called on his allies to support him and among those who came was an army from Dal Riada. The politics of North Britain were such at the time that the Dal Riadan prince brought with him allies from neighbouring kingdoms too so along with him came some British princes from the Brythonic tribes of the Old North (in Welsh, Hen Ogledd, possibly the Gododinn or Ystrad Clud ). Amazingly, given that all these folks were fighting for the same pieces of land in what is now Scotland, a contingent of Anglo-Saxons came along too, possibly again exiled princes from Bernicia.
As always in Ireland, there seems to have been a religious element to the whole affair. Domnall's army included a Christian Saint in its ranks, Ronan Finn. Accounts of the battle of Moira mention kings among the Ulster army who are pagans, including one from Dal Riada. This is an interesting point. The battle was taking place 200 years after Saint Patrick had supposedly made Ireland Christian and 74 years after Saint Columba had founded Iona, yet supposedly parts of the north still followed the old ways. Readers of Irish legend, Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien, Joseph Heller and Neil Giaman’s “American Gods” will be familiar with the character of “Mad Sweeney”, a pagan Dalriadan King who is driven insane in the heart of battle and flees across the sea to Alba (modern Scotland), spending the rest of his days living in the woods thinking he is a bird until he eventually suffers a threefold death. Modern readers would call this PTSD, but Arthurian and Welsh scholars will see direct parallels with the story of Merlin/Myrddin Wyllt and the Battle of Arfderydd.
The Ulster side lost and this date effectively marks the end of the Irish part of the Dal Riada story, though connections continued. The Kingdom in north Britain persisted though. By 843 it was ruled by Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) who finally united (whether by violence or diplomacy this is needless to say debated) Dal Riada and the Kingdom of the Picts and became Kenneth I of Alba, a moment that could be argued as the birth of the modern concept of Scotland as a political entity.
There is lots more to this tale so I'll probably post again sometime