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BATTLE OF BALLYSHANNON, 738 A.D.

Kildare Voice 25 Aug 2007
Battle of Ballyshannon
by
EOGHAN CORRY
 
 
As significant dates in Kildare’s history go, August 18th may not be the most important of all, but it may be the most important of the forgotten.
The Battle of Uchbad, or Ballyshannon near Athy, influenced everything that came afterwards, including the writing of history, our perception of ourselves and the creation of our county’s identity.
The few details we have, the account of the winners and the losers and the casualties might not be accurate. All the annals don’t carry it – those that do record that High King Aed Allin defeated the Laigin, Aed mac CoIggen, king of Leinster, and “many sub-kings” were killed by the High King Aed Ailill on Tuesday August 18th or Wednesday August 19th 738.
The reference to many sub-kings suggest a significant battle at a time when the nature of Irish warfare was not particularly destructive - single combat was preferred by foes. Leinster was a troublesome province, having killed a previous High King at Allen in 722. This battle brought it back in line.
Ballyshannon’s significance is that in removing Aed mac Colggan from the picture it empowered the Kildare dynasty that was to monopolise the kingship of Leinster between 739 and 1042.
The boundaries of modern Kildare were shaped by the events of that period.
 
Remarkably, the Kildare dynasty divided into three kindreds which rotated the kingship of Laighin. This is unusual in early Irish history, the equivalent of “keeping three oranges in the air”, according to Professor Francis John Byrne, Professor of Ancient Irish History at University College Dublin.
After a bloody start the three swapped the anointing oil in a remarkably even handed arrangement, fourteen Ui Meiredaig kings (later to become the O’Tooles) were based at Mullaghmast/Maigin, nine Ui Faelain kings (later to become the O’Byrnes) were based at .Naas/ Nas na Riogh and ten Ui Dunchada kings (later the FitzDesmonds) were based at Lyons Hill/ Liamhain.
Their kingdom prospered. The dual cult of the kingdom’s two great monasteries, Kildare and Glendalough, grew famous throughout Ireland. Kildare was one of the first stone churches in the country and its treasures, such as the reliquary in gold and silver created for the saint’s relics in Kidlare in 799  were among the marvels of the age.
By the 9th and 10th century the Ui Dunlainge were buying themselves a place in history. Their paid propagandists claimed their descent from a mythical god-figure, Dunlaing son of Enna Nia, and purchased place-myths for prominent Kildare landmarks in the newly compiled heroic and romantic literature such as the Dindeanchas, (Dinnshenchas Erenn).
By the time the arrangement unraveled, and unravel it did (members of the family found themselves on opposite sides at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014), seventh cousins were rotating the kingship.
 
How did they do it? Ancient Irish kingship involved a complicated balancing act. The 8th century Crith Gablach, a Machiavelli-style list of instructions to Kings, lists a band of warriors and a weeping pit as among their required possessions, to keep foes at bay and to imprison the hostages of vassal kindreds.
To stay in power for 300 year, the Ui Dunlainge had to be good at it.
The rules were simple. You kept clear of stronger kindreds, which in Kildare’s case meant those to the north in Meath, the titular High Kings of the Annals, and exploited weaker kindreds, which meant those to the south east. They also kept a watchful eye on the Munster men to the south west.
It was a business arrangement. Kings and their retinue could demand extortionate amounts of cattle and hospitality from subject people, and in turn had to provide the same for the higher kings.
The arrangement was catalogued by the Brehons, as were the penalties for incursions, fatalities and breakdowns in the system.
 
Ui Dunlainge’s system endured, as the kingdom saw off its enemies and recovered from setbacks, including an unsuccessful attempt to take over Tara and the arrival of Vikings in 833 to raid Kildare’s monastery sixteen times, the most destructive raid coming in 836.
Yet the kingdom endured for another century until Donal Claen (his name translates as Slanty Dan) had the misfortune to be captured by the Dublin Vikings, sending the Lyons kindred into decline, especially as they had just lost control of the abbacy of Kildare. The last of the Naas kings, Cerball mac Muirecain, was buried in Kill in 909.
When the last Kildare-based King of Laighin, Murchad Mac Dunlainge died in 1042 the Ui Dunlainges were a spent force, deflated by their own complicated rotation system. The last of the three oranges was dropped.
The Kingship of Leinster reverted to the Ui Cinnseallaig sept (descendants of Aed mac Colggan) who had been waiting in the long grass in Wexford.
In 1132 Kildare monastery was destroyed by the most famous Ui Cinnseallaig king, Diarmait Mac Murchada, when he forced the abbess to marry one of his followers and installed his niece as abbess.
Diarmait’s and Leinster’s world was soon to change as the Cambro-Norman knights he had invited to help him win the kingship of Ireland took over the kingdom. Kildare ended up in the hands of one of those families, the Fitzgeralds.
The FitzDesmonds by then had done a clever deal with the Normans and relocated to Bray. According to the traditional history, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles retreated to the mountains to fight another day.
That version of events too, has been challenged by modern historians. The new version as several O’Byrnes doing a deal to keep their lands. The Ui Dunlainge talent for politics does not seem to have deserted them altogether.
 
Key Dates
633 Faolán becomes first Kildare based King of Leinster.
709 Wexford takes Kingship of Leinster.
722 High King killed by Wexford king in Battle of Allen
738 Battle of Uchbad, High King kills Wexford King
739 Kildare recapture kingship of Leinster
770, 781, 808 Kildare kings lost battles against High King
835 Kildare king “anointed” by High king
1042 Last Kildare based King of Leinster dies
 

Eoghan Corry looks at the effects of one of the most significant battles in Co. Kildare's history in his column of 17 August 2007 in The Kildare Voice. Out thanks to Eoghan


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