Niall, surnamed Naoighiallach, or, Of the Nine Hostages Was the greatest king that Ireland knew between the time of Cormac MacArt and the coming of Patrick. His reign was epochal.
He not only ruled Ireland greatly and strongly, but carried the name and the fame, and the power and the fear, of Ireland into all neighbouring nations. He was, moreover, founder of the longest, most importing, and most powerful Irish dynasty.
Almost without interuption his descendants were Ard-Rights of Ireland for hundreds of years.
Under him the spirit of pagan Ireland upleaped in its last great red flame of military glory. Of Niall's youth there are many legends, but two in particular show the working of his destiny.
One of these legends tells how, on a day, the five brothers being in the smith's forge when it took fire, they were commanded to run and save what they could. Their father, ( who was looking on and who, say some, designedly caused the fire, to test his sons ), observed with interest Niall's distinctiveness of character, his good sense and good judgement. While Brian saved the chariots from the fire.
Ailill a shield and a sword, Fiachra the old forge trough and Fergus only a bundle of firewood, Niall carried out the bellows, the sledges, the anvil, and the anvil block - saved the soul of the forge, and saved the smith from ruin. His Father then said: "It is Niall who should succeed me as Ard-Righ of Eirinn.
The other legend tells how, on a day when the five brothers were hunting, and all of them sorely thirsted, they at length discovered a well, in the woods, which, however, was guarded by a withered and ugly, repulsive, old hag, who granted a drink only to such as should first kiss her. Thirsty as they were, neither one of Niall's four brothers could muster enough resolve to pay the price.
But Niall unhesitatingly went forward and kissed the ugly old hag, from whom the rags immediately dropped, and the age and witheredness also, disclosing a radiantly beautiful maiden, who was in reality the symbol of sovereignty.
Then before Brian, Fiachra, Ailill, and Fergus were permitted to quench their raging thirst all four of them had to yield to Niall their chances for the kingship, and swear loyalty to him. Niall's first foreign expedition was to Alba, to subdue the Picts.
The little Irish (Scotic) colony in the part of Alba just opposite to Antrim had gradually been growing in numbers, strength, and prestige-- until they exited the jealousy and enmity of the picts, who tried to crush them.
Niall fitted out a large fleet and sailed to the assistance of his people. Joined then by the Irish in Alba, he marched against the Picts, overcame them, took hostages from them and had Argyle and Cantire settled upon the Albanach Irish.
After obtaining obedience from the picts, his next foreign raid was into Britain. When Maximus and his Roman legions were, in consequence of the barbarian pressure upon the Continental Roman Empire, withdrawing from Britain, Niall, with his his Irish hosts and Pictish allies, treaded upon their hurrying heels. Yet did the Romans claim victory over Niall.
For it is said he was the host referred to by the Roman poet, Cluadian, when in praising the Roman general, Stilicho, he says Britain was protected by this bold general.
Gildas, the ancient British ( Welsh ) historian, records three great devastation's of Britain by the Scots ( the name they give to the Irish) of which the invasion led by Niall was probably the first.
It was in one of these Gallic expeditions that the lad Succat, destined under his later name of Patrick to be the greatest and noblest figure Ireland ever knew, was taken in a sweep of captives, carried to Ireland and to Antrim, there to herd the swine of the chieftain, Milcho. Many and many a time, in Alba, in Britain, and in Gaul, must Niall have measured his leadership against the best leadership of Rome, and pitted the courage and wild daring of his Scotic hosts against the skill of the Imperial legions.
Yet his fall in a foreign land was to be compassed, not by the strategy of might of the foreign enemy, but by the treachery of one of his own. He fell on the banks of the River Loire, in France, by the hand of Eochaid, the son of Enna Ceannselaigh, King of Leinster, who from ambush, with an arrow, shot dead the great King. Niall had many sons and, many Ulster Gaelic noble family's claim decent from this great man.
One of Niall's sons, Conal Gulban, against the will and command of his father, led his brothers, Eogan, Carbri, and Enna Fionn to found kingdoms in the northwest of Ireland.
The instigation of Conal Gulban's disobedient march of conquest was the slaying of his tutor by the Connaughtmen. From Connaught he then conquered the northwest of the Island - the present counties of Donegal and Tyrone, and parts of Derry, Fermanagh, Leitrim, and Sligo. Tír Conal ( Donegal ) Conal Gulban reserved for himself. Tír Eogan ( Tyrone ) became the domain of Eogan.
The northwest of Sligo and north Leitrim went to Carbri. And Enna Fionn was settled in the southern shoulder of Tír Conal. Eogan became ancestor of the royal house of O'Neill of Tyrone, and Conal Gulban of the royal house of O'Donnell, of Donegal.
Although in later centuries the Cinel Conal and the Cinel Eogan developed a fierce rivalry, so great was the affection between the brother founders of the two families that when Conal Gulban was killed in 464 by a clan of the Firbolgs, on the plain of Magh Slecht, in the present county of Cavan, his brother, Eogan, within a year after, died of grief.