The Tale of Two Brothers
Tír Conaill and Tír Eoghain
Between 400 and 500 AD, the Province of Ulster was divided up amongst the sons of the High King, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Two of these newly distributed territories, either by gift or conquest, became known in the west of Ulster as Tír Conaill and Tír Eoghain, the land of Conaill and the land of Eoghain. These counties are now known as Donegal, Derry, and Tyrone.
The inhabitants of these lands became identified as Cenél Conaill and Cenél Eoghain, the Clan of Conaill and the Clan of Eoghain. The descendants of Cenél Conaill eventually made up the Family Clans of the O’Donnells and the O’Dohertys, while the O’Neill Clan descended from Cenél Eoghain.
The Reign of the Brothers
The two brothers were said to be close friends. Prince Eoghain ruled his kingdom from his palace, the ancient ring fort known as the Grianán of Aileach.
Prince Conaill inherited the name Gulban from a mountain in his kingdom named Ben Bulben.
One day, Maewyn Succat visited these two noble men at the Grianán. He was possibly known to them from their childhood, and was now known across Ireland as Saint Patrick. The brothers were baptised by St Patrick, into the Christian faith, at the well in the hill under the Grianán.
As his descendant, the baptism of Conaill Gulban, into Christianity, is a significant event for my spiritual journey; for once the Prince was baptised so were all his subjects and their descendants.
The scene of this baptism is sculpted on the entrance wall to the architecturally award-winning St Aengus Catholic Church of Burt, on the flat below the Grianán of Aileach. The church’s design cleverly reflects the grandeur of the ancient fort on top of the hill.
The artwork also incorporates the legend of the horse-riding warriors who will one day ride out of their earthen stable, buried beneath the Grianán, to liberate Ulster and Ireland.
St Patrick visited a number of sites on Inishowen and his ancient cross is on display today in the town of Carndonagh.
The Deaths of the Brothers
One Friday in 464 AD, so the story goes, Conaill Gulban was warned that an itinerant tribe, called the Masraige, had trespassed into his kingdom and were raiding his horses. He responded by confronting this unacceptable and unruly behaviour but unfortunately overlooked a basic health and safety issue of the times. Sadly, in the ensuing battle, a Masraige spear fatally pierced Conaill Gulban’s body. Conaill, in a possible haste had failed to wear his protective fighting armour or carry his shield and was vulnerable to this fatal wounding. He died at Magh Slecht in modern Co Cavan and was buried by Saint Caillum at Fernagh in modern Co Leitrim.
To add to this tragedy, Conaill’s brother Eoghain died a year later, some say of a broken heart, such was the affection between the two brothers. Eoghain is buried at Iskaheen on the island named after him, Inishowen.
The Two Cenéls and their Kingdoms
Over the next few centuries, the descendants of the brothers lost their affection for one another. They often went to war and unfortunately cousins fighting cousins was normal tribal behaviour. However, the Ulster Kingdoms of Tír Conaill and Tír Eoghain did survive the impact of the savage and damaging Viking raids of the 8th century. These Nordic invaders, after much warfare, were eventually assimilated into Irish life.
Later, unfortunately, in the early 1600s, the Ulster Kingdoms succumbed to colonisation. This destructive invasion by the English Crown was called the Plantation of Ulster, and included the confiscation of Irish-owned land. The Plantation of Ulster had a devastating impact on the O’Doherty clan and their land in Inishowen.
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