According to Adomnán’s seventh century life of St Columba the saint recognised Áedh of Slane as worthy of kingship, and seven of his descendants would hold the title of Ard Rí or High King in the second half of the seventh century and the early part of the eight (Price 1950, 21-22, 30-34). Áedh traced his ancestry to Niall Noígiallach (of the nine hostages) and thus was part of the royal house of the Uí Neill who would come to dominate Meath and Ulster in the later first millennium AD. Áedh’s descendants, the Síl nÁedo Sláine, were described as kings of Tara or of Mag Breag ‘the plain of the cleared hills’, which was a territory that could have extended as far north as the River Dee in Co. Louth and as far south as the River Tolka in Co. Dublin but, although its W boundary is less certain, the River Boyne was never any form of a barrier. St Patrick considered Slane important enough to light the first defiant Pascal fire there, and he appointed Erc as the first abbot of its church. By the late seventh century the Síl nÁedo Sláine was developing two power nodes. At the Battle of Imlech Pích in AD 688 a northern cohort under Congalach Mac Connaigh, together with the Ciannachta of Louth and east Meath, was defeated by a southern section under Niall Mac Cernaig Sotal that came to be associated with Lagore crannog (ME038-027----). For the next century the northern Síl nÁedo Sláine are sometimes styled as kings of the Ciannachta, but by the early ninth century they are described as Rí Cnogba – king of Knowth. At the end of the ninth century Flannacán Mac Cellaig (ob. 896) becomes the progenitor of an aggressive branch which would provide kings of Knowth and of Brega for almost a century.
Flannacán’s son, Máel Mithig (ob. 919) was able to enter into an advantageous alliance with the powerful Clann Cholmáin rulers of the west part of the province of Meath, and either with or against the Vikings of Dublin, he was able to extend his reach to the national stage. His son, Congalach (rule c. 932-956), continued the policy of aggrandisement. In 935 ‘the cave of Cnogba’, probably then the home of Congalach’s brother Áedh, was attacked by Dublin Vikings in the same week that they sacked Lagore crannog (Byrne 1968, 397). Vikings had previously ‘searched the caves of Cnogba’ in 863. In 944 Congalach, together with the men of Leinster, sacked Dublin, which may have given him the wealth and patronage to continue his career. In the same year the leadership of Clann Cholmáin suffered setbacks and Congalach was able to claim the supreme title of Ard Rí which he held until his death in 956. However, he was not completely effective in that role as Munster and Leinster never recognised his authority.
From this time the undefended settlement at Knowth could have assumed the status of a royal residence as it moved closer to the centre of national politics, although Congalach can seldom have been present. In 945 he defeated a band of northern raiders and took the hostages of Connaught. In 947 the northerners raided Slane, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Congalach’s authority, at a time when his Viking allies seem to have deserted him. In retaliation Congalach attacked Dublin once but the Vikings raided Slane annually for a few years. However, in 950 Congalach defeated Ruaidrí Ua Canannáin and the northern menace dissipated for a while, although Viking attacks on Meath churches continued. In 951 when he seemed to be in control of the north part of Ireland he was able to place a fleet on the River Shannon and threaten Munster. In reality Congalach could only rely on the forces of Brega and Meath, as he discovered when raids by Domhnall Ua Néill of the Cenél Eóghan, a sept of the northern Uí Néill, resumed in 954 with the aid of Dublin Vikings. In 956 Congalach was murdered at the gathering of Oenach Liffe by Vikings allied with the Leinster men, leaving the way was open for Domhnall Ua Néill to claim the High Kingship.
After Congalach’s death his descendants are described as ‘worthy to be King of Temrach (Tara)’ which recognises their kinship with Congalach and their ancestral rights, but the family never regains the supreme power. Congalach’s son Domhnall (ob. 976) manages to retain the authority of the king of Brega, but his political activity is reduced to Meath and its borders. As a son of a recent High King Domhnall was a threat to the reigning King, and in 970 Knowth, together with the Dublin Vikings, was triumphant over the High King in a battle at Cill Mona. However, the Síl nÁedo Sláine weren’t in a position to take advantage of the victory and the following year Clann Colmáin had to repulse the Cenél Eóghain king. In the following generations the descendants of Congalach recede from the regnal lists when faced with the rising power of the Máel Sechnaill dynasty from Clan Colmáin in the west part of the province. At the battle of Tara in 980, which secured Máel Sechnaill’s power in Meath – Brega, no descendent of Congalach is listed as present. Thereafter, descendants of Congalach appear at best as minor allies, and it is not certain that they were still connected with the settlement at Knowth. (Byrne 1967-8; Swift 2017)
Much of the history of the northern Síl nÁedo Sláine in the tenth and eleventh centuries when they were at the centre of Irish politics coincides with the period when the settlement at Knowth was assured enough to exist without earthwork fortifications and took the form of a cluster of houses on the mound of Tomb 1C. By the end of the eight century a humus had developed over the deposits in the fosses of the rath (ME019-030040-) indicating its abandonment, and this was followed by an introduced layer of earth to level up the tops of the fosses, which then became the locations where houses were built. The mounds of the satellite tombs on the E side of the great mound may have been levelled at this time and a rough cobbling was established over much of the area. It is not known how many houses related to this phase there may have been on top of the mound but 14 houses on the sides of the mound, most of which are built over the lower fosse at E or W, were recorded, and one house was built NE of the mound. In addition, five metalworking areas and the nine souterrains, including some that were connected with the E tomb, are associated with this phase. (Eogan 2012)
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of upload: 17 September 2020
See the attached illustration:
_1 Early medieval features, from Knowth 5, Fig. 4:1
Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.