The Celtic Literature Collective

The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages

Once Eochaid the son of Enna Cennselach went from the house of Niall of the Nine Hostages, son of Eochaid Mugmedon, southward to his own land, that is, Leinster. Then it befell that in order to ask for food he went to the house of Niall’s poet. That was Laidcenn, son of Bairchid, the chief-poet of Niall. The young man was refused hospitality by the poet.

The same Eochaid came again from the south, destroyed the stronghold of the poet, and killed his only son, Leat son of Laid­cenn. Thereupon for a whole year the poet kept satirizing and lampooning the men of Leinster and cursing them, so that neither grass nor corn grew with them, nor a leaf, to the end of a year.

Then Niall went to Leinster on a raid, and he said that he would not go from them so long as he was alive, or until Eochaid were given him as a pledge and hostage. And this had to be done. So Eochaid was taken to Ath Fadat in Gothart Fea on the bank of the Slaney, and was left there before Niall, with a chain around his neck, and the end of the chain through the hole of a stone pillar. Nine champions advanced towards him to slay him. “Woe”’ said Eochaid, “this is bad indeed!” With that he gave himself a twist, so that the chain broke in two. He seized the iron bolt that was through the chain, and advanced to meet them. He plied the bolt on them so that the nine fell. The other men turned before him down the hill. Those of Leinster pursued them and slaughtered them, so that they fell.

Thereupon Niall came southward once more and reached Inis Fail. “A guarantee shall be given from the men of Leinster,” said Laidcenn, “and let Eochaid come that he may be seen by us at this river for so long as a cow is being milked.”

“Let it be done!” said Bocbaid.

Then his arms were taken away from him. The poet began to revile the men of Leinster and Eochaid, so that they melted away before him. As he was reviling them, Eochaid let fly at him a champion’s stone which he had in his belt, so that it hit the crown of his forehead and lodged in his skull. Thus it was that Laidcenn was killed. Whence the quatrain was sung:

A champion’s handstone-’tis well known--
was hurled...
Eochaid son of Enna threw it 
at Laidcenn the son of Bairchid.

After having raided Leinster, Niall went home, and Eochaid was exiled from Ireland so long as Niall reigned. He wandered until he came to the house of Erc the son of Eochaid Munremur, king of Scotland.

Niall, however, went to obtain kingship as far as Gaul and Italy, and be was called “of the Nine Hostages” because he had five hostages from Ireland, and one hostage each from Scotland and from the Saxons, the Britons and the Franks, whence it is said:

Eochaid’s son of high dignity, noble Niall fiercest shout,
Seized the sway of kingship of Erin and of Alba.
He had a hostage from each province throughout the land of Erin,
He brought to his will without severance four hostages out of Mba.
Hence he was called among the hosts of battlesome warriors,
In the row of bountiful kings, combative Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Now, when they came to the Alps, there was a great river before them, to wit, the Loire of the Alps. They were unable to cross it, and sat down on its banks. As they were there, they saw a single warrior coming towards them. A crimson five-folded cloak was about him. In his hands he held two five-pronged spears. A bent- rimmed shield with a boss of gold was on him. On his belt hung an ivory-hilted sword. His hair was in plaits over his back. “Wel­come to the hero whom we do not know!” said Niall.

“It is for this we have come,” said he.

“What is it for which thou hast come?” said Niall.

“I have come from the Romans to have speech with thee,” said he, “and this day fortnight their hostages will come to thee. Until they come, here am I as a preliminary hostage for thee.”

Others say that their hostages were trysted to the house of Erc son of Eochaid Munremur, the king of Scotland, and that it is there Niall was killed among the bards of the Picts as he was exhibiting his shape to them. Or that it may have been the maidens of the Franks who desired him to exhibit his shape.

Then Erc went towards the assembly. “I shall go with thee,” said Eochaid, “to see my brother in his royal seat before the men of the world.” When they had arrived, Erc said: “That is he yonder!” There was a glen between them. Without the knowledge of Erc, Eochaid shot an arrow from the bow, so that the king fell, dead from that single shot. Thereupon the Franks attacked the Gaels, and the men of Scotland stood by the latter for the sake of their kinship. So they came to Ireland, carrying the body of their king with them. And seven battles were fought in the presence of the dead king.

It was Torna the poet, of Carrac Luacbra, who had fostered Niall.’ Now, when he heard the report that his foster-son had been slain, his foster-brother Tuirn son of Torna said:

When we used to go to the gathering with the son of Eochaid Mugmedon, As yellow as the primrose was the hair upon the head of Cairenn’s son.

Cairenn the curly-black, daughter of Sachell Balb, king of the Saxons, was the mother of Niall.
Said his foster-mother:

His white teeth, his red lips, ...under anger,
His shape like a fiery blaze surmounting warlike Erin.
The hue of his cheeks at all times, even and symmetrical as they were,
Like the foxglove, like a calf’s blood--a feast without a flaw! like the top-branches of a forest in May.
Like the moon, like the sun, like a firebrand was the splendor of Niall, 
Like a dragon-ship from the wave without a fault was Niall the son of Eochaid Mugmedon.
This is a yearnful music, the wail of every mouth in Kerry:
It brings grief upon us in our house for the death of Niall grandson of Muircertach.
That great delight, ‘twas great ease to be in the company of my dear foster-son,
When with the son of Eochaid--'twas no small thing! we used to go to the gathering.

They say, however, that grief for Niall carried off Torna.

By a man of Leinster, then, Niall was killed. Whence is said:

Niall, Eochaid’s son, great in fight--
Erin and Scotland are in affliction:
He through whom a swift Saxon arrow
was put by Eochaid, son of glorious Enna.

That is the Death of Niall son of Eochaid, and of Laidcenn son of Bairchid, by the hand of Eochaid son of Enna Cennselach.