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The Ciannachta were a population group of early historic Ireland. They claimed descent from the legendary figure Tadc mac Cein. They first appear in historical sources in the 6th century, and were found in several parts of the island, including in Brega and Tír Eoghain. The Ciannachta groups were absorbed over time.
The Ciannachta claimed descend from Tadc mac Cein, a member of "the possibly legendary early Munster dynasty, who was said to be a grandson of Ailill Aulomm; Tadc was also the putative ancestor of Luigni and Gailenga – peoples which were located in a number of centres in the midlands and the west of Ireland." (P. Byrne, p. 121).
The Ciannachta kept their independence into the ninth century. However, the battle of Imblech Pich (Emlach, near Kells) in 688 was an important defeat, inflicted upon them by King Niall mac Cernaigh, king of Brega. After this, they lost their independence south of the Boyne, and from this point on were referred to as Ard Ciannachta, reflecting their loss of territory in south-east Brega.
In 742 the king of North Brega, Conaing mac Amalgada began using the title king of Ciannachta, the first of seven North Brega kings to do so. In time, the Ui Conaing conquored and assimilated it into Brega, while retaining use of the title for themselves.
Byrne (p. 126) remarks:
Following the death of Cellach (786), the indigenous Ciannachta never again attained the kingship of their own territory and their political ambitions seem to have been entirely focused on the kingdom of Fir Arda Ciannachta ... The political eclipse of Ciannata Breg from mid-eighth century onwards may have resulted in members of that dynasty transferring their ambitions to the ecclesiastical sphere where one of their kindred, Conmael ua Loichene, took the abbacy of the same church in 733. Another member of the Ciannachta Breg, Ioseph ua Cernae, acceded to the abbacy of the same church in 790 ... Flann Mainistrech ... who died in 1056 is name in the Ciannachta Breg pedigree, as is his son, Echthigern ... who died in 1067.
Branches of the Ciannachta included:
- Ciannachta Breg – found in Brega, later conquered by the Síl nÁedo Sláine
- Ciannachta Glinne Geimin – found in Cenél nEógain, in the barony of Keenaght, County Londonderry
- Ard Ciannachta – barony of Ferrard, County Louth (see Conaille Muirtheimne)
Origin of the name
Admitting that there are significant questions surrounding the tribal name Ciannachta, David Sproule points out that the -acht suffix was used to form only three population-group names in early Ireland, namely the Connachta, Eoganachta and Ciannachta. He states (pp. 31–32)
originally there was one powerful people whose name had that suffix and ... the other two names were formed and adopted in imitation of the first by peoples who wished to emulate them. The original can only have been the Connachta, whose power, position and prestige in the earliest part of the historical period are unquestionable and who loom large in prehistory as the traditional enemies of the Ulaid.
It does not seem that the word "Connacht" can originally have meant 'the descendants of Conn'; it may have meant 'headship' or 'supremacy' from "cond" or "conn", head, and later have been interpreted as meaning "the descendants of Conn", Conn Cetchathach being derived from the word "Connacht" rather than vice versa. ... the name "Eoganacht" and "Ciannacht" were formed in imitation ...
Paul Byrne accepts this hypothesis, proposing the "conjecture that the source of the tribal name was the patron saint of the Ciannachta Breg, Cianan, the founder of Duleek. ... Cianan is, of course, a diminutive form of "Cian." Thus, the name Ciannachta may have been a combination of "Cian" and the suffix "-acht." One may surmise that an ambitious tribe (or grouping of tribes) of relatively insignificant origin based near the church of Duleek – possibly lay tenents of the monastery – decided to forge a new identity based on their adherence to the local founder. Thus they became the "Ciannachta" – 'the people of St Cianan.' fortuitously, the ancestor figure of their neighbours Gailenga and Luigni – Cian mac Ailella Auluimm – would have provided a suitably named ancestor figure when they later sought to construct a new pedigree for themselves."
Cianan was regarded as a very significant figure in very early Irish Christianity, his church at Duleek traditionally stated as the first stone church in Ireland. Cianan himself is reported in the Annals of Ulster as dying in 489, four years before Saint Patrick. No life is extant, but various anecdotes survive, particularly in Felire Oengusso.
The territorial extant of Ciannachta Breg prior to its conquest is uncertain, but believed to have been reasonably large.
Kings of Ciannachta
- Cronan mac Tigernaich – king of Ciannachta in 571, he killed the joint high-kings Baetan mac Muirchertaich and Eochaid mac Domnaill mac Muirchertaich of the Cenel nEoghain. The Annals of Ulster incorrectly refer to him as of Glinne Gaimen, whereas he was of the Ciannachta Breg.
- Gerthide – probably son of the above, king in 594, defeated at the battle of Eudunn Mor in Ciannacht Breg.
- Cenn Faelad mac Gerthide – son of the above, referred to as the king of Ard Ciannacht in 662. Apparently killed at the battle of Oghamain in that year
- Ultan mac Eraine – styled king of the Ciannachta, killed at Oghamain in 662
- Mael Fuataich mac Eraine – brother of above, also styled king, died 662
- Doir mac Mael Duib – styled king of the Ciannachta, fl. 674
- Dub da Inber – styled king of Ardda Ciannachta in the Annals of Ulster in 688
- Dub da Chrich – died in 722, apparently king of Ard Ciannachta
- Ailill mac Cenn Faelad – died 702. Had sons Eodus and Oengus, both kings.
- Oengus mac Ailillo – king of Ard Ciannachta in 737
- Ailill mac Duib da Chrich – a descendant of Cenn Faelad, apparently king of Ard Ciannachta at his death in 749
- Cellach mac Cormac mac Aiillo – king of Ard Ciannachta, died 786
- Muiredach – king of Ard Ciannachta, died 855. His son, Tigernach mac Muiredach, is described as episcopus, princepas Droma Inasclainn on his death in 879.
- 974. Tadhg Ua Ruadhrach, lord of Cianachta, was slain in Ulidia.
- Early Irish History and Mythology, T.F. O'Rahilly, 1948.
- Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberiae i, ed. M.A. O'Brien, Dublin, 1962
- Irish Kings and High Kings, Francis John Byrne, 1971; 3rd edition, 2001. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
- Origins of the Eoghnachta, David Sproule, Eiru 35, 1984, pp. 31–37.
- Ciannachta Breg before Sil nAeda Slaine, Paul Byrne, pp. 121–126, in Seanchas:Studies in Early and Medieval Irish Archaeology, History and Literature in Honour of Francis John Byrne, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000
- The Ard Ciannachta in Adomnan's "Vita Columbae": a reflection of Iona's attitude to the Sil nAeda Slaine in the late seventh century, Michael Byrnes, Seanchas ...", pp. 127–136
- The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, Edel Bhreathnach, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005