Cenn Fáelad mac Ailella

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Cenn Fáelad mac Ailella (alias Cennfaeladh) (died 679) was an Irish scholar renowned for having his memory markedly improve and possibly becoming eidetic after suffering a head wound in battle.


He was a member of the Cenél nEógain, being a grandson of King Báetán mac Muirchertaig (King of Cenél nEógain), a great-great-great-great grandson of Niall Noígiallach, and a first cousin once removed of Aldfrith of Northumbria via his first cousin, Fina.[1]

His father Ailill mac Báetán was murdered in Templeport, County Cavan according to the Annals of Ulster- "U620.1. The slaying in Magh Slécht in the territory of Connacht of the kindred of Báetán, i.e. of Ailill son of Báetán and of Mael Dúin son of Fergus son of Báetán; and the death of Fiachra son of Ciarán son of Ainmire son of Sétna." According to John Healy, Cenn Fáelad's sister Sabina was the mother of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.[2]

Cath Magh Rath[edit]

Cenn Fáelad fought at the crucial Battle of Moira or Magh Rath (Moira, County Down) in 636. During the battle he received a life-threatening head wound, and was afterwards carried to the abbey of Tomregan, County Cavan to be healed in the house of its abbot, Saint Bricín. That this abbey was situated beside Magh Slécht where his father had been slain 16 years earlier may not be a coincidence. His family possibly had land there. This house was situated "where the three streets meet between the houses of the three professors. And there were three schools in the place; a school of Latin learning, a school of Irish law and a school of Irish poetry. And everything that he would hear of the recitations of the three schools every day he would have by heart every night."

The Scholar[edit]

Tradition states that as a result of a head wound, Cenn Fáelad's "brain of forgetting was knocked out of him." The effect of this trauma led him to create "a pattern of poetry to these matters and he wrote them on slates and tablets and set them in a vellum book."

His verses were all composed in quatrains of numbered syllables with regular rhyme, and moderate use of alliteration, in contrast to a more archaic form that was still practised in the south of Ireland at the time (i.e., Leinster and Munster). Most or all of his historical verse relate to his own dynasty, the Cenél nEógain.

This merging of Latin learning, native Irish law and vernacular poetry, in a country which was Pagan only a few generations before, ensured Cenn Fáelad's fame in his own time and beyond.

He was the first poet quoted in the Irish annals, being referred to as sapiens, a technical term denoting a head teacher or professor in a monastic school (though not necessarily a monk himself). Later manuscripts of legal and grammatical texts were attributed to him, though the earliest of them seem to date from about fifty years after his death.

Robin Flower stated "How far these are really his may be a matter of controversy, but there can be little real doubt that the writings by him existed in the period when the vernacular learning was being eagerly cultivated."

A copy of one of the works attributed to him exists in Trinity College, Dublin Ms 1317, written by the grandfather of Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh.

Edward O'Reilly gives a full account of his works in his 'Irish Writers', LXIV sq.; d. anno 678.[3]

A commemorative verse[edit]

Sub anno 668, the Annals of the Four Masters contains an obituary with an accompanying commemorative verse by Cenn Faelad:

Maelfothartaigh, son of Suibhne, chief of Cinel Tuirtre, died. Ceannfaeladh said:

  • Not dearer/ is one king to me than another/Since Maelfothartaigh/ was borne in his couch to Doire.

Verses on Cath Moin Mor Doire Lothair[edit]

  • Sharp weapons were strewn, men were strewn
  • in Moin Mor Doire Lothair,
  • Because of a partition not just;
  • the seven kings of the Cruithni, with Aedh Breac, were in the slaughter.
  • The battle of all the Cruithne was fought,
  • and Elne was burned.
  • The battle of Gabbra Liffe was fought,
  • and the battle of Cul Dreimhne.
  • They bore away hostages after conflict,
  • thence westwards towards Cnuas Nuach,
  • Fearghus, Domhnall, Ainmire,
  • and Nainnidh, son of Duach.
  • The two sons of Mac Earca
  • returned to the same battle,
  • And the king, Ainmire,
  • returned into the possessions of his father Seadna.


His obituary is given in the Annals of Ulster as follows- "U679.2 Cenn Faelad son of Ailill son of Baetán, the learned, rested."

Family tree[edit]

    Báetán mac Muirchertaig
    |                   |           |            |             |
    |                   |           |            |             |
    Colmán Rímid Máel Umai Forannán Fergus Ailill.
    |                               |            |             |
    |                               |            |             |_________________________________
    ?                         Hui Forannáin Cenél Forgusa    |                                |
    |                                                          |                                |
    |                                                          Cenn Fáelad mac Aillila    Sam
    Fín   =   Oswiu of Northumbria                                                             |
          |                                                                                     |
          |                                                                               Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
          Aldfrith (Flann Fína)


  1. ^ [1]. Aldfrith of Northumbria and the Irish genealogies. Ireland, C. A., in Celtica 22 (1991].
  2. ^ "Papers and Addresses: Theological, Philosophical, Biographical, Archaeological – John Healy – Google Books". Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  3. ^ "Transactions of the Iberno-Celtic Society for 1820. Vol. I-Part. I ... – Edward O'Reilly – Google Books". Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 

Further reading[edit]