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Map of Ireland's over-kingdoms circa 900 AD.
Capital Dún da Lethglas
Languages Irish
Government Monarchy
 -  –465 Forga mac Dallán
 -  1172–1177 Ruaidrí Mac Duinn Sléibe
 -  Established 450
 -  Disestablished 1177
Ulaid during the 12th century and its three main sub-kingdoms, along with some of its neighbouring kingdoms.

The Ulaid (Old Irish, pronounced [ˈʊləðʲ]) or Ulaidh (modern Irish, pronounced [ˈʊləɣʲ]) were a people and dynastic group of early Ireland who gave their name to the province of Ulster.[1] Ulaid was also the name of their over-kingdom, which consisted of a federation of minor-kingdoms ruled by an over-king.[1]

Anciently Ulaid spanned across the whole of the modern province of Ulster, excluding County Cavan, but including County Louth stretching as far south as the River Boyne.[1][2] From the mid 5th-century onwards, the territory of Ulaid was largely confined to east of the River Bann due to encroachment by the Northern Uí Néill and Airgíalla.[1] Ulaid ceased to exist after its conquest in the late 12th-century by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy, and was replaced with the Earldom of Ulster.[1]

An individual from Ulaid was known in Irish as an Ultach, variant spellings being Ultagh and Ultaigh.


Ulaid is a plural noun, indicating an ethnonym rather than a geographic term.[3] The Ulaid are likely the Ούολουντοι (Uolunti or Volunti) mentioned in Ptolemy's 2nd century Geographia.[4] This may be a corruption of Ούλουτοι (Uluti).[citation needed] The name is likely derived from the Gaelic ul, "beard".[5]

In medieval texts the Ulaid are also referred to as the Clanna Rudraige (modern spelling: Clanna Rudhraighe), which has been englished as Clanna Rury. This may mean "descendants of Rudraige" (a personal name) or "descendants of the Rudraige" (a population name, like Dartraige or Osraige). It is suggested that rud is related to ruad (red), and that the Rudraige were named after, and traced their descent to, the so-called "red god". The Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology is called An Rúraíocht in Irish.[6]

Ulaid has historically been anglicised as Ulagh or Ullagh[7] and Latinized as Ulidia or Ultonia.[8][2] The latter two have yielded the terms Ulidian and Ultonian. The Irish word for someone from Ulaid is Ultach, (also spelt as Ultaigh and Ultagh,[2][9] which in Latin became Ultonii and Ultoniensis.[2]

The Ulaid gave their name to the province of Ulster, though the exact composition of it is disputed: it may be from the Norse name "Uladztir", which is an adaptation of Ulaidh and tir, the Irish for "land";[10] similarly it may be derived from Ulaidh plus the Norse genitive s followed by the Irish tir.[11] It has also been suggested to have derived from Uladh plus the Norse suffix ster (meaning place), which was common in the Shetland Islands and Norway.[12][13]


Medieval history[edit]

The Ulaid in the 4th century are claimed as having dominated the north of Ireland as far south as the River Boyne, with their capital still at Emain Macha near present-day Armagh, County Armagh.[11] By the 8th century, under pressure firstly from the Airgíalla who at their greatest extent had conquered central Ulster west of the River Bann,[14] and then from the Northern Uí Néill who advanced from the north-west, the territory of the Ulaid shrunk to east of the Bann into what is now the modern-day counties Antrim, Down and Louth.[11] The taking over of the Ulaid's ancestral lands by the Northern Uí Néill and the end of their glory led to a constant antagonism between them.[11]

Principle sub-kingdoms in the much reduced Ulaid included:

  • The Dál Fiatach, based at Dún-da-Lethglas (present-day Downpatrick, County Down), who dominated the over-kingship of Ulaid and had interests in the Isle of Man;[11]
  • The Cruithin, Dál nAraidi, based at Ráith Mór (near present-day Antrim town, County Antrim). They where the Dál Fiatach's main challengers for the over-kingship;[11]
  • The Uíbh Eachach Cobha, a Cruthin sept, kin with the Dál nAraidi, who also challenged for the over-kingship of Ulaid.[15] They where based in modern-day County Down, possibly at Cnoc Uíbh Eachach (Knock Iveagh).[16]
  • The Dál Riata, based in the Glens of Antrim, who since the 6th century where expanding throughout the Scottish Isles and south-western mainland, founding the kingdom of the Scots.[11]

Ulaid would put up stern resistance to further encroachment from the Northern Uí Néill, however in 1004 their king and most of their nobility were slaughtered in a battle at their inauguration site, Craeb Telcha.[11] The result was a bloody succession war amongst the Ulaid, and their inability to provide any useful aid to the High King of Ireland Brian Boru when he marched to force the submission of the Northern Uí Néill's most prominent clan, the Cenél nEógain.[11]


Despite the turmoil amongst the Ulaid, they continued to survive but not for much longer. In 1177 Ulaid was invaded by the Normans led by John de Courcy, who in a surprise attack captured and held the Dál Fiatach capital, Dún-da-Lethglas, forcing the Ulaid over-king, Rory MacDonleavy, to flee.[17][18] Over the following years, despite some defeats, de Courcy expanded throughout Ulaid, and shifted the focus of power in Ulster.[17] De Courcy would style himself as princeps Ultoniae, "master of Ulster", and ruled his conquest like an independent king.[18] The Uíbh Eachach Cobha in central and western Down however escaped conquest.[17]

In 1199 King John I of England sent Hugh de Lacy to arrest de Courcy and take his possessions. In 1205, de Lacy was made the first Earl of Ulster, founding the Earldom of Ulster, with which he continued the conquest of the Ulaid. The earldom would expand along the northern coast of Ulster all the way to the Cenél nEógain's old power-base of Inishowen.


Although Francis John Byrne describes the few La Tène artefacts discovered in Ireland as 'rather scanty',[19] most of the artefacts (mostly weapons and harness pieces) have been found in the north of Ireland, suggesting 'small bands of settlers (warriors and metalworkers) arrived' from Britain in the 3rd century BC, and may have been absorbed into the Ulaid population.[20][page needed]

Territory and relations[edit]

The general scholarly consensus since as early as the time of Eoin MacNeill has been that the Ulaid were apparently kin to the so-called Érainn,[21] or at least to their royal families, sometimes called the Clanna Dedad, and perhaps not their nebulous subject populations.[22] T. F. O'Rahilly notably believed the Ulaid were an actual branch of the Érainn.[23] In any case, certainly related to the Ulaid are the less widely known Dáirine, also another name for the Érainn royalty, and both were related to or derived from the Darini of Ptolemy.[24]

Clans and septs[edit]

Clans and septs of the over-kingdom of Ulaid include:[25][26][2]

  • The Ui hEochadh (Hoey/Haughey), old names for the MacDonlevy dynasty.
  • The Mac Duinnshléibhe (MacDonlevy), rules of Dal Fiatach and over-kings of Ulaid.
  • The Ui Mathghamhna (McMahon)
  • The Ui Luingsigh (O'Lowry/Lynch)
  • The Clann Aodha (O'Hughes), whose chiefs ruled in the area of modern County Down near its border with modern County Antrim.
  • The Mag Aonghuis (Magennis/McGuinness), a Cruthin Dál nAraidi dynasty who came to rule Uí Echach Cobo, in western County Down.
  • The Ui Duibheanaigh (Downey (surname)/O'Devaney), whose chiefs ruled in Cinel Amhalgaidh (Clanawley) in County Down.
  • The Ui Duibhleachain (O'Doolan), chiefs of the Clan Breasail in an area near modern Kinelarty, County Down
  • The Ui Coltarain (Coulter), whose chiefs ruled Dal Coirbin, which lay within the barony of Castlereagh
  • The Ui Fhloinn (O'Lynn), chiefs of the Ui Tuirtre, an Airgiallan people seated on the east side of the River Bann and Lough Neagh in County Antrim.
  • The Mac Aodh (McGee), who ruled what is now known as Islandmagee, County Antrim.
  • The Mac Gobhann (McGowan) of the Clanna Rory, who produced several of the over-kings of the Ulaid and who were expelled to Donegal by the English in the late 12th century.
  • The O'Kelly of the Clan Brasil, Mac Coolechan in County Down.
  • The Mac an Ultaigh (Nulty/McAnulty), descended from the exiled MacDonlevy dynasty.
  • The Ui Gairbidh (O'Garvey), ruled Uí Echach Cobo.

In medieval literature[edit]

Medieval Irish genealogists traced the Ulaid's descent from the legendary High King Rudraige mac Sithrigi.[27] The Ulaid feature in Irish legends and historical traditions of prehistoric times, most notably in the group of sagas known as the Ulster Cycle. These stories are set during the reign of the Ulaid king Conchobar mac Nessa at Emain Macha (Navan Fort, near Armagh) and tell of his conflicts with the Connachta, led by queen Medb and her husband Ailill mac Máta. The chief hero is Conchobar's nephew Cú Chulainn, and the central story is the proto-epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, "The Cattle Raid of Cooley".

In this period Ireland is said to have been divided into five independent over-kingdoms—or cuigeadh, literally meaning "a fifth"—of which Ulaid was one, with its capital at Emain Macha.[28][29][30] Medieval pseudo-historians called this era Aimser na Coicedach, which has been translated as: "Time of the Pentarchs";[29] "Time of the Five Fifths";[28] and "Time of the provincial kings".[31] It was also described as "the Pentarchy".[29][30]

In some stories Conchobar's birth and death are synchronised with those of Christ, which creates an apparent anachronism in the presence of the Connachta. The historical Connachta were a group of dynasties who traced their descent to the legendary king Conn Cétchathach, whose reign is traditionally dated to the 2nd century.[32] However, the chronology of early Irish historical tradition is inconsistent and highly artificial.[33] One early saga makes Fergus mac Léti, one of Conchobar's predecessors as king of the Ulaid, a contemporary of Conn,[34] and Tírechán's 7th century memoir of Saint Patrick says that Cairbre Nia Fer, Conchobar's son-in-law in the sagas, lived only 100 years before the saint, i.e. in the 4th century.[35]

Kenneth Jackson, based on his estimates on the survival of oral tradition, also suggested that the Ulster Cycle originated in the 4th century.[36] Other scholars, following T. F. O'Rahilly, propose that the sagas of the Ulster Cycle derive from the wars between the Ulaid and the midland dynasties of the Connachta and the nascent Uí Néill in the 4th and 5th centuries, at the end of which the Ulaid lost much of their territory, and their capital, to the new kingdoms of the Airgíalla.[37] Traditional history credits this to the Three Collas, three great-great-great-grandsons of Conn, who defeated the Ulaid king Fergus Foga at Achad Lethderg in County Monaghan, seized all Ulaid territory west of the Newry River and Lough Neagh, and burned Emain Macha. Fergus Foga is said to have been the last king of the Ulaid to reign there. The Annals of the Four Masters dates this to AD 331.[38] O'Rahilly and his followers believe the Collas are literary doublets of the sons of Niall Noígiallach, eponymous founder of the Uí Néill, who they propose were the true conquerors of Emain in the 5th century.[39]

It should be noted that the Kings of Tara in the Ulster Cycle are the kindred of the Ulaid, the Érainn, and are generally portrayed sympathetically, especially Conaire Mór. It was remembered that the Connachta and Uí Néill had not yet taken the kingship. Tara was later occupied by the Laigin, who are to some extent strangely integrated with the Connachta in the Ulster Cycle.[40] The latter later took the midlands from the Laigin and their historical antagonism is legendary. The Érainn, led by Cú Roí, also rule in distant Munster and, while presented as deadly rivals of the Ulaid, are again portrayed with unusual interest and sympathy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Connolly (2007), p. 589.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Hack (1901), p. 38.
  3. ^ a b Byrne (2001), p. 46.
  4. ^ a b Ptolemy. "Book II, Chapter 1. Location of Hibernia island of Britannia". Geographia. Retrieved September 2015. 
  5. ^ Karl Horst Schmidt, "Insular P- and Q-Celtic", in Martin J. Ball and James Fife (eds.), The Celtic Languages, Routledge, 1993, p. 67
  6. ^ Price, Glanville. The Celtic Connection. Rowman & Littlefield, 1992. p.73
  7. ^ a b Lewis, Samuel (1837). "County Down". A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland. Retrieved September 2015. 
  8. ^ a b Irish Archaeological Societ (1841). "Volume 1". Tracts Relating to Ireland Publications. Retrieved September 2015. 
  9. ^ Robert Bell; The book of Ulster Surnames, page 180. The Blackstaff Press, 2003. ISBN 0-85640-602-3
  10. ^ a b Bardon (2005), p. 27.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Duffy (2014), pp. 26-27
  12. ^ a b Taylor, =Rev. Isaac (1865). "Words and Places: Or, Etymological Illustrations of History, Ethnology, and Geography". Macmillan & Co. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  13. ^ a b Froggart, Richard. "Professor Sir John Byers (1853 - 1920)". Ulster History Circle. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  14. ^ a b Connolly (2007), p. 12
  15. ^ a b Placenames NI. "Iveagh". Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  16. ^ a b Placenames NI. "Drumballyroney". Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  17. ^ a b c d Bardon (2005), pp. 33-37
  18. ^ a b c Adamson (1998), pp. 116-7
  19. ^ Byrne, Francis John, Irish Kings and High-Kings. Four Courts Press. 2nd revised edition, 2001.
  20. ^ Connolly, S.J, The Oxford companion to Irish history. Oxford University Press. 2nd edition, 2007.
  21. ^ Eoin MacNeill, "Early Irish Population Groups: their nomenclature, classification and chronology", in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (C) 29. (1911): 59–114
  22. ^ Eoin MacNeill, Phases of Irish History. Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son. 1920.
  23. ^ T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p. 81
  24. ^ Discussed at length by O'Rahilly 1946
  25. ^ John O'Hart, Irish Pedigrees; or, The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, 5th edition, in two volumes, originally published in Dublin in 1892, reprinted, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1976, Vol. 1, p 311-312, 427, 466, 819-820, 872
  26. ^ a b Hack (1901), p. 16-8.
  27. ^ O'Rahilly 1946, p. 480
  28. ^ a b c Hurbert, pp. 169-171
  29. ^ a b c d Eoin MacNeill (1920). The Five Fifths of Ireland. 
  30. ^ a b c Hogan (1928), p. 1.
  31. ^ a b Stafford & Gaskill, p. 75
  32. ^ R. A. Stewart Macalister (ed. & trans.), Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland Part V, Irish Texts Society, 1956, p. 331-333
  33. ^ Byrne 2001, p. 50-51.
  34. ^ D. A. Binchy (ed. & trans.), "The Saga of Fergus mac Léti", Ériu 16, 1952, pp. 33–48
  35. ^ Ludwig Bieler (ed. & trans.), The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh, Tírechán 40
  36. ^ Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Oldest Irish Tradition: a Window on the Iron Age, Cambridge University Press, 1964
  37. ^ O'Rahilly 1946, pp. 207–234
  38. ^ Annals of the Four Masters M322-331
  39. ^ Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, "Ireland, 400–800", in Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History of Ireland Vol 1, 2005, pp. 182–234
  40. ^ Apparently the Laigin had a prehistoric presence in Connacht and may once have been its sovereigns. See Byrne, pp. 130 ff.


  • Adamson, Ian (1998). Dalaradia, Kingdom of the Cruithin. Pretani Press. ISBN 094886825-2. 
  • Bardon, Jonathan (2005). A History of Ulster. The Black Staff Press. ISBN 0-85640-764-X. 
  • Byrne, Francis J. (2001). Irish Kings and High Kings. Four Courts Press. 
  • Connolly, S.J. (2007). Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7. 
  • Cronnelly, Richard Francis (1864). A History of the Clanna-Rory, Or Rudricians: Descendants of Roderick the Great, Monarch of Ireland. Goodwin, Son and Nethercott. 
  • Duffy, Seán (2014). Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf. Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-7171-6207-9. 
  • Hack, G.H. (1901). "Genealogical History of the Donlevy Family" (PDF). Chaucer Press, Evans Printing Co. 
  • Hogan, James (1928). The Tricha Cét and Related Land-Measures. Royal Irish Academy. 
  • Hurbert, Henri. "The Greatness and Decline of the Celts". 
  • Meginnes, John Francis (1891). Origin and History of the Magennis Family. Heller Brothers Printing. 
  • Stafford, Fiona J., Gaskill, Howard. "From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations". 

External links[edit]