Niall of the Nine Hostages was the greatest king that Ireland knew between the time of Cormac MacArt and the coming of Patrick. His reign was epochal. He not only ruled Ireland greatly and strongly, but carried the name and the fame, and the power and the fear, of Ireland into all neighbouring nations. He was, moreover, founder of the longest, most important, and most powerful Irish dynasty. Almost without interruption his descendants were Ard Righs of Ireland for 600 years. Under him the spirit of pagan Ireland upleaped in its last great red flame of military glory, a flame that, in another generation, was to be superseded by a great white flame, far less fierce but far more powerful and the bounds of neighbouring nations to the uttermost bounds of Europe. That is the great flame that Patrick was to kindle, and which was to expand and grow, ever mounting higher and spreading farther, year by year, for three hundred years.
Niall was grandson of Muiredeach Tireach. His father, Eochaid Muig Medon, son of Muiredeach, became Ard Righs mid way of the fourth century. By his wife, Carthann, daughter of a British king, Eochaid had the son Niall. By another wife, Mon Fionn, daughter of the King of Munster, Eochaid had four sons, Brian, Fiachar, Ailill, and Fergus. Mong Fionn was a bitter, jealous and ambitious woman, who set her heart upon having her son, Brian, succeeds his father as Ard Righ. As Niall was his father’s favourite, Mong Fionn did not rest until she had outcast him and his mother, Carthann, and made Carthann her menial, carrying water to the court. The child was rescued by a great poet of that time, Torna, who reared and educated him. When he had reached budding manhood, Torna brought him back to court to take his rightful place - much to his father’s joy. Then Niall, showing strength of character, even in his early youth, took his mother from her menial task, and restored her to her place. Of Niall’s youth there are many legends, but one in particular shows the working of his destiny. One day, the five brothers being in the smith’s forge when it took fire, they were commanded to run and save what they could. Their father, who was looking on (and who, say some, designedly caused the fire, to test his sons), observed with interest Neill’s distinctiveness of character, his good sense and good judgement. While Brian saved the cariots from the fire, Ailill a shield and a sword, Fiachra the old forge trough, and Fergus only a bundle of firewood, Niall carried out the bellows, the sledges, the anvil, and anvil block - saved the soul of the forge, and saved the smith from ruin. Then his father said: "It is Niall who should succeed me as Ard Righ of Eirinn".
Niall’s first expedition was into Alba to subdue the Picts. The little Irish (Scotic) colony in that part of Alba just opposite to Antrim had gradually been growing in numbers, strength, and prestige - until they excited the jealousy and enmity of the Picts, who tried to crush them. Niall fitted out a large fleet and sailed to the assistance of his people. Joined then by the Irish in Alba, he marched against the Picts, overcame them, took hostages from them and had Argyle and Cantire settled upon the Albanach Irish. After obtaining obedience from the Picts, his next foreign raid was into Britain. When Maximus and his Roman legions were, in consequence of the barbarian pressure upon the Continental Roman Empire, withdrawing from Britain, Niall, with his Irish hosts and Pictish allies, treaded upon their hurrying heels. Yet did the Romans claim victory over Niall. For it is said his was the host referred to by the Roman poet, Claudian, when in praising the Roman general, Stilicho, he says Britain was protected by this bold general.
"When Scots came thundering from the Irish shores,
And ocean trembled stuck by hostile oars".
Niall must have made many incursions into Britain and probably several into Gaul. He carried back...