Challenging the Uí Néill dynasty

Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (d. 1022) belonged to the Clann Cholmáin dynasty, a branch of the Uí Néill's based in the midlands, around Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath. The main centre of power for the Clann Cholmáin kings was Dún na Scíath (Fort of Shields), a raised ringfort and the crannóg (man-made island settlement) called Cró-Inis.

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The Uí Néill had dominated Irish politics for centuries and monopolised the kingship of Tara, the most prestigious kingship in Ireland.

It is unclear when exactly Máel Sechnaill became king of Mide, but he had held this position for a number of years before the death of Domnall Uá Néill, high-king of Ireland, in 980. After Domnall's death, the high-kingship passed to Máel Sechnaill. 

Máel Sechnaill secured his position in 980 following a great victory over the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin, Amlaíb Cuarán, who challenged him at the Battle of Tara.

Following quickly on the heels of his success at Tara, Máel Sechnaill attacked Dublin and forced its submission. The settlement would be subject to his overlordship for years to come.

The contemporary annalistic record known as the Chronicon Scotorum notes that, after this victory, Máel Sechnaill ended the slavery of the Irish in Dublin. He proclaimed:

that anyone of the Irish that is in the territory of the foreigners in bondage and oppression should depart thence to his own land in peace and rejoicing. That army was the end of the Babilonian captivity of Ireland."

Chronicon Scotorum, s.a. 980, p. 195.

 He quickly recognised the threat posed by Brian Boru in Munster and launched an attack into Dál Cais territory. Despite his best efforts over the next twenty years, Máel Sechnaill was unable to prevent the growing political dominance of his main rival, Brian Boru.

Submission to Brian and the Battle of Clontarf

Brian gradually gained the submission of lesser Irish kings who had previously been under Máel Sechnaill's authority. Shortly after Brian established his control over Dublin in 999 Máel Sechnaill was finally forced to submit and acknowledge him as high-king.

Máel Sechnaill now regularly played a supporting role in the military campaigns led by Brian Boru around Ireland in opening years of the eleventh century.

Although Máel Sechnaill was present at the Battle of Clontarf, it is unclear exactly what role he played. Following Brian's death on the battlefield, Máel Sechnaill retook the high-kingship and held it until his death in 1022. There was no disguising the fact, however, that the authority and prestige of the Uí Néill had been seriously undermined by the unprecedented achievements of Brian Boru.

 

Sources: 

Kathleen Hughes, Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources (Cambridge, 2008). 

Harold Mytum, 'The Vikings and Ireland: Ethnicity, Identity, and Culture Change' in James H. Barrett (ed) Contact, Continuity and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic (Turnhout, 2003), pp 113-137.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, 'Bréifne Bias in Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib' Ériu Vol. 43 (Jan 01, 1992), 135-158

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Brian Boru: Ireland’s Greatest King? (Stroud, 2007).

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Essex,1995).

John Ryan, 'The Battle of Clontarf' in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jun 30, 1938), 1-50

John Ryan, 'Brian Boruma, King of Ireland' in Etienne Rynne (ed.), North Munster Studies: Essays in Commemoration of Monsignor Michael Moloney (Limerick, 1967), pp 355-374.

Trivia: 
When Máel Sechnaill first took over as king of Dublin he freed all of the slaves currently residing in the town.