he battle of Magh Rath, fought A.D. 637, is one of the most important recorded in the Irish annals; it is mentioned by Adamnan, Abbot of Iona; by the Annalist Tighernach; also in the Chronicon Scotorum, the Annals of the Four Masters, and O’Flaherty’s Ogygia. The entry of Tighernach is as follows :-” A.D. 637.-The Battle of Magh Bath was fought by Domhnall, son of Aedh, and by the sons of Aedh Slaine, (but Domhnall at this time ruled Temoria), in which fell Congal Cacth, King of Uladh, and Faelan, with many nobles; and in which fell Suibhne, the son of Colman Cuar.” O’Flaherty’s entry is much more minute and copious. We quote from Hely’s translation :- “In the year 637, the battle of Moy-rath, in Ulster, is fought by Domnald the Second, King of Ireland, and the sons of Aid Slany, monarch of Ireland, against Congall Olaen, the son of Scandal, King of Ulidia, who was [had been] vanquished in a battle at Dun Kethern, in the year 629, and banished into Britain for his factious and aspiring measures. He levied a great army for this battle, composed of Albanian Scots, with their king Domnall Brec and his brothers, of Picts, Anglo-Saxons, and Britons. In this battle, which continued for seven days, Congall was killed, the rest obliged to fly in the utmost consternation, and Suwney, the son of Cuar, lord of Dalaradia, was drowned. Concerning this war, Adamnan says as follows:-‘ This prediction was fulfilled in our days, in the war of Rath, when Domnal Bree, the grandson of Aidan, was depopulating, without any provocation, the provinces of Domnill, the grandson of Ainmireeh; and, from that day to this, they have been reduced to the last extremity by foreigners: which gives me the most heartfelt concern.'” But the longest and most interesting account of this battle is found in a historical tale of the fifteenth century, the “Cath Muighe Rath”, translated and edited by Dr. O’Donovan, for the Irish Archeological Society, in 1842 and which the editor says has been evidently compiled from earlier accounts.
harles O’Conor, of Belanagare, in his Disertations on the History of Ireland, has entered at great length into the history of the battle, and the consequences which might have ensued had victory leaned to Congal Claen; which, doubtless, would have been the subversion of the independence of the kingdom. We believe O’Conor was the first person who assumed the identity of Magh Rath with the present Moira, in the county of Down; an opinion which has been since uniformly accepted by succeeding writers. It is, therefore with considerable hesitation that the present writer his adopted another view; but as his sole object is the elicitation of truth, and as the subject has been adverted to in this Journal, he has, although with some reluctance, determined on giving his reasons to the public-to be taken quantum valeant.
n endeavouring to discover the true site of the battle, we shall select from the Cath Muighe Rath such incidents as may lead to this object, and the names of all the localities mentioned in im mediate connection with the conflict. The topographical features are indeed few; the progress of the contending armies is not given; and after an elaborate eulogium on King Domhnall, we are at once introduced to “The plain of Magh Comair, afterwards called Magh Rath”, of the Red Pools, where the armies remained fighting for six full days. The monarch, Domhnall, after passing a sleepless vigil, before the seventh and final day of this fierce and hard-fought field, is described as going forth vigorously in the morning, it being Tuesday, “The ninth day of the summer quarter, the eighth of the calends of July,” and advancing to “Tulchan na d-Tailgenn, in the middle of the camp, where the distinguished saints of Erin were used to chant their vespers and say their prayers;” and from thence sending Gair Gann, the son of Feradhach, to request the arch-chieftains of Erin to hold a consultation whether battle or conditions should be given to Coxggal. Dr. O’Donovan translates the above name as “the hillock of saints”, and observes that it is now forgotten at Moira. The resolution adopted by the council was to not submit to CongaI, but to give him battle and put down his ambition without mercy. The king in a long address calls on the hosts of Munster, Leinster, Desmond, and Ossory, the men of Meath, and of the race of Eoghan, to repel the attacks of the Ultonians and foreigners, to fight the battle firmly, fiercely, and obstinately, a battle which had been foretold by Columkille, of the race of Niall of the Nine Hostages:
et there be rapidity in your hands of fame, And slowness in your feet; Let there be no step west or east, But a firm manly step. Ye sojourners, I am your head, Ye splendid soldiers of Erin, Ye high-minded kernes of fame, Give battle around the king of Tara.
The nobles having arrayed their forces, equipping their arch-princes in protecting helmets and de fending shields, raising their glittering swords, warlike lances and broad javelins, in one great battalion of princes and kings, closing in a circle of shields around Domhnall; the latter detached six teen chieftains of his own tribe to repel every attack from his breast, charging Cellach, the son of Maelcobha, afterwards his successor as monarch of Ireland, to watch and relieve the puissant race of Niall out of every difficulty. Meantime Congal, who, despite the entreaties of his Tailgenns, and the magical predictions of the Druids foretelling his death, refused either to conclude peace with his foster-father [King Domhnall] and the arch chieftains of Ulster, or to fly the battle, is thus remonstrated with by his Druid Dubhdiadh;
hun the battle and it will shun thee, 0 Congal of Mullach Macha; The son of Aedh, son of Ainmire, Approaches thee at the head of the battle. In that battle which thou hast raised, And which thou hast proclaimed without feebleness; It is the same as swimming over the mighty waved sea, For thee to contend with thy foster-father.
I know the future name which Until the day of judgment-The name of this plain The beautiful Magh Rath. It shall be called Magh Rath A plain over the brink of This hillock shall be called From this to the day of judgement.
ongal however, being determined on risking battle, despatched a messenger to reconnoitre the planax around King Domhnall, and ascertain if his troops were fettered to each other two and two – a singular, but it seems than common expedient, adopted to prevent one flying without consent of the other. The fetter being concealed by the skirts of the soldiers’ battle coats, and Congal being dissatisfied with the emissary’s answer, he despatched Dubhdiadh, his Druid or poet, who proceeded to “Ard na h-imarcsi” (The hill of the espying) where his attention apparently was altogether absorbed by the northern battalion, with their proud tufted beards reaching midway, and prominent eye-brows, arrayed in glossy, half-length, wide-folded shirts, and gold-embroidered tunics with black-wooled sheepskins folded about them.
The hosts of the Ultonians and their confederate foreigners are described very minutely, the pre-eminence being given to the clan Rury, as the bravest and most terrible to maintain the field against the race of Conn. From his warriors, Congal stepped aside “Cnocan an choscair” (The hillock of the slaughter) afterwards so-called, writes the poet, as being the place where Congal was triumphed over, when cut down by the men of Erin; and thence he delivers a stirring appeal to the glories of ancient Ulster and its celebrated heroes. His denunciation of the races of Conn and Eoghan, and the Airghialla, who had seized its greater portion, is answered by the terrible rush and onset of his troops against those of Domhnall, “on the very middle of the wooded Magh Comair,” the latter monarch himself describing their approach and satin banners in these words;
ightily advance the battalions of Congal, To us over ATH AN ORNAM, (the ford of Ornamnh). When they come to the contest of the men, they require not to be harangued. The token of the great warrior of Macha, variegated satin, on warlike poles, the banner of each bright king with prosperity Over his own head conspicuously displayed. The banner of Scanlann, – an ornament with prosperity, – and of Fiachna Mor, the son of Baedan, Great symbol of plunder floating from its staff, Is over the head of Congal advancing towards us. A yellow Lion, on green satin, The insignia of the Craebh Ruadh, such as the noble Conchobhar bore, is now held up by Congal.
he standard of Suibhne, a yellow banner, the renowned King of Dal Araidhe, yellow satin, over that mild man of hosts The white-flngered stripling himself in the middle of them. The standard of Ferdoman of banquets, the red-weaponed King of the Ards of Ulster. White satin to the sun and wing displayed, over that mighty man without blemish.
The madness of Suibhne, grandson of Cobhthach, king of Dal Araidhe, who had been cursed by St. Ronan of Drumiskin, and the leap which he made on the top of a sacred tree “bile buada”, which grew on the plain, from which the people watched the battle, and his flight from the combat, interrupted for a time the contending armies, the conflict being again renewed with terrific slaughter. The contests and deaths of the Albanian princess, supporters of Congal, are then depicted with great power; after which the writer narrates the deadly personal struggle of Congal with Conall, chieftain of Tory, and Congal’s release by Conan Rod, son of the King of Britain, by whom Conall is slain; the opportune advance of Cellach, one of the most renowned chiefs of the royal army, by who Conan was, after a desperate engagement, beheaded; and the dismay which pervaded the foreigners in consequence of his death. The successive attacks made on Cellach by the choicest heroes of the Ulster army; their defeat and deaths; his piling their bodies into a bloody heap, into which he cast their heads, after exhibiting them to the king, are also sketched; when a new personage and a strange incident are introduced;
n the last day of the battle it happened that the women of Ultan Lamhfada (the long handed), King of Caill na g-Curadh, then called Oirthear, now the Barony of Orier, in the County of Ar magh, were preparing a bath for washing and bathing at Dun Aidhmainn in Tir O m-Breasail, (Clann Breasail, near Lurgan, County of Armagh), and Cuanna, the son of the king, and then an idiot, who had been fostered by Domhnall along with Congal Olaen, was desired by his stepmother to go for a bundle of fire-wood. Having returned with a useless bundle of green twigs, and top-branches of birch, he was reproached by the woman as being unfitted to assist his father and fosterer, against the Ultonians and foreigners, it being his father’s turn to have fought the preceding day. Cuanna having inquired – “Who will show me the way to Magh Rath?” ” It requires but little courage in thee to find out the way thither,” said they; “go to Iobhar Chinn Choice mhic Neachtain, which is now called lobhar Chinn Tragha”, (now the town of Newry) “where thou shalt find the abundant track of the hosts, and follow it to Magh Rath.” Cuanna went forward in rapid course till he arrived at blagh Rath, where he saw the great forces of both parties attacking each other. As the men of Erin were there, they saw one lone man in the plain approaching them exactly from the south-west, and they ceased till they recognised who he was. The idiot, having been informed by the king that his father had been slain on the preceding day by Congal, was fired with revenge; and, being armed by Domhnall and other chieftains, with a javelin or spear, turned to the battle in search of Congal, whom he met, after having prostrated and triumphed over the mightiest men of the royal army. Congal, after some conversation, disdaining to strike the simpleton, the latter pressing his foot heavily on the earth, and putting his finger on the cord of his broad-headed spear, made such a furious shot at Congal, that the spear pierced through his armour and body, the first fatal wound being thus inflicted by his idiot foster-brother. From this moment, Congal, recognising that he was no longer king of Ulster or Erin, proceeded to revenge himself by a terrible onslaught on the opposing forces, until engaged and overpowered by Maelduin, (who cut off his right hand) he finally disappears from the battle, and then ensues complete flight of the Ultonians and foreigners, leaving behind prodigious military booty.
he foregoing is a sketch of the great leading facts of this battle, with the names of the remarkable places introduced; the question now to be discussed is, whether all or any of these localities can be identified, and if they afford sufficient evidence to point out with certainty the actual site. Dr. O’Donovran appears not to have questioned the identity of Magh Rath and the present Moira, while he candidly admits that “Tulchan nza d-Taigen”, – Daire in latha”, &c., are names totally for gotten at that place. An eminent antiquarian, the reviewer of Dr. Reevess Ecdesiastical Antiqui ties of Down, Connor, and Dromore, in the Dublin University magazine, for February, 1848, writing on this subject, also admits that all local memory of the event is now gone, save that one or two localities preserve names connected with it. Thus, beside the Rath of Moyra, on the east, is the hill Cair-A lbanach, the burial-place of the Scottish princes, Congal’s uncles, and a pillar-stone with a rude cros and some circles engraven on it, marked the site of their resting-place. On the other hand, the townland of Aughnafoskar probably preserves the name of Knockanchoscar, from which Congal’s druid surveyed the royal army, drawn up in the plain below, on the first morning of the battle. Ath ornaidh, the ford crossed by one of the armies is probably modernised in Thorny-ford, on the river, at some distance. We doubt much the correctness of these identifications, and we may observe that no Cairn Albanach is mentioned in the tale, and that Thorny-ford is about five miles distant from Moira. This brings us to the problem-where was Magh Rath?
he earliest mention of the name Magh Rath, is found in the Four Masters, under A.M. 3549, where it is stated that the plain of Magh-Rath, in Iveagh, was then cleared of wood; the position of which place Dr. O’Donovan, in his notes on that passage, says is determined by the village of Moira. But this entry of itself affords no direct clue to the locality, as the names Moira, Moyrey, and Myrath, enter into the composition of several other places in Iveagh, namely-Aughna-moira, near Warrenpoint, Gort-moyrey, in the parish of Donagheloney, also Castle-myrathir, in the parish of Garvaghy, the latter occurring in a grant of part of the lands of Iveagh [21 Feb. 8, James 1] to John Todd, Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore. Besides, there is the celebrated Mloyry Castle on the borders of Armagh and Louth, which guarded the pass from Leinster into Ulster. It is also found mentioned in a poem of the tenth century, “T The Circuit of Ireland by Muirchear tach Mac Neill,” one of the first volumes published by the Irish Archeological Society. In this tale, the poet, in describing the progress of the King of Ailech through Ulster, writes that they tarried a night at Dun-Eachdach; a night at the level Magh Ruth; a night at the bright Glenree; a night at Casan Linne, and a night at the clear Ath Gabhla.
hether this was the Magh Rath of the battle or not, it is perfectly manifest that the description contains no clear indication to point out where Magh Rath was; for if Dun-Eachdach was Duneight, near Lisburn; the Glenree the vale of the Newry river; the Cassan Linne, the tidal river Dee, near Castlebellingham, where, at its junction with the sea, Annagasson (Eanach g-Cassain) still preserves the name; and Ath Gabhla, a ford on the river Boyne, as stated by Dr. O’Donovan [Four Masters, p. 642]; Moira would be too contiguous to Duneight for the halting-place between the latter and Newry, which would be better answered by Castle Myrathir in Garvaghy, it being al most mid-way. By the Book of Lecan, it appears there was a Church of St. Ronan Finn, in Corco Ruisean, in Magh Rath, which, under the name of Kilronan, Colgan supposed to be in the parish of Magheralin, identifying the latter with the church of Linduacaill on the river Casan Linne, he having assumed that the latter was the river Lagan. But this river, as previously stated, Dr. O’Donovan has satisfactorily proved to be the Dee, which completely upsets Colgan’s theory. It also appears by the Calendar of Dongall, December 27, that there was another church in Magh Rath, dedicated to St. Tiopraite, but nothing more of it is known; nor is their evidence of any kind to show that there had been any church in or near the present Moira, or in any of the Sessiaghs, or townlands parcel of Moyragh, (granted, 8. James, I., to Murtogh MeTirlogh O’Lawrie, of Moyragh,) before the year 1722, when the present parish was disannexeed by an order of the Irish Privy Council from the parish of Magheralin, and a new church erected, which was rebuilt about 1740. There are, however, the remains or cemeteries of several churches in the lordship of Newry, formerly part of Iveagh, the names of which are now obsolete; such as at Castle-Enigan and Lisserboy, and one at Ouley, called Tipper-Donagh. Whether the latter was the church of St. Tiopraite cannot safely be pronounced.
t is unfortunate that the Táin Bó Cúailnge is silent as to the name, for if mentioned, there can be little doubt the accompanying topographic details would have materially assisted to settle the question; we may, however, hope that some of the Irish manuscripts announced for publication by our antiquarian societies may contribute to this desideratum, and, in the meantime, the writer takes the liberty of publishing his own views, About a mile directly north-east of the Town of Newry, on the banks of the river Glenree, nigh its confluence with the river which has its source in Derrylackagh, lies the great mound called the Crown Rath; it is seated on the verge of an extensive Coreagh or marshy plain in the townland of Sheeptown, having Crobane and Croreagh on the east, Corneyhough, Derrylackagh, and Bally-holland on the south, Damoly and Drumcashellone on the west, and the river-vale on the north. It is to be regretted that the territorial appellation of that district of Iveagh, which stretches from the Crown Bridge to Lisserboy, is now forgotten, the entire being at present absorbed in the name of the greater territory of the lordship of Newry, although the names of the adjoining districts of the Lagan to the south, Clanawlie south-west, Clanagan and Shankill, north, are still preserved in the grants of James I.; it may,’however, from the great number of Raths which still beautify this plain, have borne at one period the name Magh Rath, a question now of difficult solution. The universal tradition of the country assigns this locality as the scene of a great battle, fought for the Crown of Ireland and states that from this circumstance the Rath and Crown Bridge, a little to the south, derived their names; and inasmuch as Magenis and O’Hanlon were the bordering Irish chiefs, they in the lapse of time came to be represented as the rival claimants for the crown, though neither family asserted pretensions to such an honour.
rom time to time in Sheeptown, Ballyhollan, and Derrylackagh, human bones and military re mains have been found in such large quantities as to confirm the statement that a deadly battle had been fought in the neighbourhood; and, so far as the topography of the “Cath Muighe Rath“ affords us evidence, this locality has better founded claims to that battle than the present village of Moira. For this view the extracts already given, and the statements made, will have in a great degree prepared the reader. Magh Rath is represented as having been formerly called “Magh Comair,” [the plain of the confluence] and in Irish nomenclature the word Comair is applied to a place at the junction of rivers, either with rivers, or with large sheets of water it is also called “Magh Rath of the Red Pools“: – now neither of these descriptions in any way answers Moira, while both precisely answer the Crown Rath, – it is in a marsh, on the brink of the Glenree, filled in summer with numerous pools, and near its junction with the Derrylackagh river. Again, Newry is described as being in the abundant track of the hosts, and therefore in the immediate vicinity of the battle, while it is exactly,south-west from the Rath, in which direction the men of Erin engaged in the conflict observed Cuanna coming from that place. This in itself affords one of the most conclusive proofs against Moira, as the latter being only a few miles East of Tir O m-Breasail, Cuanna’s direct route would have been short, and due east, whereas the route pointed to him was south wards to Newry. – A glance at the Map of Ireland at once shows that Cuanna, by proceeding first twenty miles S. S. W. to Newry, to afterwards reach Moira would have to travel back again almost twenty miles more in a parallel line, instead of a few miles. The decisive morning of the battle, the king advances to Tulchan na d-Tailgenn, which name would be pronounced Tullydelgin, the d eclipsing the T. We have already mentioned that Dr. O’Donovan states this name to be now forgotten at Moira, and it is one perfectly unique in Ulster; but in the Return of the Commissioners appointed by Royal Commission to perambulate and fix the true limits of Iveagh, dated 12th June 1618, they find the meering be tween Knockne Cleye, and Tully Dalgyin, as one of the meers between the lands of Rose Trevor, belonging to Sir Edward Trevor, and the lands of Drumseske, Ballyenymony, belonging to Sir Arthur Magenis, which lands, it is particularly to be observed, are only a few miles distant from Derrylackagh. From the address of the Druid to Congal we learn that in the vicinity of Magh Rath was an oak grove, which afterwards bore the name of “Daire in latha” We are aware of the inclination of some antiquarians to rest too much on the similarity of names, but when we recollect the corruptions and changes which the Irish denominations of townlands have undergone, and which, to persons accustomed to examine Inquisitions and old Grants, and the many aliters there given, is anything but strange, we consider we are not assuming too much in identifying the name ” Daire in tat/ta,” with that of Derrylackagh (itself so variously spelled in the same Inquisitions), a townland immediately adjoining the Crown Rath; recollecting, also, that in this very townland, as appears by the Charter from Maurice O’Loughlin, King of Ireland, to the Cistercian Abbey of Newry, about A.D. 1158, there was a “bile” or sacred oak [Reeves, pp. 76-117], and that Suibhne in his madness is stated to have leaped on a “bile buada” which grew on the plain near the scene of warfare.
n the east side of an elevated portion of this townland, partaking somewhat of a mountainous character, not very distant from the old cemetery of Templegouran, immediately below a mass of solid rock, there still remains a very large granite stone now lying flat, having to the north five other standing stones, a portion being evidently carried away, and which tradition has assigned as the de bris of a “King’s House.” The name of the place being now forgotten, it cannot be ascertained if this be the Cairn Congal of the Poem, but unquestionably it is not the remains of a cashel, or so-called “Druidic ring“, the sides of some of the stones being feathered; and it seems more likely to have been raised to commemorate the site of some important event than anything else. In the ad joining townland of Tamnaharry there is also a remarkable pillar-stone, and there are. many mega lithic and other remains, cairns, &c., in the neighbourhood; and although there is no Cairn Albanagh, we find by an inquisition taken at Newry, 5th June, 1629, to inquire into the lands of Arthur Viscount Magenis of Iveagh, that there was an Edent Albanach in the vicinity. That a river was in the immediate locality of the battle is also evident from many parts of the Tate, the troops of Congal being described as advancing mightily over “Ath an Ornaim”- the ford of Ornam. Now, in an Inquisition taken at Newry, in the reign of James I to inquire into the possessions of Arthur Bagnall, we find him seized inter alia of “the two carewes or balliboes of Sheepestown, viz., ATH ERNAME, and Lyssymelleth, “thus giving us ATH AN ORNAIM in the very spot required. “Ard na h’imaircsi” and “Cnocan an Choscair” for so far remain unidentified. Being simply the names of hills, not of themselves of sufficient importance to be conferred on distinct carews or balliboes, the early Inquisitions and Grants afford no means of tracing them, or ascertaining their precise locality, though there are many places in the district which would answer their description; the names “Ard” and “Knock“, alone or as prefixes, entering largely into the composition of ad joining sub-denominations. In the lapse of twelve centuries the wonder is, that so many names have been preserved and so few forgotten. In Sheeptown alone there were seven quarters or carews, as we learn from the abstract of a grant of it and the adjoining lands (in the Report of the Record Commissioners), from the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates to James Anderson of Dublin, who afterwards assigned his interest to William Wallace of Newry; but of the seven names only two are known, being those mentioned above. This investigation is for the present closed and the writer trusts that, so far as the evidence of tradition, the Irish chronicles, and local topography, shed light on the subject, he has treated it, fairly, and succeeded in proving that the Battle of Magh Rath was not fought at Moira, but in the vicinity of the CROWN RATH beside Newry.
J. W. HANNA
Ulster Journal of Archaeology, First Series, Vol. 4 (1856)