Cerball mac Dúnlainge

Cerball mac Dúnlainge

Cerball mac Dúnlainge (died 888; Middle Irish pronunciation: [ˈkərval mak ˈðūnləŋe]) was king of Osraige in south-east Ireland. The kingdom of Osraige occupied roughly the area of modern County Kilkenny and lay between the larger provincial kingdoms of Munster and Leinster.

Cerball came to prominence after the death of Feidlimid mac Cremthanin, King of Munster, in 847. Osraige had been subject for a period to the Eóganachta kings of Munster, but Feidlimid was succeeded by a series of weak kings who had to contend with Viking incursions on the coasts of Munster. As a result, Cerball was in a strong position and is said to have been the second most powerful king in Ireland in his later years.[1]

Kjarvalr Írakonungr, a figure in the Norse sagas who appears as an ancestor of many prominent Icelandic families, is identified with Cerball.


Nature of the sources

A large body of contemporary and near-contemporary material on early medieval Ireland has survived. From the titles of works mentioned in these sources, it is clear that a great deal of additional material has now been lost. The surviving materials usually exist in the form of much later copies, and it is only from comparison of the various texts that the original documents can be reconstructed.[2]

The Irish annals which document the ninth century are ultimately derived from the now-lost Chronicle of Ireland which was then being compiled in the midlands of Ireland. All annals include material derived from other sources, or added at a later date. None are complete, although the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Innisfallen cover Cerball's lifetime. The Annals of Clonmacnoise survive only in an eccentric 17th century English translation, and the Annals of Tigernach for this period are lost, although Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh's abbreviated copy known as the Chronicon Scotorum supplies much of the missing material. The Annals of the Four Masters are late, and include some material of doubtful origin. While the annals provide a considerable amount of information, they are generally terse, and most focus their attention on the doings of the Uí Néill, sometimes to the extent of omitting inconvenient events.[3]

A source which concentrates on Cerball's career is the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, so called because only fragments remain of a seemingly longer work, these again copied by Mac Fhirbhisigh in the 17th century from a 15th century manuscript. The fragment which deals with Cerball's lifetime ends in the early 870s, so that the last fifteen years of his life are missing. Joan Radner, editor and translator of the modern edition of the Fragmentary Annals, argues that these were compiled at the court of Cerball's great-great-grandson Donnchad mac Gilla Pátraic. Although called annals, these are closer to narrative history and are derived from a number of sources. The basic framework is from the Chronicle of Ireland, but to this has been added a variety of material whose source is unknown, perhaps including early sagas, which concerns Cerball. The Fragmentary Annals were intended to magnify Cerball's achievements, and to present his dealings with Vikings and Norse Gaels in a favourable light.[4]

If the various annals are partisan, the remaining sources which concern Cerball are notably unreliable. Perhaps inspired by the Fragmentary Annals, which offer some positive views of Vikings and may have been popular in the Norse Gael Dublin of the 11th century, many Icelandic genealogies include Cerball—Kjarvalr Írakonungr—as an ancestor.[5] Lastly, the Prophecy of Berchán, an 11th century verse history of kings in Ireland and Scotland presented as a prophecy, may include Cerball.[6]

A very large number of genealogies exist, along with geographical and legal texts. Of these last, the Frithfolad Muman, a document purporting to set out the obligations of the Kings of Munster to their allies, clients, and subjects is of interest as it sheds light on the position of Osraige within the provincial kingship of Munster.[7]

Cerball's Ireland

Ireland circa 900

A memory of the kingdom of Osraige survives today in the name and boundaries of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ossory. The earliest recorded seat of the bishops was at Aghaboe, and this appears to have been the principal church of the kingdom by the eighth century when the life of Saint Cainnech of Aghaboe was composed.[8] The name Osraige—the Deer people—is among the oldest group of Irish tribal names. Although genealogists in the Early Christian period explained such names by recourse to eponymous ancestors, the names are likely those of totemic animals or tribal deities.[9]

Osraige was only one tuath (plural tuatha, the word is often translated as tribe) among 150 in Ireland. The average tuath was small, perhaps 500 square kilometres in area with a population of some three to four thousand. Osraige was atypical, much larger than this, covering perhaps 2000 square kilometres astride the River Barrow in the modern counties of Kilkenny, Laois, and Offaly. In principle, each tuath had its own king and court and bishop, but political power generally rested with the provincial over-kings.[10]

At the time of Cerball's birth Osraige lay within the province and kingdom of Munster, ruled by the Eóganachta from the royal centre of Cashel. Osraige lay at the extreme eastern edge of Munster bordering the neighbouring province of Leinster. Monumental evidence suggests that Osraige was once ruled by the Corcu Loígde, rulers of Munster before the coming of the Eóganachta. The Frithfolad Muman text states that the Osraige had once been kings of Munster and makes it clear that they were a privileged and powerful group, but no longer a major force, "the respectable has-beens of Munster politics".[11]

The period of Cerball's life covered much of the first Viking Age. While several kingdoms in BritainEast Anglia, Fortriu, Mercia, and Northumbria—would collapse under the shock of Viking attacks, their impact in Ireland was very much less immediate. In the first half of the ninth century, raiders appear to have come in small groups, increasing in size until larger forces appear, such as that led by the shadowy Turgéis (Turgesius) in the 840s, and those led by Amlaíb and Ímar from the 850s onwards. Vikings would be both enemies and allies for Cerball and other Irish kings. In the long run, the creation of Norse-Gaelic towns by Vikings operating as traders rather than raiders would change the Irish political landscape, but the results of this were seen in the tenth and eleventh centuries rather than the ninth.[12]

Máel Sechnaill and the Danes

Cerball succeeded his father Dúnlang (or Dúngal) mac Fergaile as king of Osraige in 842.[13] At this time the High King of Ireland was Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid who was married to Cerball's sister Land. Cerball in turn was said to be married to a daughter of Máel Sechnaill.[14]

The first report of Cerball is in 846, when Vikings attacked into northern Osraige, destroying a church at Coolcashin (near Galmoy), and plundering an unidentified settlement at Cúl Maine. Here the raiders were besieged for a fortnight by Cerball's army and lost heavily.[15] The following year Cerball defeated an attack by Vikings from the Irish midlands, perhaps from Dublin, led by one Hákon. This battle is said by some sources to have taken place at Carn Brammit, a site which can no longer be identified.[16]

The late Annals of the Four Masters record an invasion of Osraige in 848 by the Uí Cheinnselaig of southern Leinster, led by their king Echtigern mac Guaire. Cerball played a part in Echtgern's removal in 853. The Annals of Ulster report that Echtigern was killed "deceitfully" by Cerball and one Bruatur of Áed, and that Bruatur was killed by his own household a week later.[17]

In 854 the Fragmentary Annals say that Cerball was sent into Munster by his brother-in-law to collect tribute and hostages.[18]

In 855 he is said to have slaughtered a Viking force under a certain Rodolb. In the aftermath of the battle Cerball was captured by other Vikings, but succeeded in escaping. Shortly afterwards Cerball aided a force of Danes led by a chief named Horm in their war with the Norwegians. The Danes may well have settled at what is now Waterford. The Munstermen asked Cerball's help against the Norse, and Cerball with the men of Osraige, Horm's Danes and some of the men of Munster inflicted a heavy defeat on the Norse. His ally Horm was killed raiding in Wales by Rhodri the Great.[19]

Amlaíb and Ímar

Cerball next appears to have allied himself with two Norse or Norse-Gael "kings", Amlaíb Conung, "son of the king of Lochlann", and Ímar, called "king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain" at his death in 873.[20] Ímar is sometimes assumed to be the same person as Ivar the Boneless and Amlaíb to be Olaf the White, respectively son and grandson of the legendary Swedish king Ragnar Lodbrok, although this is far from certain.[21] These allies were not sufficiently strong to prevent Máel Sechnaill from taking hostages and tribute from Cerball in 858,[22] but Cerball and Ímar campaigned in Leinster that year, and also against the Norse-Gaels in Munster.[23] The following year, together with Amlaíb Conung, they raided Máel Sechnaill's lands in Mide, but soon afterwards Cerball was compelled to submit again to Máel Sechnaill.[24]

In 860 Cerball defeated a force of Norse who were raiding in Osraige, and later in the year he joined Máel Sechnaill on campaign against Áed Finnliath in the north of Ireland.[25]

Áed and Flann

Máel Sechnaill died in 862 to be succeeded by Áed Finnliath, who married his widow, Cerball's sister. Also in 862, Cerball is reported to have defeated a Norwegian fleet under one Rodolb, although it is not clear that this is the same Rodolb who was defeated in 855.[26] In 864 the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland report that the men of Leinster and their Norse allies raided Osraige in revenge for Cerball's raid, and that Eóganachta of Munster took advantage of this to attack him, so that Cerball raided both his neighbours and caused much destruction. The same year he is said to have attacked the neighbouring Déisi.[27]

In 870 Áed Finnliath brought a large army to Leinster and Cerball accompanied him. The army of the Osraige was camped apart from Áed's main force, and was attacked by the Leinstermen. Although Cerball drove them off with heavy loss, Cennétig son of Gáethíne, a kinsman of Cerball, was killed in the battle.[28] With a final notice of an expedition to Connacht and Munster in 871, the Fragmentary Annals are interrupted.[29] In the Annals of Ulster, nothing more is said of Cerball until his death in 888.[30] The next king of Osraige was his brother Riacán, but the kingdom lapsed into relative obscurity for many years afterwards, until Cerball's great-great-grandson Donnchad mac Gilla Patráic became king in 1003.[31]

Kjarvalr Írakonungr

While it is unsurprising that Cerball's great-great-grandson should have commissioned a work in which his most illustrious ancestor was portrayed in a heroic light, it is less obvious why Cerball in particular should have such a prominent place in the Icelandic sagas and in the genealogies of the founding families of Iceland as recorded by the Landnámabók. The Landnámabók mentions "Kormlöð", "Rafarta, the daughter of Kjarval", "Dufnial, who was the son of Kjarval" and "Friðgerðr, the daughter of Kjarval". Rafarta or Raforta is also mentioned in Njál's saga and the Laxdaela saga, and Friðgerðr in the Vinland sagas. The marriage of "Eithne, daughter of King Kjarval of Ireland" and Hlodvir Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkney is reported in the Orkneyinga saga and Earl Sigurd the Stout, who was killed at the battle of Clontarf is called their son.[32]

Some of these names are Irish: Kormlöð is the common name Gormflaith, Eithne too is clearly Irish as is Dufnial. It is doubtful whether Rafarta or Fridgerd are Irish, and there are clearly difficulties with the supposed number of generations. Insofar as any conclusions have been reached by historians of Ireland, it appears that the supposed descendants of Cerball left for Iceland in the generation before Donnchad mac Gilla Patraic, towards the end of the tenth century. Given the likely date at which the Landnámabók was compiled, this is rather too far in the past for the genealogies to be considered very reliable. Adding to the uncertainty, the genealogies of the Osraige themselves were subject to comprehensive rewriting in Cerball's time and immediately afterwards, attaching them to the Laigin of Leinster.

It has been suggested that the importance of Cerball in Icelandic writings stems from the popularity of the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland among the Norse-Gaels of eleventh century Ireland, who passed these accounts on to the Icelanders, who then attached this famous and warlike king to their ancestry. Whether Cerball was in fact an ancestor of many prominent settler families is, however, of rather less importance than the fact that the Icelanders considered it worth reporting their descent from Cerball mac Dúnlainge, whether real or contrived. As with the adoption of Norse names, sagas and other features, and the creation of the Norse-Gael culture, Cerball's adoption in Iceland is an example of the contacts between Norse and Gaelic society in the Viking Age.

Family tree

  Dungal, d. 842.
  |                  |                 |
  |                  |                 |
  Cerball, d. 888.   Riacan, d. 894.   Land, d. 890. = Mael Sechnaill  = Aed Finlaith   = Gaethine
  |                   |        |                  |         |         |          |            |
  |                   |        |                  |         |         |          |            |
  Diarmait, d. 928.   Cuilde   Ceallach, d.908.   Rafarta   Domnall   Kormled    Frithgertr   Ethna
  |                            |                 =Eyvindr   |        =Grimolfr  =Iorirhima   =Hlotvir, Earl of Orkney
  |                            |__________      Bjarnason   |         |                       |
  ?                            |          |                 Dufpakr   |                       |
  |                            |          |                 |         Porgrimr               Signuth digri, Earl of Orkney, d. 1014. 
  |                  Donnchad, d. 976. Cuilen,  ____________|
  Ceallach,          |                 d. 933.  |           |
  d. 1003.           |                          |           |
              Gilla Patraic, d. 996.            Vilbadr   Askell hnokhan
                     |                          |
                     |                          |__________ 
           Mac Giolla Padhraic                  |         |
             Kings of Osraighe                  |         |
                                                Bjollok   Bjolan


  1. ^ Byrne, Irish Kings, p. 266.
  2. ^ Hughes, Early Christian Ireland, is a general survey of the subject.
  3. ^ Hughes, Early Christian Ireland, chapter 4, especially pp. 135–137; Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, p. xix.
  4. ^ For the origins of the annals, see Radner, "Writing history", pp. 321–325. Comparable later works, more polished in style, include Cocad Gáedel re Gallaib (War of the Irish with the Foreigners), written around 1100 for Muirchertach Ua Briain, a great-grandson of Brian Bóruma, and Caithréim Chellacháin Chaisil (Deeds of Cellachán Caisil), written a generation later for Cormac Mac Cárthaig, a great-great-grandson of the eponymous Cellachán Caisil; Ó Corráin, "Afterthoughts", pp. 18–19 [page numbers after etext]; Radner, "Writing history", p. 323; Flanagan, "High-kings with opposition", pp. 916 & 919;
  5. ^ Byrne, p. 162; Ó Corrain, "Viking Ireland - Afterthoughts", pp. 17ff.
  6. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, pp. 135–138.
  7. ^ For discussion of the Frithfolad Muman see Byrne, Irish Kings, pp. 196–199 & Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, pp. 534–548.
  8. ^ Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, pp. 262–264; since the place-name Domnach represents a very early church, it is probably that Domnach Mór Roigni—modern Donaghmore, County Laois—was earlier than Aghaboe and that the rise of Aghaboe followed the expulsion of the Corcu Loigde rulers from Osraige and the coming to power of Cerball's ancestors.
  9. ^ Mac Niocaill, Ireland before the Vikings, pp. 3–4; more ...
  10. ^ Byrne, Irish Kings, pp.46–47; Kelly, Early Irish Law, pp. 1–16; Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, pp. 102–106. The area given is that of the modern diocese of Ossory.
  11. ^ Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, p. 541.
  12. ^ Wanting.
  13. ^ Hudson, "Cerball"; Dúnlang's death is reported by the Annals of Ulster, s.a. 842.
  14. ^ Annals of Ulster, s.a. 842, 847; Fragmentary Annals, FA 246; Hudson, "Cerball"; Charles-Edwards, "Máel Sechnaill"; Downham, "Cearbhall", pp. 6–7.
  15. ^ Annals of the Four Masters, s.a. 844; Downham, "Cearbhall", pp. 9–10. These Vikings may have come from the region of modern County Carlow, then as now in southern Leinster.
  16. ^ Downham, "Cearbhall", p. 10; Downham, Viking Kings, p. 237; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 848; Annals of the Four Masters, s.a. 846; Chronicon Scotorum, s.a. 847.
  17. ^ Downham, "Cearbhall"; Annals of the Four Masters, s.a. 846; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 853.
  18. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 246.
  19. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 249, FA 251 & FA 254; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 856.
  20. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 259; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 853 & 873.
  21. ^ Their origins are discussed by Ó Corrain, "The Vikings in Scotland and Ireland".
  22. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 260.
  23. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 262 & FA 263.
  24. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 265; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 859; Byrne, Irish Kings, p. 265.
  25. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 277 & FA 279; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 860.
  26. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 308.
  27. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 314 & FA 318.
  28. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 377 & FA 387; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 870.
  29. ^ Fragmentary Annals, FA 398 & FA 399.
  30. ^ Annals of Ulster, s.a. 888.
  31. ^ Wanting. And this is probably wrong!
  32. ^ Cerball's appearances in Icelandic materials are discussed by Ó Corrain, "Viking Ireland - Afterthoughts", at length. This and the following paragraphs summarise Ó Corrain's points.


External links

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Dúnlaing mac Fergaile
King of Osraige
Succeeded by
Riacán mac Dúnlainge

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