In 431 A.D. and three days after the festival of Lughnasagh, a lone figure stood, head bowed in contemplation, next to one of five carefully positioned chairs, in the Great Assembly Hall at Tara in the province of Royal Midhe. Four of the chairs, laid out to mirror the points of the compass, faced the fifth chair which sat directly in the center of the hall. The seat, with intricately carved arm rests and a high-back, was adorned with inlaid ivory, fashioned from the tusks of a wild boar. The hall, part of a sprawling, fortified hilltop complex constructed on an east-west axis, three hundred feet long, thirty feet high, sixty feet wide, had fourteen doors and on that occasion, waited in patient silence in readiness for the important gathering scheduled to take place later in the afternoon. Several other large buildings erected around the Great hall included residences for each of four provincial kings, a large smoke house, where all food was prepared, a house for holding the hostages belonging to the high king, a house for the Brehons and Bards and a house, the grianan na nInghean, for the wives, children and servants of the provincial kings. Together with its stables, storehouses and warrior’s quarters, all surrounded by deep earthen ditches and earthworks, and reinforced by a solid wooden palisade, made Tara a secure, imposing stronghold which dominated the landscape and could be seen from many miles distant.
The sole occupant of the Great Hall on that day was no ordinary mortal and anyone observing him would have been struck by his stature and regal mien. Long haired, full bearded and standing almost six feet tall, his long sleeved leine (tunic) fashioned by skilled weavers from gleaned flax plants, was colored bright red and reached down well below his knees. A broad leather crios (belt) circled his waist, held his wand of office, a dagger, a small pouch and helped keep his leine in place. His four folded, richly embroidered woolen brat (cloak) had the five colors of the nobility, was trimmed with fox fur, reached almost to the floor and pinned with an ornate golden broach at his right shoulder. Around his neck hung the gold nasc niadh (chain of valor) that he had inherited from his father, signifying his status as a warrior. His hand stitched sandals, tanned from the soft hide of a fallow deer were dyed purple, denoting his rank, wrapped around his ankles and were held together with strings of leather.
Laoghaire Mac Neill, whose journey to the kingship of Ireland would follow a convoluted and unorthodox path, was a younger son of the celebrated late fourth century warrior king Niall. From the beginning of his reign in 379 AD, Niall had set out on a campaign of subjugation, starting in the southern province of Munster. He soon overwhelmed the other three provinces in quick succession and then led raids against the Britons, Picts, Saxons and Dalriads. His imposing army, comprised of Irish, Scoti, Picts, and Britons, crossed the English Channel and proceeded to Brittany where they fought and defeated the Morini tribe. As was the custom after each victory eiric (tribute) including livestock and hostages, were taken and returned to Ireland with the conquering army. Among the many captives taken during the raids in Britain, Alba (Scotland) and France was a sixteen-year-old Roman boy named Patricius, (who would ironically have a long and far reaching effect on Ireland and its people later in the fifth century.) When the hostages were eventually apportioned, Patricius, by then the property of a local Chieftain and druid named Milchu, went north to the province of Ulster where he became a sheep-herder on the slopes of Slemish, an extinct volcanic mountain in County Antrim. After six years in captivity, he managed to escape and traveled across country to Killala bay, County Mayo where he boarded a ship bound for Britain and eventually re-united with his family.
Niall of the Nine Hostages, as he became known, led his last military campaign in France in an effort to free a local Celtic tribe from Roman oppression. As he and his army were encamped on the banks of the river Liane near the commune of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, an archer in Niall’s army, a vengeful son of Eochaidh, the king of Leinster, shot an arrow which pierced Niall’s heart, killing him instantly. The bad blood between Eochaidh and Niall arose when Eochaidh attempted to illegally claim the kingship of Ireland. After a brief skirmish, Niall routed the pretender and banished him and his followers to Alba (Scotland.) On the death of Niall, a son of Fiachra named Dathi was crowned as king and ruled Ireland until his death from a bolt of lightning while on a military campaign in the French Alps. Dathi has the distinction of being the last pagan king of Ireland before the coming of Christianity. After his death, Ireland was once again without a king and the road to Tara was opened for Laoghaire.
In 428 A.D., after a reading of the ‘Instruction for Kings,’ written many centuries earlier by the high king Cormac, and in which was inscribed a summary of the customs and laws of the country, Laoghaire Mac Neill was presented with the white slat na ríghe (rod of kingship) during a joyous coronation ceremony held at the stone of Fal on the hill of Tara. The white rod, usually cut from a rowan tree, chosen specifically for its color and straightness, was blemish free and signified truth, justice and integrity. Attending the coronation were the four provincial Kings, all of their wives and children, Nobles, Brehons (judges,) Ard Ollams (scribes,) Harpists, Bards, chief Druids (priests,) and Chieftains. When the coronation ceremony ended, Laoghaire would be known as Ard ri (high king) of all Ireland. Everyone returned to Tara in August 431 AD as requested, to attend and participate in the Feis (assembly) which Laoghaire had convened. The Feis of Tara, one of three general assemblies held in Ireland, included the Feis of Eamhain, in the province of Ulster and the Feis of Cruachain, in the province of Connaught. Both of those assemblies were primarily concerned with choosing master craftsmen, including Blacksmiths, Woodworkers and Stoneworkers who, when selected, were sent to each of the provinces to do their work. The more important Feis of Tara, held every third year, was an official assembly of the leading men of the whole island and not a meeting of all classes of society. Its constitution and place of meeting were fixed, and the times of meeting regular.
The primary purpose of the Feis of Tara was the reaffirmation of national unity and security, but among the other duties performed was the establishment of new laws and customs. Any disputes regarding title to rank, property and privilege would be settled by the lawmakers, the Brehons, and all annals and records would be carefully noted and entered by the Ard Ollams in the official records. Any previous law, custom or record not included, was deemed to be false and irrelevant. As Laoghaire stood waiting in the hall, all of these matters were of great concern to him knowing as he did that his decisions would have long lasting and far reaching effects on the country. But on that day another more serious development weighed heavily on his mind, compounding the already tense situation. …