The Origin of the Three Collas -- An Alternate Explanation



Editor's Note: In this document, Irish scholar Donald M. Schlegel provides for us an alternate view on the origin of the Three Collas.  I felt it necessary to comment on this explanation because it is in direct conflict with the story on the previous pages.  First, let me say that we are reciting events that took place before recorded history.  The tale of the Collas was carried down by oral tradition until recorded hundreds of years later.  We also know that at some point Irish historians felt compelled to modify the lineage of certain prominent families in order to unify the country.  The result of this was to obscure the facts.  In the previous pages we have provided to you the generally accepted or version of the story of the Collas.  That story has been called into question by later historians and at one point one historian decided that the Collas never even existed.  But there is a great deal of literature not only about the Collas but about their descendents, the rulers of Airghialla after them.  It is pretty safe to say now that the Collas did exist, but it is possible that their relationship to the high kings of Ireland was invented.  What Don has attempted herein is to look at the stories and language surrounding the Collas and to discern from this what their true origin may have been.  You can see that he concludes that it is likely they were Roman Centurions who came to Britain and essentially became soldiers of the Irish High King, Muredach Tirech.  Don applies logic and linguistics to arrive at this conclusion.  At this point in time we will never know the true origin of the Collas nor may it matter much.  We can conclude that they existed and that the tribe of the Airghialla, of which we are a part, originated with them.


Here begins Donald's analysis:


The ancestry of the McMahons of Monaghan, the MacDonalds of Scotland, the Maguires of Fermanagh, and many other families originates with the three Collas.  These three men, supposed to have been brothers, lived in the misty days before St. Patrick and other missionaries and refugees brought Christianity, and with it the art of writing, to Ireland. 


The three Collas are mythical in the proper sense of the term, that is, their story explains why things are as they are.  This does not mean that they did not exist.  The Irish myths originally were handed down in rythmical syllabic verse, whose lines were linked by alliteration.  When the language of the Irish underwent drastic changes between the fourth and seventh centuries,  the existing, traditional myths had to be re-worded and re-interpreted to keep up with the language.  The updating was "not necessarily in the direction of more accurate transmission of the contents."


One of these poems has been copied into Keating's history of Ireland:


Of the three Collas have you heard,

Eocaidh's sons of highest fame,

Colla Menn, Colla Da-crioch,

And Colla Uais, the Ard-righ?


Their names, all three, I know full well--

Carrell and Muredach and Aedh;

By these was slain a mighty king,

On yonder fair, well cultured plain.


Carrell was Colla Uais, the king;

Muredach, Colla Da-crioch;

and glorious Aedh was Colla Menn.

Mighty were they beyond all braves!


The Irish historians of the middle ages continually updated and overhauled their corpus of histories, in order to bring all into a unified, synchronized whole.  In his extensive study of the sources, Professor T. F. O Rahilly came to the conclusion that the compilers of Leabhar Gabhala, the story of the invasions of Ireland as synchronized and revised from the eighth to the twelfth century, were animated by the desire to unify Ireland, and that to accomplish this end they purposely attempted to obliterate the memory of the different ethnic origins of her people.  They had to endow all of the important septs of their day with an origin in a common Irish ancestor.  Popular traditions concerning invaders were modified so that they would harmonize with the ideal that the Gaels had come from Spain to Ireland at a very remote period under the leadership of the Sons of Míl. 


In the few versions of the myth of the Collas that have come down to us, there survived evidence, hints, and clues of the original story.  A reconstruction of that story will be presented here, while the entire line of reasoning lying behind the reconstruction has been laid out in an article in the 1998 Clogher Record.


The three brothers, or perhaps more correctly kinsmen, were Romanized Britons, originating in the tribe named Trinovantes, who when independent of the Romans had had their capital at Camulodunum or Colchester in southeastern Britain.  In Ireland their names were Carrell Colla Uais, Muredach Colla da Crioch (or fo Crioch, perhaps originally focrach, meaning mercenary), and Aed Colla Menn.  In the Roman naming system that they used, each had a personal name or praenomen (Carrell, Muredach, and Aed), a family name or nomen, Colla, and a descriptive name or epithet, a cognomen.  Their ancestors, who had become citizens of the Empire in 214 when citizenship was extended to all free subjects of the Empire, seem to have taken for their nomen some form of the root col, which was prominent in the vicinity of Colchester for many centuries.  Colla was not used as a personal name until about the year 1400, when the MacDonnell gallóglaigh of Connaught, aware of their descent from Colla Uais, began the practice, which soon was picked up by other descendants of the Collas, especially the McMahons, McDonnells of Clan Kelly in Fermanagh, and MacDonalds of the southern Hebrides. 


In Roman Britain the family had taken up the military profession and the three kinsmen were commanders, perhaps centurions, who at one point were commanded by a kinsman, said in later days to have been their grandfather.  The latter was a vicarius or vicar of a tribune.  Each legion had six tribunes who served immediately under the commanding legate, commanding variously sized subdivisions of the legion.  The tribunes often were absent and their vicars, who had risen through the ranks, were the actual commanders in the field.  No explicit instances have been found in the literature of Roman soldiers going to Ireland, but it is known that the soldiers in fourth century Britain were not satisfied with their lot.  In the year 367 General Theodosius went to Britain to set things right after much of the regular army stationed there had deserted.  The chronology is such that it is possible the Collas left Britain for Ireland at that time.  (The historians of the middle ages placed the great victory of the Collas in Ireland about the year 330, but this probably was too early.)


In Ireland they would have landed on the eastern coast and moved inland to find Muredach Tirech, king of the people called the Connachtach.  Muredach Tirech's family is that which, centuries later, was said to have been the royal family of all Ireland, supplying the ard-rí or high king who ruled at Tara.  The Collas and their followers were hired as mercenaries by Muredach Tirech, who, like his ancestors, was constantly expanding his territory and had inherited an almost unceasing warfare against the Ulaid in the north, the people from whom the province of Ulster has been named.  No doubt he found that the military training and experience of the three Collas gave them great advantages over the native levies of his enemies.  The agreement between the Collas and the royal family is embodied as part of the  ancient Book of Rights as recorded in the eleventh or twelfth century:


+ The Airgialla (descendants of the Collas) owed a hosting for three fortnights every three years, but not in spring nor at the beginning of autumn; a rising-out of 700, in  return for 700 cows.

+ For any hosting they were to be given seven bondswomen (valued at three cows each) for each man slain.

+  Whatever cattle they killed or injured, they had to pay only one-seventh of the normal restitution.


The Collas had retained the knowledge of their old tribal name, Trinovantes, which they repeated to Muredach Tirech's court and his intelligentsia, the professors or ollaimh.  These attempted a translation of the name through Latin into their own speech and, erroneously, it took the form of Airgialla, meaning "arch-hostages."   This no doubt seemed appropriate in the circumstances.  The Collas were accustomed to the rights of citizens and soldiers of the Empire and would not have been accustomed to giving hostages to the king and having them fettered, as was the custom in Ireland.  Two of the provisions in the Book of Rights define the agreement as related to their name:

+  If charged upon oath with any deed deserving of fetters, they had only to produce the oath of the accused.  (For them, the oath apparently replaced the fetters .)

+ The hostages given by the Airgialla were "bound" only by their oaths, not by chains; but any hostage who broke his oath and left was "not fit for  earth nor for holy heaven."


After some time, about the year 392 the king sent the Collas against his ancient enemies, the Ulaid, to see whether the trio could win a home for themselves and their descendants and at the same time weaken the men of the north.  The Ulaid had their spiritual and communal center at Emain Macha, now called Navan fort, a collection of earthworks lying not far west of the present town of Armagh.  Emain was not a permanent capital at that time, not having had any structures since a great conflagration some centuries before.  However it was the symbolic center of that people, perhaps being the site of their annual assembly, and seems to have had  religious significance to the pagans. 


According to one of the oldest surviving accounts, a great host was then with the Collas. They went to the men of Olnecmacht (or Connaught)  and contracted fosterage with them.  After that six catha or  battalions of the men of Olnecmacht went with them.  They fought against the Ulaid at Carn Achad Leth Derg in Fernmaigh; seven battles from that cairn against the Ulaid, a battle each day until the end of seven days; six battles by the men of Olnecmacht and the seventh battle by the Collas.  The battle lasted a summer day and a summer night, reaching the idols of the race.  These were in the proximity of the carn coll na nothur.   They defeated the Ulaid at the beginning of the next day.  The defeated fled to Glen Rige.   They were a week after that plundering the Ulaid. The sword-lands taken by the Airgialla were Mugdornai, O Crimthainn, na hAirtheraib, and O Mac Cuais. (Thus this old account.)


This account and other, similar ones, seem to collapse into a week what was a series of victories by the Airgialla over the Ulaid, which were spread out over several decades and generations of the family.  Carn Achadh Leth Derg, the first of the victories, has been located by one historian at Carn Roe in the present Currin Parish, in western County Monaghan.  In this battle, it was said, Colla da Crioch killed the Ulaid king Fergus Foga, but not before Fergus had killed Colla Menn.


This battle resulted in the Collas taking sword-lands in Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Monaghan and the overlordship of the peoples already in that area, including those later identified as the Mugdorna.  The lordship of this first conquest was in the family of Colla da Crich, with its capital, if it may be called that, at Clogher in south Tyrone.  The family of Colla Menn became overlords of the Mugdorna.


Over an extended period of perhaps eighty years, the Collas and their descendants fought several other battles against the Ulaid and took other lands from them, while remaining subject to the descendants of Muredach Tirech.  In 425 while the latter's grandson Néill Noighiallach was king, Néill's sons Eoghan, Conal, and Enda along with Erc, son of Colla Uais, and Erc's sons Carthend and Fiachra took north-central and northwest Ulster from the Ulaid.  These three sons of Néill settled in the northwest, in the present County Donegal.  Their descendants were called the Northern Uí Néill and included the great families of Ó Neill and Ó Donnell.  The Airgialla settled to the east as buffers between the sons of Néill and the Ulaid. The lordship of these lands was taken by the families descending from Colla Uais, with Carthend's land, Tir-Carthaind or Tirkeeran, lying in the Faughan valley east of the present city of Derry. 


Other branches of the descendants of Colla Uais later assisted the Southern Uí Néill (the descendants of other sons of Néill Noighiallach) of Meath in the consolidation of their kingdoms of Mide and Brega and received lands there. 


About the year 470 some of the descendants of Colla da Crioch, under the leadership of the Southern Uí Néill, again defeated the Ulaid.  According to one old poem, this victory took place at Craeve Derg, one of the hills at the ancient Ulaid capital at Emain Macha.  The account paraphrased above likewise seems to mention Emain, coll na nothur apparently being a form of the name of another of the Emain sites mentioned in ancient tales. 


The Ulaid were driven across the Newry River and whatever had remained at Emain of their pagan religion was destroyed.  St. Patrick left Armagh, which he had founded near the capital of the people he hoped to convert, to go into Down with the Ulaid, leaving Armagh for some years in the hands of the bishop of those Christians who lived in Meath.  The surrounding territories were taken by the descendants of Colla da Crich and both the lands and the people became called the Airther, the "Easterns", for they were east of the lands formerly taken at the battle of Carn Achadh Leth Dearg.  It is possible that this same battle resulted in the eastward expansion of the descendants of Colla Uais, into the valley of the lower Bann.


The Airgialla displaced the Ulaid in the possession of much of the province of Ulster.  Their king also displaced the king of the Ulaid in importance in the province and, by the eleventh century, was accorded these rights that supposedly had belonged to the Ulaid king:

+  The King of Airgialla was entitled to one-third of every casual revenue, i.e. the King of Ulaid's share.

+ The King of Airgialla's seat at all the mansions of the ard-rí was at his right hand, so far that the King of Airgialla's sword should reach the cup-bearer of the ard-rí or the hand of the ard-rí.

+  The King of Airgialla had the privilege of presenting every third drinking horn that was brought to the King of Tara (i.e. the ard-rí).

+ The same portion that the King of Airgialla received from the King of Tara, his queen was entitled to receive from the queen of the ard-rí.


The story of the three Collas was handed down in poetic form, first orally and then in writing, as the foundation myth of the Airgialla, with the long period of conquest collapsed into one week.  In the eighth century or somewhat later the literati of Ireland began a campaign to unify Ireland by giving all of her people a common ancestry.  In that  effort,   the  Collas  had  to  be   given  an   Irish origin, while the memory of their coming from Britain or Alba survived and could not be ignored. 


The story was invented that they were first cousins of Muredach Tirech, their father having been his uncle and given the name Eochaid Dublen.  From their nomen of Colla came the idea that they had committed some sin or col, for which they had been driven into exile.  This sin was said to have been the death in battle of their uncle, Muredach's father.  Colla Uais, because uais means noble, was said to have been high king for four years after the murder and before their exile.  Muredach Tirech then sent them into exile and they went to Alba, where their mother's father was said to have been king.  He was called Uigari or Ugari, from their kinsman's real title of vicarius.  According to the story, after three years they returned from their exile, were hospitably received by Muredach Tirech, and became his military leaders. 


This story was accepted from the tenth century until early in the twentieth, when one skeptic, looking at the story of Néill Noighiallach, decided that the three Collas never existed but were in fact the three sons of Néill who took the northwest.  Several later historians have uncritically followed him in this, but others have been more hesitant.  The story as presented here is a summary of an article prepared for the 1998 Clogher Record, in which the reasoning and support is documented.





Perhaps the most complete version of the story of the Collas based on the accounts of the Irish middle ages is found in Keating, pages 362 through 367.  Modern discussions, though some are from a more general perspective, can be found in T. F. O Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythololgy (1946); Francis J. Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings (New York, 1973); and Gearóid MacNiocaill, Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and MacMillan, 1972)

~ Donald M. Schlegel

February 2003

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