The Three Collas

Lisnadarragh Wedge Tomb


A Wedge tomb in County Armagh


The Three Collas were the founders of the Kingdom of Airghialla.  They were the sons of Eochy Dubhlen and Alechia, daughter of Updar, King of Alba (Scotland).  Muireadach or Colla da Chrioch, meaning Colla of the Two Countries, Ireland and Alba, was one of three sons and the first King of Airghialla after their conquest of Ulster.  This new kingdom consisted of the modern Counties Monaghan, Armagh, and parts of Fermanagh, Louth, and Tyrone.  (source:

The three brothers all bore the name of Colla - Colla Uais, Colla Meann, and Colla da Crioch.  The designation Colla was "imposed on them for rebelling," and means strong man, their original names being Cairsall, Aodh and Muredach. 

Colla da Chrioch became the first king of Airghialla (Oriel).  The tribescopyright by Irish History in Maps, used with permission of the three Collas were known as the Airghialla and included the Ui Cremthainn, Mughdorna, Ui Meath, Airthir, Ui Tuirte, Ui Meic Uais, and Gernmhaighe, among others.  Noted chiefs of Airghialla included O'Carroll, O'Boylan, O'Heany or Hegney, O'Leighnin, O'Rogan.  In the 13th century the family of MacMahon (MacMathghamnha) held the superior authority with the title King of Oriel.


What more do we know about the Collas?

First, it appears that the legend of the Collas is true for it is documented in numerous sources and has held up to considerable scrutiny over the years.

Second, it appears that they must have been incredibly talented at war, to have displaced the Ulaid, one of the most powerful of all the tribes in Ireland.

And the genealogy of the Clans and tribes descended from these brothers appears to have been well documented and is subject to little question.  It is generally accepted that the Clan MacMahon is descended from Colla da Crioch, the first King of Airghialla.

The lineage of the Collas has been questioned and we will investigate this further in the linked page below, called The Origin of the Three Collas.  It is possible that they were disenfranchised Roman Centurions as their rise in Ireland were taking place at the same time that the Romans were slowly pulling out of Britain.  Later genealogists may have modified their origin in order to make them descend from the High Kings of Ireland.  At present this debate remains unresolved and the story you have read about them here is the accepted version.

Of the name Airghialla there is also debate and that is explored further in the page mentioned above.

It seems documented as well that the Collas were either assisted in their defeat of the Ulaid by the Ui Neill (later O'Neill) Clan or that Clan became involved shortly thereafter as they established themselves to the north.  The people of the Airghialla were then subject to the Ui Neill into the time period of the MacMahon Kings.  King Neill, or Neill of the Nine Hostages became a sovereign of Ireland and exerted great influence throughout all of northern Ireland.

There is little record of the Collas or their descendents in the Annals after their defeat of the Ulaid.  This indicates only that their involvement in notable events of national import was perhaps limited.  The Annals tend to be a recording of major events, such as the deaths of kings, major battles, and church history locally or even in Rome.  We will continue looking for additional sources in order to flesh out the period of time from the establishment until the MacMahons.

We also know that the Ulaid continued to exist, having moved to Counties Down and Atrim.  Their actions continue to be notable by historians though their territory was vastly reduced.

Livingstone, in The Monaghan Story, suggests that Airghialla was not at first a kingdom in the traditional sense, but more of a confederation of tribes.  According to Livingstone, 'The Airghialla people may be divided into three main groupings.  A northern grouped occupied the territory of Derry and north Tyrone.  A western group dominated the Clogher area of Tyrone, and the Fernmag territory of west Monaghan, and, in later years, much of Fermanagh.  These people were called the Ui Chremthainn (from whom the MacMahons descend).  The third grouping included the Airthir people of Armagh as well as the Airghialla clans in east and south Monaghan.  In spite of the large tract of territory which they ruled, the Airghialla did not form a new province....the Airghialla confederation was subject to constant pressure from the Ui Neill who had established themselves in Donegal.'

One must wonder why a stronger authority was not asserted over the entirety of the new territory.  Given the apparent talent of the Collas at battle one might expect the emergence of a strong new kingdom in Ireland.  Instead one sees an area where tribal and clan influences establish and then shift as neighboring clans battle with one another.  Airghialla seems to become a territory within which there is a constant shifting in power.  There is no apparent cohesion as a people and this strong tribal influence, coupled with strong neighbors on all sides seems to continue as the pattern right up until the time of the O'Carroll Kings of Clan Nadsluaig (from whom the MacMahons also descend).

It also appears that within this territory of Airghialla there remained many more ancient peoples, also having influence.  These peoples had be subjugated by the Ulaid and then with the removal of the Ulaid leadership had to pay homage to their new rulers, the Airghialla, but were also perhaps able to assert themselves more under Airghialla rule. 

All of this suggests that the Collas and their descendents were better warriors than they were rulers and that this Kingdom of Airghialla was a place of constant strife.


The Origin of the Three Collas -- An Alternate Explanation

Next Chapter: Oriel ~ from the Collas to the MacMahons

A Listing of the Kings of Airghialla from the Annals of the Four Masters

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