Máel Muire: a Pictish queen of Tara

Cináed mac Ailpín, king of the Picts, died in 858 at his palace of Forteviot in Perthshire. Unlike many kings of the Viking Age he passed away in his bed rather than on a battlefield. For sixteen years he had ruled as paramount monarch or ‘overking’ of a substantial part of Pictish territory, having fought his way to power by defeating various rivals. What may have been his original domain lay much further west, in the Gaelic-speaking region of Dál Riada, the land of the Scots. He probably had ancestral ties with at least one powerful Dál Riadan family in the peninsula of Kintyre, as well as close kinship with Pictish elites in Perthshire. Whatever his ancestry or ‘ethnic’ heritage, his preferred language was almost certainly Gaelic. It is likely that ethnic identities in northern Britain were already becoming blurred in the mid-9th century, with many Picts choosing to speak the Gaelic of the Scots rather than the language of their own forefathers. Cultural and political borrowings between Picts and Scots had probably begun a hundred years earlier, when Pictish overkings imposed supremacy on Dál Riada.

Cináed sired an unknown number of children. We know of four who survived him: two sons and two daughters. Each son eventually succeeded to Cináed’s overkingship as rex Pictorum, ‘king of the Picts’. Causantin or Constantine, the elder son, ruled from 862 to 876. He was outlived by his younger brother and successor, Áed mac Cináeda, by only a couple of years. Cináed’s daughters, although ineligible to rule in their own right, had great political value as royal brides. The early medieval period was an era when alliances between kingdoms were frequently sealed by inter-dynastic marriage. As princesses of the powerful mac Ailpín dynasty, Cináed’s daughters undoubtedly expected to be betrothed to men of similarly high status at home or abroad.

One daughter, whose name we do not know, became the wife of Rhun ab Arthgal, a prince – and later king – of the Clyde Britons. I have previously written about her on this blog. The other daughter, who may have been the younger, is a less anonymous figure. Her name was Máel Muire, a Gaelic name which was given to boys as well as girls. It meant ‘servant of Mary’ and had strong Christian connotations. An approximate rendering of this name in English pronunciation is ‘Moyl Morra’.

Constantine mac Cináeda became rex Pictorum after the death of his paternal uncle, Domnall mac Ailpín, in 862. As overking of an extensive realm stretching from Fife in the east to Kintyre in the west, Constantine was well-placed to seek beneficial alliances with other powerful rulers. Like many 9th-century kings, he faced a continuing menace from Viking raids on his territory. He had also to consider the ambitions of his indigenous neighbours, some of whom were just as dangerous as the Scandinavian sea-rovers. The Britons of the Clyde posed one such threat, so Constantine sought their friendship by sending one of his sisters to the royal fortress of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) as a bride for Prince Rhun. Constantine’s other sister, Máel Muire, was sent to Ireland to become the third wife of King Áed Findliath. Áed (pronounced ‘Ayth’) ruled Cenél nEógain, a branch of the northern Uí Néill kindred, but his power and status increased when he became high king of Tara in 862 – the year of Constantine’s accession as ‘king of the Picts’. The ancient royal complex at Tara symbolised an overkingship to which the northern and southern branches of the Uí Néill frequently aspired. We can be fairly sure that the political agreement sealed by Áed’s marriage to Constantine’s sister would have been beneficial to both kings. It may have included pledges of mutual military assistance against Viking fleets.

Mael Muire

The geography of Máel Muire's life

Máel Muire bore Áed Findliath a son, Niall Glúndub, who became a strong monarch in his own right, ruling as high king of Tara from 916 to 919. After Áed’s death in 879, Máel Muire married Flann Sinna, king of the southern Uí Néill, whose core domain lay in the midland region of Mide. Flann succeeded Áed in the high kingship and undoubtedly drew considerable prestige by taking his predecessor’s widow as a bride. Máel Muire bore him a daughter, Ligach, whose own son would eventually become king of Tara. We may observe at this point that neither of Máel Muire’s marriages required her to learn an unfamiliar language. Both of her husbands were Gaelic-speakers, like herself, so she faced no communication difficulties on arrival at their respective courts. Her sister, by contrast, had married into the royal house of the Clyde Britons, a people whose speech was quite different. The language of the Britons was related to Welsh, as indeed was the original Pictish language that eventually gave way to Gaelic.

Although both of Cináed’s daughters were probably raised in a Gaelic-speaking family they may have perceived themselves as ‘Picts’, especially in political or dynastic contexts where matters of ancestry and heritage might arise. Their father had ruled as rex Pictorum and their brothers adopted the same title. If Cináed, Constantine and Áed all regarded themselves as Picts, then Máel Muire and her sister no doubt adopted the same ethnic affiliation. This would make Niall Glúndub, son of Máel Muire and grandson of Cináed, a half-Pictish high king of Ireland.

Mael Muire

Máel Muire's dynastic connections

Máel Muire died in 913. Her passing was noted in the Annals of Ulster, where she was identified not as Flann Sinna’s queen but as Cináed’s daughter. Her age at death is unknown, because we don’t know the year of her birth, but she was most likely in her sixties. She was probably born before 858, the year of her father’s death, perhaps even a decade or more earlier. Another gap in our knowledge is the number of children she bore. We know of only Niall and his half-sister Ligach but others can surely be envisaged. It is therefore possible that Máel Muire’s descendants were scattered more widely across 10th-century Ireland than our sources suggest.

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References

Alan Orr Anderson, Early sources of Scottish history, AD 500 to 1286. Volume 1 (Edinburgh, 1922), p.403, n.4

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.115-6

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2 comments on “Máel Muire: a Pictish queen of Tara

  1. Melisende says:

    Another wonderful post – thanks!

  2. Tim says:

    Thank you for the compliment, Melisende.

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