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The modern province of Ulster, named after the Ulaid, shaded green area.
The Ulaid (Old Irish, ; modern Irish Ulaidh, ) were a people of early Ireland who gave their name to the modern province of Ulster (modern Irish Cuige Uladh, pron. /'kuːiɡʲə 'ʊləɣ/, "province" [literally "fifth"] "of the Ulaid"; the English word "Ulster" derives from Irish Ulaid and Old Norse staðr, "place, territory"). Ulaid is a plural noun, indicating an ethnonym rather than a geographic term. The Ulaid are probably mentioned in Ptolemy's 2nd century Geographia, as the Ούολουντοι (Uolunti), probably a corruption of Ούλουτοι (Uluti). The name is probably derived from ul, "beard". T. F. O'Rahilly believed the Ulaid were a branch of the Érainn. Certainly related to the Ulaid are the less widely known Dáirine (Cland Dedad), and both were related to or derived from the Darini of Ptolemy.

The use of the word cuige, earlier cóiced, literally "fifth", to mean "province", implies the existence at some point in prehistory of a pentarchy, whose five members are believed to have been population groups the Ulaid, the Connachta (Connacht) and the Laigin (Leinster), the region Mumu (Munster), and the central kingdom of Mide. At their height, Ulaid territory extended south as far as the River Boynemarker and as far west as County Leitrimmarker. However, that pentarchy no longer existed by the 5th century, when documentary history in Ireland begins. The Ulaid still held significant territory, primarily in Counties Antrim, Down and Louthmarker, although the boundaries of their territories were fluid. Their primary ruling dynasty was the Dál Fiatach, based in Downpatrickmarker, County Down. The name Ulaid developed an additional geographical sense, so that the term rí Ulad, "king of the Ulaid", could refer to the king of the Dál Fiatach, or to the over-king of the north-east, many of whom came from dynasties of the Cruithne such as the Dál nAraide and the Uí Echach Cobo (the Dál nAraide even claimed in its genealogies to be na fir Ulaid, "the true Ulaid"). The rest of the ancient fifth fell under the control of the Airgíalla and the northern dynasties of the Uí Néill. The Ulaid as a distinct people, as represented by the Dál Fiatach, survived until their conquest in 1177 by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy.

Medieval Irish genealogists traced the Ulaid's descent from the legendary High King Rudraige mac Sithrigi. The Ulaid feature in Irish legends and historical traditions of prehistoric times, most notably in the group of sagas known as the Ulster Cycle. These stories are set during the reign of the Ulaid king Conchobar mac Nessa at Emain Machamarker (Navan Fort, near Armaghmarker) and tell of his conflicts with the Connachta, led by queen Medb and her husband Ailill mac Máta. The chief hero is Conchobar's nephew Cú Chulainn, and the central story is the proto-epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, "The Cattle Raid of Cooley".

In some stories Conchobar's birth and death are synchronised with those of Christ, which creates an apparent anachronism in the presence of the Connachta. The historical Connachta were a group of dynasties who traced their descent to the legendary king Conn Cétchathach, whose reign is traditionally dated to the 2nd century. However, the chronology of early Irish historical tradition is inconsistent and highly artificial. One early saga makes Fergus mac Léti, one of Conchobar's predecessors as king of the Ulaid, a contemporary of Conn, and Tírechán's 7th century memoir of Saint Patrick says that Cairbre Nia Fer, Conchobar's son-in-law in the sagas, lived only 100 years before the saint, i.e. in the 4th century.

Kenneth Jackson, based on his estimates on the survival of oral tradition, also suggested that the Ulster Cycle originated in the 4th century. Other scholars, following T. F. O'Rahilly, propose that the sagas of the Ulster Cycle derive from the wars between the Ulaid and the midland dynasties of the Connachta and the nascent Uí Néill in the 4th and 5th centuries, at the end of which the Ulaid lost much of their territory, and their capital, to the new kingdoms of the Airgíalla. Traditional history credits this to the Three Collas, three great great great grandsons of Conn, who defeated the Ulaid king Fergus Foga at Achad Lethderg in County Monaghanmarker, seized all Ulaid territory west of the Newry Rivermarker and Lough Neaghmarker, and burned Emain Macha. Fergus Foga is said to have been the last king of the Ulaid to reign there. The Annals of the Four Masters dates this to AD 331. O'Rahilly and his followers believe the Collas are literary doublets of the sons of Niall Noígiallach, eponymous founder of the Uí Néill, who they propose were the true conquerors of Emain in the 5th century.


  1. Francis J. Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, Four Courts Press, 2001, p. 46
  2. Ptolemy, Geographia 2.1
  3. Karl Horst Schmidt, "Insular P- and Q-Celtic", in Martin J. Ball and James Fife (eds.), The Celtic Languages, Routledge, 1993, p. 67
  4. T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p. 81
  5. O'Rahilly 1946
  6. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, "Ireland, 400-800", in Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History of Ireland Vol 1, 2005, pp. 182-234
  7. Byrne 2001, pp. 106-129
  8. Michael Richter, Medieval Ireland, Gill & McMillan, 2005
  9. O'Rahilly 1946, p. 480
  10. R. A. Stewart Macalister (ed. & trans.), Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland Part V, Irish Texts Society, 1956, p. 331-333
  11. Byrne 2001, p. 50-51.
  12. D. A. Binchy (ed. & trans.), "The Saga of Fergus mac Léti", Ériu 16, 1952, pp. 33-48
  13. Ludwig Bieler (ed. & trans.), The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh, Tírechán 40
  14. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Oldest Irish Tradition: a Window on the Iron Age, Cambridge University Press, 1964
  15. O'Rahilly 1946, pp. 207-234
  16. Annals of the Four Masters M322-331

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