Dalriada – The Sea Kingdom of the North

By Michael Sheane

The precise origins of the Kingdom of Dalriada are lost to history, and some historians site the date 500 BC as a likely start. It may be said that Dalriada only existed as a concept when it became a division of Éire or Ireland during the time when the clans were establishing their territories in the centuries before following 500 BC.

It can be equally argued that Dalriada existed in some form as early as the Middle Stone Age (the Neolithic kingdoms – 8000 – 4500 BC), for at this time it is thought that there were kingdoms existing on both sides of the North Channel or Sea of Moyle.

Cultures identified at Larne and at Oban from that time used the same implements and perhaps lived the same kind of life with identical beliefs.

By 4500 BC there is much evidence of trade interchange, and this equally applied to the Bronze Age of the Oban area. There have been a number of finds on both sides of the North Channel. Even exotic finds are found from the Mediterranean lands and Scandinavia, and show even more connections in the trading pattern.


The earliest record of Dalriada as Celtic kingdom is contained in the ‘Ulster Chronicle’, thought to have been written at Bangor, Co. Down in about 740 AD, some 250 years after the kingdom had flourished. The accounts are in terms of hard evidence, rather like the Catholic Church, in that there are no contemporary accounts of the life of Christ, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Both, together with the annals and archaeology a picture emerges.

The extent of Dalriada is often questioned, for even at its strongest the borders were always changing; conquests and grants of land may have helped shift these boundaries. The border of the kingdom in the west have been put at the River Bann in a sweep around the Antrim coast to Glynn, just outside Larne, and Island Magee may have been a separate kingdom. But its core area has been put at the River Bush in the west along the Bush valley to Glenravel in the south.

These Dalriadas traded extensively by sea, and they may have probed inland; a situation only changed in the 19th century when the coast road was constructed to link the glens of Antrim with the seaport of Larne.

In later years, north east Antrim was considered completely insignificant and left to its own devices, but still maintained links with Scotland, and it remained one of the Gaelic speaking areas of Ireland. The journey from Glenarm to Belfast was a well-known boat trip.

This article deals mainly with the Irish part of Dalriada, its capital being Dunseverick on the north coast, but other regions have been sited, e.g: Ballymoney; Dunseverick is the most likely for Dalriada was a sea kingdom. This article deals with the Celtic period of Dalriada when there were small trading parties arriving, with a flourishing civilization, up to the year 500 AD.

The Bronze Age people of Dalriada were, therefore, very cultured, wealthy and cosmopolitan and had their own strong religion, beliefs and legends. They too had taken over from the New Stone Age. All in all the Celtic conquest may have dated from as early as 1000 AD. This means that cultural takeovers meant largely that technology, art, customs and religious practices gradually changed with outside influences, but the people were much from the same stock.

In Dalarida the people revered cultures that had gone before them; new cultures took over much more ancient habitations, because they were good places to live, and took over ritual monuments too. All the monuments dating back many thousands of years in Ireland have Celtic names.

Famous people were transformed into gods, and goddesses and heroes. For this reason some of the finest prehistoric monuments of Dalarida have been included, and they were important also to the Catholic Church that may have reached Ireland before the time of Saint Patrick in the fifth century.

For example, the word ‘Grianian’ is used to mean sunny place on Rathlin Island; it is also used as the passage grave at West Tor, and of course for the O’Neills of Cashel in east Donegal; its name is related to the sun god of the Greeks.

In modern times, the name Grainne has been used as a girl’s name which may be translated as the daughter of a sunbeam, which is just as Greek as you can get. In greater Dalriada in north-east Antrim, the names Dunseverick, Rathlin, Ballycastle, Waterfoot, Bush, Armoy, the Bann Larme, and Glynn stand out.

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