Oswald and the Irish
The Heroic Age Issue 4 Winter 2001
To understand King Oswald of Bernicia (r. 634/5-642), it is vital to understand his relationship with the Irish kingdom of Dalriada, which in his lifetime straddled the Irish Sea with territory in Ireland and Scotland. Ramifications of Oswald’s exile in Dalriada extended into the secular and ecclesiastical world of Bernicia and beyond.
The relationship between Oswald of Bernicia and the Irish kingdom of Dalriada (Dál Riata) is of critical importance to the understanding of his reign, and, indeed, to the history of seventh century Britain. Through Dalriada, Oswald made contact with other Irish tribes in Ireland. Irish influence seeped into both the secular and ecclesiastical societies of Bernicia and eventually throughout all of Bernicia’s territories. Oswald son of Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, was the dominant king in Britain during his reign from 634/5 to 642. Adomnan of Iona’s assessment that Oswald became “emperor of the whole of Britain” generally confirms Bede’s assessment that “he held under his sway all peoples and kingdoms of Britain, divided among the speakers of four different languages, British, Pictish, Irish, and English”. If Oswald’s overkingdom did extend to Dalriada, then he managed to accomplish a remarkable feat. To become the overlord of a king who had given him refuge while in exile is remarkable. As we shall see, Oswald’s relationship with Dalriada was complex and mutually beneficial. Oswald’s relationship with the Scots evolved through many phases. As a young child, Oswald’s father Æthelfrith was the overking of at least North Britain, possibly including Dalriada. The year before Oswald’s birth in 604, Æthelfrith defeated Aedan of Dalriada at the battle of Degsastan in central southern Scotland. Yet when Æthelfrith was slain in 616, King Eochaid mac Aedan of Dalriada accepted the exiled Oswald and his siblings, giving them refuge from Edwin of Deira. Oswald and his siblings remained in Dalriada for 17 years, converting to Christianity on Iona (Adomnan 1.1, Anderson & Anderson 1991:17) and possibly fighting for the Irish kings (Moisl 1983).