High King of Ireland

High King of Ireland

A High King of Ireland ( _ga. Ard Rí na hÉireann) is a historical or legendary figure who claimed lordship over the whole of Ireland. The High-Kingship was never a political reality in Ireland, but has a strong literary and folkore tradition.

The meaning of High Kingship

While the traditional list of those bearing the title "High King of Ireland" goes back thousands of years, into the second millennium BC, the earlier parts of the list are largely mythical. It is unclear at what point the list begins to refer to historical individuals, and also at what point these individuals can genuinely be said to be "High Kings" in the later sense of the word.

Most scholars believe that the idea of the High Kingship was a pseudohistorical construct of the eighth century that placed a king of all Ireland atop the fragmented pyramid of kingship which actually existed at that time [cite book |title=Tales of the Elders of Ireland |year=1999 |last=Roe |first=Harry |coauthors=Ann Dooley |publisher=Oxford University Press] [cite book |title=Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia |year=2006 |first=John T. |last=Koch |publisher=ABC-CLO] [cite book |title=Early Irish history and pseudo-history |year=1957 |author=Michael Roberts et al |publisher=Bowes & Bowes Michigan University Press] .

This notion of a high kingship acted as a spur to greater centralisation and was converted into political reality by the middle of the ninth century. High Kingship claims were in the genealogies of many of the dominant septs, but were never a political reality.

Until quite recently the development of the pre-Norman kingship of Ireland has been expressed in simplistic terms, with both unionist and nationalist historians - for their own resective purposes - happy to portray pre-Norman Ireland as an immutable hierarchy of kings. In Unionist historiography the picture painted has been one of tribal chaos (with Norman invasion supposedly "creating order"), while that of Nationalist historiography has been a Utopian harmony (supposedly destroyed by the invaders).

Modern-day historians reject both of these portrayals as simplistic, presenting a history of Irish kingship that is more complex and parallels the development of national kingship elsewhere in Europe.

acral High Kings

Early Irish kingship was sacral in character. In the early narrative literature a king is a king because he marries the sovereignty goddess (Medbh), is free from blemish, enforces symbolic "buada" (prerogatives) and avoids symbolic "geasa" (taboos).

According to the seventh and eighth century law tracts, a hierarchy of kingship and clientship progressed from the "rí" (king of a single petty kingdom) through the "ruiri" (a "rí" who was overking of several petty kingdoms) to a "rí ruirech" (a "rí" who was a provincial overking).

Each king ruled directly only within the bounds of his own petty kingdom and was responsible for ensuring good government by exercising "fír flaithemon" (rulers' truth), convening its "óenach" (popular assembly), raising taxes, public works, external relations, defence, emergency legislation, law enforcement and promulgating legal judgement.

The lands within the petty kingdom were held allodially by various "fine" (agnatic kingroups) of freemen with the king occupying the apex of a pyramid of clientship within the petty kingdom (progressing from the unfree population at its base up to the heads of noble "fine" held in immediate clientship by the king) and so being drawn from the dominant "fine" within the "cenél" (a wider kingroup encompassing the noble "fine" of the petty kingdom).

The kings of the Ulster Cycle are kings in this sacred sense, but it is clear that the old concept of kingship coexisted alongside Christianity for several generations. Diarmait mac Cerbaill, king of Tara in the middle of the 6th century, may have been the last king to have "married" the land, and indeed there are accounts from the century after Diarmait's death at the hands of Áed Dub mac Suibni which have him killed by the Three-Fold Death - by wounding, by falling from a tree, and by drowning - and Adomnán's "Life" tells how Saint Columba forecast the same death for Áed Dub. The same Three-Fold Death is said to have put an end of Diarmait's predecessor, Muirchertach macc Ercae, in a late poem, and even the usually reliably Annals of Ulster record Muirchertach's death by drowning in a vat of wine.

A second sign that sacral kingship did not disappear with the arrival of Christianity is the supposed law-suit between Congal Cáech, king of the Ulaid, and Domnall mac Áedo. Congal was supposedly blinded in one eye by Domnall's bees, from whence his byname Cáech (half-blind or squinting), this injury rendering him imperfect and unable to remain High King. The enmity between Domnall and Congal can more prosaically be laid at the door of the rivalry between the Uí Néill and the kings of Ulaid, but that a king had to be whole in body appears to have been accepted at this time.

uccession order

The business of Irish succession is rather complicated because of the nature of kingship in Ireland before the Norman take-over of 1171. Ireland was divided into a multiplicity of kingdoms, with some kings owing allegiance to others from time to time, and succession rules (insofar as they existed) varied. Kings were often succeeded by their sons, but often other branches of the dynasty took a turn - whether by agreement or by force of arms is rarely clear. Unfortunately the king-lists and other early sources reveal little about how and why a particular person became king.

To add to the uncertainty, genealogies were often edited many generations later in order to improve an ancestor's standing within a kingdom, or to insert him into a more powerful kindred. The uncertain practices in local kingship cause similar problems when interpreting the succession to the high kingship.

The High King of Ireland was essentially a ceremonial, pseudo-federal overlord (where his over-lordship was even recognised), who exercised actual power only within the realm of which he was actually king. In the case of the southern branch of the Uí Neill, this would have been the Kingdom of Meath (now the counties of Meath, Westmeath and part of County Dublin). High Kings from the northern branch ruled various kingdoms in what eventually became the province of Ulster.

Nevertheless, the Uí Neill were apparently powerful in ceremony if not in politic, so that political unification of Ireland was not aided by the usurpation of the high kingship from Mael Sechnaill II and the southern Uí Niall in 1002 by "Briain ‘Boruma’ mac Cennédig", of the Kingdom of Munster. This was the third of the so-called "Three Usurpations of Brian Boru."

Brian Boru was a strong king who could have unified Ireland politically, and there is some suggestion he intended to make himself High King of Scotland as well. But he was killed in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, and twelve years as High King was not long enough to unify the island politically. Mael Sechnaill II was restored to the High Kingship but he died in 1022, too soon to undo the damage done by Brian's "coup." From 1022 through the Norman take-over of 1171, the High Kingship was held alongside "Kings with Opposition".

Because the native Irish high kingship never adopted any set of rules for succession, be they based on primogeniture or any other system, there can be no realistic pretender to an Irish 'throne', and modern claims cannot be taken seriously. Alternatively, given the great number of Irish kings in the early Middle Ages, it is scarcely possible to believe that there is one person of Irish descent today who does not also have kingly blood -- given the lack of rules of succession and the contrived genealogies of the time, all Irish males might lay claim to a kingship of one sort or another.

Early Christian High Kings

Even at the time the law tracts were being written these petty kingdoms were being swept away by newly emerging dynasties of dynamic overkings. The most successful of these early dynasties were the Uí Néill (encompassing descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages such as the Cenel Eoghain) who as kings of Tara had been conquering petty kingdoms, expelling their rulers and agglomerating their territories under the direct rule of their expanding kindred since the fifth century.

Native and foreign, pagan and Christian ideas were comingled to form a new idea of Irish kingship. The native idea of a sacred kingship was integrated with the Christian idea in the ceremony of coronation, the relationship of king to overking became one of "tigerna" (lord) to king and "imperium" (sovereignty) began to merge with "dominium" (ownership).

The church was well disposed to the idea of a strong political authority. Its clerics developed the theory of a high kingship of Ireland and wrote tracts exhorting kings to rule rather than reign. In return the "paruchiae" (monastic federations) of the Irish church received royal patronage in the form of shrines, building works, land and protection.

The concept of a high king was occasionally recorded in various annals, such as an entry regarding the death of Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid in 862 in the Annals of Ulster which lists him as "rí Érenn uile" (king of all Ireland), a title which his successor, Aed Finliath apparently never was granted. It is unclear what political reality was behind this title. [ [http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100001A/index.html The Annals of Ulster ] ]

Later High Kings

By the twelfth century the dual process of agglomeration of territory and consolidation of kingship saw the handful of remaining provincial kings abandoning the traditional royal sites for the cities, employing ministers and governors, receiving advice from an "oireacht" (a body of noble counsellors), presiding at reforming synods and maintaining standing armies.

Early royal succession had been by alternation between collateral branches of the wider dynasty but succession was now confined to a series of father/son, brother/brother and uncle/nephew successions within a small royal "fine" marked by an exclusive surname.

These compact families (O Brien of Munster, MacLochlainn of the North, O Connor of Connacht) intermarried and competed against each other on a national basis so that on the eve of the Anglo-Norman incursion of 1169 we find the agglomeration/consolidation process complete and their provincial kingdoms divided, dismembered and transformed into fiefdoms held from (or in rebellion against) one of their number acting as king of Ireland.

ee also

* List of High Kings of Ireland
* King of Ireland
* King of Scots
* Bretwalda



* "Lebor Gabála Érenn"
* [http://www.geoghegan.org/clan/ Geoghegan Clan]
* O'Neill
* John Francis Byrne, 1973, "Irish Kings and High Kings", Dublin
* "Annals of the Four Masters"
* Geoffrey Keating, 1636, "Foras Feasa ar Eirenn"
* [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,176-1986072,00.html High King Niall: the most fertile man in Ireland] ,
* "The Times Online", The Times, 15th. January, 2006
* Laoise T. Moore et al,
* [http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v78n2/43032/brief/43032.abstract.html A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland] Am. J. Hum. Genet., 78:334-338, 2006

External links

* [http://www.ucc.ie/celt/nation_kingship.html Nationality and Kingship in Pre-Norman Ireland by Prof. Donnchadh Ó Corráin, University College Cork]

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