High King of Ireland
The High Kings of Ireland were sometimes historical and sometimes legendary figures who had, or who are claimed to have had, lordship over the whole of Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

. Medieval and early modern Irish literature portrays an almost unbroken sequence of High Kings, ruling from Tara
Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara , located near the River Boyne, is an archaeological complex that runs between Navan and Dunshaughlin in County Meath, Leinster, Ireland...

 over a hierarchy of lesser kings, stretching back thousands of years. Modern historians believe this scheme is artificial, constructed in the 8th century from the various genealogical traditions of politically powerful groups, and intended to justify the current status of those groups by projecting it back into the remote past. The concept of national kingship is first articulated in the 7th century, but only became a political reality in the Viking Age, and even then not a consistent one.

Until quite recently the development of the pre-Norman
The Normans were the people who gave their name to Normandy, a region in northern France. They were descended from Norse Viking conquerors of the territory and the native population of Frankish and Gallo-Roman stock...

 kingship of Ireland has been expressed in simplistic terms, with both unionist and nationalist historians—for their own respective 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 and present instead a history of Irish kingship that is more complex and parallels the development of national kingship elsewhere in Europe (for instance the Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire was a realm that existed from 962 to 1806 in Central Europe.It was ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor. Its character changed during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, when the power of the emperor gradually weakened in favour of the princes...

, to some extent).

Sacral 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
A goddess is a female deity. In some cultures goddesses are associated with Earth, motherhood, love, and the household. In other cultures, goddesses also rule over war, death, and destruction as well as healing....

, is free from blemish, enforces symbolic buada
Buada is a district in the Pacific nation of Nauru. It is the only district in Buada Constituency.The only landlocked district in the Republic of Nauru, it is in the southwestern part of the island, and covers the central Buada Lagoon. Buada is a fertile piece in Nauru and mostly wet and tropical...

(prerogatives) and avoids symbolic geasa (taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...


According to 7th and 8th century law tracts, a hierarchy of kingship and clientship progressed from the rí tuaithe (king of a single petty kingdom) through the ruiri (a who was overking of several petty kingdoms) to a rí ruirech (a who was a provincial overking). (See
Rí, or very commonly ríg , is an ancient Gaelic word meaning "King". It is used in historical texts referring to the Irish and Scottish kings and those of similar rank. While the modern Irish word is exactly the same, in modern Scottish it is Rìgh, apparently derived from the genitive. The word...


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). His responsibilities included convening its óenach (popular assembly), collecting taxes, building public works, external relations, defence, emergency legislation, law enforcement, and promulgating legal judgment.

The lands in a petty kingdom were held allodially by various fine (agnatic kingroups) of freemen. The king occupied the apex of a pyramid of clientship within the petty kingdom. This pyramid progressed from the unfree population at its base up to the heads of noble fine held in immediate clientship by the king. Thus the king was 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
Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle , formerly known as the Red Branch Cycle, one of the four great cycles of Irish mythology, is a body of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas of the traditional heroes of the Ulaid in what is now eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, particularly counties Armagh, Down and...

 are kings in this sacred sense, but it is clear that the old concept of kingship coexisted alongside Christianity
Celtic Christianity
Celtic Christianity or Insular Christianity refers broadly to certain features of Christianity that were common, or held to be common, across the Celtic-speaking world during the Early Middle Ages...

 for several generations. Diarmait mac Cerbaill
Diarmait mac Cerbaill
Diarmait mac Cerbaill was King of Tara or High King of Ireland. According to traditions, he was the last High King to follow the pagan rituals of inauguration, the ban-feis or marriage to goddess of the land....

, king of Tara in the middle of the 6th century, may have been the last king to have "married" the land. Diarmait died at the hands of Áed Dub mac Suibni
Áed Dub mac Suibni
Áed Dub mac Suibni was an Irish king of the Cruthin of Dál nAraidi . He may have been king of the Ulaid.Áed Dub — Black Áed — killed the last pagan High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill. Tradition has Diarmaid die a mythic threefold death, and some version make Áed Diarmaid's...

; some accounts from the following century state that he died by the mythic Threefold death
Threefold death
The threefold death, which is suffered by kings, heroes, and gods, is a putatively Proto-Indo-European theme – although it is attested in medieval accounts of Celtic and Germanic mythology....

 appropriate to a sacral king. Adomnán's Life tells how Saint Columba
Saint Columba —also known as Colum Cille , Colm Cille , Calum Cille and Kolban or Kolbjørn —was a Gaelic Irish missionary monk who propagated Christianity among the Picts during the Early Medieval Period...

 forecast the same death for Áed Dub. The same Threefold Death is said in a late poem to have befallen Diarmait's predecessor, Muirchertach macc Ercae, and even the usually reliable Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster
The Annals of Ulster are annals of medieval Ireland. The entries span the years between AD 431 to AD 1540. The entries up to AD 1489 were compiled in the late 15th century by the scribe Ruaidhrí Ó Luinín, under his patron Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa on the island of Belle Isle on Lough Erne in the...

 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
Congal Cáech
Congal Cáech was a king of the Cruithne of Dál nAraidi, in modern Ulster, from around 626 to 637. He was king of Ulster from 627-637 and, according to some sources, High King of Ireland.-Sources:...

, king of the Ulaid
The Ulaid or Ulaidh were a people of early Ireland who gave their name to the modern province of Ulster...

, and Domnall mac Áedo
Domnall mac Áedo
Domnall mac Áedo , also known as Domnall II, was a son of Áed mac Ainmuirech. Domnall was High King of Ireland from 628 until his death. He belonged to the Cenél Conaill kindred of the northern Uí Néill....

. 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
Uí Néill
The Uí Néill are Irish and Scottish dynasties who claim descent from Niall Noigiallach , an historical King of Tara who died about 405....

 and the kings of Ulaid, but that a king had to be whole in body appears to have been accepted at this time.

Succession 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.

In 1002, the high kingship of Ireland was wrested from Mael Sechnaill II
Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill
Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill , also called Máel Sechnaill Mór, Máel Sechnaill II, anglicized Malachy II, was King of Mide and High King of Ireland...

 of the southern Uí Neill by Briain "Boruma" mac Cennédig
Brian Boru
Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig, , , was an Irish king who ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. Building on the achievements of his father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, and especially his elder brother, Mathgamain, Brian first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated...

 of the Kingdom of Munster. Some historians have called this a "usurpation" of the throne. Others have pointed out that no one had a strict legal right to the kingship and that Brian "had as much right to the high throne as any Uí Neill and... displayed an ability sadly lacking amongst most of the Uí Neill who had preceded him."

Brian Boru was a strong king who could have unified Ireland politically. But he was killed in the Battle of Clontarf
Battle of Clontarf
The Battle of Clontarf took place on 23 April 1014 between the forces of Brian Boru and the forces led by the King of Leinster, Máel Mórda mac Murchada: composed mainly of his own men, Viking mercenaries from Dublin and the Orkney Islands led by his cousin Sigtrygg, as well as the one rebellious...

 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. From 1022 through the Norman take-over of 1171, the High Kingship was held alongside "Kings with Opposition".

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
Uí Néill
The Uí Néill are Irish and Scottish dynasties who claim descent from Niall Noigiallach , an historical King of Tara who died about 405....

 (encompassing descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages
Niall of the Nine Hostages
Niall Noígíallach , or in English, Niall of the Nine Hostages, son of Eochaid Mugmedón, was an Irish king, the eponymous ancestor of the Uí Néill kindred who dominated Ireland from the 6th century to the 10th century...

 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
A coronation is a ceremony marking the formal investiture of a monarch and/or their consort with regal power, usually involving the placement of a crown upon their head and the presentation of other items of regalia...

, the relationship of king to overking became one of tigerna
A tiarna , or tighearna , both from the Old Irish tigerna, is a lord in the Gaelic world and languages. An Ard Tiarna is a "high lord", approximately equal in rank to a count or earl, although many of such higher rank still happen to prefer the title on its own.In later Gaelic sources, for example...

(lord) to king and imperium (sovereignty
Sovereignty is the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided...

) 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
Aed Finliath
Áed mac Neíll , called Áed Findliath to distinguish him from his paternal grandfather Áed Oirdnide, was king of Ailech and High King of Ireland...

 apparently never was granted. It is unclear what political reality was behind this title.

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
A surname is a name added to a given name and is part of a personal name. In many cases, a surname is a family name. Many dictionaries define "surname" as a synonym of "family name"...


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
Norman Ireland
The History of Ireland 1169–1536 covers the period from the arrival of the Cambro-Normans to the reign of Henry VIII of England, who made himself King of Ireland. After the Norman invasion of 1171, Ireland was under an alternating level of control from Norman lords and the King of England...

 incursion of 1169 the agglomeration/consolidation process was 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.

See also

  • Maharaja
    Mahārāja is a Sanskrit title for a "great king" or "high king". The female equivalent title Maharani denotes either the wife of a Maharaja or, in states where that was customary, a woman ruling in her own right. The widow of a Maharaja is known as a Rajamata...

    , an India
    India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

    n semi-parallel
  • Aodh Mór Ó Néill
  • Bretwalda
    Bretwalda is an Old English word, the first record of which comes from the late 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is given to some of the rulers of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 5th century onwards who had achieved overlordship of some or all of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms...

  • King of Ireland
    King of Ireland
    A monarchical polity has existed in Ireland during three periods of its history, finally ending in 1801. The designation King of Ireland and Queen of Ireland was used during these periods...

  • King of Scots
  • Malcolm II of Scotland
    Malcolm II of Scotland
    Máel Coluim mac Cináeda , was King of the Scots from 1005 until his death...

  • List of High Kings of Ireland

External links

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