High Kingship of Ireland

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High Kingship of Ireland
Ardríocht na hÉireann

The reign of the High Kingship of Ireland (dark green) at its maximum extent around the 6th to 7th century, including the Irish vassal colonies in the Isle of Man and Dalriada on Great Britain.
Capital Tara
Language(s) Irish
Government Monarchy
 - 1166–1198 Rory O'Connor (last)2
 - Established antiquity
 - Treaty of Windsor 1175
Today part of  Ireland
 United Kingdom
 Isle of Man
1The symbol of the High Kingship was very similar to that of the Kingdom of Mide.[1]
2Brian O'Neill claimed the High Kingship in opposition to Henry II from 1258 to 1260, though O'Connor is generally considered the last.

The High Kingship of Ireland (Gaelic: Ardríocht na hÉireann) was the social and political order in Ireland, existing from antiquity until the 12th century, when a significant part of it became the Anglo-Norman Lordship of Ireland. At its maximum extent during the 7th century, the reign of the titular High Kings, which was based not in a capital city but at the Hill of Tara, also included vassal colonies outside of Ireland itself, in the Isle of Man, as well as the Inner Hebrides and some of the Scottish Highlands. The latter were part of Dalriada.

Structure of Society

Ireland was a tribal country, split into about 185 tribes. The allegiance of the free-born Irishman was given in the first place to the head of his family, kindred, or sept (fine), and through the family head (cenn fine) to the chief of the tribe of which his family formed an element, related by real or supposed remoter kinship and connected by common ownership of land. The Irishman's country was the tuath or territory belonging to his tribe. There was often a tangible bond of union between his particular tribe and certain neighbouring ones, connected perhaps by traditional kinship or actual conquest, linked together under a sub-'king', and forming a mór-tuath. A still weaker bond bound this mór-tuath with its sub-'king' to the provincial 'king', while the provincial 'king' seldom acknowledged the superiority of any other unless under compulsion. Theoretically there was a regular chain of subordination from the tiller of the ground through his immediate lord, leading up, link by link, to the ard-ri or High 'King' of Ireland. In theory the organisation bore a certain superficial resemblance to the feudal system, but it was based in its lower stages on loans of cattle and food rents, and in the higher ranks on more or less arbitrary tributes, and not in any case on gifts of lands, and there was no adequate legal machinery for enforcing the observance of rights and the performance of duties.[2]

It is usual to speak of the five provinces of Ireland, the names of which, though not the exact boundaries, are still represented by Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connaught, and Meath, as if they were definite units each under one 'king'. This was perhaps the theory but it was seldom, if ever, literally true of them all. Had it been so, it would not have been necessary for the provincial 'kings' to be again and again exacting hostages from their supposed subordinates. The principle criterion of these so-called kingships is laid down in the Brehon Law Tracts: "he is not a king who has not hostages in fetters, to whom the rent of a 'king' is not given, to whom the fines of law are not paid."[3] The principal groups of tribes in Ulster (the modern province) were the Cinel Owen (seated in Tyrone and Londonderry), the Cinel Connell (in Donegal), the Ulidians (in Down and Antrim), and the Oirghialla (or people of Uriel, i.e: Louth, Armagh and Mongahan). There was really no recognised 'king' of this province, though in general terms the 'king' of the Cinel Owen, whose traditional seat was the fort of Ailech near Derry, was the most powerful; but more often than not the 'kings' of the other groups appear to have been quite independent of him, and whenever he claimed supremacy it was necessary to reduce them to subjection.[4] Breffny, a district comprising the modern counties of Leitrim and Cavan, with which at times parts of Longford were held, though nominally classed with Connaught, was often independent and even opposed to that province. The 'kingdom' of Ossory, corresponding to the modern diocese of that name, and including besides Kilkenny the three western baronies of Queen's County, was sometimes claimed as subordinate to Munster and sometimes as subject to Leinster, and yet was really more often independent of both.[5]

For a period of six centuries (i,e: from the middle of the fifth to the middle of the eleventh century) the so-called 'kings' of Leinster were almost without exception chosen from the groups of tribes that clustered round the Curragh of Kildare, and they seldom had any effective authority in Southern Leinster. When the Okinselagh tribe, seated in the diocese of Ferns, gave 'kings' to Leinster, the tribes of Leix, Offaly, Offelan, and Omurethy (i.e: Northern Leinster), as well as Ossory, were often opposed to them. Munster in later times was generally divided into Thomond or North Munster and Desmond or South Munster, and these districts were constantly at war with each other. Meath, the traditional seat of the ard-ri, or 'High King', was more homogeneous, but its boundaries though generally coninciding with the modern diocese, varied at different times. Dublin and the adjoining district were generally held independently under the Danish 'kings', while on the other hand, Offaly and Offelan sometimes gave hostages to the King of Meath. In the twelfth century Meath was again and again partitioned in the most arbitrary manner, and was more than once subjected to the Norsemen.[6]

Authority of the High King

If the authority of the provincial kings was frequently defied, that of the ard-ri, or 'High King of Ireland', if acknowledged at all, was little more than nominal. The Book of Rights contains an elaborate account of the tributes stated to be due from the provincial 'kings' (of which as many as twelve are enumerated) to the ard-ri, and from the sub-'kings' to the provincial 'kings', as well as of the 'stipends' to be paid by the latter in each case to the former, but this elaborate account must be regarded as a claim put forward by a 'king' of Munster who aspired to the head kingship of Ireland, rather than as a system ever regularly carried out. Certainly the 'High King' could not count upon military assistance from the provincial 'kings' even to resist an invasion of Ireland. Thus when Brian (who fell at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014), always acknowledged to be the most powerful 'High King' Ireland ever had, summoned his great army to crush the Danes of Dublin and to repel the fresh Scandinavian hordes invited to the conquest of Ireland by Sitric, the northern province universally held aloof; so did the King of Connaught with the major part of the province; while Leinster actually fought on the enemy's side! The theoretical organisation, then, of Ireland, consisting of five provinces ruled by five 'kings' in subordination to a 'supreme king', did not in historic times square with the facts.[7]

Even in the latter half of the twelfth century, Ireland remained in this tribal state, with one tribe or shifting combinations of tribes incessantly at war with other tribes and combinations, while Europe was settling down into strong centralized monarchies. The expulsion from Ireland in August 1166 of Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster, by his fellow Irishmen, sealed the future of the country. (See: Lordship of Ireland)


Ireland's Celtic immigrants had brought with them from the common Aryan home (Europe) a body of primitive custom, which had remained almost unchanged over the centuries. In the seventh and eight centuries missionary monks arrived in Ireland bringing with them much learning and European (mostly Roman) customs. They also recorded Irish customs and folklore and helped to preserve some of the teachings of the past and to hand on the torch of a higher faith to succeeding generations. But it left Ireland's tribal system untouched. In the ninth and tenth centuries the Norsemen "merciless soure and hardie" swept across the land, pillaging, burning, and destroying. The Irish, with their loose tribal organisation, were incapable of offering an effective resistance. There being no cities or capital there was little to plunder except in the ecclesiastical centres. This handicapped the educational task of the church who had been trying to bring art, learning, and culture to the natives. The march of Irish civilisation was put back. The primitive literature of Ireland, much of which had been preserved in the native tongue by Christian writers, was to a large extent lost. The authority of the ard-ri, never very great, was diminished. The influence of the church, which had not advanced beyond the missionary/monastery stage, was on the wane, and turmoil and anarchy again prevailed.[8]

In 1002 Brian, King of Thomond, became the 'High King' by right of sword. He is said to have ruthlessly made himself master of Ireland, wiping out 'kings' and other opposition. He also banished and killed all thieves and robbers and ruined the smaller colonies of foreigners in every district. Most importantly, he rebuilt churches and sanctuaries destroyed by the Norsemen. He purchased books beyond the seas to supply the place of those that had been destroyed by the plunderers. By him was erected the church of Killaloe and the church of Inish Caltra, and the bell-tower of Tomgraney, and many other works. By him were made bridges and causeways and high roads. For twelve years he improved Ireland and made it prosper. He seems to have laid the foundations of a real monarchy in Ireland. But he was ultimately unable to secure the backing of the provinces in the greatest battle of his reign, and Brian fell at Clontarf. The edifice he had commenced fell with him.[9]



  1. Heraldry in Ireland. National Library of Ireland. Retrieved on 11 March 2012.
  2. Orpen, Goddard Henry, Ireland Under The Normans 1169-1216, vol.1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, first published 1911; reprinted by the Oxford University Press in 1968, pps:20-1 and 25.
  3. Ancient Laws of Ireland, vol.iv, p.51.
  4. In the Book of Rights the 'kings' of Ailech, of Oirghialla, and of Uladh are treated as co-ordinate and quite independent of each other.
  5. Orpen, 1911/1968, p.21-2.
  6. Orpen, 1911/1968, p.22-3.
  7. Orpen, 1911/1968, p.24-5.
  8. Orpen, 1911/1968, p.26-30.
  9. Orpen, 1911/1968, p.30-2.

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