High Kingship in Ireland

High Kings in Medieval Ireland

According to medieval Irish literature, Ireland was ruled by a High King since ancient times. Many early Irish texts like the Lebor Gabála Érenn, followed by early modern works like the Annals of the Four Masters and Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, attempted to trace the line of the dynasties. Unfortunately what we know from Irish law in medieval Ireland does not support the existence of an authentic line of Kings. It has even been described as a “pseudohistorical construct of the eighth century AD”, a mixture of fact, legend, fiction and propaganda, constructed to justify a claimant’s current status! The individual kings listed prior to the fifth century AD are generally considered legendary only, and the application of the title to individuals before the ninth century is considered too unreliable to be authentic. For example Niall Caille and Feidlimid are both listed as semi-historical kings. 

The concept of national kingship in Ireland is first articulated in the 7th century, and only became a political reality in the Viking Age, and even then not a consistent one. But Ireland was never ruled by them as a unitary state, unlike Britain was with King Cnut. So when rulers like Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid in 846 declared themselves as King of All Ireland, such claims did not always gain the political support of other kingdoms (i.e. Munster), the Norse and Norse-Gaels, and he was unable to maintain peace with his own Uí Néill kinsmen........ 

High Kings of Ireland Up to the 12th Century

Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid 846–860

Aed Findliath 861–876

Flann Sinna 877–914

Niall Glúndub 915–917

Donnchad Donn 918–942

Congalach Cnogba 943–954

Domnall ua Néill 955–978

Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill 979–1002

Brian Boru (Brian Bóruma) 1002–1014

Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (restored) 1014–1022

Donnchad mac Briain       died 1064(with opposition)

Diarmait mac Maíl na mBó       died 1072 (with opposition)

Toirdelbach Ua Briain   died 1086 (with opposition)

Domnall Ua Lochlainn died 1121 (with opposition)

Muirchertach Ua Briain     1101 - 1119 

Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair     c1120 - 1156

Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn c1156 - 1166

Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair 1166 - 1198

The Gaelic Irish System of Rule

The Irish system of rule, or Tanistry, followed Brehon Law and operated from the beginning of time until the Gaelic system of chiefships and inheritances was almost completely overthrown following the Battle of Kinsale in 1602, when the Irish and their Spanish allies were catastrophically defeated by the English at the conclusion of the ‘Nine Years War’. 

Early and medieval Ireland was divided into many independent subkingdoms around which a hierarchy operated. This hierarchy rose from the rí tuaithe or king of a single petty kingdom, through the ruiri, a king who was overking of several petty kingdoms, to a rí ruirech, a king who was a provincial overking. At the bottom was the unfree population; at the top the heads of the noble fine. The king was drawn from the dominant fine.

Kings or chieftains were succeeded by the most able or suitable from the ruling clan.These groups of entitled male family members were called the derbhfine, and their ability to succeed was not based on the same succession rights of primogeniture, or first born, like in English law. In selecting the most able leader a son could inherit but also an uncle or brother of the chieftan or king. The successor chosen in the chief’s lifetime was called the Tánist. 

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 calling together 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 independently of any superior landlord. Historically, much of land was uninhabited and could therefore be claimed or held in this way (held "in allodium”). 

So in theory the right to High Kingship of Ireland before the 10th century was in practice shared and fought over between many rival clans, and culminated in the 11th century with a defining battle involving the Cenél nEógain of Munster region and the Clann Cholmáin branch of the southern Uí Néill, based largely in Leinster. This battle was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

In 1002, the high kingship of Ireland had been wrested from Mael Sechnaill II of the southern Uí Neill by Briain Boru from the Kingdom of Munster. Brian was killed in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. 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".

The annalists frequently describe later high kings as rígh Érenn co fressabra ("Kings of Ireland with Opposition"), which is a reference to the instability of the kingship of Tara (the seat of the High King) dating from the death of Máel Sechnaill II in 1022. The example of Brian's coup was followed by numerous other families in the century following 1022, and the High Kingship was effectively ended by the Norman quasi-conquest of Ireland in 1171.

Domnall Ua Néill

Domnall Ua Néill

Domnall Ua Néill was a High King of Ireland also known as Domnall Ardmacha, which means Domnall of Armagh. He was a member of the Cenél nEógain of the Northern mac Néill, he was the son of Muirchertach mac Néill and the grandson of Niall Glúndub (Black Knee). After the death of his father in 943, together with his brother, Flaithbertach they became co-kings of Ailech. And afterwards on the death of his cousin Congalach Cnogba of the Southern Uí Néill, he became High King of Ireland....read more

Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill

Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill

Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill was born circa 948 in Meath. He apparently had two wives, one of whom was Gormlaith, who later married Brian Boru. He was part of the Clann Cholmáin clan which was the dynasty descended from Colmán Mór....read more

Donnchad mac Briain

Donnchad mac Briain

Donnchad mac Briain was a son of the Great High King Brian Boru and Gormflaith ingen Murchada. On the Battlefield of Clonarf in 1014, Brian together with his son Murchad died. Donnchad had 5 half-brothers, Tadc, Domnall who died in 1011 and Conchobar and Flann who left no trace in Irish records....read more

Turlough O’Connor

Turlough O’Connor

Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair 1088 to 1156 was King of Connacht (1106–1156) and High King of Ireland (ca. 1120-1156). His mother was Mór daughter of Toirdealbach O’Brian, who was a grandson of Brian Boru. ...read more

Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor

Rory O’Connor was King of Connacht from 1156 to 1186 and High King of Ireland from 1166 to 1198. He was the last High King of Ireland. One of over 20 sons of Turlough O'Connor and not the designated heir, he had to fight his brother Conochair and both he and Aedh rebelled against their father. ...read more