High King of Ireland

From Academic Kids

Although the traditional list of those bearing the title High King of Ireland (Irish: Ard Rí Érenn) goes back thousands of years, into the second millennium BC, most scholars believe that the earlier parts of the list, at least, 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. Some 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 that actually existed at that time. 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. Until quite recently the development of the pre-Norman kingship of Ireland has been expressed in simplistic terms, with both unionist and nationalist historians happy to portray pre-Norman Ireland as an immutable hierarchy of kings for their own purposes, the unionist so that he can better paint a picture of tribal anarchy and the nationalist so that he can better paint a picture of utopian harmony. Neither of these schools are correct. The historical reality as currently understood is more complex and mirrors the development of national kingship elsewhere in Europe.

Early Irish kingship was sacral in character. In the early narrative literature a king is a king because he marries the sovereignty goddess, is free from blemish, enforces symbolic buada (prerogatives) and avoids symbolic gessa (taboos). According to the seventh and eighth century law tracts a hierarchy of kingship and clientship progressed from the (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). 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).

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 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 kingship was converted into political reality by the Uí Néill in 862 when one of their number is styled in the annals as rí Érenn uile (king of all Ireland), but this was a personal kingship to be won anew generation by generation rather than an impersonal office settled upon a lineage. 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.

See also

List of High Kings of Ireland

External link

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