While millions of voices are lifted in song to the King of Kings this time of year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore the ancient Irish concept of kingship – an all-encompassing but muddy construct. So many of the early sagas mention or involve the High King of Ireland, such as Cormac mac Airt and Niall Noígíallach, both of whom may have been historical figures, but neither were the King of all Ireland any more than Christ was the King of the Jews, literally speaking. According to Kelly, “The king of Ireland (rí Érenn), who figures so prominently in the sagas, is rarely mentioned in the law-texts. Though the idea of a kingship of the whole island had already gained currency by the 7th century, no Irish king ever managed to make it a reality, and most law-texts do not even provide for such a possibility” (1995, p. 18). Byrne agrees: “The title ard-rí, ‘high king’, is not very old, nor is it found in the legal texts. It has no precise significance, and does not necessarily imply sovereignty of Ireland: there are frequent references to the high-king of Ulster, of Connacht, or of Leinster, for example (ard-rí Ulad, ard-rí Connacht, and ard-rí Laigen), and in poetry the term could be used of any over-king” (1973, p. 42).
Essentially, there were three levels of kingship in ancient Ireland. At the lowest level was the rí túaithe or king of the túath (pronounced TOO-ah). The word basically means “people” but is often translated as “tribe,” and both Byrne and Kelly state that there were about 150 of these tribal kings in Ireland at any one time between the 5th and 12th centuries. There were that many tribal groups! Byrne goes on to emphasize that “in the Old Irish period…the rí túaithe, however insignificant on the national scale, was the true king. Even the most powerful of high-kings was basically ruler of a single túath, and exercised no direct authority outside it” (1973, p. 41). Just to put this in perspective, the land belonging to a túath was probably the equivalent to a modern parish or township.
On the next level was the rí túath, the king of more than one túath. Some of the larger confederations might have stretched to county-size in land coverage. This king could rely on military assistance from the túatha under his overlordship.
Says Byrne, (1973, p. 42) “The laws agree in recognizing a third and highest grade of king, variously called triath, réthe, ollam ríg (‘greatest of kings’), rí ruireach (‘king of over-kings’), or rí cóicid (‘king of a fifth’, i.e., one of the provinces into which Ireland was traditionally divided). It is customary to refer to these as provincial kings: such as the king of Leinster, of Munster, or of Connacht.”
One of the main characters in my Harplord trilogy is Fiachna Lurgan, the historical rí ruireach of the Ulaid tribes (their territory became the Province of Ulster). He ruled a relatively lengthy period of time, for more than 30 years, until his death in 626 AD. For my own amusement, I’ve sketched him here. Can you identify the actor who plays him (at least in my head)? Here’s a little clue in case my artistic skills are lacking – the epithet “Lurgan” means “longshanks,” a most fitting one for this Irish actor whose strides would definitely equal two of mine!
Byrne, F.J. (1973). Irish kings and high-kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kelly, F. (1995). A guide to early Irish law. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.