Last October, my boss – a director of a public library – suddenly decided to retire. She went to lunch and never came back. As second-in-command, I instantly inherited all her responsibilities, heaped on top of my own. Not even a heads-up. Just “Tag, you’re it!” It’s not unlike an heir-apparent suddenly finding himself in the hot seat upon the assassination of the king. And although kingship brought with it the lure of power, prestige, and privilege, no doubt there were many heirs became unwilling kings – men who suddenly had the weight of the world thrust upon them.
So, who were these lucky guys? They were known as the rígdamnai, or “king material.” They were males belonging to the same kin-group who were eligible for the kingship according to the laws of succession. This kin-group included all the male descendants extending from a common great-grandfather out to second cousins. The rígdamnai formed the “magic circle” of eligible candidates. “In effect, this meant that anyone whose great-grandfather had been king was theoretically eligible for election.” (Byrne, 1973, p. 34).
As you can imagine, succession was often a bloody affair, especially when the kingship passed to another branch of the dynasty. The heirs and supporters of the outgoing king were often dispossessed by the new king – their lands and positions of power passed onto the new leader’s kin and allies.
In anticipation of strife during a succession, a tánaise or successor was often appointed during a king’s reign. The word came to mean “second,” but originally it was the past participle meaning “expected.” The eighth-century law tract Críth Gablach states: Tánise ríg cid ara n-eperr? Arindí fris[n]aicci tuath huile do rígiu cen chosnam fris. (Binchy, D.A., 1979, p. 17). “Tánaise of a king, why is he so called? Because the whole tuath looks to him for kingship without strife.” (Byrne, 1973, p. 38). The tuath was a standard community unit consisting of about 700 fighting men and covering an area measuring about one-third of a modern county.
The tánaise was more often than not the leader of the strongest faction not in power. Men would flock to him since he was the “expected one,” the one most likely to win the kingship. Although a tánaise may have been named during a king’s reign, the tánaise did not automatically assume the kingship upon a king’s death or abdication of the throne. As Christianity gained in popularity, it was not uncommon for a king to retire to a monastery later in life and leave the kingship to his tánaise. But the tánaise could be challenged and would need to prove himself as a worthy warlord and leader.
Unfortunately, we’re left with no description of the election process, but it seems logical that the succession would have seen overseen by a council of elders and would have required some form of formal acceptance and agreement.
In the high Middle Ages, primogeniture, where the kingship passed from father to first-born son, came to be the norm in Europe. It had the advantage of preventing disputes and thus preserved the peace, but it also carried the disadvantage of placing the kingdom in the hands of a child or imbecile. “Irish kings do seem to have attempted to introduce primogeniture, but they were consistently foiled by the insistence of the derbfine [the king’s kindred] on their traditional rights.” (Byrne, 1973, p. 37).
While being top dog may appeal to many, when someone asks me why I didn’t apply for the position of director (i.e., “king of the library”), I simply say, “I’d rather be Spock than Captain Kirk.”
Binchy, D.A.(ed.). (1979). Críth Gablach. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
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.