As you cast your vote for the next President of the United States, take pride in knowing that you’re carrying out an ancient Irish tradition. Of course, there were no voting booths then, no campaign funds, no polls, and certainly no dangling chads. Irish kings, however, were elected by their tribes. Primogeniture – the hereditary succession to the kingship by the first-born son – was an alien concept brought to Ireland by the Normans in the eleventh century. Ruling dynasties developed in the Late Iron Age, but they could be (and were) overturned. A man had to prove himself worthy of leadership, just as our Presidential candidates do today. “Thus one of the functions of education in Celtic Ireland,” writes Thomas Cleary, “was the cultivation of people capable of kingship, acquainting them with knowledge of all the branches of learning. The Old Irish Tecosca Cormaic, or Counsels of Cormac, is one of the best-known surviving classics of this tradition” (2004, p. vii-viii).
Cormac mac Airt lived during the first half of the third century AD and was one of Ireland’s most celebrated high kings. Under his leadership, peace and prosperity reigned. Tecosca Cormaic was handed down via oral tradition, generation to generation, before being written down in the ninth century. Cormac’s counsels were set down in question-and-answer format – unique to the oral tradition – between his son and himself. They covered such subjects as the best qualities for a king, the duty of a king, proper and moral conduct for a king, wisdom for young men and husbands, and how to judge the weather.
How does his sage advice hold up today? Let’s see. If asked what are the best qualities for our President (the High King of America), Cormac would say, “Composure rather than wrath, patience rather than contention, geniality rather than arrogance….Productivity in his reign. Attention to every unfortunate. Many charities….Let him visit the ailing, let him improve the condition of the indigent.” (Cleary, 2004, p. 3-4).
How about conduct during debates?
“There are seventeen characteristics of bad argumentation. Contention against knowledge, resort to bad language, a multitude of insults, contention without proof. Prolixity or sluggishness of speech, talking at the same time as another, intellectual hair-splitting, unestablished proof. Spurning books, turning against tradition, talking too loud, flightiness of argument. Rebuking the multitude, fighting everyone, pompous vanity, screaming, swearing after judgment is pronounced” (Cleary, 2004, p. 35-36).
At one point, Cormac is asked, “What is best for the interest of a tribe?” Included in the king’s lengthy response is a simple prescription that would have prevented the meltdown of today’s global economy:
“Wholesome lending. Loans for proper purposes.” (Cleary, 2004, p. 9).
Cleary, T. (2004). The counsels of Cormac: an ancient Irish guide to leadership. New York: Doubleday.