The High Kings of Ireland are a significant part of Irish history and mythology. The High Kingship was a royal title in Gaelic Ireland held by those who had, or who are claimed to have had, lordship over all of Ireland. The title was held by historical kings and later sometimes assigned anachronously or to legendary figures.
The High Kings, or at least their stories, date as far back as 1500 BC, so their existence is part legendary, fiction, and historical. The reign of the High Kings marked a golden age in the history of Ireland. The Kings forged a national identity, fostered a vibrant artistic and scholastic environment, and repelled external aggressors.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn, dating to the 11th-12th century, purports to list every High King from remote antiquity to the time of Henry II’s Lordship of Ireland in 1171. The High Kingship is established by the Fir Bolg, and their nine kings are succeeded by a sequence of nine kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, most if not all of whom are considered mythological figures today. The historical High Kingship of Ireland was abolished in 1541 when Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland and established the English Crown’s authority over the island.
The High Kings of Ireland have a significant place in both Irish history and mythology. They were known as Ard Rí, or High Kings, who claimed lordship over the entire island of Ireland. While their stories date as far back as 1500 BC, their existence is part legendary, fiction, and historical.
Early High Kings
The earliest known High Kings of Ireland were semi-legendary figures, with their existence and reigns difficult to verify. According to medieval Irish historical tradition, Ireland had been ruled by an Ard Rí since ancient times. The Lebor Gabála Érenn, a compilation of Irish mythology and history, traced the line of High Kings. However, the corpus of early Irish law does not support the existence of such a monarch whose rule was effective over the entire island.
The first historical High King is often considered to be Máel Sechnaill I, who faced opposition during his reign. Applying the title to earlier kings is considered anachronistic, while kings from before the 5th century are generally considered legendary.
Late High Kings
In the late medieval period, the concept of the High Kingship of Ireland became more prominent. The Annals of the Four Masters and Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn both traced the line of High Kings, with the former being a compilation of Irish history and the latter a more narrative account.
Despite the popular perception of the importance of the High Kingship of Ireland, it is clear that early medieval Ireland did not possess a monarch whose rule was effective over the entire island. The early law tracts specify only three grades of kingship: rí, flaith, and taoiseach.
Notable High Kings
Máel Sechnaill Mac Máele Ruanaid
Máel Sechnaill Mac Máele Ruanaid was a High King of Ireland who ruled from 846 to 862. He was known for his military prowess and his ability to unite the various kingdoms of Ireland under his rule. During his reign, he fought against the Vikings and was able to successfully repel their attacks on Ireland. He was also known for his patronage of the arts and his support of the Irish monastic tradition.
Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair
Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair was a High King of Ireland who ruled from 1166 to 1198. He was the last High King to hold the title of “Ard Rí na hÉireann” and was known for his efforts to unite the various kingdoms of Ireland under his rule. During his reign, he faced numerous challenges, including invasions by the Normans and internal conflicts among the Irish nobility. Despite these challenges, he was able to maintain his power and influence over Ireland.
Brian Boru was a High King of Ireland who ruled from 1002 to 1014. He is perhaps best known for his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, which is considered a turning point in Irish history. During his reign, he worked to unite the various kingdoms of Ireland under his rule and was known for his military prowess and his support of the Irish monastic tradition. He is also credited with establishing the Brehon Laws, which were a set of legal codes that governed Irish society for centuries.
These three High Kings are among the most notable in Irish history, but there were many others who played important roles in shaping the destiny of Ireland. Some of these include Domnall Mac Áedo, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Flann Sinna, Niall Glúndub, Donnchad Donn, Congalach Cnogba, Máel Sechnaill Mac Domnaill, Donnchad Mac Briain, Toirdelbach ua Briain, Muirchertach ua Briain, Domnall ua Lochlainn, Domnall ua Néill, and Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn. Each of these High Kings left their mark on Irish history and played a role in shaping the culture and traditions of the Irish people.
Concept and Role
The High Kingship of Ireland was a political term used to describe the lordship over all of Ireland. The title was held by historical kings and later sometimes assigned anachronously or to legendary figures. The High Kingship was established by the Fir Bolg, and their nine kings were succeeded by a sequence of nine kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, most if not all of whom are considered euhemerised deities. After the Milesian (Gaelic) conquest, the High Kingship was contested for centuries between the descendants of Eber Finn and Érimón.
The High Kingship was not confined solely to the men who claimed the kingship of Ireland. It was an important and well-known term used in connection with kings of Ireland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The High Kingship was considered a national kingship, and the High King was seen as the leader of the Irish people.
Evolution of High Kingship
The concept of the High Kingship evolved over time. The early law tracts (7th-8th cent.) specify only three grades of kingship: rí (king), ruiri (sub-king), and taoisech (chieftain). The High Kingship was not a term used during this time. However, by the tenth century, the concept of the High Kingship had emerged, and it was seen as a way to unite the various kingdoms of Ireland under one ruler.
One of the most famous High Kings of Ireland was Máel Sechnaill I. He ruled from 846 to 862 and is credited with bringing a period of stability to Ireland. During his reign, he defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, which is considered one of the most significant battles in Irish history.
Genealogies and Lineages
Uí Néill Lineage
The Uí Néill lineage is one of the most significant and well-known lineages in Irish history. It was a powerful dynasty that produced many High Kings of Ireland. The Uí Néill lineage was divided into two main branches, the Northern Uí Néill and the Southern Uí Néill. The Northern branch included the Cenél Conaill, Cenél nEógain, and Cenél Fiachach, while the Southern branch included the Cenél nArdgail, Cenél Lóegaire, and Cenél Laegaire.
The Uí Néill lineage claimed descent from the mythical figure Íriel Fáid, who was said to have been a prophet and a seer. The lineage also claimed descent from Ethriel, Eochu Airem, Lugaid Riab nDerg, Crimthann Nia Náir, Feradach Finnfechtnach, Fíachu Finnolach, Tuathal Teachtmhar, and Fedlimid Rechtmar.
The Milesian lineage is another significant lineage in Irish history. According to legend, the Milesians were a group of people who came to Ireland from Spain. They were said to be descendants of Míl Espáine, who was a legendary figure in Irish mythology.
The Milesian lineage included many important figures, such as Fíacha Sroiptine, Slainge Rudhraighe, Gann and Geannan Sengann, Fiacha Cennfinnian, Rinnan Foidhbhgen, Eochaidh Tuatha De Danaan, Bres, Nuadha, Lugh, Eochaidh Dealbhaeth, Fiacha MacCuill, MacCeacht, and MacGreine.
The Milesians were said to have conquered Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were the supernatural race that ruled Ireland before the arrival of the Milesians. The Milesians were said to have defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Battle of Tailtiu, which was fought near the River Boyne.
Regions and High Kings
The High Kings of Ireland were not always able to exert their authority over the entire island. Instead, they often ruled over specific regions of Ireland. The four main provinces of Ireland were Leinster, Connacht, Munster, and Ulster. Each province had its own distinct culture and history, and was often ruled by a local king.
Leinster was located in the eastern part of Ireland and was known for its fertile farmland. The province was ruled by a number of different kings throughout its history, including the legendary High King Brian Boru. Other notable kings of Leinster include Diarmait mac Murchada, who invited the Normans to Ireland in the 12th century, and Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, who fought against the English during the 16th century.
Connacht was located in the western part of Ireland and was known for its rugged terrain. The province was ruled by a number of different kings throughout its history, including the legendary High King Cormac mac Airt. Other notable kings of Connacht include Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair, who was one of the most powerful kings in Ireland during the 12th century, and Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill, who fought against the English during the 16th century.
Munster was located in the southwestern part of Ireland and was known for its lush green hills. The province was ruled by a number of different kings throughout its history, including the legendary High King Brian Boru. Other notable kings of Munster include Cormac mac Cuilennáin, who was a patron of the arts during the 9th century, and Donal Óg O’Donovan, who fought against the English during the 16th century.
Ulster was located in the northern part of Ireland and was known for its rugged coastline. The province was ruled by a number of different kings throughout its history, including the legendary High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. Other notable kings of Ulster include Hugh O’Neill, who led a rebellion against the English during the 16th century, and Brian O’Neill, who fought against the Normans during the 12th century.
Historical and Mythical Texts
The High Kings of Ireland have been a significant part of Irish history and mythology, with their stories dating back as far as 1500 BC. These stories have been passed down through various historical and mythical texts, including Lebor Gabála Érenn, Annals of the Four Masters, and Foras Feasa Ar Éirinn.
Lebor Gabála Érenn
Lebor Gabála Érenn, also known as The Book of Invasions, is a collection of stories that purport to trace the ancestry of the Irish people from the creation of the world up to the arrival of the Gaels in Ireland. It was compiled in the 11th century and is considered one of the earliest and most important sources of Irish mythology.
The book is divided into several parts, each detailing the arrival of a different group of people to Ireland. The stories are filled with mythical creatures, gods, and goddesses, and provide a fascinating insight into the beliefs and traditions of the ancient Irish people.
Annals of the Four Masters
The Annals of the Four Masters is a chronicle of Irish history that covers the period from prehistoric times to the 17th century. It was compiled in the 17th century by a group of Franciscan monks and is considered one of the most important sources of Irish history.
The annals contain detailed accounts of the reigns of the High Kings of Ireland, as well as important events such as battles, invasions, and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. They are written in a clear and concise style, making them a valuable resource for historians and scholars.
Foras Feasa Ar Éirinn
Foras Feasa Ar Éirinn, also known as The History of Ireland, is a history of Ireland written by Geoffrey Keating in the 17th century. It covers the period from the creation of the world up to the arrival of the Normans in Ireland in the 12th century.
The book is written in a poetic style and is filled with anecdotes, legends, and stories about the High Kings of Ireland. While it is not considered a reliable historical source, it provides a fascinating insight into the mythology and folklore of the ancient Irish people.
Overall, these historical and mythical texts provide a wealth of information about the High Kings of Ireland and their place in Irish history and mythology. While some of the stories may be anachronistic or exaggerated, they remain an important part of Irish culture and heritage.
Symbols and Locations
Lia Fáil, also known as the Stone of Destiny, is a sacred stone that has been a symbol of Irish kingship for centuries. Located at the Hill of Tara, Lia Fáil was believed to roar when a true king touched it. It was also said to have been brought to Ireland by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythical race of people who were believed to have supernatural abilities.
The stone is made of sandstone and is approximately 2.4 meters in length. It has been damaged over the years, but it still remains an important symbol of Irish history and culture.
Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara is a historical site located in County Meath, Ireland. It was the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland and was considered to be the spiritual and political center of the country. The Hill of Tara was also the site of the coronation of the High Kings of Ireland.
The site consists of a number of ancient monuments, including the Stone of Destiny, the Mound of Hostages, and the Rath of the Synods. The Hill of Tara was also believed to be the entrance to the Otherworld, a mystical realm in Irish mythology.
Today, the Hill of Tara is a popular tourist destination and is recognized as a national monument of Ireland. Visitors can explore the ancient ruins and learn about the history and mythology of Ireland’s High Kings.
Influence of External Forces
The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century had a significant impact on the high kingship. The arrival of the Normans, who were skilled in warfare and had superior technology, changed the balance of power on the island. The Normans established their own lordships and gradually gained control of the Irish territories. This led to a decline in the power of the high kings, who were unable to resist the Norman invasion.
The Normans also introduced the concept of feudalism to Ireland, which further weakened the power of the high kings. Under the feudal system, the Normans granted land to their followers in exchange for loyalty and military service. This resulted in the fragmentation of the Irish territories and the emergence of powerful Norman lords who were loyal to the English crown.
Lordship of Ireland
In 1177, King Henry II of England declared himself the Lord of Ireland and claimed sovereignty over the island. This marked the beginning of the lordship of Ireland, which lasted until the 16th century. The lordship of Ireland had a significant impact on the high kingship, as it further reduced the power of the Irish kings.
Under the lordship of Ireland, the English monarchs appointed a lord deputy to govern the island. The lord deputy had the power to collect taxes, enforce laws, and maintain order. This reduced the power of the high kings, who were no longer able to govern their territories without interference from the English authorities.
The lordship of Ireland also led to the colonization of Ireland by English and Scottish settlers. This further reduced the power of the high kings, who were unable to resist the influx of foreigners into their territories.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was the last High King of Ireland?
The last High King of Ireland was Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, who ruled from 1166 to 1198. He was the last king to hold the title of Ard Rí, which means “High King” in Irish. His reign marked the end of the traditional system of High Kingship in Ireland.
Who was the first High King of Ireland?
The first High King of Ireland was reportedly Ériu, who ruled in the mythical past. However, the first historically attested High King was Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, who ruled from 846 to 862. He was the first to be recognized as High King by all the provinces of Ireland.
How many High Kings of Ireland were there?
The number of High Kings of Ireland is uncertain, as many of them are legendary or semi-legendary figures. However, there were at least 100 High Kings of Ireland who ruled over various parts of the country between the 9th and 12th centuries.
Who was the greatest Irish High King?
It is difficult to determine who the greatest Irish High King was, as each king had his own strengths and weaknesses. However, some of the most famous and successful High Kings include Brian Boru, who defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, and Niall of the Nine Hostages, who founded the powerful Uí Néill dynasty.
What happened to the High Kings of Ireland?
The traditional system of High Kingship in Ireland came to an end in the 12th century, when the Normans invaded and established their own system of government. After this, the title of High King was no longer recognized, and Ireland was ruled by a series of Norman and English monarchs.
Who were the 4 kings of Ireland?
The “Four Kings of Ireland” is a term used to refer to four powerful provincial kings who were said to have ruled in Ireland during the 2nd century AD. They were called Conaire Mór, Lugaid mac Con, Dáire Doimthech, and Fíachu Muillethan. However, their historicity is uncertain, and they are often regarded as legendary figures.