High Kings of Ireland

High Kings of Ireland

The history of the High Kings of Ireland is an significant part of Irish history. The High Kings were historical figures in Ireland, also known as an Ard Rí, who claimed Lordship of the country. The concept of Ireland’s High Kings dates back to at least the second millennium BC.

Whilst parts of the list of who was a High King, which at it’s most earliest can be classed as Irish Mythology, 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 of the Kings appear in other Irish historical tales and their name has made more of an impact.

In early narrative literature a king is a king because he marries the sovereignty goddess (Medbh). Is also free from blemish, enforces symbolic buada (prerogatives), and avoids symbolic geasa (taboos). Inaugarations were held in places such as Hill of Tara at the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny), the seat of the High King and a sacral site. Other, lesser, Kings would be inaugarated all over Ireland in such places like Doon Rock in County Donegal. These Kings would rule the local region and would often fight with other Kings.

Duties and responsibilities of the High Kings

Each king ruled the boundaries of his own Kingdom. He would be responsible for ensuring good government by exercising fír flaithemon (rulers’ truth). Responsibilities included convening its óenach (popular assembly), collecting taxes, building public works, external relations, defence, emergency legislation, law enforcement, and promulgating legal judgement.

Famous Kings of Ireland

By the 12th Century in Ireland 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. Later succession was confined to a series of father/son, brother/brother and uncle/nephew successions. This was within a small royal fine marked by an exclusive surname. Families included, O’Brien of Munster, MacLochlainn of the North, and O Connor of Connacht intermarried and competed against each other for many years.

The most famous High King we know of today is Brian Boru, who was the King of Leinster.

The last High King of Ireland was Ruaidrí mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair or anglicised as Rory O’Connor. He reigned from 1166-1198. His descendant, the O’Connor Don, is the claimant to the Irish throne.

First published on February 21, 2010 and last modified on August 14, 2018.

About the Author

Brian O’Neill
Camera shy Brian is a proud Donegal man and regular contributor to our site.