The High Kings of Ireland

I simply couldn’t take you on a journey through time in the Ancient East without talking about the High Kings of Ireland, who have peppered the tales of this beautiful country for millennia – just how many millennia though, is widely disputed…

In line with our November 2021 box theme, 'Sunrise Over Ancient Ireland,' we're going to transport you to the ancient Hill of Tara to help unravel one of the ancient twists and tales of the island of Ireland. The story of the High Kings of Ireland has two very different starting points – one historical and one legendary, with numerous ad libs and variations in between. However, as a proud nation of storytellers to this day - we all know that these two narratives are often deeply intertwined.

Mythology would have the tradition of High Kings dating back over 3,500 years to the Fir Bolg, who sailed to Ireland and claimed it for their own – dividing the land amongst five brothers who would each rule over their own territories. Although each brother would be King of his own domain, it was agreed that an overlord should be elected so as to maintain a peaceful synergy across all of Ireland. And so, the seat of High King was established and Sláine mac Dela – the youngest of the five – became the first to assume the throne.

 

The Tuatha dé Danann

 

Over the next 37 years (very precise!) the Fir Bolg ruled in relative harmony, with the brothers taking turns to inherit the role of King when the predecessor died. That is, until the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann arrived... Often described as a race of gods, goddesses and faeries in Irish mythology, the Tuath Dé Danann came to Ireland with a request to split the land in two, so that they might have their own kingdom within the Emerald Isle.

 

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fir Bolg rejected the offer to give away half of their land and so the two ancient peoples went to war to decide who would rightfully rule over Ireland. You will perhaps have heard the tale of King Nuada , who led the Tuatha Dé Danaan to victory in this very battle while losing his hand in the ferocity of the fight. Despite this, he was a fair ruler – and decreed that the fallen Fir Bolg may keep a quarter of Ireland for their own. They respectfully chose Connacht, and then quietly faded into the background of Irish mythology.

Now, by the law of the time, the High King could not be physically blemished in anyway – and so King Nuada’s injury declare him ineligible to rule over his own people. He made the decision to unite the Tuatha Dé Danann with the Formorians (a tribe with whom they were in constant rivalry with) by electing Prince Bres – a King who would be descended from both families. As it happened Bres’ rule was a bit of a disaster, and Nuada ended up seizing the throne back years later (only after his hand had been magically regrown of course) – but more on that another time.

The historical trail only takes us back around as far as the 7th century AD, and even then it is thought that many of the Kings who are said to have held the throne are actually fabrications – invented with the purpose of claiming royal blood in one’s lineage, and therefore bettering one’s own chances of becoming High King.

 

With this in mind, the first widely acknowledged historical High King of Ireland is recorded as Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, whose name is often anglicised as Malachy MacMulrooney. The Annals of Ulster, which are a medieval manuscript detailing the history of Ireland between 431 AD to 1540 AD, refer to King Malachy as “ hÉrenn uile” which translates as "king of all Ireland" – a term which wasn’t applied to other High Kings, suggesting a differentiation between the two roles.

The annals describe his reign in detail, including his efforts to unite (or exert control over, depending how you read it…) his countrymen, and battle against Viking invasions in Ireland. If you’re ever in Kilkenny you can visit the Killamery High Cross – a Celtic monument that was erected in the 9th century in the honour of King Malachy, bearing the inscription ‘or do maelsechnaill’, meaning ‘a prayer for Malachy’.

 

While the legendary tales of High Kings would have us believe that the reign of High King was passed from ruler to ruler in an uninterrupted line (the Tuatha Dé Danann alone were thought to have produced 100 kings over a 2,000-year period), history leans more towards the opinion that the role was only intermittently occupied. Ireland has been split into several smaller kingdoms, each which operated under its own laws enforced by a dedicated ruler and of course they all occasionally invaded one another, making the right to the High Throne difficult to establish in places.

 

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The role of High King was also thought to be more of a ceremonial position rather than actually taking real charge of the country as a whole, and the ruler who held the role could only really wield power within his own jurisdiction.

One thing that history and mythology appear to agree on when it comes to the High Kings of Ireland is the significance of the Hill of Tara in County Meath. The site acted as the inauguration point and seat of the High King of Ireland, where the chosen ruler would be crowned amid a flurry of initiations and traditions.

 

The future monarch would drink ale and symbolically marry Queen Mehb – the sovereignty goddess of Tara, a ceremony that lasted right up until Christian times in Ireland. The king would then lay his hand upon the Lia Fáil or 'Stone of Destiny’, which is said to roar three times upon being touched by the rightful ruler. Legend tells that the stone itself was a prized possession of the Tuatha dé Dannan, who brought it with them to Ireland so as to be able to determine their true monarchs for years to come in their new kingdom.

 

Of course, the significance of the Hill of Tara varies depending on whether you subscribe to the mythological or strictly historical chain of events, with the latter claiming that the seat of the High King was also the opening to the underworld, and is a site imbued deeply with ancient Irish magic.

A legend that brings our story into a wonderful full circle is how the people of Ireland initially chose this, now national monument, as the chair of their kingdom. It is said that the five ancient roads of Ireland all converged upon this point – with each one leading the traveller to one of the initial territories devised by the five brothers of the Fir Bolg.

If you ever do find yourself traversing the wonders of Ireland’s Ancient East, no visit would be complete without venturing out to the Hill of Tara. Whether you subscribe to the strictly logical chain of events laid out by history, or wish to be carried away by the whimsy of mythology – you can’t fail to be enchanted by the wealth of ancient heritage on offer. From ancient burial grounds to Celtic icons, and outstanding scenery all round – it truly is a cultural treasure fit for a king.

 

Anthony Murphy - mythicalIreland.com

 

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