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Ireland’s High Kings spanned history and myth

Illustration for article titled Ireland’s High Kings spanned history and myth
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: List of High Kings Of Ireland

What it’s about: The Ireland of antiquity was composed of any number of smaller kingdoms, some of which correspond to the 26 modern-day counties that make up the Republic Of Ireland and the six in Northern Ireland. But tradition holds that these kingdoms were united under the rule of a high king, and that a more or less unbroken line of kings stretches from the end of the 12th century backward into the mists of legend—the island was first united by the Fir Bolg, a mythical race who were supposedly among the first to settle ancient Ireland. History shows many of the relatively recent high kings only ruled over part of the island, or lacked widespread support. What’s more fascinating is that no one knows exactly when the list makes the transition from mythology to fact.

Strangest fact: While many European kings claimed to have divine right—that they had been placed on the throne by the will of God himself—some of the Irish high kings actually were gods. According to myth, the Fir Bolg were driven out of Ireland (or given one-quarter of it, depending on which story you read), by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a supernatural race whom Celtic mythology treats as both historical figures and deities. The Tuatha Dé’s legendary exploits were similar to those of figures like Hercules or Perseus, and would often appear in separate stories set centuries apart, or be killed, only to resurface later, suggesting they were immortal. The Dagda, a father figure similar to Odin or Zeus, was the leader of the Tuatha Dé, but never sat on the throne; instead, six of his people ruled the land in either the 14th and 15th centuries B.C., or the 18th and 19th, depending on which account you read. A triumvirate ruled for the last few decades the Tuatha Dé remained in power, until another mythological group, the Milesians, defeated them and drove them out. According to myth, the Tuatha Dé agreed to split Ireland into halves, but were tricked by the Milesians, who took the half above ground, leaving the previous rulers the half below. As a result, the gods of the Tuatha Dé still lurk under Ireland, appearing every Samhain to cause mischief.

Biggest controversy: Several medieval Irish histories list the high kings, and they disagree completely on the timeline before the fifth century. As such, Wikipedia lists three competing sets of dates from three major sources, and most of the kings on the list are thought to be legends, not actual historical figures. The picture gets only marginally clearer after that, as we get a list of “semi-historical” high kings, with four centuries of rulers who were probably real people, but probably didn’t rule all of Ireland, despite the title. It isn’t until 846, and the reign of Máel Sechnaill Mac Máele Ruanaid, who united the country in fighting off the Vikings, that the kings seem to be real people and real kings (and even then, several of them are listed as “with opposition”).


Thing we were happiest to learn: Among the long list of high kings, there was a high queen. Macha Mong Ruad (meaning “red mane”) was the daughter of High King Áed Rúad, who, in a curious arrangement, took turns on the throne with his two cousins, Díthorba and Cimbáeth, trading off every seven years. Each served three times, but Áed died after his third turn, and when his cousins had each served their seven years, Macha claimed the throne in her father’s stead. His two cousins refused to let a woman take the throne and took to battle. Macha won, first killing Díthorba, then fighting his sons and driving them into exile. Cimbáeth must have been convinced, as he married Macha and the two ruled jointly. Meanwhile, Macha tracked down Díthorba’s three sons, disguised herself as a leper, overpowered each of them when they tried to have sex with her (Wikpedia does not explain why “leper” was the most seductive costume available at the time), tied them up, enslaved them, and forced them to build Emain Macha. (While the story is thought to be legend, remains of Emain Macha do actually exist.) After seven years, Cimbáeth died, and Macha ruled alone—the only woman ever to do so until Mary Robinson was elected president in 1990. After 14 years, Macha was killed and then succeeded on the throne by Rechtaid Rígderg, whose own father had been high king before Macha’s.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Like nearly everything bad in Irish history, the fall of the last high king was due to the English. Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (sometimes anglicized to Rory O’Connor) was high king from 1166 to 1183, during which time England’s Henry II invaded. Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope, had given Henry permission to invade Ireland, hoping to strengthen the Church’s hold on the country. Henry had help from Diarmait Mac Murchada, a former king of Leinster whom Ua Conchobair had exiled upon taking the throne. Mac Murchada petitioned the English king to help regain Leinster, and Henry used that effort as an excuse to send English armies across the Irish Sea. Leinster quickly fell, along with Waterford and Dublin, and Henry personally visited Ireland—the first English king ever to do so—to reinforce his legitimacy. Most of the lesser Irish kings swore fealty, hoping England could protect them from other external enemies. From then on, Ireland would be united, but under the English (and later British) crown until independence more than seven centuries later.

Also noteworthy: While Henry II put an end to the Irish high kings, two men attempted to revive the title in an effort to drive out the foreign occupation. In the early centuries of English rule, the lesser kings still ruled sections of Ireland, subordinate to the English throne. One of these was Brian Ua Néill, king of Tir Eoghain (anglicized to County Tyrone, now part of Northern Ireland). After a few successful fights against the English in the mid 1250s, Ua Néill joined forces with the kings of Thomond (an area which made up parts of Counties Clare, Limerick, Kerry, and Tipperary) and Connacht, who agreed to name Ua Néill high king. In 1260, the rebels assembled an army and attacked the English, who had their own army, mostly made up of Irish conscripts. The rebels were defeated, and Brian Ua Néill’s head was cut off and sent to Henry III.

In 1315, Scotland was fighting its First War Of Independence against England, and Scottish king Robert I sent his brother, Edward Bruce, to Ireland to open up a second front in the war. Many Irish flocked to Bruce’s banner, and in an effort to inspire and recruit more Irish to the cause, he was named high king of Ireland. However, after three years of fighting, Bruce had conquered several parts of Ireland but failed to hold onto them, a famine thinned the ranks of his army, and he was finally defeated and killed in the Battle Of Faughart in 1318. No one has claimed the title of high king since (although we wouldn’t put it past Bono one of these days).


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The mythological races that make up Ireland’s former inhabitants—the Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Danann, and Milesians—each have their own complicated, fascinating, possibly based-in-truth histories, which Wikipedia declines to link to directly. The page does link to the Roman Emperors, as historians have tried to line up the Irish High King’s reigns with their Roman counterparts for the sake of establishing dates.

Further down the wormhole: Julius Caesar and his successors ruled Rome through a period of prosperity which came to an end with the Crisis Of The Third Century. While that sounds like a sci-fi movie written by someone in the first century, it in fact forms a period when the Roman Empire split into three sections and nearly collapsed. There were a myriad of contributing factors, including the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus without a clear successor, plus invasion, economic depression, and plague. One plague in particular was thought to be smallpox, one of history’s most prolific killers. Be warned the link to smallpox contains some disturbing images of people suffering from that disease. As such, we’re going to skip through that page and onto history of smallpox next week.


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