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Nationality and Kingship in Pre-Norman Ireland

Donnchadh Ó Corráin

Source: T. W. Moody, Historical Studies XI: Nationality and the pursuit of national independence, papers read before the Conference held at Trinity College, Dublin, 26–31 May 1975 (Belfast: Appletree Press 1978) 1–35

In undertaking to discuss nationality in pre-Norman Ireland I am well aware that I am laying myself open to objection on a number of counts not least perhaps being that of excessive revisionism. Twice in this century the question of the existence or non-existence of a pre-Norman Irish nation has been a matter for public debate, a debate which has left its marks as much on Irish historiography as on political pamphleteering past and present.[1] It has been charged that the romantic historians of the nineteenth century saw a nation and nationality where there was none and this charge is generally regarded as proven. However, this does not close the debate nor does it dispense the historian of today from the duty of giving critical consideration to those elements of nationality present in the society which was evolving in Ireland in the century or two preceding the Norman attack. Since most if not all these elements expressed themselves in monarchic guise, discussion of them cannot be divorced from a consideration of kingship and Irish political institutions.

Historians have delivered themselves of many and varied judgments concerning the Irish and their institutions in the last few centuries of the native polity. For Orpen writing in 1911 Ireland was an anarchic country still in ‘a tribal state’.[2] He rightly rejects the symmetrical pyramid structure of political authority depicted in the Book of Rights and similar texts. In his view, the ard-ríor ‘high-king’ held no real political power: ‘if the authority of the provincial kings was frequently defied, that of the ard-rí or supreme king of Ireland if acknowledged at all was little more than nominal’.[3] Rather, in Orpen’s view, must we ‘regard the country as split up into 185 tribes of which some were grouped together in comparative permanence and some were generally subordinate to the principal groups’. The reason for this state of affairs was that Ireland lay outside the march of events in Europe; outside the pax romana, beyond the barbarian invasions, which might have roused the Gael from his slumbers, and christianity itself came peacefully to the land only to be absorbed and tribalised.[4] Further, the law was archaic and there was no regular machinery in Ireland for the enactment of laws or for the judicial enforcement of customs normally observed. The reason again is clear:

Until the coming of the Normans, Ireland never felt the direct influence of a race more advanced than herself She never experienced the stern discipline of Roman domination nor acquired from the law-givers of modern Europe a concept of the essential condition of a progressive society, the formation of a strong state able to make and above all enforce the laws.[5]

Much of what Orpen has said is clearly marked with the political preoccupations of his own time and the received ideas of his own social milieu. Others of his ideas have borne more recent repetition. In a recent work, Professor Lydon has stated that the Irish king

could not depose kings, set up puppet kings subject to himself or impose his will on territories outside his ancestral túath. Like everyone else in Ireland, he was subject to the law. He could not therefore legislate. The sort of progression which occurred in Anglo-Saxon England from small tribal kingdoms to a kingdom of England was impossible here.[6]

Evidently the archaism of the law and the weight of its dead hand contrived to keep Irish society in a primitive or tribal state which promised no political change or development.

Professor Warren has advanced a more speculative and indeed sophisticated explanation of this state of affairs: that, since the Celtic conquest of Ireland had been effected by a military caste, the integration of Celtic and pre-Celtic Ireland was achieved by means of elaborate compromises which continued to affect the law and social mores of Irish society. These compromises account for the immutability of the law and for Ireland’s being rather a cultural association, conformity to which achieved social order at the expense of social conservatism. Irish society had thus achieved an equilibrium that could find little room for progress. In this Celtic world of internally sovereign local lordships, political ambition could be given free play, for society’s strength and stability depended not on the state and its institutions but on a generally diffused body of social customs and laws enforced entirely within the context of closely integrated neighbourhood units. This state of the law hindered the advance of monarchy.[7] According to Professor Warren, ‘pressure for change was resisted by giving [the law] a religious sanction’; and he proceeds to quote in support of this view the well-known legal dictum: ‘this then is Patrick’s law and no mortal jurist of the Irish is competent to rescind anything he shall find in the Senchas már.[8] As we shall see later, this is a very unfortunate choice of text. The Irish king was further handicapped by a three-fold division of authority in Irish society. The king was without peer in the politico-military aspects of the community’s life, but its religious life was exclusively controlled by the tribal (and frequently hereditary) abbot, whilst the brehons, through their guardianship of the law, controlled its social and economic structure. The Irish king then, much more than his European peers, was encumbered by ‘a fundamental social conservatism and deeply entrenched vested interests’.[9]

Orpen could see no natio, no wider community in Ireland than the tribe:[10]

The allegiance of the free born Irishman was given in the first place to the head of his family, kindred or sept, and through the family head to the chief of the tribe of which his family formed an element.… The Irishman’s country was the tuath or territory belonging to his tribe.[11]

One is not surprised then that for Orpen the struggle of the half century before the arrival of the Normans was ‘a maze of interprovincial and intertribal fighting’, through which one could ‘glimpse the anarchy that revelled throughout Ireland up to the coming of the Normans’.[12] Eoin MacNeill attempted the rebuttal of Orpen’s arguments by stressing the reality of the high-kingship of Ireland and the existence of many of those institutions of government which Orpen found wanting. He claimed that Irish law had a national character and further that the king was supreme judge and law-giver.[13] It is perhaps ironic that Orpen and MacNeill should both be prisoners of their own times for, as Professor Binchy points out, each ‘started from precisely the same suppressed premise, that law and order were impossible in any society where the state had not substantially the same functions as the late Victorian era in which they both grew up’.[14] Further, drawing on the legal evidence, Binchy has shown that the law tracts themselves afford no support for MacNeill’s claims concerning the king of Ireland or ard-rí, and has concluded that ‘the claim of the king of Tara to be “king of Ireland” has no more basis in law than in fact’.[15] In the period of the canonical law tracts, there was no king of Ireland; a fortiori there were no ‘national’ institutions associated with that kingship.

It is against this background of social organisation, laws and institutions, relevant to the earliest documentary period, that the political history of Ireland in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries is most often presented to us, especially by those who feel it incumbent upon themselves to provide some account of native Irish institutions as a prologue to the history of the Normans in Ireland. I shall attempt to show that this stage furniture is for the most part anachronistic. I believe, for example, that the Irish were profoundly conscious of themselves as a larger community or natio, that their learned classes were preoccupied with this very notion, and that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the greater kings attempted to turn that consciousness to political advantage. There are indications, too, that the Irish were not as far out of the mainstream of European life as might at first be imagined. The extreme political fragmentation implied in Orpen’s division of the country into a multiplicity of small independent tribes can, I think, be shown to be untrue of the twelfth as well as of any other century for which we have documentary evidence. The position of the law has to a great degree been misunderstood and it is possible to show that, in the later period at any rate, the king was not as impotent in law or at least in practice as has been alleged. Lastly, I hope to give some indication—sketchy and unsatisfactory as it may be—of the ways in which kingship developed between the era of the classical law-tracts and the twelfth century.

It may be appropriate at this point to outline what I understand by ‘nationality’ in pre-Norman Ireland. Naturally, we are at a loss to know precisely what consciousness the Irish had of themselves outside the christian context, for the earliest Irish records in regard to this question—the genealogies, origin-legends and related materials—are a tangled skein of pagan and christian threads. It is certain that they—or at least their royal dynasties—had some explanation of themselves and their origins.[16] There is some evidence that the earliest Irish dynasties regarded themselves as descended from the gods,[17] but it is probable that such mythological statements of origin concerned themselves with individual dynasties rather than with the origin of the peoples of Ireland as a whole. Christianity both as an historical religion of the Book and as an origin-legend for all mankind—quite apart from the heritage of Judaic and Graeco-Roman historical literature which accompanied it—naturally posed the question of the origin and identity of the Irish and their place amongst the nations. One of the earliest of our secular poems, the fursunnad of Laidcend mac Baircheda, concerns itself with precisely that problem.[18] Those portions of the poem which contain a detached list of the nations of the earth and which trace the Leinster royal house back to Míl and thence to Noah and Adam, have been dated by Professor Carney and others to the mid-seventh century.[19] Other portions of the poem are much older and contain pagan elements much at variance with the biblical origin of the Irish. The seventh-century portion elaborates what Professor Carney calls ‘the theory … [of] the unity of Ireland through Míl and of the world through Adam’, and he suggests that Senchán Torpéist, writing about 630, was ‘the inventor of the politically, and perhaps theologically, useful idea of the common descent of the Irish from Míl of Spain’.[20] It proved to be a fruitful concept.

The tradition is next evidenced in a much more extensive form in Nennius’s Historia Brittonum which was written in the end of the eighth century.[21] A poem of Máel Mura of Othain (†887), who is described as ‘royal poet of Ireland’ and who was almost certainly a cleric, develops the tradition further. In this poem, entitled Can a mbunadas na nGaedel?, he sets himself the scholarly question: what is the origin of the Irish, where do they come from, why did they come to Ireland, and why are they called by various names (Scuitt, Gáedil, Féni)? In answer to his question he draws on the legend of Míl of Spain and on the biblical origin of the Irish. The various names are accounted for by ancestral aetiologies cast in a genealogical mould and the various tribes and dynasties of Ireland, of which he gives a most detailed account, are all linked together in one common line of ascent.[22] From such work there developed a wide range of speculations, pseudo-historical constructs and deductions which over the centuries agglomerated into the Lebor gabála Érenn, ‘Book of the taking of Ireland’, which offered a full explanation of Irish pre-history and provided the Irish with a common identity by way of descent from a single set of ancestors.[23] Van Hamel would date the archetype of the recensions which we possess to the second half of the tenth century though, of course, it continued to be transcribed and enlarged for some centuries to come.[24] Its influence and the influence of the theories enshrined in it proved all-pervasive. Dublittir Ua hUathgaile (fl. 1082), a monastic scholar of some distinction, produced an even more elaborate ethnicon into which he integrates the Irish and their language, for all these texts display a curious interest in language.[25] His description of the discovery of the Irish language should delight any modern cultural nationalist: ‘ten years after that there was discovered by Fénius Farsaid the speech which is melodious and sweet in the mouth …’.[26]

The main genealogical corpus, much of which is extremely old, is based on this same origin-legend and it is interesting to note that the later the text the more prominent the legend. Behind this self-conscious antiquarianism is the doctrine that all the people of Ireland derive from one common source (however far removed) and form one natio. As the Franks, the Saxons, the Lombards, the Goths, the Greeks are nationes, so also are the Irish. The tradition of pilgrimage, of missionary endeavour, such a controversy as the Paschal question of the seventh century in the course of which Irish practices were seen to differ from those of the rest of Europe, and, above all, the levelling effect of a church which, in its earliest forms at least, transcended local identities, must have deepened the Irish sense of ‘otherness’.

The sense of ‘nationality’ is present also, after a fashion, in the corpus of Irish law, much of which was compiled in the seventh century, itself a troubled century of synods and ecclesiastical controversies largely due to the conflict between nativist and romanising parties in the Irish church. Irish law, however local in application or however much dependent on individual law-schools in fact,[27] regards itself as valid for all the Irish. This is evidenced in a remarkable way in Bretha crólige, ‘judgments of bloodlyings’, which states in regard to sick-maintenance consequent on injury:

Direnar do cach a lanamnus a bescnu inse erenn ciapa lin ciapa n-uaite ‘Every-one is paid díre for his [marital] union according to the custom of the island of Ireland, whether it be manifold or single’.[28]

What is even more interesting, this passage occurs at a point in the tract at which the jurist is implicitly contrasting the customs of Ireland and the universal christian norm advocated by the romanising party. The same term recurs in Córus béscna: breithemnus indse hErend, which is to be translated ‘the jurisprudence of the island of Ireland’.[29] While it is clear then that the law was local in application (as are so many medieval legal systems elsewhere) and custom differed from place to place, nonetheless the custom of Ireland as a whole was present to the minds of the jurists and with the growing authority of the Senchas Már there may have been a real tendency towards uniformity. The jurists and the other learned classes, cleric and lay, were unrestrained by local boundaries and travelled freely to practise their craft where they wished, and for them, a highly self-aware and deeply respected élite, the whole island of Ireland was the field of their labours. It is scarcely surprising that the sense of nationality should first emerge amongst them and be cultivated by them.

However, this sense of nationality soon spilled over into politics for it is implicit in the political claims of the Uí Néill propagandists. Two examples may suffice. Muirchú, writing in the seventh century speaks of Temoria que est caput Scottorum ‘Tara which is the caput of the Irish’,[30] whilst Adomnán describes Diarmait mac Cerbaill as totius Scotiae regnatorem a deo ordinatum ‘the ruler of all Ireland, ordained by God’.[31] These claims are highly tendentious and testify to ambition rather than achievement. Less explicitly, they testify, at least amongst some royal propagandists, to an awareness of the Irish as a natio, a wider community, rule over which, in one form or another, was a laudable ambition for an over-king of Uí Néill in the seventh century. The subsequent expansive activities of these Uí Néill kings, the breakdown of localised petty kingdoms, contact with the Vikings and the emergence of more extensive power-blocs must have served to deepen that awareness. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries the poet-historians had elaborated in full the concept of a monarchy of all Ireland and had projected it into the pre-christian past so that, for their contemporaries, the kingship of Ireland—the political unity of Ireland in one form or another—took on the character of an immemorial tradition. The work of the poet-historians is the political theory which answered to the activities and ambitions of the greater kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and not infrequently provided their inspiration. It is this feeling of identity which I understand by nationality and I think one can feel it in the changing nuances of the annalistic record between the ninth and the twelfth centuries. To take one example, the phrase fir Érenn literally ‘the men of Ireland’ comes to be used of the followers of the greatest kings and of the lesser kings and nobles under their sway. This phrase is used in reference to Máel Sechnaill mac Máel Ruanaid, Muirchertach Ua Briain and Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair,[32] all outstanding kings in their own time, and implies not only a concept of Ireland as a whole but an identification of some sort of the affairs of Ireland as a whole with the fortunes of the dominant king of the day.

Professor Binchy’s stress on the archaism of the law[33] may be said to have been misunderstood by some historians less familiar with the early period. It is, for example, quite true to say with Professor Warren that in Irish law equal status was accorded to the king, the principal abbot, and the ollam. The law-tracts, which apparently derive from different schools and vary to a degree in date (none is later than the beginning of the eighth century), are not quite at one as to the honour-price or status which they attribute to a bishop and, by implication, to a principal abbot.[34] However, it can be stated with some degree of confidence that the tracts generally equate his status with that of the rí túaithe. This is not to say that the king and the abbot exercised equal authority, for one must distinguish sharply between that socio-legal status which is the concern of the jurists and the political authority which was exercised by the kings. The comfortable status which the church had achieved for itself in the seventh and eighth centuries did not make it the political rival of the king. Rather, as we shall see, the church did much to strengthen kingship.

The status of rí túaithe or tribal king, with which the ollam and abbot are equated in standing, was already in decline, it would appear, even in the period of the canonical law-tracts. One early law-tract states: niba tuath tuath gan egna gan egluis gan filidh gan righ aracorathar cuir agus cairde do thuathaibh ‘a túath which has no scholar, no church, no poet, no king who extends(?) contracts and treaties to [other] túathais no túath’.[35] Here, in this tract we may have an indication of the passing of the túath,for the statement implies that some communities, formerly túatha in the full sense, no longer retained the characteristics of such a structure. Indeed, it has been suggested that the rise of great dynasties such as the Éoganacht and Uí Néill and their expansion in the sixth and seventh centuries undermined the old system based on the túath.[36] This conclusion is adequately borne out, as far as the eighth century is concerned, by the contemporary annalistic entries. In these we find kings who must have been kings of túatha or even of large kingdoms (ruirig) referred to by the inferior title dux.In 756, for example, the king of the petty kingdom of Delbna Ethra is entitled dux.[37] In 771 and in 796 the same term is applied to the kings of Luigne and Ciarraige.[38] In the ninth century, this usage is much extended and over-kings of the Laígse, Mugdorna, Cenél Conaill, and Uí Meic Uais bear the lesser title of duces.[39] The growth of even more powerful overkingship further reduced these, lesser kings, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the normal title of the ruler of an area similar in size to the old túathis tigerna, toísech and toísech dútchais, all of which may be translated ‘lord’.[40]

The older customs which, as Professor Lydon observes, prevented a king setting up puppet kings over neighbouring kingdoms or annexing the kingdoms of others, had also passed away by the eighth century. One wonders whether these customs ever existed outside the polite and schematic speculations of the jurists. In fact, we find frequent annalistic reference to such events in the eighth century. It is probably sufficient to cite two. For the year 744 the Annals of Ulster have the following: foirddbe Corcu Mu Druadh don Deiss ‘the destruction of the Corcu Mo Druad by the Déis’. The Déis are here identical with Dál Cais, and from this period dates the occupation of extensive lands in Clare by Dál Cais and the beginning of their rise to political power. For 752, the same annals record: foirddbe Brecrige do Cheniul Coirpri i Telaigh Findin ‘the destruction of the Brecrigi by Cenél Cairpre in Telach Findin’. After this Brecrigi disappear from history. They were totally absorbed by Cenél Maine, a rising branch of Uí Néill who invented a pseudo-eponym for them, Breccán mac Maine, and from the grandson of this Breccán the new ruling family of Brecrigi is said to descend.[41] Not only were the lands of lesser peoples appropriated but the conquerors frequently took over their names and even their tribal saints. In the late eighth and ninth centuries a branch of Uí Chennselaig, the dominant south Leinster dynasty, conquered Uí Dróna and took to themselves the name of the conquered. The northern branch of Síl nÁeda Sláine who expropriated the Cianachta were themselves known as Cianachta by the mid-eighth century. Írgalach ua Maíl Umai, who died in 816, is entitled rex Corco Sogain. In fact, Corco Sogain was a small population group which his branch of Uí Néill, Caílle Follamain, had conquered. So dim had the memory of such earlier and expropriated peoples become that scholars, working in the eighth and ninth centuries, were already compiling antiquarian lists of them.[42]

Orpen’s 185 tribes who flourished in the period after the Viking wars must be sought in antiquarian calculations of a later date. Giraldus Cambrensis gives 176 as the number of cantreds in Ireland.[43] It is, however, clear that he is latinising the Irish term trícha cét.[44] His estimate does not derive from his own calculations but, like the greater portion of this section of the Topographia, from Irish literary sources. Therefore, Giraldus’s work has no independent value as a contemporary reckoning. Keating, O’Flaherty, and other writers give the number as 184 or 185 but all these, as Hogan has shown, derive from the poem Ca lín trícha i nÉrind? which is preserved in a number of medieval manuscripts and which in style and language is a typical product of twelfth-century antiquarianism.[45] There is a further difficulty: trícha cét never seems to mean túath or tribe in Irish sources. According to Hogan, it denotes a territory associated with a military muster in the earlier period; later (i.e. from the eleventh century on) it denotes a geographical area. In fact, it is attested in the Annals of Ulster for the year 1106 as a unit of assessment. In that year, Cellach, coarb of Patrick, made his circuit of Munster and received his full due, viz seven cows and seven sheep and half an ounce for each area of a trícha cét in Munster (cech fuind trícha i Mumain). Orpen’s 185 tribes, then, are the children of misunderstanding: they never existed. MacNeill, for his part, estimates that there were about eighty túatha in the whole of Ireland.[46] I, for one, am at a loss to discover the precise means by which he arrived at this estimate and, with Professor Byrne, I prefer to resist ‘the temptation … of trying to impose a neat and schematic pattern on the fluctuating political boundaries of early Ireland’.[47] What we can say with certainty is that there were no more than a dozen overkingdoms of any political consequence in the tenth century, and these were drastically reduced in number by the mid-twelfth century.

Other legal institutions which many seem to consider relevant to the twelfth century had long become obsolete. During the seventh century, the derbfhine, the four-generation agnatic kindred group, so important as a legal and property-owning unit in the earlier period, became obsolete and was replaced by the gelfhine, a simpler three-generation group.[48] Similarly, in the matter of royal succession, it can be shown that eligibility was not ordered by the inheritance customs of the derbfhine, however near or distant such customs may have been to men’s mind as a general ideal of the fitness of things, but by the everyday realities of power-politics within dynasties of growing strength and self-confidence.[49] However, one still finds the túath with its tabus and the derbfhine with its manifold complexities wending their way wearily across the pages of historians of a much later period. What is even more remarkable, if we accept the views of some historians, these institutions were still alive and flourishing in sixteenth-century Ireland[50]—almost a millennium after they had become obsolete and at least five hundred years after the Irish lawyers had ceased to understand at all clearly what they meant.

Much of the misunderstanding—about the political conservatism, tribalism, and supposed immutability of Gaelic society over many centuries—is the result of a methodological error on two levels. On the more general level, the historians have been deceived by the apparently static picture of Irish society presented them in the sources and, as a result, they have been insensitive to those shifts of emphasis and nuances of expression which indicate change in institutions and political and social innovations in society as a whole. This is particularly true of Ireland where the bulk of the early historical sources are literary and highly conventionalised products of specialist learned classes, retainers of the contemporary holders of power, who were at pains to legitimise all change by giving it the sanction of immemorial custom and who ruthlessly reshaped the past to justify the present.[51] This type of activity is not confined to Ireland and, in fact, finds a close parallel in European legend-building—lay and clerical—in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Indeed, the unchanging Gaelic Ireland of the modern historical scholars bears silent witness to the effectiveness of their medieval forebears in discharging their duty. For example, the rise to power of Dál Cais led not only to the drastic recasting of their previous genealogy but to a rewriting of the history of the Viking wars in Ireland in the interest of their political aspirations, and offered an example which their rivals were not slow to imitate.[52] In such rewritings of history, fundamental political changes and altered circumstances of recent events are frequently projected back into the remote past and thus the fiction of continuity and changelessness is maintained. On a more particular level, some historians may be said to have mistaken the pedantic archaism of the jurists for the attitude of society at large, and have to a degree taken their legal tracts (which were probably conservative if not out of date at the time of writing) as a true account of the practice. The customary law did, in fact, change, as can be observed even in the texts of the schools where we see the later glossators attempting, where they under stood them, to bring the rules of the older texts into line with the practice of their own day. And, as to the later middle ages and early modern period, Dr Mac Niocaill has pointed out that, though the classical tracts were cited as ever, they had no relevance to actual litigation or the manner in which it was conducted. They were cited for the sound rather than the sense and were a useful window-dressing which lent mystique to the men of the law as they went about their business in a much more mundane and practical way.[53] What the actual practice was must be pieced together (if ever it can) from the later legal literature and from incidental references in non-legal sources. We have no texts, for example, that gratuitously tell us the legal powers of the king, the order of the royal household, or the legal functions of the king’s officers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries—and even if we had, we should treat them with the utmost caution. It is equally true to say that the detailed and painstaking work involved in discovering such matters from our all too meagre sources has yet to be done, and I can only offer a few tentative suggestions on the relations of the later kings with the lawyers and the law, their law-making powers, and their rights over the property of their subjects.

Professor Warren’s observation that the law was given a certain religious sanction and that this was done to resist pressure for change is perfectly true in its own way but not in the sense in which he intends it. As we have seen, he bases his statement on the prologue of the Senchas már, a document which, as Professor Binchy has shown, was written in the beginning of the twelfth century but which incorporates older materials.[54] In effect, the prologue is the developed form of a legend relating how the Irish brought their native law into consonance with christianity: those parts of the law that were in conflict with the scripture were discarded; and the revised law is the law of Patrick which no mortal jurist of the Irish may change. An earlier version of the legend occurs in Córus béscna[55] and there it serves the same purpose. As Binchy notes, ‘what the compiler of Córus béscna really wanted to emphasise was the perfect compatibility of the Senchas with Christian teaching; he was, in fact, defending the traditional law against attack’.[56] The most spectacular of these attacks came from the Romanist party in the Irish church in the seventh century and from the twelfth century reformers who found much that was objectionable in the Irish law of secular marriage.[57] The prologue to the Senchas már, then, is an apology and a defence of Irish peculiarities in certain limited areas of social life, with which the church reformers concerned themselves, rather than an attempt to invest the whole of ancient legal corpus with the highest religious authority in the land, that of St Patrick, in order to resist legal and institutional changes of a general character.

However, it is likely that there is another and more general reason for the legend of Patrician revision of the laws, for a glance at the annals between the ninth and the twelfth centuries reveals a most interesting development amongst the practitioners of law. Very many of them are churchmen and many are of high standing. The following examples may serve to illustrate the trend:

AU 802: Ailill m. Cormaicc, abbas Slane, sapiens et iudex optimus obiit. [58]

AFM 887 (884): Colcu mac Connacáin, abb Cinn Ettich, ollam, aurlabbraidh agus senchaidh as deach ro bhui i nErinn ina reimhes [d’écc] ‘Colcu mac Connacáin, abbot of Kinnitty, an ollam, legal pleader and the best historian in Ireland in his time, died’.

Three Fragments, [59] p 210 (=908): Amongst the slain at the battle of Belach Mugna was Colmán, ab Cinn Etigh ard-ollamh brithemnachta Eirenn ‘Colmán, abbot of Kinnitty and chief ollam of the jurisprudence of Ireland).[60]

AFM 939 (937); cf AU 939: Finnachta mac Ceallaigh comharba Doire, epscop agus saoi berla Fene [d’écc] ‘Finnachta mac Ceallaigh abbot of Derry, a bishop and a scholar in Irish law, died’.

AI 1032: Ailill Hua Flaithim, airchinnech Aird Ferta Brenainn quievit. Ollam Muman a brethamnas hé ‘Ailill Ua Flaithim, erenagh of Ardfert rested. He was the ollam of Munster in jurisprudence’.[61]

AU 1041, AT 1041: Mac Beathad m. Ainmere, ard-ollam Ard Macha & Erenn archena ‘Mac Beathad mac Ainmere chief ollam of Armagh and of Ireland besides [died]’; AT add further: airdbreatham Aird Macha & tuile eolais Erenn ‘chiefjudge of Armagh and flood of knowledge of Ireland’.

AFM 1095; AI 1095: Amongst those distinguished persons who died of the plague were Hua Mancháin .i. an brethem, comharba Caoimhghin … agus Augustin Ua Cuinn, airdbreithem Laighen ‘Ua Mancháin, i.e. the judge, abbot of Glendalough … and Augustín Ua Cuinn, chief judge of Leinster’; AI describe Ua Mancháin as being do muintir Glinne do Lacha ‘of the community of Glendalough’.

AI 1106: In brethem Hua Rebacháin airchinnech Mungarat mortuus est ‘The judge Ua Rebacháin, erenagh of Mungret, died’.

AFM 1158:: An breithemh Ua Dúilendáin, airchindech Eassa Dara, ollamb feineachais agus taoiseach a thuaithe d’écc ‘The judge Ua Dúilendáin, erenagh of Ballysadare, an ollam of Irish law, and lord of his territory died’.[62]

These annalistic entries are supported by the proverbial sayings: Féineachas hÉrenn Cluain hUama; bérla Féine hÉrenn Corcach; brethemnas hÉrenn Sláine—namely, that the monasteries of Cloyne, Cork, and Slane were famous centres for the study of Irish law.[63]

It is evident then that the practice of the law was much in the hands of clerics and clerical families at this period, and it may be added that, judging by the language and content of some of the earlier legal tracts—Uraicecht becc, Miadshlechta, and others—the churchmen had a powerful influence on legal development at a much earlier date. It is interesting to note the association of cleric and lawyer as late as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for the family of Ua Bresléin held dual office as brethem to Maguire and as erenaghs of Derryvullen, though they themselves were relative newcomers to legal practice.[64] It is likely that, given the nature of much of the social content of Irish law and the obvious conflict between it and the christian norms, some of the clergy at least may have had reservations about practising as secular lawyers. It is most probable that the legend of the Patrician revision also served as a justification for their position, and a defence against the attacks of more reform-minded colleagues.

I am not convinced that the clergy either as churchmen or jurists served as an obstacle to the development of monarchy in Ireland or saw themselves as rivals to political authority. On the contrary, they did much to enhance kingship by their introduction of wider political ideas concerning the royal office and by acting as servitors of the great dynasties. Already, the tract De duodecim abusivis saeculi, written most probably between 630 and 650, has much to say about kingship though admittedly the writer’s notions contain very archaic elements. The results of evil kingship are social and economic ruin and, eventually, the loss of sovereignty. All good things—peace, plenty and social order—attend the rule of the good king whose justice ‘is the peace of peoples and the protection of the fatherland’. The christian king is to judge justly, protect the weak, destroy the wicked, the parricide and the perjurer; he himself is to have wise and sober counsellors and just officials.[65] The Collectio canonum Hibernensis, material compiled from scripture, from Irish and foreign synods, papal decretals and christian fathers, and put together in the first half of the eighth century, has a great deal more to say about kingship.[66] It repeats the section on the rex iniquus from the early text but adds much more. The christian king is to have power of judgment over those who disobey the royal or divine law and condemn them to death or exile, fine or prison, and though there is much pious exhortation to kings, the canonists quote statements attributed to St Jerome that indicate a clear perception of royal authority: ‘the word of a king is a sword for beheading, a rope for hanging, it casts into prison, it condemns to exile’. The Collectio also favours the ordination of kings and takes its text from I Samuel 10: ‘Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it over Saul’s head and kissed him and said: “Behold, the Lord has anointed you prince over your inheritance”’.

This attempt to christianise kingship was never very successful. However, the annals record the ordinatio of Artrí mac Cathail into the kingship of Munster in 793, and his Uí Néill contemporary, Áed mac Néill, is known as Áed Oirnide, ‘the ordained’. This activity, of course, has its contemporary parallels in Carolingian Francia and Anglo-Saxon England.[67] The conceptualisation of God and the saints in the prologue to the Calendar of Óengus, written about 800, is profoundly royalist and triumphalist, and gives us another indication of the clerical view of kingship. His principal metaphor is the contrasting kingship of the saints, ‘the royal folk of God’, and secular rulers; yet, however much we may discount his rhetoric and his striving after literary effect in the contrast which he makes between the pomp of earthly kings (including Irish provincial kings) and the glory of the heavenly kingdom, we cannot easily escape the conclusion that the power and pretensions of the kings of his own day were very much present to his mind and that he was deeply impressed by them.[68] We again see some clerical notions of kingship in a poem of advice to a king, Cert cech ríg co réil. From internal evidence, it is certain that it was written by a churchman, and, in date, it is hardly earlier than the tenth century. The king is not to tax the church: ‘leave the churches untaxed in your course of clear success, so you may be over all and all may be obedient to you’. He is to esteem the clerics and have contented and wealthy clergy. However, the king is to rule over them and control them and their dwellings; it is his duty to see to it that at all times the clergy and laity are confined to their own duties. In contrast to this, the advice given him in regard to secular affairs is that he should be ruthless and effective. He is to place harsh fetters on prisoners, for it is better that they should die rather than escape. He is to billet his troops sternly, and in the matter of food-render, or cosher, nobody who possesses a house, not even the kinsman of a king, is to be exempted. He is to levy his rent to the last penny, because that is the right of a king. Every violent rebel is to be put to death at once.[69] The church apparently had strong views on capital punishment and it is frequently urged on kings. This heady mixture of exhortation to rule rather than reign, to act as supreme judge, to extend royal powers and income, and the constant reference to Old-Testament kingship must have made a powerful impact on the power-hungry kings of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, who were consolidating those greater lordships that dominated Irish political history until the coming of the Normans.

We may now ask from what groups in society were the cleric-jurists, poets, and royal propagandists recruited. It is evident that the clergy moved easily in legal, poetic, and learned circles, and all seem to derive from one source: the politically unsuccessful segments of the ruling dynasties. This conclusion is amply borne out by the annals and genealogies. The succession to the abbacy of Áth Truim, for example, was dominated from some time before 756 to 846 by a branch of the locally ruling dynasty, the Lóegaire of the Southern Uí Néill. All were descendants or relations of the famous poet, Rumann mac Colmáin (†747) and, on its own admission, the whole group had been displaced from the kingship of Lóegaire in the seventh century.[70] The office of abbot at Lusk was monopolised by the descendants of Colggu mac Móenaig from 702 to 805. He belonged to the politically unsuccessful Cianachta Mide.[71] The well-known scholar, historian, and churchman, Flann Mainistrech (†1056) belonged to a discard segment of Cianachta Breg. His son, Echthigern, continued the family association with Monasterboice and died as abbot of that monastery in 1067.[72] The cleric-jurists whom we can identify belong to the same class of persons. The judge Ua Rebacháin (†1106), abbot of Mungret, belonged to Uí Rebacháin of Cland Chuiléin, collaterals of Meic Conmara and even more remote collaterals of the dominant Uí Briain.[73] In many cases, those recorded in the annals as poets belong to the same type and very frequently they too have close clerical connections. Fínnechta ua Cuill, ‘poet of Munster’ who died in 960, and his descendant, Cenn Fáelad Ua Cuill (†1048), ‘chief poet of Munster’, claimed to belong to a discarded segment of Éoganacht of Cashel.[74] The ‘son of Mac Craith the Poet, chief poet of Munster’, who died in 1098 is a pertinent example of the relation of poet and dynasty. He is third in descent from Echthigern, brother of Brian Boru and third cousin and contemporary of Muirchertach Ua Briain, whose poet he was.[75] A year before, there died Cairpre Ua Síta whom the annalist describes as ollam breitemnuis Erenn: ‘ollam of the jurisprudence of Ireland’—a term which, shorn of its rhetoric, means royal judge of Muirchertach Ua Briain, the high king. He, like his cousin, Ua Rebacháin, belonged to a discard segment, Síl Nárgalaig, who were remote collaterals of the ruling family and remarkably prolific in producing ecclesiastical and professional personnel throughout the middle ages.[76]

We may now enquire as to the relationship which existed between the kings and this class of clergy, poets, and jurists. In general, it seems, this mandarin class provided the professional servitors of the greater kings, and, far from being triarchic, Ireland was monarchic in its concepts of political authority. In fact, it was this mandarin class that elaborated the idea of the overkingship of all Ireland and projected it backwards into even the remote past, thus creating what remained for a millennium one of the best-known ‘facts’ of Irish history. And their influence on the image which the Irish had of their past is all-pervasive. Amongst the most important of these scholars, whom MacNeill calls the synthetic historians, are Máel Mura of Othain (†887), Cináed Ua hArtacáin (†995), Cúán Ua Lothcháin (†1024), and Flann Mainistrech (†1056). Much of Flann’s work survives and a great deal of it is concerned with the glorification of kings—a poem on the dindshenchas of Ailech, fortress and symbol of Northern Uí Néill, a versified list of their kings, another on their victories, and a further poem on the exploits of their kings.[77] A note in Lebor na hUidre allows us a glance at Flann’s activity:

Flann then and Eochaid the Wise Ua Céirín gathered this material from the books of Eochaid ua Flannacán in Armagh and from the books of Monasterboice and other choice books besides, namely, from the Yellow Book which is missing from the strong-room in Armagh, and from the Short Book of Monasterboice and that is the one which the student stole and brought with him overseas and which was never found again.[78]

Here we may at first sight think we are in the presence of the quiet studiousness of bookish men, but the reality is quite otherwise for they were deeply concerned with the politics of their own day. In the same way as the feudal lords of contemporary Europe listened to the deeds of their ancestors, in the same way as the poems on Charlemagne served the needs of Capetian propaganda, so too the Irish kings paid attention to the work of the synthetic historians and poets and drew political lessons and support from them.

As an example of the influence of these historians, we may cite the revival of Óenach Tailten as a political institution in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As Binchy has shown, Óenach Tailten was the early assembly of the overkings of Uí Néill. After the third quarter of the ninth century it was held with increasing irregularity, and throughout most of the following century it was completely in abeyance. After it had fallen into desuetude, the synthetic historians and poets remodelled it, and it came to be regarded as an assembly of all Ireland and a notable institution of the kingship of Ireland.[79] What is remarkable is that two of the greatest kings of the twelfth century, Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair and his son, Ruaidrí, celebrated the óenach almost certainly in the belief that in so doing they were exercising the prerogative of the king of Ireland. Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair celebrated it in 1120. A year earlier, Muirchertach Ua Briain, whom the annals unanimously describe as ‘king of Ireland’, had died, and Tairdelbach had taken his place as the most powerful king in Ireland and chief contender for the ‘high-kingship’. Ruaidrí celebrated it in 1168 after most successful campaigns in 1166 and 1167, in the course of which he demonstrated his effective authority by summoning a royal council at Athlone and levying a tax on ‘the men of Ireland’, and led an army of nation-wide composition into Cenél Éogain which extinguished the remaining armed opposition to his rule.[80] This was not the only óenach to be revived with a political purpose. In 1033 Donnchad mac Gilla Phátraic, king of Ossory, celebrated óenach Carmain after he had seized the kingship of Leinster. He had no hereditary claim on Leinster and had in fact seized it by force from Uí Dúnlainge who had ruled the province for centuries.[81] In 1079, it was again celebrated by Conchobar Ua Conchobair Failge, another king who had no hereditary claim on the kingship of Leinster and who took advantage of the weakness of the ruling dynasty, Uí Chennselaig, to advance himself.[82] What is noteworthy about these events is that the óenach is held by two kings who clearly regarded its celebration as a prerogative of the king of Leinster, and no doubt considered it to be a means of strengthening and legitimising their dubious claim to the kingship in question. On either one or the other of these occasions, one of the poet-historians provided a highly dramatic account in verse of the activities at the óenach.[83] Clearly, then, the learned classes were not only servitors of the great kings but, after a fashion, played the role of political theorists.

Since it has been argued that the power of the church was one element in the so-called triarchic structure of authority in Ireland, it may be useful to see how the church functioned within one of the major kingdoms, the kingdom of Uí Briain. To begin with, from 991 all known holders of the abbacy of Killaloe, the central dynastic church, are members of the dynastic families and on occasion the office was held by brothers or other close relatives of the ruling kings. In the case of the surrounding monasteries, there is a conscious policy on the part of the dynasty to intrude its own members. Marcán, brother of Brian Boru, was a grand pluralist who held office as abbot of Killaloe, Terryglass, Inis Celtra and Emly. As the dynasty expanded under the rule of able kings, so did its control of monasteries in the person of its junior segments. The twelfth-century reform did little to change this pattern, and for a century and a half after its inception only members of the dynasty became bishops of the new territorial diocese; of these, two were brothers of the ruling king and all were relatives. Further, with the increased power of the dynasty, there was an imperialism in church as well as in state. Ua hÁilgenáin, abbot of Cork who died in 1106, was a distant cousin of Muirchertach Ua Briain and a member of a group of extensive clerical families to which belonged the reformer, Domnall Ua hÉnna. About 1100, Gilla Pátraic Ua hÉnna, a member of the same group, was abbot of Cork and (possibly subsequently) bishop of Killaloe. All this reflects the power and policy of Muirchertach Ua Briain and his ability to use the clergy of his own dynasty to infiltrate the monasteries of his rivals, the Éoganacht, and gain control of Cork.[84] Similar policies were pursued by other kings with varying degrees of success. It is evident, even from the bald political narrative of the annals, that the great kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were deliberately using the church—and the reform movement itself—to further their political ambitions and enhance their prestige. Lastly, given the changed nature of society in this latter period, the statement in the classical laws that the abbot or bishop had the same social status as the rí tuaithe, if at all applicable, amounts to far less than it appears. All it means is that the bishop and abbot had the same standing in society as their local lord, a situation which can scarcely be said to be far removed from the European norm.

It has frequently been stressed that the lrish king had no power to make laws, but this is not quite true even of the earlier period. The king could enforce a rechtge proclaimed by him at a public assembly, but most of these were special ordinances designed to meet emergencies. The term rechtge may also have included ecclesiastical regulations issued by individual monasteries (cána) and depending on public promulgation for their validity.[85] The promulgation of such ecclesiastical cána is frequently mentioned in the annals in the eighth and ninth centuries. They are promulgated by the dominant kings for entire provinces, and it is to be inferred from the annalistic record that these provincial kings were preempting and over-riding any independent decision to which a local king and his assembly might come. It is difficult to imagine that the kings in question did not benefit materially from the promulgation of these cána. Fr Felim Ó Briain asserts, I think with some exaggeration, that

the local rulers, in concurrence with the unworthy superiors they had intruded into the monasteries, carried out a commercial exploitation of relics and spiritual favours …. By the eighth century the practice seems to have deteriorated to a mere expedient for replenishing the coffers of the king and his monastic relatives.[86]

Whether they followed the example set by the church or not may be a matter for doubt, but it is evident that the Irish kings exercised the right to impose extraordinary taxation on their subjects at will. In 986, for example, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, overking of Uí Néill, committed an outrage on the community of Armagh. One of the things he conceded the clergy of Armagh as compensation was ‘the visitation [by the community of Armagh for taking a cess] of Mide, church and laity as well as refection in every fortress or stead of his own’.[87] In 1007, the same king made a grant to the altar of Clonmacnoise and then levied a hide on every les in Mide to pay for it.[89] This extraordinary taxation is all the more notable in that it was levied specifically by the king directly for his own aggrandisement. It is reasonable then to assume that such kings levied lesser taxes as time and occasion demanded.

However, kings engaged in legislative activities other than the imposition of public taxes. It is true that the annals do not gratuitously supply us with details of such legislation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, for the type of incident which they report is in general altogether different. One might point out in this connection that if we were dependent on them for the enactments of the great reforming synods in the twelfth century we should know very little indeed about them. Nonetheless, on three separate occasions the annals record legislation by Donnchad mac Briain, king of Munster, and by his successor, Tairdelbach Ua Briain. In 1040 we find the king of Munster legislating against theft, against ‘feats of arms’, and manual labour on Sunday, and promulgating a law that cattle should not be brought indoors.[90] The term used to describe the legislation is cáin & rechtge, and it is evident from the tone of the entry that the annalist considered the legislation itself to be innovatory. One further point: it appears that at least some clerical inspiration lies behind these provisions and some of them bear a remarkable resemblance to the demands of the contemporary peace movement in Aquitaine and other parts of France.[91] In 1050, in the course of a famine in which there was much suffering and disorder, and churches and secular buildings were being attacked, the same king summoned an assembly of the Munster rulers and clergy at Killaloe—one of the royal residences—and promulgated a law forbidding injustices great and small. The motive force behind the law seems to have been the king: cáin mór oc mc Briain ‘a great law by the son of Brian’.[92] Unfortunately, the annals preserve no details of these enactments. In 1068, we find his nephew and successor, Tairdelbach Ua Briain, promulgating laws, and the remark of the annalist, ‘and no better law was enacted in Munster for a long time’ surely allows us to infer that royal legislation was not uncommon.[93] These stray pieces of evidence lend themselves to the conclusion that, in certain areas at least, the greater overkings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had emerged as law-makers.

Further, the rule that the king was not dominus terrae and could not grant away either his own hereditary land or the land of others without the consent of the owner’s kindred had long become obsolete. Again, I shall cite a few dated examples from the annals. In 1072, Murchad Ua Máel Sechlainn billeted his troops somewhat ruthlessly on Clonmacnoise, and in the course of their stay they killed the steward of the mendicants, an important local official. In compensation for this, he granted the mendicants Mag nUra, identified by O’Donovan with Moynore in the barony of Rathconrath, probably part of his own hereditary lands.[94] In the terror inspired by the falling of St John’s day on Friday in 1096, the annalists report that many kings and lords granted lands to the church. Land was also being sold, and in sales or grants we must distinguish between the transfer of land which is encumbered with dues and cess, and land held in dílse,a term which seems to imply absolute ownership and perhaps a freedom similar to that freedom ‘ab omni publico vectigali, a victa, ab expeditione, ab opere regio’ of certain Anglo-Saxon book-land. In 1089, Cormac mac Cuinn na mBocht, tanist-abbot of Clonmacnoise, described as ‘a prosperous and affluent man’, purchased the dílseof Ísell Ciaráin from one Ua Flaithnén (probably the local lord) and Domnall Ua Máel Sechlainn, king of Meath. What is interesting in this case is that Clonmacnoise already owned this land but it was subject to rents or cess.[95] In 1143 we find Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair granting a townland, apparently in the present parish of Roscommon, to the abbot of Roscommon, who however gives gold to Ua Conchobair and his kinsmen and to the local lord in return for the dílseof the property.[96] Our records of such sales relate mostly to the church. The Kells charters record the sale of land by one Ua Rímán, who can only have been petty gentry, to a priest of Kells. A similar document records the purchase of a plot of ground by one Congal Ua Breislén. The document is now damaged but the phrase unga fon dilse ‘an ounce [of silver in addition] for the dílse’ is still legible.[97]

These grants of townlands or other parcels of land (such units appear to be quite specific and may well be the smaller land-divisions for purposes of assessment) to the church are quite commonplace and frequently such grants are made by charter.[98] The granting of land to the church in a newly acquired territory or on the borders of a disputed territory is a characteristic of the age, and, in this case at least, it is clear that the new political authority overrides the proprietary rights of the conquered. Perhaps the most spectacular of these was the grant to the church of Cashel, the hereditary seat of the Éoganacht, by Muirchertach Ua Briain in 1101 on the occasion of the synod of Cashel.[100] It would appear that political authority now also included proprietary right. In 1165, for example, when Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn compelled the king of Ulaid to hand over a townland to the monks of Saul, it is scarcely likely that the immediate lord of the territory, or what would, lower down on the social scale, have formerly been the free commoner families who were allodial owners in severalty, were consulted about the transfer.[101] It is likely that they were simply transferred with the land to their new masters.

On the broader political level, the overkings grant away whole territories. One annalistic entry speaks of a hosting of Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair and his allies ‘to contest his own land unjustly with Ua Máel Sechnaill’, king of Meath, but the justice of his case did little to protect him.[102] Ua Conchobair granted and re-granted large portions of Meath to Tigernán Ua Ruairc, and despite many set-backs he made a reality of these grants. His obit in 1172 describes him as king not only of his hereditary kingdom of Brefne but also of Conmaicne and the greater part of Meath, and Giraldus Cambrensis, who describes him in the Expugnatio hibernica as ‘Medensium rex’ is more accurate than his editor allows.[103] In 1095 Muirchertach Ua Briain expelled the ruling dynasty of Connacht from its homeland, and granted the kingdom of Connacht to Ua Ruairc less three large territories—Uí Fiachrach, Uí Maine, and Luigne—which he apparently reserved for himself.[104] The campaigns of Meic Lochlainn against the Ulaid from 1113 to 1165 indicate the growing claims of the overkings. In 1113, Domnall Mac Lochlainn divided up the overkingdom of the Ulaid; he detached two large territories, Dál nAraide and Uí Echach Cobo, and brought them directly under his own suzerainty; and he divided what remained of the kingdom in two along segmentary lines. In 1148, Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn divided the kingdom in four portions. Finally in 1165, at the height of his power, Mac Lochlainn again attacked the Ulaid. He reappointed their king under strict conditions which made him his subject and compelled him to grant land to the church and make over to himself the territory of Bairrche (the Mourne area). Mac Lochlainn then granted that territory to his loyal vassal, Donnchad Ua Cerbaill, king of Airgialla.[105] A further interesting example is recorded in the annals for 1163. Diarmait Ua Máel Sechlainn, king of Meath, was deposed by his subjects but in return for one hundred ounces of gold Mac Lochlainn granted him the kingship of Western Meath.[106] It is evident, too, that these kings granted such territories in return for loyalty and military service and that, in the course of these centuries, the relationship of king and overking changed slowly to that of vassal and lord while concurrently imperiumanddominiummerged into one. On the less exalted levels of society, the distinction between base and free clientship became blurred and the complex classes of commoners were radically simplified, largely I imagine to their disadvantage.[107]

These new kings who exercised such wide powers had need of some officers of government. Kings such as Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair were frequently absent on campaign for months on end. An entry in the annals for 1111 casually tells us that Muirchertach Ua Briain was in Dublin from 29 September to Christmas of that year. It is evident that there must have been some royal ministers, however unspecialised, to carry out the day to-day business of ruling in the king’s absence. Though there is no formal account of these officers, occasional references in the annals give us some indications of their existence. One of the most important of these was the airrí. The significance of the term is somewhat obscured by the artificial classification of the meanings attached to it in the dictionary.[108] There the term is given two separate meanings: (a) ‘tributary king or chieftain’ in a native context and (b) ‘viceroy, governor’ in a foreign context. The term can, I think, be shown to mean governor and more specifically royal governor. I set out the annalistic examples:

AU 962 (cf. AFM AI): Eughan m. Muiredaigh, erri Erenn, do marbad do Uib Failgi (‘… airrí of Ireland was slain by Uí Failge’).

AU 1003 (cf. AT): Sinach .H. Uargussa, ri H. Meith & Cathal m. Labradha erri Midhe do comtuitim ‘Sinach Ua Uargussa, king of Uí Meith and Cathal mac Labrada, airrí of Mide mutually slew one another.

AU 1021 (cf. AT AI AFM CS): Branacan H. Maeluidir, airrí Midhe do bathad dia Belltaine ic Loch Ainninde ‘… airrí of Mide was drowned on Mayday in Lough Ennell’.

In the case of none of these have I been able to trace their genealogy and thus establish their class or connections with the ruling dynasty. However, two Munster entries on the airríg make that relationship clear:

AI 1032 (cf.AFM): Diarmait mc. Echach airrí Muman moritur (=AFM cend Cloinde Scandláin ‘head of Clann Scannláin’).

AU 1103 (cf.AFM): Amongst the slain at the battle of Mag Coba was Ua Failbe .i. ridomna Corco Duibhne & erri Laighen (… rígdamnaof Corco Duibne and airrí of Leinster).

Diarmait mac Eachach can indeed be identified from the genealogies. He was lord of Clann Scannláin, a sub-segment of Uí Ailgile, itself a discard segment of the dominant dynastic group, Uí Thairdelbaig.[109] His father, Eochaid, was slain at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. His brother, Tadc, was abbot of Killaloe and died either in 1027 or 1028, and his cousin, Mac Craith mac Conduib, lord of Clann Scannláin, died in 1067.[110] His cousins, Uí Magair, were coarbs of Dromcliffe, near Ennis.[111] The segment to which he belonged was not only out of the running for the kingship but had never possessed it. Under no circumstances could he be regarded as a ‘tributary king’ of Munster in his own right. It is clear that any importance he had is as a minister of the king, and he belonged, in fact, to that very class from which the great kings drew their learned servitors—jurists, poets and clerics. The position is further clarified by the reference to Ua Fáilbe. He belonged to the petty kingdom of Corcu Duibne, a territory corresponding roughly to the present baronies of Corkaguiny and Iveragh, with small portions of other baronies, in County Kerry. In no way could the rígdamna of such petty kingdom have any claim to be regarded as a tributary king of Leinster. In fact, Muirchertach Ua Briain dominated Leinster in these years, and was able to command the forces of Leinster at the battle of Mag Coba. Ua Fáilbe can be none other than Ua Briain’s governor of Leinster. It is evident that these men were the deputies and governors of the more powerful kings: Domnall Ua Néill (956–80), Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (†1022), Donnchad mac Briain (†1064) and Muirchertach Ua Briain (†1119). If the status and relationship to the dynasty of the two I can identify are at all representative, the office was filled by the middling class of lord (either from within the dynasty or from a subject kingdom), who was in no position to challenge the royal authority as greater men might be and who owed his position to royal patronage. Since these men are important enough to be mentioned in the annals, they must of course be men of consequence and it is likely that by the time the office is first recorded in the annals it may have been a well-established part of the Irish overking’s administration.

In the early literature, the king’s chief officer is his rechtaire,his steward or bailiff. He is the majordomo of the king’s household and, on occasion, the collector of his food-rents. The word is used to gloss praepositus and villicus and does have the meaning of royal administrator in some instances. However, the term is absent from the annals until the early eleventh century when the king’s rechtaire is first mentioned as a person of importance. It is evident that in the early period he was an omni-competent household officer with general duties; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries he becomes a royal official of importance and one not to be identified with the airrí. As frequently, the office changes and the name remains the same. It is used in 1031 to describe the commander or keeper of Donnchad mac Briain’s important fortress at Dún na Sciath. Since the keeper of the same fortress, Domnall mac Beolláin is later referred to as flaith Dune na Scaich ‘lord of Dún na Sciath’, it is fair to assume that the rechtaire was usually a nobleman.[112] In 1108, the same term is used to refer to Muirchertach Ua Briain’s governor of the city of Limerick who died infeliciter in that year.[113] Limerick had become one of the royal seats as early as 1058 and it is clearly the most important residence of Muirchertach Ua Briain, for there he held court, kept prisoners, and entertained. However, since he also lived at Kincora (where he had a fortress built of stone and wood) and at Killaloe, and since he was frequently absent on campaign (sometimes for as long as four months) he required somebody to govern the city, particularly since the Ostmen of Limerick were occasionally restive.[114] In contrast, the greater dignity of the governorship of Dublin, held by Muirchertach in the reign of his father, and held during his own reign by his son, Domnall, is always referred to as kingship. It is to be noted that the governor of Limerick who died in 1108, Ua Béoáin, again belonged to a remote collateral family of Dál Cais who supplied clergy to the monastery of Tomgraney.[115] When we turn elsewhere, we find that other great kings make use of subject petty kings and discarded segments to fill this office. Domnall Ua Caíndelbáin, king of the petty kingdom of Lóegaire, was rechtaire to Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill—for Lóegaire was a petty kingdom within his dominions—and Gilla na Náem Ua Birn—a remote collateral and local lord—was rechtaire to Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair.[116] This latter rechtaire is entitled ríghrechtaire Érenn ‘royal steward of Ireland’—an indication that his duties were perhaps coterminous with the territories within the control of his master and not confined to Connacht.

There are some references, too, to the taísech lochta tighe ‘head of the [king’s] household’ or taísech teglaig, a term that has the same meaning. In 1100, one Ua hIndredhán is reported as holding this office under Ua Máel Sechlainn, king of Mide. In 1143, Gilla Brénainn Ua Flaind, taísech lochta tige of Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair, was unhorsed in an encounter in Munster.[117] The genealogies show that he again was a remote collateral of the ruling house. We are fortunate that another annalistic entry lists some of the lucht tige of an over-king. In 1013, the lucht tige of Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill were drinking together, and in their drunken exuberance they took on a raiding party of the king of Cairpre and some of them were killed. These included Donnchad mac Donnchada Finn, rígdamna of Tara, Cernachán mac Flainn, king of Luigne, and Senán Ua Leocáin, king of Gailenga. In this case, at any rate, the lucht tige included some of the most important vassal lords of Mide.

With the growth of kingship came a concomitant development in warfare. Kings employed a standing army, bought the military support of their peers, and hired foreign mercenaries.[118] There was also a great development of the use of cavalry, and the new office of taísech marcslúaige ‘commander of the [king’s] cavalry’ came into being. This post was also held by the subject lords of the great kings. Such a person was Diarmait Ua hAinbféith, lord of Uí Meith and commander of Mac Lochlainn’s cavalry.[119] There were rapid developments also in the building and use of castles, fortifications, and military earthworks.[120] The same development took place in the use of ships and boats in warfare, and the inland rivers and lakes and the coastline fairly teemed with vessels of different shapes and sizes. In general, the seafaring peoples of the south and west coast—Ua hEtersceóil, Ua Muirchertaig, Ua Conchobair Chiarraige, Ua Domnaill of Corcu Baiscind, Ua Flaithbeartaig, Ua Dubda, and others served as commanders of the king’s fleets.

Behind the violence and the military campaigns is a world of claim and counter-claim, of historical fabrication and political propaganda, which helps to flesh out the bare bones of the annalistic record. The great kings and their supporters, if we may judge from the inscriptions they caused to be placed on the shrines they had made for the churches, were in no doubt as to their own aims. On the shrine of the Stowe Missal, Donnchad mac Briain describes himself as king of Ireland.[121] On the Cross of Cong Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair asks a prayer for himself as ri hErend.[122] In the Corpus Christi Missal we find the prayer-formulae: ‘pro gloriosissimo rege nostro N eiusque nobilissima prole’ and elsewhere ‘ut regem Hibernensium et exercitum eius conservare digneris’. These formulae are old and may have been introduced to Ireland at an earlier period but on chronological stylistic grounds Dr Françoise Henry considers Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair to be the person most likely to be in the writer’s mind.[123] All is grist to the mill. Hagiography is pressed into service in a direct and crude way as it is in continental Europe both for secular and ecclesiastical purposes. Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair could point to Fínnechta mac Tomaltaig (†848), saint and king of Connacht.[124] Uí Briain could point to Flannán as the saint of their dynasty, and the twelfth-century Life of that saint are highly propagandistic documents. The eponymous ancestor of the segment from which Uí Briain derive (Uí Thairdelbaig) was deliberately turned into a saint, and a long narrative of his austerities and miracles is provided. In contrast Ailbe, the well-known saint and patron of Emly, a church much favoured by the rival Éoganacht, is dismissed as a demon.[125] One can trace the hand of the ambitious and able Cormac Mac Carthaig in the life of St Finnbar, rewritten in the twelfth century as the basis for an enlarged diocese of Cork and the ecclesiastical correlative of Mac Carthaig’s secular claims.[126] As in England the sanctity of Edward the Confessor, as in continental Europe the sanctity of Charlemagne and the sanctity of the Emperor Henry II, who was canonised in 1152, so in Ireland the kings boosted the sanctity of their predecessors and patrons in order to enhance their own dignity and authority.

Two great southern propaganda texts, Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib and Caithréim Cellacháin Chaisil,[127] allow us to glimpse the notions of kingship that actuated men such as Muirchertach Ua Briain and Cormac Mac Carthaig. Both date from the first half of the twelfth century in essentials. The ideal king of Cogad is a lover of peace but of course a warrior incomparable when required to be such. He imprisons those who rob and make war; he hangs thieves and brigands; and he maintains excellent public order. He is generous in his endowment of learning and of the church.[128] In the Lives of St Flannán, the clerical followers of Uí Briain give their version of the ideal king. He is a most christian king who follows in the footsteps of the Saviour and who gives good example to his followers. He rules well, has a care for the poor, and the weak, and is merciful towards his enemies. Above all, he builds churches at his own expense and is generous in granting lands and possessions to the church. Caithréim Cellacháin Caisil is a paradigm in saga-form of the ideal relationship between a king and his vassal lords. They are brave and disciplined in battle, loyal to their lord, prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth and lay down their lives in his service. A northern work, The circuit of Ireland by Muirchertach mac Néill which dates, at least in its present form, from the reign of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn (1156–66), is more old fashioned in style but it, too, is written to glorify kingship.[129] Two of these texts are shot through with a strident patriotism which uses the long-peaceful Norse as a whipping-boy. An example of this is the selfless decision of the rival claimants to the kingship of Munster who retire observing that, if they contested it, only the Vikings would profit from their dissensions.[130] In Cogad the Vikings are brutal and ferocious tyrants, plunderers of the church and enslavers of the Irish—in all they are the foils to the glory of Dál Cais and the triumph of Brian. The same stress on the glory of victory over the Vikings is present in the work of Flann Mainistrech more than a generation earlier.[131] The sense of triumph also occurs in a late poem in praise of Écnechán mac Dálaig, king of Cenél Conaill (†906) and impossibly fathered on the famous poet Flann mac Lonáin.[132] It is evident that the writers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries drew a remarkably clear line of distinction between the Vikings and the Irish—a distinction which is made with no such clarity by the matter-of-fact contemporary annalists of the Viking wars properly so-called whose records they plundered. For the later writers the Viking age is a remote heroic age of warfare against a foreign invader who was ferocious and barbaric, full of guile, a plunderer of churches and a heartless exploiter of the people of Ireland; and they cast the great kings of their own day as the descendants of the heroes of that past. Paradoxically, never were the Vikings to have more influence on Ireland and never were they less a military threat than in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when they turned to peaceful pursuits as traders and entrepreneurs. The more advanced Irish kings used the Viking towns to strengthen themselves militarily and economically, for they milked them for men, ships, and taxes while at the same time they used them as the whipping-boy for their growing national aspirations. It is possible, too, that contact with the Vikings broadened their notions of kingship. Against this background, the use by the synthetic historians of the Norse term iarla‘earl’ as a high honorific term applicable to those whom they. considered to be kings of Ireland may more readily be explained.[133]

The type of society that was emerging in Ireland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was one that was moving rapidly in the direction of feudalism,[134] and indeed bears some striking resemblance—in conservatism as well as in innovation—to European society in the first age of feudalism. This becomes particularly clear from the recent work of the ‘prosopographical’ school of historians. Here I shall refer briefly to only one aspect, that of lineage, an area in which Ireland is supposed by many to be peculiar. In the early period, Irish society was a broad-based lineage society, but it appears to have undergone considerable change between the ninth and twelfth centuries at precisely the same time as similar (though not identical) changes took place in Europe. This appears not only from the annals in general but, in a particular way, from the genealogies, for in that period there is a remarkable narrowing of the genealogical record, particularly amongst the lesser dynasts. And this tendency is carried even further in the surviving twelfth-century manuscripts, where genealogical tracts (which we know from the fourteenth and fifteenth century antiquarian movement) are ruthlessly edited. The genealogies of the Ciarraige record thirty-one lines of the ruling house (excluding for the moment twice as many collaterals more distantly removed) about the year 750; by the year 1100, only one line is being recorded, that of the ruling family, Ua Conchobair.[135] In the kingdom of Lóegaire, fifty-one lines are recorded for the eighth century but by c. 1000 these are reduced to four.[136] In Corcu Mo Druad, there are some fourteen lines in the record for the ninth century; only two are recorded in the eleventh century, those from which the two local lords, Ua Conchobair and Ua Lochlainn, descend.[137]

This tendency is general throughout the genealogical corpusexcept that the narrowing of the lineage takes place earlier and is more rigorous amongst the dominant dynasties. The point of departure seems to be the late eighth and ninth centuries. This should indicate a consolidation of local hereditary lordship and the emergence of a narrower, more powerful, and more exclusive lordly class. It is symbolic, too, that between the tenth and twelfth centuries this class took surnames, thus cutting itself off from that much wider group with which it shared a remoter eponymous ancestor. It is remarkable that what Karl Leyser says, summarising recent work on the German aristocracy, can be said of the Irish with only a few verbal changes:

The aristocracies of Carolingian Europe were made up of very large family groups conscious of their nobility by descent from a great ancestor, whose name was perpetuated in their own and by their membership of the group .… The transformation of these Grossfamilien into small and more circumscribed and close knit families with a much more continuous history was the real significance of the so-called ‘rise of the dynasts’, which an older generation of historians connected with the long civil wars of the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V and the investiture conflict. The late eleventh and the first half of the twelfth century saw a fundamental change in the structure of the German aristocracy.[138]

This process of consolidation had developed in Ireland to the point where the centralising policies of the great twelfth-century high-kings were winning the day against the centrifugal tendencies of the hereditary dynastic kingdoms. In the Rhineland and in northern France the genealogies of the greater princes ascend to the close of the ninth century, those of the lesser lords to the tenth. As one would expect, this lineage society begins when honours become hereditary, and a full-scale lineage society emerges in the tenth and eleventh centuries, with later characteristic narrowing.[139] In regard to this lineage society, Duby says: ‘il est permit de considérer le renforcement progressif de ces structures proprement lignagères comme un trait specifique de la société dite féodale’. The narrowing of the lineage takes place at the same time as it did in Ireland or perhaps a little later. In Ireland there is a great deal of learned activity in order to justify and lend authority to these narrower power-holding lineages, further evidence of the novelty of their position.[140] In addition, there is a great deal of eleventh and twelfth century genealogical fabrication devoted to the same end. It would appear that lineage organisation in Ireland differed much less in reality than it appears to do on the surface from such organisation in the feudal lands, and if political authority was segmented in Ireland it was not less so over the greater part of northern Europe.[141]

In the twelfth century Ireland came increasingly into contact with England and continental Europe, especially through the church reform movement, the introduction of foreign religious orders, and through pilgrimage. The Uí Briain, for example, were in close touch not only with Canterbury but with Norman Wales and Henry I, while there were foreign clerics (probably Norman) living at Killaloe and involved in producing royalist propaganda. It is clear that influences flowed in many directions and through many channels to a society in rapid change. The example of Anglo-Norman England lay close at hand. In a panegyric in Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib Uí Briain describe themselves as Frainc na Fotla Meic Israeil na hErend ‘the Franks of Ireland … the sons of Israel of Ireland’.[142] We are to understand Frainc as Normans and the terms taken literally must mean that Uí Briain, regarding themselves as the chosen dynasty, intended to extend their rule over all Ireland as the conquering Normans had recently done in England. It was a high ambition but other dynasties had more success than they, and the prize of overkingship finally passed to Connacht. However, it was a fragile thing and the monarchic structures and the political union which they were bringing about collapsed readily in the face of external attack.

It would appear that the Irish had developed a sense of identity and ‘otherness’ as early as the seventh century and had begun to create an elaborate origin-legend embracing all the tribes and dynasties of the country. This was the work of a mandarin class of monastic and secular scholars whose privileged position in society allowed them to transcend all local and tribal boundaries. Side by side with this, and in the wake of continued territorial aggrandizement, there came a growth in the political consciousness of the overkings of Uí Néill which led them to put forward tendentious claims to be kings of Ireland. Such they never were in reality, but the idea of the kingship of Ireland was to have a powerful and abiding political influence especially on the great kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries who made every effort to turn the idea into a reality. The indications are that tribal kingship, as we know it from the classical law-tracts, fell prey to the expanding provincial kings as early as the end of the seventh century or perhaps earlier and Irish society, far from being static, entered a period of rapid, one might even say convulsive, change in which the old order, so beloved of the jurists, passed away. Larger and more cohesive kingdoms emerged, the powers and pretensions of the kings grew apace, the nature of kingship itself changed and by the eleventh and twelfth centuries rule over the entire island of Ireland had become, for good or for ill, the prize in the political game and the express object of the contenders.


1. For the earlier debate on this point, see F. X. Martin & F. J. Byrne (ed), The scholar revolutionary Eoin Mac Neill 1867–1945 (Shannon 1974); Eoin Mac Neill, Early Irish laws and institutions (Dublin [1935]). The nationalistic interpretation of early Irish history finds full expression in the works of Alice Stopford Green: The making of Ireland and its undoing (Dublin 1920); The Irish state to 1014 (London 1925); Irish nationality (London 1911). For a sympathetic consideration of Mrs Green, her work and background, see R. B. McDowell, Alice Stopford Green: a passionate historian (Dublin 1967). At the present moment, largely as a result of the political crisis in Northern Ireland, the medieval origins of the modern Irish nation, or, as some would have it, nations, are a matter for intense ideological debate in certain quarters. On this matter, see British and Irish Communist Organisation (henceforth BICO), Aspects of nationalism (Belfast 1972); Workers Association, One Ireland: two nations (Belfast 1973); BICO, On the ‘historic’ Irish nation (Belfast 1972). A journal entitled The Two Nations dedicated to the proposition that there are two separate nations in the island of Ireland, has been published by BICO in Belfast since 1972. For a commentary on these ideas, in somewhat the same polemical style, see The Socialist: Monthly Magazine of thc Northern Ireland Labour Party Left no. 8 (Aug. 1973) 10–15. Some of the ideas expressed in these works are echoed by politicians of varying shades of opinion and with varying degrees of conviction both in the north and in the south. Only one thing can be said with certainty of the pamphleteers and the politicians: all are equally innocent of any critical knowledge of Irish history in the period in question.

2. G. H. Orpen, Ireland under the Normans (Oxford 1911) 20.

3. ibid. 23–24.

4. ibid. 26.

5. ibid. 105.

6. James F. Lydon, The lordship of Ireland (Dublin 1972) 15.

7. W. L. Warren, ‘The interpretation of twelfth century Irish history’, J. C. Beckett (ed), Historical Studies 7 (London 1969) 1–19. On Professor Warren’s curious notions concerning blood-groupings see now J. Bernard & J. Ruffie, ‘Hématologie et culture’, Ann ESC 31 année no 4 (1976) 661–76.

8. Warren, op. cit. 6. The quotation is from Ancient laws of Ireland, i 18 [=CIH 342.19–20]

9. Warren, op. cit. 7.

10. Orpen leaves this word undefined; for a discussion of the term, see D. A. Binchy, ‘Secular institutions’, Myles Dillon (ed), Early Irish society (Dublin 1954) 52–65; Francis John Byrne, ‘Tribes and tribalism in early Ireland’, Ériu 22 (1971) 128–66.

11. Orpen, Normans, 1 20.

12. ibid. 39.

13. Eoin MacNeill, Early Irish laws and institutions, 91–118; these views are implicit also in MacNeill’s other works, Phases of Irish history (Dublin 1919) and Celtic Ireland (Dublin 1921); on MacNeill’s treatment of early Irish legal evidence, see D. A. Binchy, ‘Mac Neill’s study of the ancient Irish laws’, F. X. Martin & F. J. Byrne (ed), The scholar revolutionary, 39–48.

14. Binchy, ‘Secular institutions’, 62.

15. Binchy, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon kingship, O’Donnell Lectures (Oxford 1970) 33; for a fuller discussion of the evidence for the high-kingship and its ‘institutions’ see Binchy ‘The fair of Tailtiu and the feast of Tara’, Ériu 18 (1958) 113–38; for further discussion of the high-kingship and for the view that it was originally sacral and cultic, see F. J.Byrne, The rise of the Uí Néill and the high-kingship of Ireland, O’Donnell Lecture (Dublin [1970]) and Irish kings and high-kings (London 1973) 7–69, 254–74.

16. There are two characteristic types of origin-legend: (i) those that treat the royal dynasty as lineal descendants of the ancestral god(s), e.g. the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies (Kenneth Sisam, ‘Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies’, Proc Br Acad 39 (1953) 287–348) and (ii) those that trace the tribe’s ascent to a remote eponymous (historical or non-historical) ancestor, often depicted as an immigrant (I. M. Lewis, ‘Historical aspects of genealogies in northern Somali social structure’, J Afr Hist 3 (1962) 35–48; Ian Cunnison, History on the Luapala, Rhodes-Livingstone Papers 21 (London 1951); Laura Bohannon, ‘A genealogical charter’, Africa 25 (1952) 301–15). Both types are in evidence in early Irish sources.

17. This is at least true of the Laigin who looked to Labraid Loingsech Lorc otherwise Lóegaire or Móen as their common ancestor (‘Lóegaire Lorcc is hé senathair Laigen’, CGH 1) and the oldest texts describe him as a god (‘scéo deëib / dia óen / as Móen mac Áine / Óenríg’, ibid.; cf. Ériu 22 (1971) 70–71). T. F. O’Rahilly, Early Irish history and mythology (Dublin 1946) deals with this and related problems but his conclusions must be used with caution.

18. CGH 4–7; cf. 201–02.

19. James Carney, ‘Three Old Irish accentual poems’, Ériu 22 (1971) 65–73.

20. ibid. 73.

21. A. G. Van Hamel (ed), Lebor Bretnach (Dublin 1932).

22. J. H. Todd (ed. & tr.), The Irish Nennius (Dublin 1848) 220–87; Bk Leinster, iii, 516–23.

23. R. A. S. Macalister (ed. & tr.), Lebor gabála Érenn (5 vols, Dublin 1938–56); for comment on the text, Rudolf Thurneysen, ‘Zu irischen Handschriften und Literaturdenkmälern, ser2’, Abh Kgl Ges Wiss Göttingen, Phil-Hist Kl 14/3 (Berlin 1913); A. G. Van Hamel, ‘On Lebor gabála’, Z Celt Philol 10 (1915) 97–197.

24. Van Hamel, ‘On Lebor gabála’, 115.

25. Bk Leinster. iii 563–73.

26. ibid. 573.

27. D. A. Binchy, ‘The date and provenance of the Uraicecht becc’, Ériu 18 (1958) 44–54, suggests that the Nemed collection of tracts and Cáin Fhuithirbe originated in a southern school, whilst Senchas már was the product of a school or schools situated in the north; he is also of the opinion that Crith gablach (Dublin 1941) p xviii) was written in the northern half, in Meath or Ulster, but probably not in the same school(s) as Senchas már; see further Binchy, ‘Bretha nemed’, Ériu 17 (1955) 4–6.

28. D.A. Binchy (ed. & tr.) ‘Bretha crólige’, Ériu12 (1938) 1–77: 44–45 (§57), 73–74 [CIH 2301.35–38; cf. 1483.24–25]

29. ALI iii 30 [=CIH 528.19].

30. Bk Arm 2rb28 [=Ludwig Bieler (ed. & tr.), The Patrician texts in the Book of Armagh, SLH 10 (Dublin 1979) 74].

31. William Reeves (ed), The life of Columba … by Adamnan (Dublin 1857) 67–68=A. O. & M. O. Anderson (ed. & tr.), Adamnan’s Life of Columba (Edinburgh 1961) 280; see further F.J. Byrne, Rise of the Uí Néll, 3–8, and idem, Irish kings, 254–71.

32. AU 858, 1102, 1106, 1167, 1168.

33. D. A. Binchy, ‘The linguistic and historical value of the Irish law-tracts’, Proc Br Acad 29 (1943) 195–227 [repr. in D. Jenkins (ed), Celtic law papers, Studies presented to the International Commission for the History of Representative and Parliamentary Institutions 42 (Brussels 1973) 71–107]; idem, ‘Linguistic and legal archaisms in the Celtic law-books’, Trans Philol Soc, 1959, 14–24 [repr. Jenkins, op. cit. 109–20]; idem, ‘Celtic suretyship: a fossilized Indo-European institution’, G. Cardona (ed), Indo-European and Indo-Europeans: papers prcsaded at the third Indo-European Conference 1963 (Philadephia 1970) 355–67 (repr. Ir Jur 7 (1972) 360–72).

34. Miadslechta, ALI iv 362 [=CIH 588]; Uraiccecht becc, ALI v 2–114 [CIH 1590–1618]=Eoin MacNeill, ‘Ancient Irish law: the law of status or franchise’, Proc Roy Ir Acad (C) 36 (1923) 272–81; Críth gablach, 18–19; E. J. Gwynn, ‘An Old-lrish tract on the privileges and responsibilities of poets’, Ériu 13 (1940) 30; see further, Kathleen Hughes, The church in early Irish society (London 1966) 134–36

35. Gwynn, ‘Tract on the privileges of poets’, 31, 224. It will be noted that the forms appear to be modern (the transcript is that of Dubaltach Mac Fir Bhisigh) but they may readily be restored to Old Irish. For similar uses of ar-cuirethar see Críth gablach, 15, 34; DIL s.v. ar-cuirethar.

36. Binchy, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon kingship, 34–40; Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Some Celtic kinship terms’, Bull Board Celt Stud 29 (1971) 17–22.

37. AU 756.

38. AU 771, 796. For contemporary and broadly similar Anglo-Saxon use of dux, see Eric John, Orbis Britanniae and other studies (Leicester 1966) 24–25.

39. AU 869, 870, 872, 877, 879, 883, 884, 912 etc.

40. On these latter terms, see Gearóid Mac Niocaill, ‘A propos du vocabulaire social irlandais du bas moyen âge’, Études celtiques 12 (1970–71) 512–46; for the use of these terms in a local genealogical setting (twelfth century), see John O’Donovan, Miscellany of the Celtic Society (Dublin 1846) 48–56.

41. Lec 60 rb7–25=BB 82a36–45; see also Paul Walsh, ‘Meath in the Book of Rights’, John Ryan (ed), Féil-sgríbhinnn Eóin Mhic Néill (Dublin 1940) 511–12.

42. For some such lists and their derivatives, see Dublin, Trinity College Library, H. 2. 7., 156d19–163a31; Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, Stowe C 1 2, 40r18; Ériu 3 (1907) 138–40; Y Cymmrodor 14 (1901) 122–34; T. Ó Raithbheartaigh (ed. & tr.), Genealogical tracts i (Dublin 1932) 69–84, 107–32.

43. James F. Dimock (ed), Giraldi Cambrensis opera v (London 1867) 145.

44. James Hogan, ‘The tricha cét and related land-measures’, Proc Roy Ir Acad (C) 38 (1929) 148–235.

45. ibid. 169–74.

46. MacNeill, Early Irish laws and institutions, 96.

47. F. J. Byrne, ‘Tribes and tribalism’, 59–60; see, however, id. Irish kings, 7, where he states that ‘there were probably no less than 150 kings in the country at any given date between the fifth and twelfth centuries’.

48. T. M. Charles-Edwards, ‘Kinship, status and the origin of the hide’, Past & Present 66 (1972) 1–33 [This opinion does not now appear to me to be sustainable].

49. Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘Irish regnal succession: a reappraisal’, Studia Hibernica 11 (1971) 7–39.

50. G. A. Hayes-McCoy, ‘Gaelic society in Ireland in the late sixteenth century’, G. A. Hayes-McCoy (ed), Historical Studies 4 (London 1963) 45–61; Nicholas P. Canny, ‘Hugh O’Neill and the changing face of Gaelic Ulster’, Studia Hibernica 10 (1970) 7–35.

51. For interesting examples of this process in other societies, see J. H. Plumb, The death of thc past (Harmondsworth 1973) 11–50; A. H. Shah & L. G.Shropp,’The Vahivanca Barots of Guejerat; a caste of genealogists and mythographers’ J Am Folklore 71 (1958) 246–76; E. L. Peters, ‘Aspects of rank and status among Muslims in a Lebanese village’, J. A. Pitt-Rivers (ed), Mediterranean countrymen (The Hague 1963) 159–200.

52. Their ‘revised’ genealogies were first exposed by Eoin MacNeill in his paper, ‘The Vita tripartita of St Patrick’, Ériu 11 (1930) 34–40, repr. Eoin Mac Neill, St Patrick (Dublin 1964) 214–20. Compare the legends, deliberately fostered, about the Carolingian associations of Hugh Capet: R. Fawtier, Capetian kings of France (London 1960) 55–57. For the Dál Cais-inspired account of the Viking wars, see J. H. Todd (ed. & tr.), Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (London 1867); and for examples of the manner in which this latter work continues to impose itself on historians, see Gwyn Jones, A history of the Vikings (London 1968) 204–08; Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings (Harmondsworth 1970) 55–58, G. Turville-Petre, ‘Poetry of scalds and of the filid’, Ériu 22 (1971) 2–3.

53. Gearóid Mac Niocaill, ‘Notes on litigation in late Irish law’, Ir Jur 2 (1967) 299–307.

54. D. A. Binchy, ‘The pseudo-historical prologue to the Senchas már’, Studia Celtica 10–11 (1975). I am deeply grateful to Professor Binchy for a copy of this paper while yet in typescript and for allowing me to cite from it.

55. ALI iii 28–32 [CIH 527–29].

56. Binchy, op. cit.

57. Rudolf Thurneysen and others, Studies in early Irish law (Dublin 1936); for a deft defence of Irish polygamy by reference to the Old Testament, see ‘Bretha crólige’, 44 §57. Acallam na senórach, a twelfth-century literary Rahmenerzählung, has an interesting reflex of the contemporary debate on marriage between the reformers and the conservatives: Áed mac Muiredaig, king of Connacht, is depicted as bitterly resenting St Patrick’s insistence on monogamy (Whitley Stokes (ed. & tr.), Acallam na senórach, Irische Texte 4. Ser i (Leipzig 1900) 176–77), a touch which may reflect the well-earned reputations of Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair (†1156) and his son, Ruaidri (†1189), kings of Connacht and ‘high-kings’

58. He belonged to an ecclesiastical family which gave abbots to the monasteries of Slane, Louth and Duleek (Hughes, Church, 163).

59. John O’Donovan (ed. & tr.), Annals of Ireland: three fragments (Dublin 1860).

60. It is probable from his title that he was royal judge to Cormac mac Cuilennáin, king of Munster, who was slain in the same battle.

61. It is possible that he was royal judge to Donnchad mac Briain, king of Munster.

62. Mr K. W. Nicholls has suggested to me that this man may be the ancestor of the later Mac an Bhreitheamhan, erenagh family of Ballysadare.

63. Kuno Meyer (ed.& tr.),The triads of Ircland, Todd Lecture Series 13 (Dublin 1906) 2; the entry on Cork is glossed in MS H.1. 5: .i. a n-iomat breithemhuin no cuirt no sgol féinechuis ann (ibid. 36).

64. AU 1440,1447, 1495, 1513; Pádraig Ua Duinnín (ed. & tr.), Me Guidhir Fhearmanach (Dublin 1917) 27, 105–06.

65. Kenney, Sources, 281–82.

66. Herrmann Wasserschleben (ed), Die irische Kanonensammlung (2nd ed. Leipzig 1885) 76–82.

67. Byrne, Irish kings, 159. Dr Kathleen Hughes quite rightly calls my attention to Adomnán’s earlier views on royal ordination. For a discussion of these and their possible influence on eighth-century Anglo-Saxon kings, see John, Orbis Britanniae, 27–35.

68. Whitley Stokes, On the Calendar of Óengus (Dublin 1880) xiii–xxiv.

69. Tadhg Ó Donnchadha (ed),’Cert cech ríg co réil’, O. J. Bergin & Carl Marstrander (ed), Miscellany … Kuno Meyer (Halle a. S. 1912) 258–77. For examples of capital punishment by (or on behalf of) the church, see AU 746, 893; AFM 893 (889); AT 1129.

70. AU 746, 756, 796, 821, 838, 846; their genealogy is preserved in BB 87d26–88a35. They also attempted to take over the monastery of Clonard at the turn of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth (BB 87d26–e3; AU 830).

71. Hughes, Church, 162; for the genealogical connections see CIH 168, BB 194b6, Lec 222va13.

72. CGH 247.

73. Lec 227va37=BB 185b46=UM 31vb25.

74. Tadhg Ó Donnchadha (ed), An Leabhar Muimhneach (Dublin [1940]) 220; AFM 960 (958); AU AFM AT AI 1048.

75. Lec 226ra21, UM 30vb54; S. Pender (ed), ‘The O’Clery book of genealogies’, Analecta Hibernica 18 (Dublin 1951) 152 §1999.

76. Lec 226va9, BB 185b22, UM 31vb1. For further examples of the origin of learned families, see Proinsias Mac Cana, ‘The rise of the later schools of filidheacht’, Ériu 25 (1974) 126–46.

77. John [Eoin] MacNeill, ‘Poems by Flann Mainistrech on the dynasties of Ailech, Mide and Brega’, Archivium Hibernicum 2 (1913) 37–99; for the dindshenchas of Ailech, see E. J. Gwynn (ed. & tr.), Metrical dindshenchas iv (Dublin 1924) 100–06=BL iv 782–84; for comment on some materials wrongly attributed to Flann see F. J. Byrne, ‘Historical note on Cnogba (Knowth)’, Proc Ry Ir Acad (C) 66 (1968) 391–92.

78. R. I. Best & O. J. Bergin (ed), Lebor na hUidre (Dublin 1929) 94. Eochaid ua Flannacán was erenagh of Lis Oeiged in Armagh and of Clonfeacle in northern Armagh and died in 1004 (AU 1004; AFM 1004 (1003)). He was brother of Dub Dá Leithe, abbot of Armagh and was himself progenitor of eight subsequent abbots (Tomás Ó Fiaich, ‘The church of Armagh under law control’, Seanchas Ardmhacha 5 (1969) 111, 124).

79. Binchy, ‘The fair of Tailtiu and the feast of Tara’, 113–27.

80. AT 1120, 1166, 1168.

81. AU AFM AT 1033; BL i 183; Paul Walsh, ‘Leinster states and kings in christian times’, Ir Ecclesiast Rec 53 (1939) 47–61.

82. AFM 1079.

83. E. J. Gwynn (ed. & tr.), Metrical dindshenchas iii (Dublin 1913) 2–24; Máirín O Daly, ‘The metrical dindshenchas’, James Carney (ed), Early Irish poetry (Cork 1965) 65–68; MacNeill, Early Irish laws and institutions 10209 (where, however, the historical value of the poem is greatly exaggerated).

84. Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘Dál Cais—church and dynasty’, Ériu 24 (1973) 52–63.

85. Binchy, Críth gablach, 104.

86. Felim Ó Briain, ‘The hagiography of Leinster’, Féilsgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Neill, 457.

87. AFM 986 (985).

88. CS 1007 (1005).

89. AT AFM 1166. In modern terms [1978] such a tax would amount to about £800,000. If we allow for modern productivity and at least a quadrupling of the estimated population of the twelfth-century, the real equivalent in present-day Ireland [1978] may be well in excess of £5,000,000. Measure against this the fact that a grant of ten cows per annum in perpetuity by the same king to the lector of Armagh to teach the students of Ireland and Scotland was considered sufficiently important to be recorded in the annals (AU 1169).

90. AI 1040.

91. Marc Bloch, Feudal society (2nd ed. London 1962) 412–20; H. E. J. Cowdrey, ‘The peace and the truce of Godin the eleventh century’, Past & Present 46 (1970) 42–67.

92. AI AFM 1050.

93. AI 1068. I must confess that I cannot grasp the significance of the law in question as it is reported by the annalist.

94. AFM 1072.

95. AFM 1089; for evidence of the fact that the property already belonged to Clonmacnoise see AFM 1072; Charles Plummer (ed), Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae i (Oxford 1910) 209–10; Lec 60ra5–8=BB 81b6–8.

96. AT 1143; for the identity of the local lord see Lec 65ra25 and Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 23 Q 10, 19vf1.

97. John O’Donovan (ed), ‘Irish charters in the Book of Kells’, Miscellany of the Irish Archaeological Society (Dublin 1846) 127–58; Gearóid Mac Niocaill (ed), Notitiae as Leabhar Cheanannais (Dublin 1961) 22.

98. Kenney, Sources, 768–70.

99. Aubrey Gwynn, The twelfth-century reform (Dublin 1968) 9.

100. Eric St John Brooks, ‘A charter of John de Courcy to the abbey of Navan’, J Roy Soc Antiq Ire 63 (1933) 38–45, where the grant of Ua Ruairc is recited and confirmed.

101. AU 1165; for the fate of the commoners, dependent on lords in the later period see Gearóid Mac Niocaill, ‘The origins of the betagh’, Ir Jurist 1 (1966) 292–98.

102. AFM 1138.

103. For the extent of his territories in Meath see AT AFM 1159; it is evident that he also had fortresses in Meath (AU AT AFM 1161; AT 1172); Giraldi Cambrensis opera, v 225.

104. AI 1095.

105. AU AFM 1113, AFM 1148, AU 1165.

106. AT 1163.

107. Rudolf Thurneysen, ‘Aus dem irishen Recht II’, Z Celt Philol 15 (1925) 224, 257–59; Mac Niocaill, ‘Origins of the betagh’, 293.

108. DIL s.v.

109. Lec 226vb27=BB 184b5=UM 30rb41, 29vb25.

110. AU 1014=AFM 1014 (1013), AU 1028, AI 1027; AI 1067.

111. A Gwynn & D. Gleeson, A history of thc diocese of Killaloe (Dublin 1962) 142. The form and derivation of the name there proposed is in error.

112. AI 1031, 1095.

113. AI 1108.

114. AT AI 1058; AU 1083; AT 1084, 1088; AI 1093, 1113, 1116, 1125; AT 1118, 1124.

115. Ó Corráin, ‘Dál Cais—church and dynasty’, 55.

116. AU 1016; AT AFM 1133; for the relationship between Ua Birn and Ua Conchobair see Lec 63rc12, 23 Q 10, 20rb16, 40ra33.

117. AFM 1100, AT 1143.

118. AT 976, 1066, 1132; AU 980; AI 983, 985.

119. AU 1170; the compiler of the late preface to the Senchas már (see above n 54) imagined that this office existed in the fifth century (ALI i 4).

120. Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘Aspects of early Irish history’, B. G. Scott (ed), Perspectives in Irish archaeology (Belfast 1974) 68–71. Some such permanently fortified places seem to have been secular towns in embryo.

121. R. A. S. Macalister, Corpus inscriptionum insularum celticarum ii (Dublin 1949) 105.

122. ibid. 16.

123. Françoise Henry & G. Marsh-Micheli, ‘A century of Irish illumination’, Proc Roy Ir Acad (C) (1961) 101–66.

124. Lec 64aa 38–44; see also K. Meyer (ed), ‘Mitteilungen aus irischen Handschriften: Baile Fíndachta ríg Condacht’, Z Celt Philol 13 (1919) 25–27.

125. There are two recensions of this Life: Paul Grosjean (ed), ‘Vita sancti Flannani’, Anallecta Bollandiana 46 (1928) 124–41 (R),and W. W. Heist (ed), Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae (Brussels 1965) 280–301 (S). S, the later and more extensive was written about 1162 (§10); R is older and the work of a convinced reformer (§§23, 30, 32, 34). Both probably go back to an archetype redacted by a foreign cleric at Killaloe shortly after the death of Muirchertach Ua Briain in 1119. For evidence that the author was a foreigner see §§1, 7, and the phrases crimen lese majestatis (§15) frequentatio curie regalis (§20) and ad regimen rei pupplice (§12).

126. Plummer, Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae, 65–74; Charles Plummer (ed. & tr.), Bethada náem nÉrenn (2 vols, Oxford 1922), i 11–22.

127. Alexander Bugge (ed. & tr.), Caithreim Cellachain Caisil: the victorious career of Cellachan of Cashel (Christiania [Oslo] 19O5); Donnchadh Ó Corráin ‘Caithréim Chellacháir Chaisil: history or propaganda?’, Ériu 25 (1974) 1–69.

128. Cogad, 136–40 (§§79–80).

129. John O’Donovan (ed. & tr.), ‘The circuit of Ireland, by Muircheartach mac Neill, prince of Aileach’ in Tracts relating to Ireland i (Dublin 1841) 24–59 [see now Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn and the Circuit of Ireland’, A. P. Smyth (ed), Senchas: studies in early and medieval Irish archaeology, history, and literature in honour of Francis John Byrne (Dublin 2000) 238–50] .

130. Caithréim, §§5–6.

131. MacNeill, ‘Poems by Flann Mainistrech’, 61–62, 72–73.

132. J. G. O’Keeffe (ed), ‘Eulogy of Écnechán son of Dálach’, J. Fraser and others (ed), Irish texts i (London 1931) 54–62; M. E. Dobbs, ‘A poem attributed to Flann mac Lonáin’, Ériu 17 (1955) 16–34; the story is repeated in a poem in praise of Domnall Ua Domnaill, Irish texts, ii (1931) 1–5.

133. BL iii, 479, 487 (Gilla Cóemáin); MacNeill, ‘Poems by Flann Mainistrech’, 84 §24, 85 §37, 95 §33; BB 58a27, 59a6, 7 (Gilla na Náem Ua Duinn). [See now Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘The semantic development of Old Norse jarl in Old and Middle Irish’, J. E. Knirk (ed), Proceedings of the Tenth Viking Congress, Larkollen, Norway, 1985, Universitets Oldsaksamlings Skrifter, ny rekke 9 (Oslo: Universitets Oldsaksamling 1987) 287–93].

134. There is nothing much new in this suggestion; see Eoin MacNeill, Early Irish laws and institutions, 24, 30, 129–32; F. J. Byrne, Irish kings, 262. In my opinion, Professor Lydon is unduly chary about the existence of pre-Norman ‘incipient native feudalism’ and his argument contra that ‘basically the organisation of the túath remained unchanged’ is unsound (The lordship of Ireland, 16).

135. CGH 287; for further detail see Lec 117rc1–121rd4=BB 155ac32–160a7.

136. CGH 166–67; for the fuller recension, of which the twelfth century MSS preserve only a tiny part, see BB 86a1–88e36.

137. CGH 315–16; for detailed tracts see Lec 121rd41, BB 160ba7.

138. ‘The German aristocracy in the early middle ages’, Past & Present 45 (1968) 31–32.

139. G. Duby, Structures familiales den le moyen âge occidental, XIIIe congrés international des sciences historiques (Moscow 1970) l–8; id. ‘The diffusion of cultural patterns in feudal society’, Past & Present 39 (1968) 3–10; id. ‘Structures de parenté et noblesse: France du Nord IXe–XIle siècles’, Miscellanea mediaevalia in memoriam Jan Frederick Niemeyer (Groningen 1967) 149–65.

140. See for example the poems: Cúiced Lagen na lecht rig, BL i 135–44; F. J. Byrne (ed.& tr.), ‘Clann Ollamon uaislc Emna’, Studia Hibernica 4 (1964) 54–94; Cruacha Condacht raith co rath, BB 58a42–59b14. These appear to be ‘legitimist’ poems since all mention the reigning king at the time of writing who in all cases belonged to a ruling family threatened (or threatened within recent memory) by remoter dynasts and bearers of a different surname. Much of the genealogical writing of the twelfth-century conveniently omits contemporary collaterals belonging to the wider old-fashioned structure but records ancient collaterals of little practical consequence.

141. For some suggestive comparisons see S. L. Thrupp, The dynamics of medieval society, XIIIe congrés international des sciences historiques (Moscow 1970) 1–77, and the literature there cited.

142. Cogadh, 160 (§92).

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