Celtic Design


Irish Kings

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic C
AESAR says that in Gaul some of the states were ruled by senates, with no individual holding the office of head of the state. But in nearly every case he appears to have found aspirants to that position, the sons or descendants of deposed kings; and if in any case he found neither a king nor an aspirant, the fact may have been due to some accidental cause, and without inquiring sufficiently he may have assumed what he as a Roman would expect. At all events, such a state of things does not appear to have at any time existed in Ireland or in any part of it. The Irish always had a man, not an assembly, at the head of the state, and the system of electing a Tanist while the holder of the office was living, in addition to its making for peace on the demise of the crown, made an interregnum of more rare occurrence than in countries which had not provided a Tanist in advance. Ireland has on a few occasions been ruled by two monarchs jointly; and for a few years after the death of Malachy the Second, in the eleventh century, it was ruled by two judges who were not kings. But these were exceptional occurrences, and beyond them kingly rule was quite uniform.

The word Cing occurs in the Gaelic manuscripts as the equivalent of Rig; but Rig (pronounced Reeh) is the term generally employed. It is cognate with the Latin Reg-s = Rex. It did not designate precisely the same class of official as the word king now does. Primarily, and above all things, the rig was the head and representative of his race and clan, the members of which were rather his kindred whose interests it was his duty to serve than subjects to be ruled; and the word rig being considered as a generic term, there was no inconsistency in several ranks or classes of rigs flourishing at the same time and forming a sort of hierarchy, the members of which were mutually dependent on each other. Our ancestors aimed, in theory at least, at interdependence in all departments.

The lowest oirrig, regulus, or sub-king was the Rig-Tuatha, a king of one tuath, or district, the people of which formed one organic state. As already observed, these tuaths were very numerous, but sometimes two or three of them that were nearly related had but one king. And where there were separate rulers, the term rig was by no means rigorously adhered to. Various other descriptive terms were employed; but the word rig is simple and convenient for our purpose.

The next in rank was the Rig-Mor-Tuatha. He was a ruler of a number of united tuaths, each of which might have a rig-tuatha of its own, subject in some respects to the Rig-Mor-Tuatha.

The next class of king was called the Rig-Cuicidh, a word implying that he had five rig-mor-tuathas under him, each of whom in turn might have three, four, or more rig-tuaths under him. This was the rank of the provincial king.

So long as the Ard-Rig resided at Tara he may be considered, by reason of his exceptional privileges, to have formed a separate rank of royalty, or rather its head; but after the abandonment of Tara, since the Ard-Rig was rarely able to enforce his rights, he may be considered as belonging to the class of the provincial kings.

The king of each tuath owed allegiance and tribute to the Rig-Mor-Tuatha; the latter owed allegiance and tribute to the Rig-Cuicidh; and the Rig-Cuicidh owed allegiance and tribute to the Ard-Rig. The special branch of law affecting the allegiance in each case, the amount of the tribute, the amount to be returned by the recipient of the tribute, and other constitutional matters, was contained in the Psalter of Tara as drawn up under the direction of King Cormac, and also in the ancient Book of Rights (if this be a different work); and much on the same subjects will be found in a later Book of Rights which still exists and has been translated by O'Donovan. The prerogatives, privileges, duties, and liabilities of the various kings within their own territories are fully laid down in the course of the general law; and when the clan system was in an efficient condition, so many forces acted in aid of the law, and a neglect of official duty affected so many persons that, in ordinary times of peace, such neglect must have been rare. The king was not in any sense the maker of the law, but its officer, and so limited and hemmed round in his office, and so dependent on his clan, that it was easier and safer for him to conform to the intention of the law and promote the welfare of his people than to become either negligent or despotic.

The office of Rig, of whatever rank, was always elective, as was the office of king anciently among the Saxons. But the choice was restricted by custom in the case of the Ard-Rig and provincial kings to a narrow circle of the flaith class called the Riogh-dhamhna or Damna Rig (=Materia Principum), the members of which were required to undergo a very careful training, mental and physical. It was therefore as a rule confined to the family in possession.

So long as there was an eligible member of that family, the kingship may be said to have been practically hereditary in that family, but not in any particular member of it. An eldest son did not succeed merely because his father had been king, if there was an uncle, nephew, brother, cousin, or other member of the Damna Rig better fit for the position; and the Tanist was usually such a relative, and not a son. The same rules applied to the election of sub-kings, but being in rank not so far removed from the flaiths the distinctions were not so marked, and if the family in possession failed, the flaith best qualified was eligible. The law on the subject is expressed in the following words: "Every head defends its members if it be a goodly head, of good deeds, of good morals, exempt, affluent, and capable. The body of every head is his tribe, for there is no body without a head. The head of every tribe, according to the people, should be the man of the tribe who is most experienced, the most noble, the most wealthy, the most wise, the most learned, the most truly popular, the most powerful to oppose, the most steadfast to sue for profits and to be sued for losses." No person not of age, stupid, blind, deaf, deformed, or otherwise defective in mind or body, or for any reason whatsoever unfit to discharge the duties of the public position, or unfit worthily to represent the manhood of the community, could be chosen for king or could hold the kingship; even a blemish on the face was a disqualification. Here were requirements enough, positive and negative, which not every man could satisfy. The method of choosing the king was not fully one of merit, nor fully elective, nor fully hereditary, but a combination of all three: and on the whole the office resembled as much that of president of a republic as it did that of a modern king.

The Ard-Rig was not elected by the people at large, but by the sub-kings and flaiths of all Ireland, the same men who constituted the Feis of Tara. The provincial kings were elected by the flaiths and aires of their respective provinces. The king of a tuath was elected by the flaiths, aires, and probably all heads of families in the tuath. The immediate position to which the person was elected in each case was usually that of Tanaiste or Tanist (=Second), the king being living. The Tanist was a successor or heir-presumptive elected before his time. He sometimes acted as a sort of vice-president while the king lived. As soon as he in his turn became king, a new tanist was elected, so that there was rarely a direct election to the office of king.

The king was, of course, by virtue of his office, head of the State in general, whether in arms or in peace. He was the fountain of honour and of justice, and one of his duties was to appoint a brehon to administer law in his district. He had himself, in ordinary times, some magisterial jurisdiction. King Cormac, for example, is spoken of as a "righteous judge," and all kings are spoken of as hearing cases and pronouncing judgments. The nature or extent of this jurisdiction is not clearly stated, but I think it had to do mainly with criminal law, especially treason and the kindred crimes. If from any cause there was in his district no brehon, or the brehon was incapacitated, the king himself was bound to act as judge in cases calling for immediate settlement.

Wealth is mentioned among the qualifications for the kingly office, but in addition to his private wealth a considerable amount of land was set apart for the use of every holder of the office, what was deemed sufficient to support the dignity and bear the expenses connected with it. On this land there was always a dun. A provincial king usually had several mensals of this nature with a dun on each. "The residence of a king is always a dun, and there is no dun without a king."

Celtic Knotwork