Government by Irish Kings

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Composed from the Book of Kells

Composed from the Book of Kells



SECTION 1. Territorial Subdivision.

Letter BEFORE entering on the subject of Government, it will be useful to sketch the main features of the ancient territorial divisions of the country. It was parcelled out into five provinces from the earliest times of which we have any record:—Leinster; East Munster; West Munster; Connaught; and Ulster: a partition which, according to the legend, was made by the five Firbolg brothers, the sons of Dela.* Laigin or Leinster originally extended—in coast line—from Inver Colpa (the mouth of the Boyne at Drogheda) to the river Suir: East Muman or Munster from the Suir to the Lee at Cork: West Munster from the Lee round to the Shannon: Olnegmacht or Connaught from Limerick and the Shannon to the little river Drowes, which issues from Lough Melvin and flows between the counties of Leitrim and Donegal: and Ulaid or Ulster from this round northwards to the Boyne.

This division became modified in course of time. The two Munsters, East and West, gradually ceased to be distinguished, and Munster was regarded as a single province. A new province, that of Mide [Mee] or Meath, was formed in the second century of the Christian era by Tuathal [Thoohal] the Acceptable, king of Ireland.

Aill-na-Meeran, the Stone of Divisions

FIG. 5: Aill-na-Meeran, the ‘Stone of Divisions’; now called “Cat Stone.” (From a photograph. Man put in for comparison)

Down to his time the provinces met at a point on the hill of Ushnagh (in the present county Westmeath) marked by a great stone called Aill-na-Mirenn [Aill-na-Meeran], the 'Stone of the Divisions,' which stands there a conspicuous object still. Round this point Tuathal formed the new province by cutting off a portion of each of the others. It was designed to be the mensal land or personal estate of the Ard-ri or supreme king of Ireland, that he might be the better able to maintain his court with due state and dignity. Previous to his time the king of Ireland had only a small tract—a single tuath (see next page)—for his own use. This new province was about half the size of Ulster, extending from the Shannon eastwards to the sea, and from the confines of the present county Kildare and King's County on the south to the confines of Armagh and Monaghan on the north. The present counties of Meath and Westmeath retain the name, but comprise only about half the original province.

At the time of Tuathal's accession—A.D. 130—there were four places belonging severally to the four provinces, situated not far from each other, which for centuries previously had been celebrated as residences and as centres for great periodical meetings for various purposes:—Tara in Leinster; Tailltenn in Ulster (now Teltown on the Blackwater, midway between Navan and Kells); Tlachtga in Munster (now the Hill of Ward near Athboy in Meath); and Ushnagh in Connaught, nine miles west of Mullingar in the present county Westmeath. All these were included in the new province; and Tuathal built a palace in each, of which some of the mounds and fortifications remain to this day. After his time the five provinces generally recognised and best known in Irish history were Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Ulster, Meath.

Besides the formation of a new province, there were several minor changes. The district forming the present county Louth was transferred from Ulster to Leinster; the present county Cavan, which originally belonged to Connaught, was given to Ulster; and the territory now known as the county Clare was wrested from Connaught and annexed to Munster. Down to the time of Tuathal, Connaught included a large tract east of the Shannon, a part of the present counties of Longford and Westmeath (nearly as far as Mullingar); but in accordance with his arrangements, the Shannon, in this part of its course, became the eastern boundary of that province. The most ancient division of Munster, as has been said, was into East and West: but a later and better known partition was into Thomond or North Munster, which broadly speaking included Tipperary, Clare, and the northern part of Limerick; and Desmond or South Munster, comprising Kerry, Cork, Waterford, and the southern part of Limerick. In later times, however, the name Thomond has been chiefly confined to the county Clare, the patrimony of the O'Briens, who are usually known by the tribe-name of Dalcassians. Recently Meath has disappeared as a province: and the original provinces now remain—Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster.

The provinces were subdivided into territories of various sizes. The political unit, i.e. the smallest division with a single government, under a chief or king, was the Tuath [Thooa]. A tuath contained about 177 English square miles, and might be represented in area by an oblong district, sixteen miles by eleven. There were 184 tuaths in all Ireland.

Sometimes three, four, or more tuaths were united to form one large territory under a king: this was called a Mór-tuath, or great tuath.

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* See Joyce's Short History of Ireland, p. 125.