Election and Inauguration of Irish Kings

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER II....continued

3. Election and Inauguration.

Election.—The king or ruling chief was always elected from members of one fine or family, bearing the same surname (when surnames came into use); but the succession was not hereditary in the present sense of the word: it was elective, with the above limitation of being confined to one family. Any freeborn member of the family was eligible, provided that both his father and paternal grandfather had been flaiths or nobles, and that he was free from all personal deformities or blemishes likely to impair his efficiency or to lessen the respect of the people for him. The successor might be son, brother, nephew, cousin, &c., of the chief. That member was chosen who was considered the best able to lead in war and govern in peace; which of course implied that he should be of full age.

The proceedings at the election, which were carried on with much ceremony and deliberation, are described in the law. Every freeman of the rank of aire [arra] or chief had a vote. If there were several candidates, a court was held for the election in the house of the chief brewy or hosteller of the district—or in the palace, if it was for a high-class king—to which all the chiefs about to take part in the election proceeded, each with his full retinue: and there they remained in council for three days and three nights, at the end of which time the successful candidate was declared elected.

With the object of avoiding the evils of a disputed succession, the person to succeed a king or ruling chief was often elected by the chiefs convened in formal meeting during the lifetime of the king himself: when elected he was called the tanist, a word meaning second, i.e. second in authority. Proper provision was made for the support of the tanist by a separate establishment and an allowance of land, a custom which continued, in case of the tanists of provincial and minor kings, till the time of Elizabeth, and even later. He was subordinate to the king or chief, but was above all the other dignitaries of the state. The other persons who were eligible to succeed in case of the tanist's failure were termed Roy-damna, that is to say 'king-material.'

The Inauguration or making of a king, after he had been elected, was a very impressive ceremony. Of the mode of inaugurating the pagan kings we know hardly anything, further than this, that the kings of Ireland had to stand on an inauguration stone at Tara called Lia Fail, which uttered a roar, as was believed, when a king of the old Milesian race stood on it.

But we possess full information of the ceremonies used in Christian times. The mode of inaugurating was much the samie in its general features all over the country, and was strongly marked by a religious character. But there were differences in detail; for some tribes had traditional customs not practised by others. There was a definite formula, every portion of which should be scrupulously carried out in order to render the ceremony legal. Some of the observances that have come within the ken of history, as described below, descended from pagan times. Each tribe, or aggregation of tribes, had a special place of inauguration, which was held in much respect—invested indeed with a half sacred character. It was on the top of a hill, or on an ancestral carn (the sepulchre of the founder of the race), or on a large lis or fort, and sometimes under a venerable tree, called in Irish a bile [billa]. Each tribe used an inauguration stone—a custom common also among the Celts of Scotland. Some of the inauguration stones had the impression of two feet, popularly believed to be the exact size of the feet of the first chief of the tribe who took possession of the territory. Sometimes there was a stone chair, on which the king sat during part of the ceremony. The inauguration chair of the O'Neills of Clannaboy (a branch of the great O'Neills) is still preserved in the Belfast Museum. On the day of the inauguration the sub-chiefs of the territory, and all the great officers of state, with the brehons, poets, and historians, were present, as also the bishops, abbots, and other leading ecclesiastics.

The hereditary historian of the tribe read for the elected chief the laws that were to regulate his conduct; after which the chief swore to observe them, to maintain the ancient customs of the tribe, and to rule his people with strict justice. Then, while he stood on the stone, an officer—-whose special duty it was—handed him a straight white wand, a symbol of authority, and also an emblem of what his conduct and judicial decisions should be—straight and without stain. Having put aside his sword and other weapons, and holding the rod in his hand, he turned thrice round from left to right, and thrice from right to left, in honour of the Holy Trinity, and to view his territory in every direction. Then one of the sub-chiefs appointed for this purpose pronounced in a loud voice his surname—the surname only, without the Christian name—which was afterwards pronounced aloud by each of the clergy, one after another, according to dignity, and then by the sub-chiefs. He was then the lawful chief; and ever after, when spoken to, he was addressed "O'Neill"—"MacCarthy More"—"O'Conor," &c.; and when spoken of in English, he was designated "The O'Neill," &c., a custom existing to this day, as we see in "The O'Conor Don," "The Mac Dermot," and in Scotland "The MacCallum More."

The main parts of the inauguration ceremony were performed by one or more sub-chiefs: this office was highly honourable, and was hereditary. The inaugurator had a tract of land and a residence free, which remained in the family. The O'Neills of Tyrone were inaugurated by O'Hagan and O'Cahan at Tullaghoge, near Dungannon, where, the fine old inauguration moat still remains; the O'Donnells of Tirconnell by O'Freel, at the Rock of Doon, near Kilmacrenan. Near Quin in Clare is the fort of Magh Adhair [Mah-ire], on which the Dalcassian kings were made; and Carnfree, the mound on which the O'Conors, kings of Connaught, were inaugurated, is to be seen in the townland of Carns, near Tulsk, in Roscommon.

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