Privileges of Irish Kings

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER II....continued

5. Privileges.

Kings enjoyed many privileges, and were bound by many restrictions. A king's evidence in a brehon's court against all of a rank below him was accepted without question, as they had not the right to be heard in evidence against him: but this privilege did not hold against a bishop, a doctor of learning, or a pilgrim, all of whom were regarded as of equal rank with himself—so far as giving evidence was concerned.

When a king of any grade ascended the throne, he usually made a visitation or royal progress through his kingdom, to receive allegiance and hostages from his sub-kings. He moved very leisurely in a roundabout, sunwise, i.e. from left to right; and during the whole journey, he was to be entertained, with all his retinue, free of charge, by those sub-chiefs through whose territories he passed: so that these visitations were called "Free Circuits."

In old times it was the belief of the Irish that when a good and just king ruled—one who faithfully observed in his government the royal customs and wise precepts followed by his ancestors—the whole country was prosperous: the seasons were mild, crops were plentiful, cattle were fruitful, the waters abounded with fish, and the fruit trees had to be propped owing to the weight of their produce. The same belief prevailed among the Greeks and Romans.

The ancient Irish had a very high ideal of what a king should be: and we meet with many statements throughout our literature of the noble qualities expected from him. He should be "free from falsehood, from the betrayal of his nobles, from unworthy conduct towards his people." "For what is a prince selected over a country?" asks Carbery of King Cormac, who replies: "For the goodness of his form and race, and sense, and learning, and dignity, and utterance: he is selected for his goodness and for his wisdom, and strength, and forces, and valour in fighting."

Irish Kings and Archers, 13th century

FIG. 6. Irish Kings and Archers, thirteenth century. From frescoes in Abbey Knockmoy, Galway. (Drawn by Petrie).

A just sovereign "exercises not falsehood, nor [unnecessary] force, nor oppressive might. He has full knowledge of his people, and is perfectly righteous to them all, both weak and strong."

A king should, according to law, have at least three chief residences; and he lived in them by turns as suited his fancy or convenience. On state occasions he sat upon a throne, called in Irish righshuidhe [ree-hee], "royal seat," slightly elevated so as to enable him to view the whole assembly. He wore a crown or diadem, called a minn, which will be described farther on.

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