Court Officers of Irish Kings

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

« previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page »

CHAPTER II....continued

7. Household, Retinue, and Court Officers.

Under the king, of whatever grade, and forming part of his household, persons held various offices of trust, with special duties, all tending to support the dignity or ensure the safety of the king; just as we find in royal households of modern times. The persons appointed to each office always belonged to some particular family, in whom the office was hereditary; and all were paid liberal allowances for their services.

The higher the king's status the more numerous were the offices and the more important the positions of the persons holding them. Some of these were in constant attendance, and lived in or about the palace: others attended only on special great occasions: and these commonly lived at a distance in their own territories—for they were themselves generally sub-chiefs or sub-kings with their own retinues and office-holders. Most of the higher class of officers, such as professional men (who will be treated of farther on), who were supposed to give their whole—or nearly their whole—time to the service, had land and houses for their support, not far from the royal residence. On state occasions, all these officers attended in person on the monarch, and were assigned their proper places in the great hall. In accordance with an ordinance made by King Cormac mac Art, the Ard-ri, or king of Ireland, was at all times—and not merely on state occasions—to be accompanied by a retinue of at least ten persons:—a flaith or noble; a brehon or judge; a druid; a sai or doctor; a poet; a historian; a musician; and three servants—all to exercise their several professional functions when required. This arrangement continued in force till the death of Brian Boru in 1014, except that in Christian times a bishop took the place of a druid.

A few picked men commonly accompanied the king as personal and immediate guards, and stood beside him when he sat down, with swords or battle-axes in their hands: for Irish kings were not less liable to assassination than others, from ancient times to the present day. This custom continued down to the sixteenth century: for the Four Masters have left us a description of Shane O'Neill's bodyguard, which has the antique flavour of the period of the Red Branch Knights. In front of Shane's tent burned a great fire, "and a huge torch, thicker than a man's body, was constantly flaring at a short distance from the fire; and sixty grim and redoubtable galloglasses, with sharp keen axes, terrible and ready for action, and sixty stern and terrific Scots [hired soldiers from Scotland], with massive broad and heavy-striking swords in their hands [ready] to strike and parry, were watching and guarding O'Neill."

The king commonly kept in his retinue a trén-fher [trainar], a 'strong man,' or cath milid, 'battle-soldier,' his champion or chief fighting man, to answer challenges to single combat. Concobar Mac Nessa's champion Triscatal, who lived in the palace of Emain, is described in an ancient tale in the Book of Leinster in terms that remind us of the English writer's description of a much later trén-fher, John de Courcy, whose very look—on the day of single combat before King John of England and King Philip of France—so frightened the French champion that he "turned round and ranne awaie off the fielde."* Triscatal was a mighty broad-fronted, shaggy-haired man, with thighs as thick as an ordinary man's body, wearing a thick leathern apron from his armpits down: his limbs were bare, and his aspect was so fierce that he killed men by his very look.

We know that St. Patrick kept a household in imitation of the ancient Irish custom: and one of his attendants was his trén-fher or 'strong man,' St. Mac Carthen, afterwards first bishop of Clogher, whose peaceful function was to carry the aged saint on his back across fords and other difficult places, on their missionary journeys.

At the entrance to the royal palace or council chamber stood the doorkeepers to scan and interrogate all visitors. There was a Rechtaire [3-syll.] or house-steward, whose office was a very dignified one. The house-steward of King Conari's household is described as wearing a fleecy mantle, and holding in his hand his "wand of office," which was no small ornamental rod—no "silver wand of state"—but a huge black beam "like a mill-shaft." He arranged the guests in their proper places at table, assigned them their sleeping-apartments, and determined each morning the supplies of food for the day. If a dispute arose on any matter connected with the arrangements for receiving, placing, or entertaining the guests, he decided it; and his decision was final. When he stood up to speak, all were silent, so that a needle might be heard if it dropped on the floor. From this description it will be seen that the rechtaire corresponded closely with the Anglo-Norman seneschal, major-domo, or house-steward, of later times.

A particular officer had charge of the king's (or queen's) séds, 'jewels,' or personal treasures, which were generally kept in a corrbolg, or large round ornamental satchel, or in a number of such receptacles. One man, and sometimes two, had charge of the chessboard and chessmen. The board was enclosed in some sort of case, and the men were often kept in a bag of wire netting. There was a master of the horse who had charge of the king's stables and horses, under whom were one or more grooms. We find mentioned, among the other officials, chief swineherds and chief cooks, whose positions were considered of importance. Runners, i.e., messengers or couriers, were always kept in the king's or chief's employment; and not unfrequently we find women employed in this office.

A king kept in his court an ollave of each profession:—poet, historian, storyteller (or most commonly one ollave combining these three professions), physician, brehon, builder, &c. Each of these gave his services to the king, for which an ample stipend was allowed, including a separate dwelling-house and free land. The whole institution flourished in the time of Camden (sixteenth century), who correctly describes it:—"These lords [i.e., the Irish kings and chiefs] have their historians about them, who write their acts and deeds:—they have their physicians, their rymers whom they call bards, and their harpers: all of whom have their several livelihoods, and have lands set out for them." Fools, jugglers, and jesters were always kept in the king's court for the amusement of the household and guests. They and their functions will be described in chapter xxv. Each chief, of whatever grade, kept a household after the manner of a king, but on a smaller scale, with the several offices in charge of the members of certain families.

From the description given at pp. 17, 18, it will be seen that there was a regular gradation of authority. The king of the tuath owed allegiance to the king of the mór-tuath: the king of the mór-tuath: to the provincial king; the provincial king to the ard-ri of all Ireland. But this was very imperfectly carried out. The authority of the supreme monarch over the provincial kings was in most cases only nominal, like that of the early Bretwaldas over the minor kings of the Heptarchy. He was seldom able to enforce obedience, so that they were often almost or altogether independent of him. There never was a king of Ireland who really ruled the whole country: the king that came nearest to it was Brian Boru. In like manner the under-kings often defied the authority of their superiors. The people grouped into families, clans, tribes, and kinels, with only slight bonds of union, and with their leaders ever ready to quarrel, were like shifting sand. If the country had been left to work out its own destinies, this loose system would probably in the end have developed into one strong central monarchy, as in England and France. As matters stood it was the weak point in the government. It left the country a prey to internal strife, which the supreme king was not strong enough to quell; and the absence of union rendered it impossible to meet foreign invasion by effectual resistance.

« previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page »


* This whole story about John de Courcy and the French champion is told in my Reading Book in Irish History.