How to pick an Irish king?

Picking a King in Ireland was complicated.

Photo by Mike on

The method of selecting kings in other European countries was based on the Principle of Primogeniture – which essentially meant the first born son to the current king inherited the throne. There was therefore only one heir to the throne.

This rule, though simple, caused all sorts of upheaval – most notably with King Henry VIII who divorced Catherine of Aragon and beheaded Anne Boleyn in order to sire a true-born son, thus keeping the monarchy within the Tudor dynasty.

But in Ireland, the rules of succession were entirely different, though perhaps no less bloody.

In Ireland, to become a king you had to belong in the same derbfine as a king who had already reigned.

A derbfine is a family unit made up of a man, his sons, his grand-sons and great-grandsons.

If for example the current king died – and this king had five sons, who each had five sons, who each had five sons; then number of possible candidates to be the next king was one hundred-and-fifty-five.

The numbers go up further if we include the family members of previous kings. Additional nephews and cousins are then also added into the mix.

So – if there were so many candidates? How did the Irish choose?

Not quite a ballot box – but certainly there was an election of sorts.

The men of the clan would come together and decide who would be best suited for the role of kingship. Men with renown as great warriors stood the best chance of being selected. And of course, it would be fair to say that rivals for the kingship may have fought each other (sometimes to the death) to ensure they were the only eligible candidate.

There were other ways of whittling down the number of contenders.

Generally, boys were excluded, though there are a few notable exceptions, Dermot McMurrough being one of them, who became king at the age of sixteen when his older brother died. This was considered unusual at the time.

(Dermot McMurrough was a King of Leinster in the 12th Century, who is also known as King of the Foreigners, as it was he who petitioned King Henry II for help in regaining his throne in Leinster – which put into motion the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.)

Other exclusions to a kingship included blindness and a physical deformity that prevented a king from fighting – as the Irish believed a king’s main role was to defend their land. A king who could not ride into battle and fight would not do. This belief is also derived from the legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann, as when King Nuada lost his arm in battle, he also lost his kingship. It wasn’t until his healer Diancecht made him an arm of silver that he once again became eligible to be king.

A scourge of blinding

The rule about blindness took an unfortunate and bloody turn in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Now that Christianity was firmly established in Ireland, men who were eligible for the kingship no longer wanted to fight each other. The sin of murder was not something they wanted on their conscience.

So instead, some men looked for other ways to bar their rivals from the kingship, and a plague of blinding occurred, in which potential kings would blind each other before (or just after) their king died.

Some men were notorious. Turlough O’Connor (father of High King Rory O’Connor) is thought to have blinded his brothers and at least two of his sons in his attempt to gain, and then keep his kingship.

How many kings were there?

Lots is the short answer.

In Ireland there were no earls or dukes – only kings.

Each region – known as a tuath had a king. It is thought there were between 150 and 200 tuaths in Ireland.

Then there was a king of each province. These traditionally were the kings of the provinces of Ulster, Connaught, Munster and Leinster.

Above them all was the High King – known as the Ard-Righ.

It can be confusing looking in at all these kings and working out the hierarchy, but the kings at the time would have known. Tributes flowed upwards. The regional kings paid tributes to the kings of their province, and the provincial kings paid tribute to the High King.

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