How The Ancient Irish People Were Governed By Their Kings And Chiefs
There were in Ireland, from times beyond the reach of history, kings, who
were of various grades according to the extent of the country or district
they ruled over. The highest of all was the king of Ireland, who lived in
the royal palace at Tara. He was called the Ard-ri [ard-ree], i.e.,
'High king' or Over-king, because he claimed authority over all the
others. There was also a king over each of the five provinces--Leinster,
Munster, Connaught, Ulster, and Meath--who were subject to the Ard-ri. The
provinces were divided into a number of territories, over which were kings
of a still lower grade, each under the king of his own province. If the
district was not large enough to have a king, it was ruled by a chief, who
was subject to the king of the larger territory in which the district was
The king was always chosen from one particular ruling family; and when a
king died, those chiefs who had votes held a meeting, lasting for three
days and three nights, at which they elected whatever member of that
family they considered the wisest, best, and bravest. After this a day was
fixed for inaugurating the new king, a ceremony corresponding in some
respects with the crowning of our present monarchs. This Inauguration,
or 'making' of a king as it is called in Irish, was a great affair, and
was attended by all the leading people, both clergymen and laymen. There
was always one particular spot for the ceremony, on which usually stood a
high mound or fort, with an 'Inauguration Stone' on top, and often a great
branching old tree, under the shade of which the main proceedings were
The new king, standing on the Inauguration Stone, swore a solemn oath in
the hearing of all, that he would govern his people with strict justice,
and that he would observe the laws of the land, and maintain the old
customs of the tribe or kingdom. Then he put by his sword; and one of the
chiefs, whose special office it was, put into his hand a long, straight,
white wand. This was to signify that he was to govern, not by violence or
harshness, but by justice, and that his decisions were to be straight and
stainless like the wand. Several other forms had to be gone through till
the ceremony was completed; and he was then the lawful king.
The old Irish kings lived in great style, especially those of the higher
ranks, and--like the kings of our own day--kept in their palaces numbers
of persons to attend on them, holding various offices, all with good
salaries. The higher the grade of the king the greater the number of his
household, and the grander the persons holding offices. Forming part of
his retinue there were nobles, who did nothing at all but wait on him,
merely to do him honour. There were Ollaves, i.e., learned and
distinguished men, of the several professions--Historians, Poets,
Physicians, Builders, Brehons or Judges, Musicians, and so forth. All were
held in high honour, and exercised their several professions for the
benefit of the king and his household, for which each had a house and a
tract of land free, or some other equivalent stipend.
Then there was a house-steward, who issued orders each day for the
provisions to be laid in for next day--the number of oxen, sheep, and hogs
to be slaughtered, the quantity of bread to be baked, and of ale, mead,
and wine to be measured out; and he regulated the reception of guests,
their arrangement at banquets, and their sleeping accommodation; with
numerous other matters of a like kind, all pertaining to the household.
His word was law, and no one ever thought of questioning his arrangements.
The house-steward's office was one of great responsibility, and he had
plenty of anxiety and worry; and accordingly he held a high rank, and was
well paid for his services.
There was a champion--a fierce and mighty man--who answered challenges,
and, when necessary, fought single combats for the honour of the king.
Guards were always at hand, who remained standing up with drawn swords or
battleaxes during dinner. There was a master of horse, with numerous
grooms; keepers of the king's jewels and chessboards; couriers or runners
to convey the king's messages and orders, and to bring him tidings;
keepers of hounds and coursing dogs; a chief swineherd, with his
underlings; fools, jugglers, and jesters for the amusement of the company;
with a whole army of under-servants and workmen of various kinds.
Each day the whole company sat in the great hall at dinner, arranged at
tables in the order of rank the great grandees and the ollaves near the
king, others of less importance lower down, while the attendants--when
they were not otherwise occupied--sat at tables of their own at the lower
end of the hall. To pay the expenses of his great household, and to enable
him to live in grandeur as a king should live, he had a large tract of
land free, besides which, every tenant and householder throughout his
dominion had to make a yearly payment according to his means. These
payments were made, not in money--for there was little or no coined money
then--but in kind; that is to say, cattle and provisions of various
sorts, plough-oxen, hogs, sheep, with mantles and other articles of dress;
also dyestuffs, sewing-thread, firewood, horses, rich bridles,
chessboards, jewellery, and sometimes gold and silver reckoned out in
ounces, as Abraham paid Ephron for the cave of Machpelah. Much income also
accrued to the king from other sources not mentioned here; and he wanted
it all, for he was expected to be lavish in giving presents, and
hospitable without stint in receiving and entertaining guests.
Besides all this, the king often went on what was called a 'Free Circuit,'
i.e., a visitation through his dominions, moving quite leisurely in his
chariot from place to place, with a numerous retinue, all in their own
chariots; while the several sub-kings through whose territories he passed
had to lodge, feed, and entertain the whole company free, while they
These old Irish kings--when they were not engaged in war--seem to have led
a free and easy life, and to have had a pleasanter time of it than the
kings and emperors of our own day.
The Irish took care that their kings had not too much power in their
hands; so that they could not always do as they pleased--a proper and wise
arrangement. They were what we now call 'limited monarchs'; that is, they
could not enter on any important undertaking affecting the kingdom or the
public without consulting their people. On such occasions the king had to
call a meeting of his chief men, and ask their advice, and, if necessary,
take their votes when there was a difference of opinions. And besides
this, kings, as we shall see farther on, had to obey the law the same as
Each king, of whatever grade, should, according to law, have at least
three chief residences; and he lived in them by turns, as suited his fancy
or convenience. Nearly all those old palaces are known at the present day;
and in most of them the ramparts and mounds are still to be seen, more or
less dilapidated after the long lapse of time. The ruins of the most
important ones--such as we see them now--are described in some detail in
my two Social Histories of Ancient Ireland; but here our space will not
permit us to mention more than a few.
The most important of all is Tara, the chief residence of the over-kings,
which is situated on the summit of a gentle green hill, six miles from
Navan in Meath, and two miles from the Midland Railway station of
Kilmessan. The various mounds, circular ramparts, and other features are
plainly marked on the plan given at the beginning of this book; and anyone
who walks over the hill with the plan in his hand can easily recognise
Next to Tara in celebrity was the palace of Emain or Emania, the residence
of the kings of Ulster, and the chief home of Concobar Mac Nessa and the
Red Branch Knights. The imposing remains of this palace, consisting of a
great mound surrounded by an immense circular rampart and fosse half
obliterated, the whole structure covering about eleven English acres, lie
two miles west of Armagh.
Another Ulster palace, quite as important as Emain, was Ailech, the ruins
of which are situated in County Donegal, on the summit of a hill 800 feet
high, five miles north-west from Derry. It is a circular stone fortress of
dry masonry, still retaining its old name in the form of "Greenan-Ely."
The chief palace of the kings of Connaught was Croghan, the old fort of
which lies three miles from Tulsk in Roscommon.
The most important residence of the Leinster kings was Aillenn, now called
Knockaulin, an immense fort surrounding the summit of a hill near
Kilcullen in Kildare.
Besides these there are the Munster palaces, the Rock of Cashel, Kincora
at Killaloe, Bruree in Limerick, and Caher in Tipperary: also we have Naas
in Kildare, Dunlavin in Wicklow, Dinnree in Carlow, and many others.