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Irish Kings and Queens Who Changed Ireland’s History

Curious what the Irish President’s house looks like? Visit Aras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President, or just take a stroll through one of Europe’s largest city parks, Phoenix Park, or swing over Stormont or keep moving to Kildare Street to witness where Irish politics took place. Looking to meet any descendants of Ireland’s royalty? That might take a while.

If you happen to have a time machine or a book of myths to hunt Ireland’s kings and queens on the Hill of Tara, the Rock of Cashel or the Cooley Peninsula, then you’re definitely lucky. With two Gaeltacht exceptions, the majesties of Ireland have been and gone.

But boy do they make some glorious and curious bedtime stories.

While you may be familiar with Irish kings and queens like Brian Boru, Queen Maeve, or the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, you perhaps don’t know about the other kings and queens who roamed these lands? We did some digging and brought to life some information about Ireland’s kings and queens.

Provenance

The High Kings of Ireland is a significant part of Irish history and mythology. They were historical and legendary figures known as an Ard Rí who claimed Lordship of the entire island of Ireland.

The High Kings (the past ruling kings of the land of Ireland) first established the throne as far back as 1500 BC yet there are no proven, accurate historical records of this so their existence is merely legendary and fictional. Any of the High Kings who lived prior to the 5th century are considered a part of Irish mythology (or what’s aptly called “pseudohistory”).

The First High King of Ireland

An aerial view of the hill of slane in Ireland
Image Credit: discoverboynevalley.ie

Irish mythology tells the story of a group of people called The Fir Bolg who invaded Ireland with almost 5,000 men. They were led by 5 brothers who divided Ireland into provinces and granted themselves the titles of Chieftains. After some talks and discussions, they decided that their youngest brother, Sláine mac Dela, would be given the title of King and would rule over them all.

The First High King of Ireland had a short and unfulfilled life. Only one year after becoming a king, he passed away at a place called Dind Ríg in the province of Leinster (reasons unknown). He was buried at Dumha Sláine. The Hill of Slane, as it is known today, has become over time a centre for religion and learning in Ireland and was closely associated with St. Patrick.

After the death of King Sláine, his brother Rudraige took up the mantle but little did they know that death runs in the family. King Rudraige was also short-lived as he died 2 years later. The other two brothers of the five became joint High Kings and ruled for 4 years until they both died due to the plague.

Sengann mac Dela, the last one of the brothers, became High King and ruled Ireland for 5 years. His reign came to an end when he was murdered by the grandson of his brother, Rudraige, who went on to take the title of the King. The succession of the monarchy remained with the Fir Bolg’s until 1477 BC when the legendary race of Tuatha Dé Danann invaded Ireland.

For the next two thousand years, in Irish mythology, Ireland would have over 100 legendary High Kings.

It is worth noting that at that time, ancient Ireland was comprised of Celtic tribal culture, daring back into the mists of pre-history. The High Kings were chosen from the tribes of Ireland who were divided among several regional sub-kings (Ri’). A branch of royal chiefs of the “Scots” of Dalriada in Ulster emerged in the fifth and started to colonize the isles above Ireland known now as Scotland.

The Last High King of Ireland

Ruaidhrí Ó Conchobhair (Rory O’Connor) was the first and only Gaelic king and became the last High King of Ireland in 1166 after the death of King Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn. He ruled for over 30 years and had to denounce the throne after the invasion of the Anglo-Normans in 1198.

The Normans had invaded England in 1066 and a century later, they directed their attention to Ireland. The first Norman King who arrived with his armies across the Irish Sea from England was Henry II in 1171. The Lordship of Ireland under the English Crown emerged after the High Kingship ended.

The Crown’s Rule

In the centuries that followed, the direct rule of the Crown was largely confined to the region around Dublin known as the Pale and the several garrisoned castles scattered across Ireland. After King Henry’s brief rule, his son, King John, was named Lord of Ireland in 1177. An Irish Parliament was established in 1297.

Edward Bruce (brother of Scotland’s King Robert I) led an invasion to Ireland in the 14th century but failed miserably in doing so. By the 16th century, the vice-regal office of Lord Deputy had become semi-hereditary in the family of the Fitzgerald Earls of Kildare.

Henry VII became the first King of England to also pronounce himself King of Ireland in 1541. The reign of Henry VIII saw a major transition in Irish affairs, as the “Lordship” transitioned into a “Kingdom.” The Crown of Ireland Act created a “personal union” of the crowns of England and Ireland so that whoever was King/Queen of England was also King/Queen of Ireland.

Henry VIII’s change in religion was also a major element in the new political regime. In 1540 Henry seized the Irish monasteries as he had already done in England. Among the ramifications of the English Protestant Reformation was the dissolution of these monasteries, under which monastic lands and possessions were broken up and sold off. The new Protestantism began to be established… but with far more popular resistance than it met in England.

Conflicts and Unsettlement

The harsh policies of Henry VIII did not manage to bring Ireland under control, and his daughter Elizabeth I found herself having to be harsher still. The historic near-anarchy in much of the country, combined with deep and widespread resistance to the religious change, raised the spectre of the Queen’s enemies using it as a base for attacks against her. Therefore, she wanted to have firm control of Ireland because she feared that her enemy, the Spanish and Catholic king, King Philip, would send forces to Ireland and would use them to attack England. She wanted Ireland to be loyal to England.

Famous Elizabethans such as the infamous Earl of Essex and the poet Edmund Spenser were involved in the prolonged Nine Years War (1594- 1603), led by Hugh O’Neill the Earl of Tyrone on the Irish side and centred mostly in Ulster. The War brought about the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

The accession of Queen Elizabeth’s successor, James I (VI of Scotland) as created in his person the “personal union” of three crowns, Scotland, England, and Ireland.

17th Century Ireland

The seventeenth-century proved turbulent and shaky. Charles I, King James’s son, managed to provoke civil wars in each of his three kingdoms at once. Oliver Cromwell, a well-known and notorious figure in British history, killed Charles I and brought his own updated version of the old “crush the Irish” policy. After settling many of his own supporters in Ireland, Cromwell thought that he had the upper hand in his fight against Charles II, the successor of Charles I. However, the Irish quietly rejected Cromwellian rule and supported Charles II, but the military might of the English Parliamentarians prevailed until after Cromwell died.

The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 brought back the monarchy, but when the Catholic James II was overthrown by his daughter Mary, and his nephew/son-in-law William of Orange, Ireland hadn’t been the same. This gave power to Protestants over Catholics which made Ireland struggle with its religious identity.

In 1689 war broke out between James and William (having been announced king) and James lost due to the overwhelming military force against him. He suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in Ulster in 1690 and fled the country.

The victor, King William III, reacted harshly, imposing the stringently anti-Catholic “Penal Laws” that drove the majority of the Irish population to the margins of society and kept them there for well over a century. On the Protestant side, William was seen as a great hero. Notwithstanding all the things that had preceded from the times of Henry II on down to James I and Cromwell, it was the struggle between James II and William of Orange, and the aftermath, that shaped Ireland and its troubles as we have known right down to recent times.

18th Century Ireland

The major political occurrence of the 18th Century, however, came at the end. The United Irish Rebellion of 1798 was a republican movement inspired by the French Revolution that ended up causing several thousand deaths and led directly to the union of 1801. The “Kingdom of Ireland” ceased to exist and was absorbed into the United Kingdom (originally formed in 1707 with the union of England and Scotland). From the time of the Battle of the Boyne until the merger of Ireland into the United Kingdom in 1801 the country was totally dominated by the aristocratic “Protestant Ascendancy” created by William’s victory.

19th Century Ireland

Nineteenth-century Ireland, still dominated by the old Ascendancy, saw the first visits by reigning monarchs since the Battle of the Boyne. In a movement led by the charismatic Daniel O’Connell, Catholic “emancipation” was achieved in 1829, allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament and so on. As the century progressed the crisis of the potato famine and the struggle over the corn (grain) laws highlighted the profound gap between rich and poor in Ireland. Emigrants poured out of the country to the United States, to various lands of the British Empire, and into the great industrial cities of England and Scotland. Those years also saw the building up of the nationalist sensibilities that would ultimately lead to separation from the British Crown in the 20th century.

Ancient Irish Kings and Queens

Queen Maeve (Medb)

Queen Maeve, a queen in Ireland in early BC
Image Credit: Joseph Christian Leyendecker/Wikipedia

Queen Maeve was a passionate queen whose warriors fought vehemently for her. They are all ghosts of long ago that inhabit the rich Irish history and lore. The lore tells the stories of the fierce Celtics who ruled the Emerald Isle early in the ancient days before modern civilization. And Queen Maeve is one of the most well-known, revered and written about queens in Irish history if not the most popular.

Queen Maeve’s iron fist rule took place over the province of Connacht in the west of Ireland. Feared by her enemies and allies, Maeve insisted on amassing equal wealth to her husband, Ailill mac Máta so they can rule the land together. She was so hungry for power and the throne that she embarked on the most infamous tales in Irish mythology: ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’. Her aim? To steal Ulster’s prize bull. She did so and became a victorious queen of the lore.

Grace O’Malley – Pirate Queen

An old drawing of Pirate Queen Grace O Malley in a face off in Ireland
Image Credit: may-ireland.ie

Another powerful female leader who emerged from Connacht. Nicknamed The Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley was a fearsome queen of the 16th century. Born the daughter of a Gaelic chieftain, O’Malley became a chieftain later herself, with an army of 200 men and a fleet of galleys beside her.

The queen’s ancestral home can be found at Westport House in County Mayo where her legacy lives on to this day. Westport House is fiercely proud of its connection to O’Malley and commemorates her with a dedicated exhibition and a Pirate Adventure Park.

Conchobar mac Nessa

Those who read ancient Ulster stories would be familiar with King Conchobar, a king who features predominantly in the Ulster cycle. He was the King of Ulster and at one point the husband of Queen Maeve. The marriage was doomed to fail but Conchobar went on to be known as a wise and consistently good king.

A trip to Armagh will provide lots of opportunities to find out about the mighty king of Ulster.

King of Tory Island

A portrait of the last King of Tory Island in Ireland
Image Credit: irish news.com

Despite having a population of fewer than 200 people, Tory Island has retained its royalty. The King of Tory is a customary role continuing a long-standing tradition.

While Tory’s king has no formal powers to exercise, he does act as spokesperson for the whole community as well as their unofficial one-man welcoming party. The prime time of year to visit the Gaeltacht island of Tory is the summer months when a ferry will whisk you there from Donegal’s mainland. Tory’s last king was Patsy Dan Rodgers who passed away and laid to rest in October of 2018.

Dermot MacMurrough

a drawing of what is to be believed as Dermot MacMurrough a King in Ireland
Image Credit: Darlene/wikitree.com

Born around 1100, Dermot MacMurrough eventually became the King of Leinster and during his reign would have fought against Tiernan O’Rourke, the King of Breifne (Leitrim and Cavan), and Rory O’Connor who both attempted to overthrow him. These battles resulted in him stepping down from his throne and fleeing to Wales, England and France for several years.

During this exile, MacMurrough sought help from the English and King Henry II, and as a result is mostly remembered as the king who brought the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, and a period of British Rule. This earned Dermot the nickname of Dermot na nGall – Dermot of the Foreigners.

Find out more about Dermot McMurrough and retrace his steps with our Waterford and Wexford guides.

Brian Boru

A drawing of Brian Boru in Ireland
Image Credit: irishcentral.com

Brian Boru is quite possibly Ireland’s most famous and successful king. His coronation took place in Cashel, and, like so many of Ireland and Munster’s kings, Boru was a High King of Ireland and he was the mastermind behind the defeat of the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Unfortunately, he was murdered that night but the castle that survives in the seaside Dublin town still hints at historic happenings.

Gormflaith Ingen Murchada

Gormlaith was born in Naas, County Kildare in 960 AD and became a queen of Ireland in the late 10th and 11th centuries. She was the daughter of Murchad mac Finn, a king of Leinster of the Uí Fhaelain line, and sister to Máel Mórda who eventually became King of Munster. Her first marriage was to Óláfr Sigtryggsson (known as Amlaíb in Irish sources), Norse king of Dublin and York, with whom she had a son, Sitric Silkbeard.

Gormlaith went on to marry Brian Boru in 997 and bore a son from him named Donnchadh who eventually became King of Munster. It is said that Gormlaith is partly responsible for the demise of Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf, after their separation, by encouraging her brother, Máel, and son, Sitric, to fight against him.

King Puck

A statue of King Puck in Kerry, Ireland
Image Credit: way marking.com

Naturally, we saved the best for last. King Puck is not only a currently reigning king, but he’s also a goat, too! His annual festival, Puck Fair, is likely to be the least formal crowning of royalty to be seen anywhere on earth. Kerry’s Killorglin is Puck’s place of regal residence and should you run into this festival on your Ring of Kerry drive, remember to stop and dive into the festivities. And maybe bring a few carrots – Puck is a fan.

The origin of the festival is lost to time, but it dates back to at least the 1600s and is likely much older. The Puck Fair is still celebrated in Killorglin each year, and the statue of King Puck that stands in the town makes sure that in the time between each festival, no one forgets who is really king.

The festival, which runs at the end of the summer and is usually expected to attract over 80,000 visitors, was said to be linked to the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, which symbolizes the beginning of harvest.

Do you have a favourite Irish king or queen? Tell us about your favourite Irish king or queen in the comments below!

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