Long ago Ireland was a land of Kings and Queens who resided in large castles and controlled parts of the island. The High King of Ireland resided at the Hill of Tara and ruled over their people.
You may be familiar with Irish kings and queens such Brian Boru, Queen Maeve, or the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, but do you know about the other kings and queens who roamed these lands? We did some digging and have plenty of stories about even more of Ireland’s kings and queens.
In this article we will explore the stories of some of the most impactful Irish kings and queens. From mythological rulers to historic leaders and everything in between, we will examine some of the people who shaped the history of Ireland for better and worse.
The High Kings of Ireland played 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. As the history of the Celts was passed down by word of mouth however, the existence of the High Kings are both historical and legendary; Fact and myth have become intertwined in the story of real kings and queens who feature in Irish folklore alongside Gods and Monsters.
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 partly legendary and fictional. Any of the High Kings who lived prior to the 5th century are considered a part of Irish mythology or legendary kings (or what’s aptly called “pseudohistory”). In this article we will examine kings and queens from before and after this time.
This does not invalidate their existence as the Celts in Ireland did not keep written records; it was only when Christian monks arrived in Ireland that the story of the Celts was written down. However the objectivity of these religious historians is questionable, many monks left out or altered history to fit into the Christian faith. Celtic Christianity was developed which preserved some of these traditions, but over time, much of Celtic life was forgotten in favour of traditional Christianity.
The First High King of Ireland
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 Fír Bolg were the fourth group of people to arrive in Ireland. They were the descendants of Irish people who left the island and travelled the world. They established the High Kingship and over the next 37 years, 9 High Kings ruled over Ireland. They also established the seat of the High Kings at the Hill of Tara.
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 (by reasons unknown). He was buried at Dumha Sláine. The Hill of Slane, as it is known today, has become a centre for religion and learning in Ireland over time and is closely associated with St. Patrick.
After the death of King Sláine, his brother Rudraige took up the mantle but little did he know that tragic 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 last High King, Eochaid mac Eirc was considered the perfect king.
Arrival of the Tuatha de Danann
The succession of the monarchy remained with the Fir Bolg until 1477 BC when the legendary race of the Tuatha Dé Danann (or Tribe of Danu) invaded Ireland. When the Tuatha de Danann arrived, their king Nuada asked for half of Ireland. The Fir Bolg refused, and the first battle of Mag Tuiread took place. Nuada lost an arm in the Battle but defeated the Fir Bolgs. Some myths say that gracious in victory, Nuada offered the Fir Bolg one quarter of the island and they chose Connacht, while others say that they fled Ireland, but either way, they don’t feature much in the mythology after this.
It was the Morrigan, the Celtic triple Goddess of war and death that defeated Eochaid. The Morrigan was actually a title used to refer to three sister-goddesses of war, magic and prophecy. They rarely interfered in battle after this. The Morrigan is sometimes compared to the Banshee because of her foresight and relation to death.
The Tuatha de Danann were the Celtic Gods and Goddess of Ancient Ireland and had many magical abilities. Nuada won the battle but lost his kingship because as was custom of the tribe of Danu, a king could not rule if not perfectly healthy. Nuada was given a fully functional silver arm, but not before a new oppressive leader took his place…
The Stone of Fate – Lia Fáil
Lia Fáil (The Stone of Destiny or Speaking Stone) is a stone at the Inauguration Mound on the Hill of Tara in County Meath. It was used as a coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland and is still preserved today.
According to the mythology, Lia Fáil was one of the Four Treasures that the Tuatha de Danann brought with them to Ireland. The other treasures were Lugh’s Spear, the Sword of Nuada and the Cauldron of Dagda.
When the rightful king of Ireland stepped on the magical stone, it would supposedly roar in joy. It was believed that Lia Fáil could rejuvenate the king. The Stone was destroyed in anger after it did not cry out for a king’s protégé; it only shouted out once more ever (in some versions of folklore), at the coronation of Brian Boru.
The Reign of Bres
The successor of Nuada was Bres, a man who was half Tuatha de Danann and half-Fomorian. The Fomorians were another supernatural race that represented the wild, dark and destructive powers of nature. Their appearance varied greatly, from giants and monsters to beautiful humans, but they were usually the antagonists of the Tuatha de Danann.
Surely a half Tuatha de Danann, half Fomorian could foster a new era of peace in Ireland? Not exactly. Bres aligned himself with the Fomorians while acting as the king of the tribe of Danu, essentially forcing his people under the control of their enemies.
Fortunately, Nuada returned seven years later, his arm was now natural and no longer made of silver thanks to the Celtic God of Medicine Miacht. He defeated Bres and freed his people. Lugh would be the half Fomorian, half Tuatha de Danann King to rule after Nuada’s second reign and he looked after his people.
The Demise of the Tuatha de Danann
The reign of the Tuatha de Danann came to an end at the arrival of the Milesians. The Milesians were Gaels who sailed from Ireland to Iberia and returned back to Ireland hundreds of years later. The Milesians were the final race to settle in Ireland according to myth and they represent modern Irish people.
The Tuatha de Danann were driven underground to the Otherworld and over the centuries became the fairy folk of 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, dating back into the mists of prehistory. The High Kings were chosen from the tribes of Ireland who were divided among several regional sub-kings (known as a Ri).
A branch of royal chiefs of the “Scots” of Dalriada in Ulster emerged in the fifth century 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 last High King of Ireland in 1166 after the death of King Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn. He ruled for over 30 years and had to renounce 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 severed ties with the Catholic Church, which 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 the Irish Reformation was met with far more popular resistance than it had been 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 Catholic people the right 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 and Irish independence. In 1919 the Irish Republic was formed and was recognised as a free state with its own president and government.
Ancient Irish Kings and Queens
Here are some more Ancient Irish Kings and Queens
Queen Maeve (Medb)
Queen Maeve was a passionate leader whose warriors fought vehemently for her. Maeve or Medb as she is also known, appears in rich Irish history and folklore. The lore tells the stories of the fierce Celts who ruled the Emerald Isle early in the ancient days before modern civilization. Queen Maeve is one of the most well-known, revered and written about queens in Irish history.
Queen Maeve’s iron fist rule took place over the province of Connacht in the West of Ireland. Feared by her enemies and allies alike, Maeve insisted on amassing equal wealth to her husband, Ailill mac Máta so they can rule the land together. They were equal in every aspect but one; Ailill had a prized bull that none of Medb’s herd could measure up to.
Maeve was so hungry for power and the throne that she embarked on one of the most infamous tales in Irish mythology: ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’. Her aim? To obtain Ulster’s prize bull by any means necessary. She did so and became a victorious queen of the land, but many people in Ireland paid a heavy price for her success.
We have a full article dedicated to Queen Medb which details the Cattle Raid of Cooley and even goes into detail about Medb’s connection with a goddess from the Tuatha de Danann.
Grace O’Malley – Pirate Queen
Another powerful female leader who emerged from Connacht is next up in our article. Known as the Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley (Granuaile in Irish) 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. The Ulster Cycle is one of 4 cycles in Irish myth relating to a different time period. The other 3 are called the Mythological Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle.
Conchobar 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.
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 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. He was also the mastermind behind the defeat of the Leinster kings and Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
Brian’s side won the battle but unfortunately, he died on Good Friday, April 23rd 1014 during the battle of Clontarf. He was a deeply Christian king and many reports suggest that he refused to fight on Good Friday which led to his demise. 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.
More Irish royalty
Here are a few more Kings from Ireland that may surprise you!
The King of Tory Island
Despite having a population of fewer than 200 people, Tory Island off the coast of Donegal 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 was laid to rest in October of 2018.
Naturally, we saved the most bizarre 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, why not check it out. Be sure to 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, even dating back to pagan times. 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. According to myth, a flock of goats saw an army of Cromwellian pillagers and headed for the mountains during the 17th century. One goat broke away from the flock and headed into the town, which alerted inhabitants that danger was close by, and so, the festival was born in his honour.
The Puck Fair features on our list of the 15 best Irish festivals. The ethics of the fair is something that has come into dispute in recent years due to the fact that a goat is held in a small cage for three days before being led back into the mountains. The Puck Fair is also the oldest festival in Ireland.
Do you have a favourite story regarding an Irish king or queen? Tell us about your favourite Irish kings and queens in the comments below!
We hope that you have enjoyed this article! While you are here, why not check out some more articles including:
Legend of the Selkies | Blarney Castle: Where myth and history combine | Pookas: Ireland’s mischievous creatures | Scáthach: Secrets of the Female Celtic Warrior