The office of Ard Rí Érenn ('high king of Ireland') was in origin a pseudohistorical construct of the seventh and eighth centuries in which a kingship of all Ireland projecting into the distant past was placed atop the fragmented pyramid of kingship actually existing at that time. The concept of a high kingship fed back into the political consciousness and acted as a spur to greater centralisation so that it was converted into the political reality of a kingship of Ireland by the middle of the ninth century. Unfortunately until quite recently the historical development of kingship in Ireland has been expressed in simplistic terms for political purposes with an Irish viewpoint emphasising national unity in the notion of the high kingship and a British viewpoint emphasising national division in the notion of Irish kingship as a fragmented tribal savagery requiring external intervention. Neither of these schools is correct. The historical reality as currently understood is more complex and more closely mirrors the development of national kingship elsewhere in Europe.
Early Irish kingship was sacral in character. In the early narrative literature a king is a king because he marries the mythological sovereignty goddess, is free from blemish, enforces symbolic buada ('prerogatives') and avoids symbolic gessa ('supernatural injunctions', 'taboos'). According to the seventh and eighth century law tracts a hierarchy of kingship and clientship progressed from the rí ('king') of a single petty kingdom through the ruiri ('overking') of several petty kingdoms to a rí ruirech ('king of overkings') who was regional king. Regardless of their position in the hierarchy each king ruled directly only within the bounds of his own petty kingdom and was responsible for ensuring good government by exercising fír flaithemon ('ruler's truth'), convening its óenach ('assembly', 'fair'), raising taxes, public works, external relations, defence, emergency legislation, law enforcement and promulgating legal judgement. The lands within the petty kingdom were held allodially but bonds of clientship had created a population stratified into grades of noble, free and unfree and so the king was drawn from the dominant fine ('kin') within the cenél ('people'), a group encompassing the noble kingroups within the petty kingdom.
Even at the time these law tracts were being written these petty kingdoms were being swept away by newly emerging dynasties of dynamic overkings. The most successful of these dynasties were the Uí Néill who as holders of the nationally important sacral kingship of Tara had been conquering petty kingdoms, expelling their rulers and agglomerating their territories under the direct rule of their expanding kindred since the fifth century. Native and foreign, pagan and Christian ideals were commingled to form a new paradigm of kingship. The pagan ideal of the sacred kingship was integrated with the Christian ideal in the sacramental ceremony of royal anointing, the use of Latin dux ('duke') rather than Latin rex ('king') to translate Irish rí marked a semantic shift in the nomenclature of king>overking so that it now described the relationship of lord>king and the imperium of sovereignty merged with the dominium of ownership so that kings felt able to grant whole territories to their appointed placemen. The Church was well disposed to the idea of a strong political authority and so its schools developed the theory of a high kingship of Ireland and produced speculum principum ('mirror of princes') tracts exhorting kings to rule rather than merely reign. In return the paruchiae ('temporal jurisdictions') of the Irish Church received royal patronage in the form of shrines, building works, land and protection.
The abstract concept of a high kingship was converted into the political reality of a national kingship by the Uí Néill sometime before 862 when one of their number is styled in the annals as rí Érenn uile ('king of all Ireland'). This was not the permanent and impersonal de jure kingship settled upon a lineage that is all too often projected into the past by modern royal pseudohistorians but was instead the contemporary medieval norm of the intermittent de facto kingship won anew generation by generation and held by force of personality rather than right in law. By the twelfth century the continued agglomeration of territory and consolidation of kingship saw the few remaining regional kings abandoning the traditional royal sites for the cities, employing ministers and governors, receiving advice from an oireacht ('court', 'assembly') of noble counsellors, presiding at reforming synods and maintaining standing armies against the background of a national kingship that was becoming less intermittent. Early royal succession had been by alternation between collateral branches of the wider dynasty but succession was now confined to a series of father/son, brother/brother and uncle/nephew successions within a small royal fine marked by an exclusive surname. These compact families of O Brien of Munster, MacLochlainn of The North and O Connor of Connacht intermarried and competed against each other on a national basis so that in the decades before the Anglo-Norman incursion of 1169 even their regional kingdoms were divided, dismembered and transformed into fiefs held from (or in rebellion against) one of their number seeking to confine succession to a real and continuous kingship of Ireland within his own family. As the twelfth century Norman-French chanson de geste composed in celebration of the incursion The Song of Dermot and the Earl was to observe:
En Yrland erent reis plusur
Cum alures erent les cunturs
Mes qui tent Mithe e Leynistere
E Desmund e Munestere
E Connoth e Uluestere
Que jadis tendrent le sis frere
Qui celes tenent sunt chef reis
De Yrlande solum les Yrreis
'In Ireland there were several kings
As elsewhere there were earls
But whoever holds Meath and Leinster
And Desmond and Munster
And Connacht and Ulster
Which formerly the six brothers held
Whosoever holds these are high kings
Of Ireland according to the Irish'
This valuable contemporary benchmarking of an inflated Irish nomenclature against its more prosaic continental equivalent finds distant reflection in the fourteenth century German armorial Uffenbach Roll in which arms are attributed (albeit anachronistically) not just to a kingship of Ireland but also to four regional grafs ('counts'). It becomes clear that by 1169 the plethora of sovereignties that had covered Ireland in the early medieval period had vanished and that their kingships survived in mere antiquarian form as the titular accoutrements of mediatized rulers and appointed officials functioning at the level of earl or count within a greater national sovereignty.
Irish Kings and High-Kings, F.J. Byrne.
Nationality and kingship in pre-Norman Ireland, D. Ó Corráin, Historical Studies 11, T.W. Moody.
A Guide to Early Irish Law, F. Kelly.
Early Irish Kingship and Succession, B. Jaski.
The Song of Dermot and Earl Richard Fitzgilbert, D.J. Conlon, 142 - 143.
Some English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish arms in medieval continental rolls, S.M. Collins, The Antiquaries Journal 21.