Mediæval Ireland

    Ancient Ireland was divided into a large number of tiny kingdoms or túatha (TOO-uh-thuh), about a hundred or hundred and fifty in all.  Each túath had its own king or rí (REE).  These kings could lead their own people into battle, but issued legislation only in times of emergency such as plague or war.  As well, they did not own the land they claimed as king; instead they were farmers like everyone else.  Their wealth was counted in the area of land they farmed and the number of cattle they owned.  Each king was selected from the males of the royal family; thus a king could be succeeded not only by a son or grandson, but also by an uncle, nephew or cousin.  Beneath the king were nobles who were warriors and owners of cattle, freemen who were tillers of the soil, and slaves about whom little is known and were likely not numerous.

    There were also two higher grades of king:  Overkings or ruiri (RUR-ee) who were kings of their own túath as well as overlord of three or more other túatha; and the rí ruiech (REE-RUR-ech) or king of a main kingdom.  Ireland consisted of five main kingdoms:  Ulster, Connacht (KON-not), Leinster (LEN-stuhr), Munster, and Meath.  The lesser kingdoms of Aileach and Airgialla became main kingdoms later on.

Map of Mediaeval Ireland
Mediæval Ireland

Ancient Ireland
consisted of five main kingdoms:
Ulster or Uladh
Connacht or Cruachain
Meath or Midhe
Leinster or Laigen
Munster or Mumhan

There were nearly one hundred and fifty lesser kingdoms, the boundaries of which were uncertain and
subject to constant change.

Ancient Ireland was entirely rural. Towns including Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick were established by Viking settlers
in the 9th and 10th centuries.


   As well, there was the ard-rí (ARD-ree) or High King of Ireland.  From atop the Hill of Tara in the ancient Kingdom of Meath the High King could see hills in each of the other four kingdoms.  The High Kingship of Ireland was open to kings of each of the other four kingdoms, and it was the struggle for the honour of holding this position that eventually led to the arrival of Anglo-Norman knights in the 12th century; thereby ending forever the prospect of an Irish King actually ruling over all Ireland.

Ireland's Golden Age

    Throughout the early middle ages, Ireland remained comparatively isolated from Europe.  The Romans made no attempt at conquest, and Ireland was spared from the Anglo-Saxon invasion.  Ireland was untouched until the Viking raids that began in the late 8th century.

    Virtually every king, including the most minor which were really only tribal chieftains, had their own poet or filidh (FIL-idh) who was responsible for preserving the history, mythology and genealogy of the group.  Literature and the arts were held in high esteem during a time when Europe was in chaos.  Although Ireland had no towns as such, monasteries fulfilled the function of centres of learning.  Rather than large stone buildings, monasteries consisted of a little town of wooden huts, laid out in streets and grouped around a small stone church.  Scholars from abroad were attracted to Irish monasteries where learning and culture flourished.  The Irish were most famous for their books.

Cat in the Book of Kells
Between the lines of Matthew's gospel in the Book of Kells, a striped cat watches in dismay as a rat runs off with the communion bread.

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