Who Were the High Kings?

The term ‘High Kings’ is often used in tales of Irish history and heritage. Their role and importance paved the way for legend and mythology. This posts describes two of the most famous High Kings and what makes them stand out in Celtic culture.

A monarchical system of government existed in Ireland from ancient times until — for what became the Republic of Ireland — the early twentieth century. Between the years of 846 and 1198 AD, 17 High Kings held power. Much of what we know today of the High Kings of Ireland is a mixture of truth and legend. Many stories have been combined with Irish mythology. Over the years, several High Kings in particular have stood out in Celtic culture.

High Kings


Brian Boru

The most famous High King was Brain Boru who started his reign in 1002 after defeating the Viking invasions taking place on the island of Ireland.

Over time, he earned the name ‘Brian of the Tributes’ by collecting tributes from the minor rulers of Ireland. He used the money raised to restore monasteries and libraries that had been destroyed during the invasions.

On April 23, 1014, forces under Brian’s son, Murchad, met and annihilated the Viking coalition at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin. Things took a turn after the battle. A small group of Norsemen stumbled on Brian’s tent, overcame his bodyguards, and murdered the elderly king. Victory at Clontarf broke Norse power in Ireland forever, but Ireland largely fell into anarchy after the death of Brian.

After Brian Boru’s death, the role of High King of Ireland became more of a position in name only, rather than that of a powerful ruler.


Niall Noigiallachglasnevin-2696787_640

Another famous High King worth noting is Niall of the Nine Hostages. His accession to the throne took place around 379AD. He earned his name, Niall of the Nine Hostages, by kidnapping members of his enemies’ family and refusing to give them back until they admitted defeat.

According to myth, Niall went on a hunting trip as a boy with some other friends and came across a hideous hag guarding a well. The boys were in search for water but the hag refused to give up the water unless she received a kiss. Of the five boys, only Niall satisfied her with a kiss and she immediately transformed into a beautiful woman. Not only does Niall receive the water, he was also rewarded handsomely as the woman granted him and his next 26 descendants the High Kingship of Ireland.

A 2006 genetic study conducted by Trinity College Dublin shows that 3 million Irishmen are descended from Niall. A study of the Y chromosome (only passed down through men) showed that it traced back through dozens of generations to one man.

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