Election of Irish Kings and Leaders

Despite what we might assume today, the election of rulers, and even of kings, was not all that unusual in medieval Europe.  For example, the Doge of Venice and even the Holy Roman Emperor were elected.  

The Electorate

Despite what we might assume today, the election of rulers, and even of kings, was not all that unusual in medieval Europe.  For example, the Doge of Venice and even the Holy Roman Emperor were elected.  

The main difference between those processes and the election of Irish kings was the wider franchise amongst the Irish.  In the rest of Europe, kings and nobility occupied a small pinnacle on top of a steep social pyramid.  But in Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland under Féineachas, today called ‘Brehon Law’ in English, nearly all Gaeil were saor (translatable as ‘free’ or ‘noble’), and therefore able to participate in their own government, at least at the level of their own kinship group. (1)


For example, every large Irish clan had their rí, which means ‘King’, not 'chief' or 'chieftain'.  The word rí was mis-translated by the English of the period who wanted to maintain that only their king deserved to be called king.  These ríthe were elected unless imposed by an over-king.  Every tuath (‘people’, often translated as ‘tribe’) maintained and typically effected their right to elect their rí.  Well into the High Middle Ages, every Cúige (‘Fifth’) of Ireland (the five provinces of Ireland) had their elected rí or at least contention for that election despite displacement by the Cambro-Normans.  And until the end of the 12th century, the High-King was, at least in theory, also elected in accordance with Féineachas. (2)

Under Féineachas, into the 16th century, even small Irish clans maintained the right to elect their own taoiseach, although such leaders were sometimes imposed by over-kings.  The English translated the word taoiseach as 'captain of the name'.  The Irish, when writing Latin, used the word ‘dux’ for this position.  Therefore, although taoiseach is today used to designate the Prime Minister of Ireland, ‘clan war leader’ is an accurate translation of taoiseach as it was used until the 17th century.


In other words, all Irish in the period of Gaelic ascendancy expected to elect their own kings from amongst their own kin, and in that sense, all Irish descend from either kings or king-makers.  The same can be said for the Gaeil of Scotland.

Here’s what the Englishman Edmund Spenser reported on the subject in 1596:


What is this you call Tanist and Tanistrie?  They be names and tearmes never heard of or knowne to us.


It is a custome amongest all the Irish, that presently after the death of any their chiefe Lords or Captaines, they do presently assemble them selves to a place, generally appoynted and knowne unto them, to chose an other in his stead: where they do nominate and elect, for the most part, not the eldest sonne, nor any of the children of ther Lord deceased, but the next to him of blood, that is, the eldest and worthiest, as commonly the next brother unto him, if he have any, or the next couzine germane, or so forth, as any is elder in that kindred or sept: and then next to him do those chose the next of the blood to be Tanist, who shall next succeede him in the said Captenry, if he live therunto.

Professor Kenneth Nicholls provides additional detail:

Election to the chieftaincy lay within the derbfine group, that is to say, within the descendants of a common ancestor in four generations, so that anyone whose great-grandfather had been chief was theoretically eligible for election – although in practice, very few of those so qualified could hope to aspire to the chieftaincy. (4)  

Reaction of the English

Naturally, any tendency toward local democracy and the election of alternative kings and ‘captains’ presented a threat to the conquering English and were met with antagonism.  So, too, did assertions of noble rank.  As noted by Francis John Byrne, "Elizabethan officials complained that most Irishmen were bastards and claimed to be gentlemen." (5)  In Scotland, as reported by Fitzroy MacLean, “’Though poor, I am noble’ ran an old and constantly repeated MacLean saying … (and) Cameron of Lochiel could boast with conviction that his clan were ‘all gentlemen’.” (6)  In those days, the word ‘gentleman’ was reserved for an individual of noble birth.

In the decade after the Jacobite rising of 1715, the English lieutenant Edward Burt wrote with contempt about Scots of reduced means who still claimed the nobility, personal freedom, and rights due them under Féineachas:

Here is Gentility in Disguise … this Kind of Vanity in People of no Fortune makes them ridiculous to Strangers, and I wish they could divest themselves of it, and apply to something more substantial than the airy Notion of Ancient Family ... Thus you see a Gentleman may be a mercenary Piper, or keep a little Alehouse where he brews his Drink in a Kettle ; but to be of any Working Trade, however profitable, would be a Disgrace to him, his present Relations, and all his Ancestry.  If this be not a proper Subject of Ridicule, I think there never was any such Thing. (7)

As we see, in Burt’s world-view, the poor, working poor, middle classes, and conquered had no claim to being either free or noble.

The End of Féineachas in Ireland and Scotland

Féineachas was eliminated in Ireland by the imposition of Common Law in 1608, contemporaneous with and fundamental to the Plantation of Ulster. (8)  In Scotland, many clans were forced to accept feudal law after the 12th century, but several fought, literally, for centuries for the right to live by Féineachas and continued to elect and depose their chiefs using the sub-division of Féineachas called in English ‘The Law of Tanistry’.  Féineachas finally ended in the west of Scotland with the slaughter of the clans at Culloden in 1746 and the persecution of the clans by English law in the years which followed. (9) (10)



1.  The word Féineachas is a contraction of Féine-Seanchas, the Seanchas of the Féine, the law and history and rights and privileges of the Féine according to their genealogies.  

2.  For Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s well-known article on kingship in pre-Norman Ireland, see http://www.ucc.ie/celt/nation_kingship.html

3.  Spenser, Edmund.  A View of the Present State of Ireland.  1596.  See http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E500000-001/text001.html

4.  Nichols, Kenneth.  Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages.  Dublin:  Gill and MacMillan, 1972. p. 26

5.  Byrne, Francis John. Irish Kings and High-Kings.  London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1973.  p. 1

6.  MacLean, Fitzroy.  A Concise History of Scotland.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, Ltd. 1985.  p. 68

7.  Burt, Edward.  Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland.  Edinburgh:  William Patterson, 1876.  Originally published as Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London, 1754.  pps. 72-73

8.  Collins, M.E. and Ó Siochrú, Mícheál.  Concas agus Coilíniú.  Baile Átha Cliath:  Oifig an tSoláthair, 1976.  pps. 67-68

9.  McIan and Logan, The Clans of the Scottish Highlands,  p. 93

10.  “The MacDonalds of Keppoch”.  See http://www.clandonald-heritage.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57




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