The Irish royal houses are acknowledged by most genealogists to be the oldest traceable dynasties in Europe, descending as they do from kings who were regnant before the conversion of Constantine the Great in AD 311. Prior to the Norman invasion of Ireland in the late twelth century the island was divided into a number of provincial kingdoms (rather like those of Anglo-Saxon England), all of which, in theory, were subject to the High King who ruled from Tara. In reality the position of the High King was more sacerdotal than magisterial, although a few individual holders of the High Kingship, such as Brian Boru, did almost succeed in converting it into a real over-lordship.
Although the number of provincial kingships varied, five principal ones came to have a permanent existence, namely those of Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connaught and Meath (the latter kingdom being the appanage of the High King, and including his seat of Tara). For several centuries the High Kingship was disputed between the kings of the Ui Niall dynasty (Ulster) and the kings of the Eoghanaghta dynasty (Munster), before the former succeeded in obtaining a more or less secure monopoly of this title. The idea of a vacillating right of succession to the High Kingship did, however, remain a reality, and as late as the eleventh centurt Brian Boru, a Dalcasian prince who has succeeded to the Throne of Munster, claiming descent from the Eoghanaghta, successfully contested the High Kingship.
Beneath the provincial kings were smaller kingships, whose dynasties were of equal antiquity to the provincial royal houses. Examples of these are: O'Brien (kings of Thomond), O'Brennan (kings of Ossory) and O'Donnel (kings of Tyrconnel).
Upon the arrival of Henry II in Ireland the following royal houses enjoyed the sovereignties of their respective provincial kingdoms:
- High Kingship: Roderick O'Connor, King of Connaught (now represented by The O'Connor Don)
- Ulster: O'Neill (now represented by The O'Neill Mor and The O'Neill of Clanaboy)
- Munster: Mac Carthy (now represented by The Mac Carthy Mor)
- Leinster: MacMorrough (currently dormant)
- Connaught: O'Connor (now represented by The O'Connor Don)
These dynasties continued to rule as independent princes, under the lordship of the kings of England, for several centuries and were repeatedly recognized as such by that Crown. Following upon the Reformation, and the determined process of Anglicization pursued by the English government in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Gaelic principalities finally collapsed, with a large number of clan chiefs emigrating to continental Europe.
All but the royal house of Leinster have continued to exist down to the present time, and their respective chiefs are recognized as such by the Chief Herald of Ireland, acting on behalf of the Irish government. According to the received principles of International Law, these chiefs are entitled to use the style of "Prince", and indeed some do. As recently as the 1890s the Holy See recognized The O'Neill of Clanaboy as a "Most Serene Highness".
A Note by Dr Patrick O'Shea
By the time the Kingdom of Desmond collapsed after the death of Donal IX MacCarthy Mór in 1596, a fairly extensive feudal system had evolved under the MacCarthy kings. This is reflected in the gradual change in terminology in the Irish annals. In the early Middle Ages the term ri or king was, almost without exception, applied to any chieftain or ruler of a territory, regardless of size or importance. Gradually, other terms began to replace ri which more accurately reflected a hierarchy (such as tiarna or Lord and ard tiarna or High Lord/Paramount Lord). Of course, the system was never as stratified as that of the British or Continental nobility, but the system was clearly feudal in nature, with the MacCarthy kings as the ultimate authority within the Provincial Kingdom of Munster.
As such, the MacCarthy kings of Desmond continued to grant territories and titles to vassal lords throughout the period before 1596. As mentioned earlier, the current representatives of these ancient royal houses are recognized as having the style of Prince in the eyes of International Law. This also recognizes the continuing rights of such princes to any titles, orders or other incorporeal prerogatives which existed when the house was regnant.
In Desmond it was the accepted practice that any lordship which was not specifically granted to a vassal remained the demesne land of the King of Desmond. If a territory was left devoid of vassal lords through extinction of valid male heirs, expulsion of a vassal for various reasons, or through other events, the territory and title revetted back to the Royal House. Of course, since 1596, the actual control of territories has undergone several transformations, and the current Republic and its laws govern the transfer and ownership of land and physical property. However, the titles, as incorporeal property, have reverted to the control of the Royal House of Desmond. The current representative of that House has the right, as recognized by International Law, to re-grant these titles on a hereditary basis as he sees fit.
Most members of the Peerage of Desmond do not style themselves as Baron or Count (although a few do), but instead prefer the older, less stratified terminology of Tiarna or Ard Tiarna (Lord or Paramount Lord in English translation. However, the title of Tiarna in considered to be a rank of baronial status within the Peerage of Desmond, and Ard Tiarna is considered to be a rank of comital status (these are, of course, only rough equivalents). There are, as pointed out earlier, herediatary "Princes" of the ancient Gaelic aristocracy, though below the level of the Provincial Kings. The princes, however, may be distinguished from the Desmond peers, in that their titles are hereditary and non-feudal in nature. In many respects, they have the same standing as the current Princes of the Provincial Kingdoms, except that their former territories were considerably smaller than those of the Provincial Kings. In many cases these are the cadet families of the more powerful Provincial Royal Houses.
The Gaelic titled nobility is distinct from the Anglo-Norman nobility in several important ways:
- Gaelic titles were (and still are) passed on by tanistry instead of primogeniture
- Gaelic feudal titles have only a very rudimentary system of precedence (Tiarna, Ard Tiarna, Prince, Prince of a Royal House)
- The Gaelic feudal lords enjoyed a more independent status than that of their Anglo-Norman counterparts
It is also important to note that the policy of "Surrender and Regrant" by the English Crown in the 16th century produced a number of Gaelic Irish Kings, Princes, and other nobles who also held English titles. For example, The O'Brien, Prince of Thomond, is also Lord Inchiquin in the British Peerage. However, it is generally accepted that the acceptance of these titles was, in most cases, simply a concession to placate the English Crown. Generally speaking, the Gaelic kingdoms continued to operate as before, with autonomy, until the beginning of the 17th century.