Written by Caoimhín Ó Danachair.
In the 18th and 19th centuries in Ireland, local leaders were selected and given definite powers and functions by their communities. The leader was usually known as An Rí.
Among the deprivations caused by the English conquest, occupation and spoliation of Ireland, one which has attracted small attention but has had great consequences was the destruction of nearly all forms of indigenous social organisation. The more vigorous and warlike gentry were driven into exile by the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while the subsequent seizure of their lands robbed most of those who remained of the power and possessions which had given them command. Thus the people at large were deprived of their natural hereditary leaders and of the structure of society which had produced them.
The expropriators, whether Cromwellian or Williamite, as well as being alien in language and in religion were also generally recognised by the people as persons without lineage or culture, and their exactions were all the more resented when the hatred with which they were regarded was tinged with contempt. On the other hand the few survivors of the “old gentry” whether “old Irish” or “old English” still commanded some respect and loyalty. Of O’Connor of Clonalis, direct descendant of the last High King, Arthur Young says, ‘The common people pay him the greatest respect, and send him presents of cattle, etc. upon various occasions. They consider him as the Prince of a people involved in one common ruin’. (Hutton 1892, I,219). On the same page Young refers to Mac Dermot, Prince of Coolavin, who, although his line was reduced almost to poverty ,was still so haughty that his children dared not sit down in his presence.
O’Connell of Derrynane could ensure the safe passage even of an exciseman through his territory by the “crooked knife”, an old pruning hook which was known as the sign of his authority, (O’Connell 1892, I, 304-505):’A tenant would walk out and give up his holding at the bidding of the bearer of the crooked knife’.
O’Donoghue of Glenflesk boasted that he could call up five hundred men, and threatened to “pull out the throat” of a magistrate who crossed him (Dineen and O’Donoghue 1909, xxv). Robert Martin of Ballinahinch could ‘bring to the town of Galway in twenty-four hours, eight hundred villains as desperate and as absolutely at his devotion as Cameron of Lochiel’. (Froude 1872, I, 598). This Robert’s son, Richard Martin, M.P. (“Humanity Dick”), when asked if the King’s writ ran in Connemara could answer: ‘Egad it does! As fast as any greyhound when any of my good fellows are after it!’ (Callwell, 1912, 211). Richard Lovell Edgeworth found him ‘. ..ruling over his people with almost absolute power, with laws of his own, and setting all other laws at defiance’. (Edgeworth 1950, 3-4). Any of his tenants found ill-treating an animal was imprisoned, on Humanity Dick’s command, in an old ruined tower in an island in Ballinahinch Lake. Even after the collapse of the family fortunes Dick’s grand-daughter Mary, child of his son and heir Thomas, was still affectionately known to the people as “the Princess of Connemara “, while her father Thomas, who died of fever after visiting some of his tenants struck down by the Great Famine, spoke as his last dying words, ‘My God! What will become of my people?’ (Lynam 1975, 279,282). It is no wonder that the ordinary people turned to such men and women for protection, advice and leadership, well into the nineteenth century, indeed until the curtailment of the landed gentry’s possessions and power and the extension of franchise and representation to the common people entirely changed the pattern of local social organisation.
There seem, however, to have been some smaller units of society, such as village or townland, which chose from among their own number a leader to guide and represent them. Such a chosen leader appears, generally, to have been known as An Ri, the King. Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary, thus describes the head man of the Claddagh, the large fishing village outside the walls of Galway:
“The fishermen elect from among themselves, annually on St. John’s day, officers whom they call a mayor and sheriffs, when they march in procession through the town of Galway, preceded by men carrying bundles of reeds fastened to the ends of poles, to which at night they set fire from numerous bonfires kindled in various parts of the town. To these officers they pay implicit obedience, and in all things submit to their authority; the only official distinction used by the mayor is the white sail of his boat and a flag at the mast head. The time of fishing is indicated by the approach of sea fowl and other unfailing signs; the fleet then assemble and stand out to sea by signal from the mayor, who also regulates the time for setting the nets, which at first is done simultaneously, after which each boat is allowed to fish at pleasure. The fishermen claim and exercise an exclusive right to fish in the bay, according to their own laws, any infringement of which is punished by the destruction of the nets, or even the boats, of the offending party. (Lewis 1836, I, 327, apparently derived from Hardiman)
A number of gentlemen, convinced of the great advantages to be derived from cultivating this valuable fishery, lately formed themselves into a company; and, having at considerable expense fitted out several boats, provided with legal nets and other necessary materials, their exertions were crowned with success. The undertaking while it continued proved highly beneficial to the proprietors, and promised to be much more so; but the Claddagh fishermen, jealous of an infringement on what they called their rights, resolved to suppress this spirit of enterprise by violent means. They accordingly attacked the company’s boats, destroyed their nets, cut their sails and cables, threw their anchors overboard, and ill-treated the crews. The gentlemen, however, with whom the undertaking had principally originated, and whose property to a considerable amount had been thus wantonly destroyed, represented these daring outrages to Government, who gave every possible and prompt assistance on the occasion. The commissioners of customs at the same time directed that the measurement of the meshes of drag or other sea-nets should be three and a half inches from knot to knot, to be taken diagonally. It is therefore hoped that those disgraceful scenes, the effects of which have been so injurious to the entire community (but to none, if properly considered, more than to the infatuated perpetrators themselves) will never again be repeated. (Hardiman 1820, 302-06)
However according to Lewis, the Claddagh regained control of the fishing:
“For the protection of those who attempted to fish against the regulations of the Claddagh fishermen, a gun-brig was stationed in the bay some few years since, during which time the object was obtained; but on its removal, the fishermen again enforced their authority, and now exercise an uncontrolled power of preventing others from fishing in the bay in opposition to their peculiar regulations.” (Lewis 1836, I, 327)
Fifty years later, all this is described in the past tense:
“The fishermen elected from amongst themselves on St. John’s Day officers whom they called a mayor and sheriffs, on which annual occasion they marched through the town of Galway, preceded by men carrying bundles of reeds fastened to the ends of poles, to which at night they set fire from numerous bonfires lit in various parts of the town. ……….Offences or disputes among the Claddagh folk were submitted to the decision of their own mayor or sheriffs, even in the present century, and it was a long time before they would submit to the control of any other jurisdiction. (Anon. 1883, 14)
This is confirmed by Jeremiah Curtin in a note made in 1887:
“After a few days (in Dublin) I went to Galway. The interesting part of the town for me was the Claddagh. Till recent times the Claddagh fishermen governed themselves. In the old times they had their own king. (Curtin 1943, xii)
Apparently, the last “King” was still alive in 1898:
Chuartaigheas an Cladach at fad agus na paisdí lem’ thaoibh no im’ dhiaidh.
“ca bhfuil an Rí?” arsa mise.
“I dteach na mbocht,” arsa duine aca.
“I dteach na mbocht! An mar sin bhíos sibh ag tabhairt onóra do’n righ?” arsa mise.
“Ni beadh,” adubhairt gearrchaile beag bhíodhgach “acht, ta go bhfuilimid ró-bhocht chum a chongbháil suas. Mar sin fhéin bimid ag déanamh ár ndífchill. Cuireadh mise chuige, an Domhnach seo ghabh tharainn le ceathramha puinnt tobac agus gráinnin tae, agus an Domhnach seo chugainn, cuirfear duine eile chuige le ruidín blasta éigin dá leithéid sin”. (Ni Fhearcheallaigh 1901, 652)
(I visited the Claddagh throughout, with the children beside or behind me. “Where is the King?” said I.
“In the poorhouse” said one of them.
“In the poorhouse! Is that how you honour the King?” said I.
“It is not, ” said a lively little girl, “but because we are too poor to support him. All the same, we do our best. I was sent to him on Sunday last with a quarter pound of tobacco and a little tea, and next Sunday somebody else will be sent to him with some little tasty thing like that”)
But forty years later, the King of Claddagh was a very vague memory: Bhíos thair ar an gCladach an la cheana agus casadh Marcus Ó Curaidhin dhom, sean-fhear as an mbaile sin. Iasgaire ab eadh Marcus, ach tá sé ro-shean anois agus níl tada le deanadh aige ach suidhe ar an gceibh agus breathnú amach ar na cúpla báid atá sa gCladach a’ teacht isteach is amach. Thosuigh muid a’ cainnt le n-a chéile agus bhí Marcus ag innseacht dom faoi an Rí ar an gCladach fadó. “Ni fhaca mise aon Rí ann,” adeir sé. “Ach,” adeir se, “chonnaic m’athair e. Bhí lá amhain sa mbliadhain a dtugadh muinntear an Chladaigh lá Croidhe Dílis air, ‘sé sin Luan Cásga. Ar an lá sin shuidheadh an Rí taobh amuigh da dhoras fhéin agus shiubhaladh muinntear an bhaile agus a gclann thairis, agus dá mbeadh difridheacht ar bith le socrú acab, ‘sé an Rí a dheanadh é. Bhí na daoine an-dílis dhon Rí, agus badh é a chomhairle seisean a thóigidís ar fad. ” “Céarbh é an Rí deireannach a bhi sa gCladach?” adeirim sé. “Bhoil,” adeir se, “nil mé cinnte, ach tá mé a’ ceapadh gur Con Ríogh a bhi air.” (“Taisgeoir” 1939, 1 )
(I was west in the Claddagh one day recently and met Marcus Ó Curaidhin, an old man of that place. Marcus was a fisherman, but is now too old and has nothing to do but sit on the quay and observe the few boats in the Claddagh coming and going. We began to talk, and Marcus told me of the King who was in the Claddagh long ago. “I never saw a King there, ..he said, “but my father saw him. There was one day of the year called Loyal Heart Day by the Claddagh people, that is Easter Monday. On that day the King sat outside his own door, and the people of the place and their children walked past him, and if there was any difference to settle, it was the King who did it.
The people were very loyal to the King and entirely took his counsel. ,. “Who was the last King who was on the Claddagh?” said I. “Well,” he said, “I am not sure but I think he was a Conroy”)
An engineer, prospecting for possible railway routes to an Atlantic port, describes the village “Kings” of North-west county Mayo in the 1830s:
There was a headman, or king, appointed in each village, who is deputed to cast lots every third year, and to arrange with the community what work is to be done during the year in fencing, or probably reclaiming a new piece, (though, for obvious reasons, this is rare,) or for setting the “bin”, as it is called; that is, the number of heads of cattle of each kind, and for each man, that is to put on the farm for the ensuing year, according to its stock of grass or pasture; -the appointment of a herdsman also for the whole village cattle, if each person does not take the office on himself by rotation, -a thing not unfrequent. The king takes care generally to have the rent collected, applots the proportion of taxes with the other elders of the village; for all is done in a patriarchal way, coram populo. He is generally the adviser of consulter of the villagers, their spokesman on any matters connected with the village. He finds his way to the “kingly station” by imperceptible degrees, and by increasing mutual assent, as the old king dies off. (Knight 1836, 47-48) and adds a pedantic footnote which indicates that the title An Rí was usual both here and in the Claddagh, and that “mayor” in the latter case is Hardiman’s term:
“Raigh, I had understood to be “king” until Mr Hardiman, the celebrated antiquarian and author of the History of Galway, told me that it meant Kanfinne, or “Head of the local tribe,” according to the Brehon administration. I am happy to have it corrected under such authority.
Knight’s information is so precisely repeated, point for point, in the Ordnance Survey Letters, TS pp 201-202, that one of them must be derived from the other or both from a common source.
A tradition recorded in 1940 tells of a King in Port Urlainn:
Ní fhios amsa anois ar bhé a athair mór héin na a athair sin andearnadh Rí ar Port Urlainn de. Ach cé bi fear acu rinneadh Rí dé. Sé chaoi ar cruinnigh muinntir a bhaile uilig agus rinne Rí dé. Annsin bhí chuile chumacht aige. Ní raibh aon ordú dá n-ordaigh sé nach gcaithidh a dheanamh. Thuig a chuile duine acu bronntanais dó an lá a ndéanadh Rí dé, cuid acu a thug ba dó agus cuid a thug caoirigh dó agus tuilleadh a thug cearca agus rud don tseort sin dó. Ach baidh é cic a sgéil é go mbuidh é an fear ba shaibhre ins an áit é ní shé
‘mháin ar a mbaile. B ‘ait an rud duine bhe na rí tá fhios agat. Bhí triúr mac ag a rí agus iad múinte togidh mar bheith do chlann Rí ar bith. Séard a bhí anntu prionnsa agus bhí onóir agus onóir dófa. Bhí go maith agus ní raibh go dona, bhí chuile sheort ag ‘a rí annsin ach fios. Ní raibh fios aige, níor tháinig leis uamann céard a bhí len eirigh agus ba mhór an drawback air. Nar bhréagh an rud da mbe’is aige céard abhí agoil ag eirigh! (Archive, unpublished, p. 211)
(I do not know whether it was this man’s grandfather or his father who was made King of Port Urlainn,(there is a Porturlan in Cavan and one in Mayo)but one of them was made King. All the people of the town land gathered together and made him King. Then he had every power; everything he ordered had to be done. Everyone of them gave him a present on the day he was made King; some gave him cows, others sheep, others fowl and things of that kind. The result was that he was the richest man in the place, and not only in the townland. It is nice to be a King, you know. He had three sons, as well reared and taught as any King’s children. They were princes and were honoured. This was good, not bad – the King had everything except prophecy. He did not know what was about to happen, and this was a great drawback. How fine it would be to foretell the future!)
From Gweedore (Donegal) we hear of a less popular method of selecting a ruler:
Tribal wars were waged between the tenants of neighbouring estates, whose cattle mutually trespassed upon their extensive unfenced tracts of mountain pasture. Civil discord never ceased among the joint occupiers in rundale, whose various skibberlins of tillage land it was physically impossible to preserve distinct and intact. Lawful authority was not at hand to compose these broils. Resident magistrate or gentlemen there was none; and so, as the Anglo-Saxon tendency to self-government did not exist, to suggest the expedient of a vigilance committee, the Celts of the parish of West Tulloghbegley even followed out their instinct, and, like their kindred of la Grande Nation, when under a similar emergency, they succumbed to a strong-handed president, and the law of the bludgeon. “The country was ruled by a few bullies, lawless distillers, who acknowledged neither landlord nor agent;” and Mickey More, a giant of the lineage of Gallagher, still survives to awaken recollections of the time when he maintained an absolute sovereignty over the entire district, when all disputes on field or mountain, all quarrels at his autocratic judgement, and the decisions of his will, now said to have been generally just, were promptly executed by his own powerful hand. Mickey More has long since surrendered his sceptre into the hands of Lord George Hill. (Anon. 1853a, 12-13)
Otway mentions a Queen in Erris, but whether in mockery or not is hard to say: One or two dwellings were of a better sort, and one was shown as the habitation of the Queen of Erris; or, in other words, a Miss M’Donnell, who, having some education, some property, and much good sense, has been dubbed by Priest Lyons (as a Hildebrand crowned an emperor), her Majesty of Mullet. I certainly had a desire to enter into the presence of this western Victoria -but the honour was denied me, inasmuch as she was making a royal progress amongst her lieges in the mountains. (Otway 1841,57)
The custom of having a King seems to have been fairly general in the islands of the west coast, possibly because of their isolation. About Cape Clear Island, Lewis wrote (1836):
Till about the year 1710, the islanders had a resident king chosen by and from among themselves, and an ancient code of laws handed down by tradition, which it was his duty to administer; and though the king had neither funds for the maintenance of his dignity, nor officers to enforce his authority, the people generally submitted voluntarily to these laws, and were always ready to carry his judgements into execution. The greater number of the laws are become obsolete, but some still remain and are enforced with rigour. The island was formerly remarkable for a race of men of extraordinary stature and strength, whose feats are the subject of many interesting narratives. The O’Driscolls, several of whom were kings of the island, were the most celebrated. (Lewis 1837, I, 250)
The custom seems to have continued long after 1710. In 1906 Peadar Ó hAnnrachcáin wrote in An Claidheamh Soluis:
Nuair do baineadh a gcomhacht de Mhuinntir Driscéoil sa tir amuigh do ceapadh amach rí ar an oileán so, agus do baisteadh Rí Cléire air. Fuair a mhac soin agus mac a mhic agus a mhac soin arís an tiodal agus an gradam agus an chomhacht a bhí ag an gcéad rígh …Seanchaidhe maith iseadh Rí Cléire atá indiu ann. Is géar-chúisighe é ‘na an Rí atá ar an Oileán Thair i gCiarraidhe, dar liom, ach níl sé ‘na fhear chomh trom leis, ámhthaigh. ‘Sé an tÁrd Bhreitheamh atá aca leis é agus ní raibh éinne riamh fós mí-shásta le n-a bhreitheamhnas. (Ó hAnnracháin 1906,4)
(When the O’Driscolls were deprived of their power on the mainland a King was appointed on this island and he was christened the King of Clear. His son and his son’s son and his son again got the title and the rank and the power which the first King had. ..The present King of Clear is a good traditional storyteller. He is, in my opinion, more astute than the King of the Blasket in Kerry , but is not, however, as heavy a man. He is also their chief judge, and nobody yet has been dissatisfied with his judgement. )
As regards the King of the Great Blasket:
Seo dhibh faisnéis ar fheabhas a phearsan agus a mhéin: Fear groidhe cumasach glan-bhearrtha is eadh é, idir a dhachad is caogad bliadhain d’aois. Ní dócha gur gábhadh a luadh annso gur’b é an fear is mó, is calma, agus is lugha smál ar an oileán é, toisg nach le dúthchas a ghabhann an choróin in n-ao’ chor, acht le togha a dhéanamh ar an té is tréine, is deaghchúmtha, is is fearr léigheann is inntleacht; agus fós is lugha masla is máchail. Tá sé os cionn sé troighthe ar aoirde agus coruidheacht is trí troighthe ‘dir a dhá shlinneán. Fear teann téagartha go maith is eadh é, acht mar sin féin tá se anamamhail seolta. (“DonnMacMilidh” 1908,7)
(Here is a report on the excellence of his person and his disposition. He is a stalwart, powerful, cleanshaven man, between forty and fifty years old. It does not seem necessary to state here that he is the greatest, bravest and most unblemished man on the island, for the crown does not go by heredity but by making choice of the strongest, most handsome and most intelligent and well-read person, and also of least blemish and reproach. He is over six feet tall and more than a yard wide across the shoulders. He is a firm strong man, but lively and trim. )
Tomás Ó Criomthain (Tomás Ó Crohan) frequently mentions the King, but gives little detail. Of their school days he writes:
B’in nua ag an Rí é; níor mhaith leis na radhairc thuathalacha shalacha a fheiscint ar scoil i dtúis a óige agus a laghad suime a chuireadh an chuid eile go léir iontu. Níorbh ionadh, mar sin, nuair a ghabh na húdair timpeall agus gur mhaith leo ainm an Rí a bheith sa Bhlascaed gur dheineadar amach an té a bhí ábalta chun an ainm sin a ghlacadh agus a iompar. (Ó Criomhthain 1973, 23)
(Thus it was with the King; he did not like to see rude dirty sights at school in his early childhood, however little the others cared about them. No wonder, then, when the authorities went about wishing to name a King in the Blasket, they found the one who was able to receive and to carry that name. )
There is only a hint of former Kings :
Le linn mise a bheith beag b’iad Pádraig Ó Gaoithín agus roimhe sin go maith Padraig Ó Gaoithín, an dá thaoiseach ba mhó a bhí san oileán. Pádraig Ó Catháin seo -athair críonna an rí ata anois againn -chonac féin a ceathair no a cúig de bha bainne aige sin. Ni fhaca-sa an fear eile, an Gaoithíneach; clann a chlainne a bhí le mo linnse ann. Is minic a chuala go raibh óna hocht go deich de bha bainne aige siúd, lair chapaill agus céachta adhmaid. (Ó Criomhthain 1973, 36)
(When I was small, the two greatest chiefs, in the Island where Pádraig Ó Cathain and, well before him, Pádraig Ó Gaoithín. This Pádraig Ó Cathain, grandfather of our present King, I saw himwith four or five milch cows. I did not seethe other Ó Gaoithín – his grandchildren were there in my time. I often heard that he had eight or ten milch cows, a mare and a wooden plough.)
As regards Aran, a letter of Philip Lyster, R.M. , dated 26th September 1886 reads, in part:
In the last century justice used to be administered by one of the O’F1aherty family, the father of the late James O ‘F1aherty , of Kilmurvy House, Esq. , J .P . He was the only magistrate in the islands, but ruled as a king. He issued his summon for ‘the first fine day,’ and presided at a table in the open air. If any case deserved punishment, he would say to the defendant, speaking in Irish: “I must transport you to Galway jail for a month”. The defendant would beg hard not to be transported to Galway, promising good behaviour in future. If, however, his worship thought the case serious, he would draw his committal warrant, hand it to the defendant, who would, without the intervention of police or anyone else, take the warrant, travel at his own expense to Galway, and deliver himself up, warrant in hand, at the county jail. I am afraid things are very much changed since those days. (Burke 1887, 59-60)
And in 1938 Pat Mullen wrote, “My father, who called himself King of Aran because of his being the oldest man on the island. ..” (Mullen 1938,8)
The King of Inishark is mentioned in a description of sun-fish hunting:
The primitive method which he found in use on his visit to the islands he describes in full as it was explained by Michael Halloran, the ‘king’ of Inishshark, a veteran harpooner, who had just killed his nineteenth fish a few days before. (Browne 1894,2)
and a footnote is added:
In answer to an inquiry of mine, relative to the position of King, Mr Myles Joyce, National Teacher of Bofin, writes: “The title of king is not hereditary in the island. There is at present a man removed something beyond his neighbours in the way of education and position, who is par excellence, the king; and to whom all persons who want any information about the island or its history must apply”. (Browne 1894,2)
John O’Donovan remarks in the Ordnance Survey Letters: ‘One of the name of Ó Catháin is at present King of Iniskea’. (O.S. Letters 1838,380)
while a government official visiting the island in 1881 wrote:
The Iniskea Islands have a hereditary king, and he came on board to speak on behalf of his subjects. I see him now in my mind, a tall, rugged, dignified old man. He came down to the ward-room, and while he was sitting there with a glass of whisky before him I noticed that the ship’s doctor was looking very hard at him. Finally he told him that he had what looked like an incipient cancer on the lip, but that if he would allow a very trifling operation it could be completely extirpated in a quarter of an hour; it could be done in the surgery on board. The king set up a fearful outcry and would not hear of it. The cancer spread very rapidly, and when I next visited the island some months later he was beyond all hope. (Robinson 1924,131)
Off the Sligo coast Inishmurray had its King, as reported in 1885 :
Until very recently the government of the island might have been described as monarchical in character, one of the O’Heraghtys usually occupying the position of Righ. Upon the demise of the last chief of that dynasty his widow succeeded. This lady re-married, and dying, left two sons, one being an O’Heraghty, and the other (by the second husband) a Waters. Between these two worthy individuals remains a rivalry still unsettled, so that it might be said a kind of interregnum at present exists. Formerly persons who had compromised themselves by quarrelling unnecessarily with their neighbours, or by the commission of any act contrary to the unwritten law of the community, were, by command of the Righ, banished to Ireland for a period lengthy in proportion to the character of the charge made and proved against them. Such sentences, however, were very rare. (Wakeman 1886,179-180)
The following, published in 1908, seems to show that Mr Waters succeeded (noting that O Muirisg is a local form of Waters):
Go dtí le cúpla lá ó shoin bhi rí annsin. Rí ag a raibh dalladh Gaedhilge freisin agus fear a raibh .tuisgint agus stuaim cinn ann. Acht an duine bocht tháinic Fear na Coise Caoile .i. an bás ar cuairt chuige agus chuir sé draoidheacht ar an rígh águs sguab sé leis é o’n oileán a raibh sé mar cheannaire agus comhairleóir le bliadhantaibh móra fada! Mícheál Ó Muirisg a b’ainm dó. 35 bliadhna ó shoin cailleadh a mháthair agus d’fhág sé aige-sean cúram a daoine. Is maith d’freastal sé an impidhe sin. Bhí sochraid mhór gheanamhail aige agus tasbánadh go raibh fíor-mheas agus gean air. Bhí sé breagh acfuinneach rith a shaoghail. Ní raibh easbadh bídh nó díghe air. Bhí sé go maith agus go carthannach ní hé amháin leis an treibh a bhí faoi, acht le gach
éan daoine ar buaileadh air; ba cuma cé’r b’as é. (Ó Domhnalláin 1908, 4)
(Up to a couple of days ago there was a king there. A king with dazzling Gaelic, a man of sense and mental ability. But the thin-legged man – Death – visited and cast his spell on the King and swept him away from the island in which he was leader and counsellor for long years. His name was Michael Ó Muirisg. Thirty five years ago his mother died and left the care of her people to him. Well he fulfilled that request. There was a large respectable funeral, showing that he was truly esteemed and loved. He was a man of means all his life, he never lacked food or drink. He was good and charitable, not only to those who were subject to him, but also to everyone whom he met, no matter whence they came. )
In a recent publication, Robin Fox sets out the position on Tory Island:
Under the old rundale system, the land was divided higgledy-piggledy into small lots, and everyone had bits and pieces here and there. In any case, it was periodically redistributed to ensure a fair allotment of the better land among the households. Clusters of households -containing persons related by blood -owned various portions of the fields around each town, and held them in common. But relationships and holdings got confused over the generations, and then an appeal would be made to the “king” (An Rí) to sort them out.
The king of Tory (Ri Thoraí) was probably a true descendant of the old Brehons -the lawgivers: those who knew the customary laws and usages particularly with reference to inheritance. Whether or not his position was hereditary or elective, no one remembers. In the old days, they say, he would have had to have been of a “royal” (Brehon) family, and been literate. The last king of Tory was Paddy Heggarty, a dwarf. Heggarty is not one of the old Tory names like, for example, Duggan. But perhaps the requirement that the king be literate meant that an outsider -one had married in -had to be appointed. The “eldest Duggan” was already the ritual leader of the island. He was in charge of the sacred clay from the Church of the Seven, and the pilgrimage sites. He recited the prayers on Sunday mornings in front of Saint John ‘s Altar, when there was no priest on the island. The king -as on other islands- was primarily an arbiter of land and shore disputes; the shore being as meticulously divided as the land itself, and like the land periodically redistributed: Common opinion has it that this was annual. It was understood that, for example, deposits of valuable driftwood landed at random as did other bits of wreckage -all usable. (The only iron on the island came from wreckage and was used for making plough blades). The king therefore divided up the shore in secret and then assigned an object -a rag, a bone, etc. – to each portion. To the assembled islanders he called out “who’s for the rag; who’s for the bone?” and the first to respond received the object, the portion of shore that went with it, and his chances with the flotsam and jetsam.
The succession is now in dispute. There is one pretender whose claim is his exceptional literacy in both languages. He does write many letters for the islanders, but because he has abused his literacy by using his pen for illegal purposes and has done a spell in prison, his claim is suspect. The services of a king in any case are not so much needed now, for no one bothers with the shore and the land is falling into disuse. (Fox 1978,16-17)
As regards the succession of Kingship on Tory, T.H. Mason says: “In former years they elected a King”. (1938,14)
Edward Mc Carron mentions a King of Inishtrahull, but only to say that he was “a most excitable and eccentric character when he got drink”. (McCarron 1981, 105)
It appears from the examples given above that the position of Rí was usually selective, that is to say the community chose an individual from among their own number. In the Claddagh “the fishermen elect from among themselves. ..a mayor”.
In Erris he becomes King “by increasing mutual consent”. In Port Urlainn “all the people of the townland gathered together and made him King”.
In Cape Clear Island “the islanders had a resident King chosen by and from among themselves” . In
Inishark “the title is not hereditary”.
In Tory “in the old days, they say, he would have been ‘appointed’ when necessary, but he would have to be of a ‘royal’ (Brehon) family”. Here we seem to have a type of qualified heredity similar to the selection of leaders according to ancient Irish law, where the ruler was elected or selected from among those who were eligible because of family connections. (MacNeill, 1920, passim). This selection from a certain family or certain families seems to have been the procedure in Inishmurray and Tory.
In Cape Clear Island we are told that son succeeded father, but we are not told if it was always the eldest or by selection from a number of sons; neither are we told for how long the father to son descent held, or if it ever varied. In Inishmurray there was rivalry between two step-brothers, and the man who did not have the family name of O’Heraghty became king. Indeed direct descent by primogeniture is nowhere to be found in the evidence.
The description from Gweedore indicates usurpation by force, but also hints that there was popular consent to the seizure of power .
As to the qualities desired in the King we are not left in doubt. Stature, strength, comeliness of person are mentioned, as are justice, wisdom and knowledge. Literary attainment is desirable; a good talker, a good storyteller, knowledge of two languages, the ability to read and write, all of these were laudable in the King. A degree of economic well-being or independence was also thought fitting. He had very positive and definite functions. The regulation, division and apportioning of fishing and shore rights and the allotment of tillage and pasture land was left to him, and in some cases he appointed subsidiary officers such as herdsmen.
He was expected to maintain traditional laws, to adjudicate in disputes and quarrels, to receive complaints and to advise in time of trouble, and it appears that there was willing submission to his decisions and rulings, while, in some instances, we are specifically told that he punished wrongdoers. He was expected to speak for his community in their relations with outside authority.
It is clear, then, that in the 18th and 19th centuries some small communities, entirely independently of the central government of the country, selected local leaders -usually known as An Rí who had very definite and very necessary powers and functions.
Whether this selection of local leaders is a survival of ancient custom or an expedient to fill the vacuum left by the exile of the old gentry is a matter of speculation. It is probable that remoteness of location was a factor in the emergence of the method of selection as well as of the functions of the leader, for it is evident that in most parts of Ireland local leadership was provided by the ruling gentry, the landowners, and, indeed, that where the old gentry were dispossessed, the incomers were expected to assume leadership, as Sir Henry Piers, writing of Westmeath in 1682, tells us with regard to disputes over the sharing of work on the common tillage land:
“But in case of disagreement, their customs hath provided for them, that with confidence thay may come before their landlord and demand from him their coar, or equal man, or helper to plough which they count the landlord bound to provide for them, and if he cannot, he is obliged to assist him himself. (Vallancey 1786, 118)
And again, with regard to turbary disputes:
In towns set to farmers, every house hath appropriated to itself a share or portion of the bog for turf cutting, by known measures and bounds, which whoever comes to that house is to enjoy so long as he lives in it, as well as the garden thereof. This must lie waste and untouched, until the owner be at leisure to cut his turf, nor may his neighbour, if more early at his work, lay one sod on his portion of the bog. If he does, immediately the complaint comes before the landlord, or his steward, who supplies his place in all these toils, who is holden to do right, by causing the turf thus injuriously laid on, to be thrown into the pit again. If the landlord refuses or delays his justice herein, most usually they will fall to loggerheads, and oftentimes they do so before the matter comes before the landlord, and then likely the strongest hand carries all. Hence they have a saying usual on these or the like occasions sounding much to this purpose; a town without a landlord and a bull is a town turned topsy turvey. (Vallancey 1786,119-120)
Indeed, dependence upon the landlord seems, in some places at least, to have been almost absolute. In Westmeath in 1682 we are told ‘So mean (i.e.so common) a matter it is with an Irishman to be protected by his landlord from the injuries of others, that it is a common saying in the mouths of most of them, What boots it me to have a landlord, if he defend me not, in just and unjust causes; and another saying they have as rife as this- Defend me and spend me, insomuch that it seems they give themselves up to their landlord’s pleasure, as to what he willeth for himself, in case he will suffer none else to do the like’. (Vallancey 1786,114)
It may be remarked here that, although the selection or election by the members of a community of the Ri from among their own number was in effect a primitive exercise in democracy, the community, having selected the leader, went no further than this in the process of self-government and accepted his word as their law. It is also true, however, that most modern societies are content to do the very same, to select leaders and take little or no further part in government. The extensive curtailment of local authority autonomy and responsibility in recent years might be regarded as another aspect of the same contest between localised and centralised rule and government.
The matter of traditional local community organisation and leadership calls for further investigation, and poses many questions -survival or invention of expediency? Where, and to what extent? What, if any, connection either positively or negatively with the emergence of local or sectional vigilante groups such as Whiteboys and Molly Maguires? And so on. There is, we may be sure, much further evidence to be found in printed sources and in the hidden riches of the archive of the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin, now at last being gradually laid bare.
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