Milesian Dynasty in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IT is unnecessary to follow through their details the proceedings of the Milesian princes in the period immediately subsequent to the landing. It will suffice to state that in a comparatively brief time they subdued the country, entering, however, into regular pacts, treaties, or alliances with the conquered but not powerless Firbolgs and Tuatha de Danaans. According to the constitution under which Ireland was governed for more than a thousand years, the population of the island were distinguished in two classes—the Free Clans, and the Unfree Clans; the former being the descendants of the Milesian legions, the latter the descendants of the subjected Tuatha de Danaans and Firbolgs. The latter were allowed certain rights and privileges, and to a great extent regulated their own internal affairs; but they could not vote in the selection of a sovereign, nor exercise any other of the attributes of full citizenship without special leave. Indeed, those subject populations occasioned the conquerors serious trouble by their hostility from time to time for centuries afterward.

The sovereignty of the island was jointly vested in, or assumed by, Heremon and Heber, the Romulus and Remus of ancient Ireland. Like these twin brothers, who, seven hundred years later on, founded Rome, Heber and Heremon quarreled in the sovereignty. In a pitched battle fought between them Heber was slain, and Heremon remained sole ruler of the island. For more than a thousand years the dynasty thus established reigned in Ireland, the scepter never passing out of the family of Milesius in the direct line of descent, unless upon one occasion (to which I shall more fully advert at the proper time) for the brief period of less than twenty years. The Milesian sovereigns appear to have exhibited considerable energy in organizing the country and establishing what we may call "institutions," some of which have been adopted or copied with improvements and adaptations by the most civilized governments of the present day; and the island advanced in renown for valor, for wealth, for manufactures, and for commerce.

By this, however, my young readers are not to suppose that anything like the civilization of our times, or even faintly approaching that to which ancient Greece and Rome afterward attained, prevailed at this period in Ireland. Not so. But, compared with the civilization of its own period in northern and Western Europe, and recollecting how isolated and how far removed Ireland was from the great center and source of colonization and civilization in the East, the civilization of pagan Ireland must be admitted to have been proudly eminent. In the works remaining to us of the earliest writers of ancient Rome, we find references to Ireland that attest the high position it then held in the estimation of the most civilized and learned nations of antiquity. From our own historians we know that more than fifteen hundred years before the birth of our Lord, gold mining and smelting, and artistic working in the precious metals, were carried on to a great extent in Ireland. Numerous facts might be adduced to prove that a high order of political, social, industrial, and intellectual intelligence prevailed in the country. Even in an age which was rudely barbaric elsewhere all over the world, the superiority of intellect over force, of the scholar over the soldier, was not only recognized but decreed by leglislation in Ireland! We find in the Irish chronicles that in the reign of Eochy the First (more than a thousand years before Christ) society was classified into seven grades, each marked by the number of colors in its dress, and that in this classification men of learning, i.e., eminent scholars, or savants as they would now be called, were by law ranked next to royalty.

But the most signal proof of all, attesting the existence in Ireland at that period of a civilization marvelous for its time, was the celebrated institution of the Feis Tara, or Triennial Parliament of Tara, one of the first formal parliaments or legislative assemblies of which we have record.[1] This great national legislative assembly was instituted by an Irish monarch, whose name survives as a synonym of wisdom and justice, Ollav Fiola, who reigned as Ard-Ri of Erinn about one thousand years before the birth of Christ. To this assembly were regularly summoned:

Firstly—All the subordinate royal princes or chieftains;

Secondly—Ollavs and bards, judges, scholars, and historians; and

Thirdly—Military commanders.

We have in the old records the most precise accounts of the formalities observed at the opening and during the sitting of the assembly, from which we learn that its proceedings were regulated with admirable order and conducted with the greatest solemnity.

Nor was the institution of "triennial parliaments" the only instance in which this illustrious Irish monarch, two thousand eight hundred years ago, anticipated to a certain extent the forms of constitutional government of which the nineteenth century is so proud. In the civil administration of the kingdom the same enlightened wisdom was displayed. He organized the country into regular prefectures. "Over every cantred," says the historian, "he appointed a chieftain, and over every townland a kind of prefect or secondary chief, all being the officials of the king of Ireland." After a reign of more than forty years, this "true Irish king" died at an advanced age, having lived to witness long the prosperity, happiness, and peace which his noble efforts had diffused all over the realm. His real name was Eochy the Fourth, but he is more familiarly known in history by the title or soubriquet of "Ollav Fiola," that is, the "Ollav," or lawgiver, pre-eminently of Ireland, or "Fiola."

Though the comparative civilization of Ireland at this remote time was so high, the annals of the period disclose the usual recurrence of wars for the throne between rival members of the same dynasty, which early and mediaeval European history in general exhibits. Heading over the history of ancient Ireland, as of ancient Greece, Home, Assyria, Gaul, Britain, or Spain, one is struck by the number of sovereigns who fell by violent deaths, and the fewness of those who ended their reigns otherwise. But those were the days when between kings and princes chiefs and warriors, the sword was the ready arbiter that decided all causes, executed all judgments, avenged all wrongs, and accomplished all. ambitions. Moreover, it is essential to bear in, mind that the kings of those times commanded and led their own armies, not merely in theory or by "legal fiction,"but in reality and fact;, and that personal participation in the battle and prowess in the field were expected and were requisite on the part of the royal commander. Under such circumstances one can easily perceive how it came to pass, naturally and inevitably, that the battlefield became ordinarily the deathbed of the king. In those early times the kings who did not fall by the sword, in fair battle or unfair assault, were the exceptions everywhere. Yet it is a remarkable fact, that we find the average duration of the reigns of Irish monarchs, for fifteen hundred or two thousand years after the Milesian dynasty ascended the throne, was as long as that of most European reigns in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Several of the Milesian sovereigns enjoyed reigns extending to over thirty years; some to fifty years. Many of them were highly accomplished and learned men, liberal patrons of arts, science, and commerce; and as one of them, fourteen hundred years before the Christian era, instituted regularly convened parliaments, so we find others of them instituting orders of knighthood and Companionships of Chivalry long before we hear of their establishment elsewhere.

The Irish kings of this period, as well as during the first ten centuries of the Christian age, in frequent instances intermarried with the royal families of other countries—Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Alba; and the commerce and manufactures of Ireland were, as the early Latin writers acquaint us, famed in all the marts and ports of Europe.


[1] The Amphictyonic Council did not by any means partake to a like extent of the nature and character of a parliament.