IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO LEAF through the early literature of Ireland and stop at a certain place and say, this is where the mythmaking ends and true history begins. When it came time to write about the early kings—sometimes centuries after they lived—fact, memory, current politics, religion, and the love of a good story mixed together in sometimes wildly unequal portions to create a historic tradition.

When Gerald of Wales wrote about the newly invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, he noted, “There are many kings there.” Indeed there were and there had been for centuries, as many as 125 at a time, ranging from the kings of tiny local kingdoms to the kings of the four provinces to the high king at Tara. Since none of these kings, great or small, inherited his crown, each had to win—one way or another—the support of his nobles and the recognition of the kings of rival kingdoms. This was done through force, through well-planned marriages, and through an elaborate system of gift giving.

The following accounts of some pre-eleventh-century kings mix legend and fact, but one scene provides some insight on the gift-giving process. Cormac, king of Munster, needs money and asks for gifts. His family and closest allies do not respond, but a distant clan—no doubt seeking closer ties to the ruler—is unexpectedly generous. Usually, however, the giving of gifts was not left to chance and everyone knew exactly what was required. The Book of Rights (Kebor na Cert), which claims to be from the eleventh century but was probably written later, spells out the gift giving in detail. Here, for example, is a partial list of what was expected from a king of Munster:

·         Ten steeds and ten drinking horns and ten swords and ten scrings [horse harnesses] and two rings and two chessboards to the king of Gabhran.

·         Ten steeds and ten bondmen [slaves] and ten women and ten drinking horns to the king of the Eoghanachta.

·         Eight bondmen and eight women and swords and eight horses and eight shields and ten ships to the king of the Deise Momhan.

·         Seven hounds and seven steeds and seven drinking horns to the king of Dairbhre.

·         Seven women and seven matals [cloaks] trimmed in gold and seven drinking horns and seven steeds to the king of Ciarraighe.

Irish knights and their attendants, 1521. The mantles and axes are typically Irish; the swords and armor are not. Drawing by Albrecht Dürer.

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