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Early Irish Kingship and Succession


One of the great joys (and expenses) of a trip to Dublin is the opportunity to browse bookshops for titles of Irish interest. Of the many volumes returning with me to American after this summer's trip, Bart Jaski's Early Irish Kingship and Succession has easily been the most fascinating.

Jaski approaches a daunting subject with circumspection, and strips away the accretion of mythology and misinformation that has plagued the subject, particularly in light of the 'courtesy recognition' afforded modern Irish chiefs since the 1940s, based on primogeniture descent from the last inaugurated chief, as recommended by the first Chief Herald, Edward McLysaght. In the wake of the debate over "anistry vs. primogeniture," the casual observer has been left to wade in extremely muddy waters.

Dr Jaski has done much to shed light on a system of succession that is, in effect, devoid of absolute rules, at least in practice. He compares the theoretical writings on succession with the practical application of those rules within specific dynasties, and arrives at a very reasonable and surprisingly clear overview of what might be called "successional norms," rather than "successional rules." For those who have been led to believe that the concept of 'tanistry' has nothing whatsoever to do with seniority in descent, the book will provide some important new insights. In fact, Jaski points out that the many stories, anectdotal and otherwise, supporting the right of a junior member of the kin to succeed to the kingship, only exist because it was essential to justify an event that was highly unusual! One is forced to conclude, after reading the book, that McLysaght was perhaps applying the only Brehon Law successional principal possible after some chiefships had been dormant for three centuries or more.

The reader should not be misled by the book title's reference to "kingship." While this is certainly covered in depth, there is considerable discussion of the succession of the headship of smaller kinship groups, from the gelfine to the iarfine, again citing both theoretical principles and actual examples.

The book also includes valuable material on division of property and other conventions surrounding inheritance. If one were to nit-pick, it should be stated that there are a few more typographical and grammatical errors that might be expected, but these are easily overlooked when considering the books great value as a reference, filling, as it does, a considerable vacuum in the available literature on the subject. All in all, Dr. Jaski is to be commended for his even-handed and clear presentation of the material. Not since Katharine Simms' From Kings to warlords have I personally read such a balanced, intriguing, and thoroughly researched book.

Patrick O'Shea, Gaelic Heritage.