From mythic conflicts to ones slightly more grounded in reality, today we will discuss one of the more notable High Kings of the first millennium, and his possible connection to the Roman Empire.
Tuathal Techtmar, whose name means “the legitimate”, is the star of our story and is the figurehead for the divine right of Kings over rebellious nobles and peasants. As with my first entry, differing sources offer different information, with some changes probably hiding a political purpose.
Tuathal was the son of a High King of Ireland in the first century BC, the political system of the island in that time being of a single “High” figure taking the throne, with the lesser Kings of Ireland’s four provinces underneath him. Tuathal’s father, who may have been named Fiacha Finnolach, faced a rather massive sounding internal rebellion when Tuathal was still in his mother’s womb, with all four of the provincial Kings rising up against him at once.
Fiacha was defeated and killed, with the King of Ulster, Elim mac Conrach, taking over in his place. Tuathal’s mother, Eithne, fled to her native home of Alba (Scotland), where Tuathal was born and raised sometime around 56 AD. Elim’s reign was a harsh one, as famine struck the land, divine punishment apparently for the deposing of the rightful King (as the myth was emphasising why it was a bad idea to take on a King. Respect authority and all that).
Even this little snippet of narrative has its divisions. Only the oldest sources mention a noble-led revolt, with later ones calling it an uprising of “subject peoples” – peasants. The Lebor Gabala Erenn is the first source to mention Tuathal’s mother fleeing to Scotland. This complication over sources is confused further by a chronologically earlier story in the Annals of the Four Masters which closely matches the narrative of Tuathal, which in turn was taken by 17th century historian Geoffrey Keating and mashed together with earlier stories to form the overall tale.
Through all this we can piece together a narrative of what happened. 20-25 years after his exile began, around 76 AD, Tuathal returned home to claim his birthright, landing in Malahide with a sizable force. Joining up with two brothers, Fiacha Cassan and Findmall, who had been raiding the Irish coast for the last few decades (according to Keating, as punishment for the peoples overthrow of Fiacha) he marched with his army and their 600 men to Tara, the seat of the High Kings, where he had himself declared the monarch of the country. Elim wasn’t inclined to let him and a battle was fought between the two at the Hill of Achall, near Tara, where Elim was defeated and killed, along with most of his army.
Despite the death of the “usurper”, Tuathal still had a lot to do to secure his birthright. Fighting over a hundred battles (apparently) against the provinces, he eventually made safe his rule, and proceeded to make a massive re-organisation of the land, introducing new laws and making a new province from territory taken from the others: Mide (Meath), which would be the private domain of the High King himself. He went on to build many settlements and forts.
But he was never free of war, and was forced to fight the provinces again and again. It was in such a fight that he was killed, against Mal mac Rochride of Ulster, at the Battle of Mag Line, Antrim, sometime in the early second century AD. The story is repeated again: Mal took the High Kingship, and was later killed and supplanted by Tuathal’s son Fedlimid.
The similar nature of all these stories is naturally a bit suspect, and it is probable that much of it was imagination. It all makes for a good story, the exile and return of a destined King, bringing righteous justice on those who stole his birthright. Keating’s version even adds some modesty, as Tuathal has to be persuaded to return by repentant inhabitants of Ireland, suffering under the new High King’s rule.
It has also been proposed that this story was just propaganda, to excuse and legitimise the invasion of the island by an outside force by their later ancestors, possibly the Goidelic-speaking peoples (the precursor of modern Irish) who had become dominant on the island before the first millenium.
Of more interest might be a possible Roman connection. Evidence of any possible Roman presence in Ireland has long fascinated historians and archaeologists. Certainly, Romans of some kind were here at some point, judging from excavations at Drumanagh and elsewhere in the east. However, it is generally accepted that the Romans were never here in force, even though Agricola, who subdued much of Britain for Rome, thought the subjugation of Ireland it could be done with only 6’000 or so troops.
Yet the Roman historian Tacitus mentions that Agricola, governor of Britain from 78 to 84 AD, entertained an exiled Irish King, “driven out by internal faction”, whom he thought could be used as a pretext for an invasion. Tacitus does not elaborate on the fate of this Irish King, though he seems to indicate that Agricola did indeed lead a military expedition to Ireland for a time, before he turned his attention to Scotland. The timing has made many think of Tuathal, supposedly in exile in Britain around then.
Perhaps the Romans did give support to Tuathal, or someone like him, with the aim of having a friendly face on the throne of Ireland, who would be less likely to raid and attack the western British coast. Whether this ever took place is unknown to us, though there is evidence of a Roman presence near Tuathal’s alleged landing site in Malahide.
Warfare in the first century AD would not have changed in centuries, and would still have largely been raids, especially for cattle, noble elites fighting other noble elites. Forts and other defended places were becoming more common for protection, as differing sides sought to avoid the prospect of open battle, which usually carried too high a price for victor as well as vanquished. Tuathal would never have fought a hundred battles against the provinces, but he may have carried out that many raids. Spear and axe would still have been more common then sword, and armour would remain a novelty for several centuries.
Noble rebellions against the High King are certainly within the realm of possibility, as history shows again and again.
Tuathal is likely fictional, the truth of what happened in these years lost in various sources that have been mixed and diluted over time. It is quite possible that the general outline of events did take place, and that an internal rebellion was eventually ended by a returning heir, but who knows what the identity of this man was, or how legitimate his claim in Ireland’s own “Return of the King”.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.