Sacrificing a neighbour’s son to the Sun god, fighting with and against the Vikings, kneeling before a Celtic cross – these are the stories of Ireland’s legendary yet pragmatic High Kings…

Discover the story of High Kings & Heroes in Ireland's Ancient East

Discover the story of High Kings & Heroes in Ireland's Ancient East
Who was this well-groomed man with his finely shaped beard, his shaved forehead, his long hair gelled and then piled high on the top of his head?
The body – found in 2003 – had been preserved by the peat bog in Meath for more than 2,000 years. He was almost certainly an aristocrat, sacrificed to the gods of fertility by one of Ireland’s ancient kings. He may well have been a political prisoner – perhaps a prince. For the custom was to steal and keep the eldest sons of rival kings, to ensure peace. 
To the Irish kings, keeping the gods of nature happy was just as important.
Due west of that bog – on the Hill of Uisneach – a fire would be lit (and is lit still) each May, to spark the summer into life. This is Bealtaine – the festival of rebirth.  

In earlier times this beacon was the signal to light the fire atop the Hill of Tara and then many another sacred and significant hill across Ireland. They talked of lighting a “fire eye”, with Uisneach being the eye’s pupil.

Back then, Ireland was divided into more than 100 kingdoms, but it was the High Kings crowned at Uisneach and then later Tara who held symbolic power.
Left: Beacons being lit at the Festival of the Fires, Uisneach. Right: an illustration of a banquet fit for a king
Their early history is wrapped in fabulous legends – tales of great warriors and rulers both male and female with godlike powers.  
From the 5th century, with the arrival of St Patrick (who lights his own fire on the Hill of Slane, to rival the one on Tara), events take a more pragmatic turn: the kings convert, swapping sun worship for Christianity, yet managing to combine both in the distinctive Celtic cross. Kings do battle both with and against the Viking invaders. And it's an Irish king who invites the first Norman knight to step ashore, to help him defeat a rival.
Left: Image of St Patrick preaching to the High Kings. Middle: few symbols are as recognisable as the Celtic Cross. Right: Setanta was the son of Deichtine and Lug, the Celtic God of Light

High Kingship was fought over by many clans whose names echo in the surnames of the Irish today. All those modern McMahons and O’Kanes, O’Kellys, McCarthys, O’Neills and O’Briens.

They have a direct link back to the kings.
They still drink the spirit the kings called Uisce Beatha (whiskey). They still play Poc Fada (hurling), the game the legendary warrior Cúchulainn played as a boy. And they still climb symbolic hills in the dark today, right across Ireland’s Ancient East … to see in the New Year, celebrate Halloween, and mark the changing of the seasons.
Left: You'll always be able to find somewhere to enjoy a glass of whiskey, known in Irish as 'uisce beatha', the water of life. Right: experience the excitement of hurling, the fastest grass game in the world