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A monarchical polity has existed in Ireland during three periods of its history, finally ending in 1801. The first period was from ancient times (ante 900BC) until the Norman invasion of Ireland when the title effectively fell into abeyance. Following this period, the kingdom became a fief of the Holy See under the Lordship of the King of England. This lesser title lasted until the Parliament of Ireland conferred the crown of Ireland upon King Henry VIII of England during the English Reformation. The monarch of England held the crowns of England and Ireland in a personal union. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 saw the accession of James VI, King of Scots, to the thrones of England and Ireland. The personal union consisted thereafter of the three realms of Scotland, England and Ireland. The personal union between England and Scotland became a political union with the enactments of the Acts of Union 1707 by the parliaments of both these countries; the entity thereby created was called the Kingdom of Great Britain. The third period of the monarchy of Ireland was ended by the Act of Union. In 1800, the Parliament of Ireland approved the political union of the monarchy of Ireland with the monarchy of Great Britain and incidentally voted itself out of existence. The united entity thereby created was known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. With this union, the independent existence of the crown of Ireland was ended. From January 1801 until December 1922, Ireland remained in this political union. After that date, most of Ireland left to become the Irish Free State with the remaining part, Northern Ireland, electing to remain in the United Kingdom. In 1927, the name of the state was updated to reflect the fact that most of the island of Ireland had left the United Kingdom; it was changed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The style of King George V was altered by replacing the words "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of" by "Great Britain, Ireland and". In April 1949, by the repeal of the 1936 External Relations Act, most of Ireland was declared to be a republic, popularly known as the Republic of Ireland.
The designation King of Ireland (Irish: Rí na hÉireann) and Queen (regnant) of Ireland was used during these periods until 1801 when the Kingdom of Ireland was merged with and into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since April 1949, the only part of Ireland that retains a monarchical system is Northern Ireland (as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
Gaelic Ireland consisted of as few as five and as many as nine main kingdoms, subdivided into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The primary kingdoms were Connacht, Ailech, Airgíalla, Ulster, Mide, Leinster, Osraige, Munster and Thomond. Until the end of Gaelic Ireland they continued to fluctuate, expand and contract in size, as well as dissolving entirely or being amalgamated into new entities. The role of High King of Ireland was primarily titular and rarely (if ever) absolute. Gaelic Ireland was not ruled as a unitary state.
The names of Connacht, Ulster, Leinster and Munster are still in use, now applied to the four modern provinces of Ireland. The following is a list of the main Irish kingdoms and their kings.
Maire Herbert has noted that Annal evidence from the late eighth century in Ireland suggests that the larger provincial kingships were already accruing power at the expense of smaller political units. Leading kings appear in public roles at church-state proclamations ... and at royal conferences with their peers. (2000,p. 62). Responding to the assumption of the title ri hErenn uile (king of all Ireland) by Mael Sechlainn I in 862, she furthermore states that
... the ninth-century assumption of the title of "ri Erenn" was a first step towards the definition of a national kingship and a territorially-based Irish realm. Yet change only gained ground after the stranglehold of Ui Neill power-structures was broken in the eleventh century. ...The renaming of a kingship ... engendered a new self-perception which shaped the future definition of a kingdom and of its subjects.
(Herbert, 2000, p. 72)
Nevertheless, the achievements of Mael Sechlainn and his successors were purely personal, and open to destruction upon their deaths. Between 846–1022, and again from 1042–1166, kings from the leading Irish kingdoms made greater attempts to compel the rest of the island's polity to their rule, with varying degrees of success, until the inauguration of Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Rory O'Connor) in 1166,
Upon the death of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn in early 1166, Ruaidhrí, King of Connacht, proceeded to Dublin where he was inaugurated King of Ireland without opposition. He was arguably the first undisputed full king of Ireland. He was also the only Gaelic one, as the events of the Norman invasion of 1169–1171 brought about the destruction of the high-kingship, and the direct involvement of the Kings of England in Irish politics.
One of Ruaidrí's first acts as King was the conquest of Leinster, which resulted in the exile of its king, Dermot MacMurrough. Ruaidrí then obtained terms and hostages from all the notable kings and lords. He then celebrated the Oneach Tailtann, a recognised prerogative of the High Kings, and made a number of notable charitable gifts and donations. However, his caput remained in his home territory in central Connacht (County Galway). Ireland's recognised capital, Dublin, was ruled by Hasculf Thorgillsson, who had submitted to Ruaidri.
Only with the arrival of MacMurrough's Anglo-Norman allies in May 1169 did Ruaidrí's position begin to weaken. A series of disastrous defeats and ill-judged treaties lost him much of Leinster, and encouraged uprisings by rebel lords. By the time of the arrival of Henry II in 1171, Ruaidrí's position as king of Ireland was increasingly untenable.
Ruaidrí at first remained aloof from engagement with King Henry, though many of the lesser kings and lords welcomed his arrival as they wished to see him curb the territorial gains made by his vassals. Through the intercession of Dr Lorcán Ua Tuathail (Lawrence O'Toole), the Lord Archbishop of Dublin, Ruaidrí and Henry came to terms with the Treaty of Windsor in 1175. Ruaidrí agreed to recognise Henry as his lord; in return, Ruaidrí was allowed to keep all Ireland as his personal kingdom outside the petty kingdoms of Laigin (Leinster) and Mide as well as the city of Waterford.
Henry was unwilling or unable to enforce the terms of the treaty on his barons in Ireland, who continued to gain territory in Ireland. A low point came in 1177 with a successful raid into the heart of Connacht by a party of Anglo-Normans, led by one of Ruaidrí's sons, Prince Muirchertach. They were expelled, Ruaidhrí ordering the blinding of Muirchertach, but over the next six years his rule was increasingly diminished by internal dynastic conflict and external attacks. Finally, in 1183, he abdicated.
He was twice briefly returned to power in 1185 and 1189, but even within his home kingdom of Connacht he had become politically marginalised. He lived quietly on his estates, and died at the monastery of Cong in 1198. With the possible exception of Brian Ua Néill (Brian O'Neill; died 1260), no other Gaelic king was ever again recognised as king or high king of Ireland.
By the time of Ruairi's death in 1198, King Henry II of England had invaded Ireland and given the part of it he controlled to his son John as a Lordship when John was just 10. When John succeeded to the English throne, he remained Lord of Ireland thereby bringing the kingdom of England and the lordship of Ireland into personal union. By the mid-13th century, while the island was nominally ruled by the king of England, from c.1260 the effective area of control began to recede. As various Cambro-Norman noble families died out in the male line, the Gaelic nobility began to reclaim lost territory. The problem was recognised as significant at the parliament of 1297, yet successive English kings did little to stem the tide, instead using Ireland to draw upon men and supplies in the wars in Scotland and France.
By the 1390s the Lordship had effectively shrunk to the Pale with the rest of the island under the control of independent Gaelic-Irish or rebel Cambro-Norman noble families. King Richard II of England made two journeys to Ireland during his reign to rectify the situation; as a direct result of his second visit in 1399 he lost his throne to Henry Bolingbroke. This was the last time that a medieval king of England visited Ireland.
For the duration of the 15th century, royal power in Ireland was weak, the country being dominated by the various clans and dynasties of Gaelic (O'Neill, O'Brien, MacCarthy) or Cambro-Norman (Burke, FitzGerald, Butler) origin. Affairs closer to London ensured, well into the 1530s, that Irish affairs remained at best a secondary concern.
The title "King of Ireland" was created by an act of the Irish Parliament in 1541, replacing the Lordship of Ireland, which had existed since 1171, with the Kingdom of Ireland. The Crown of Ireland Act 1542 established a personal union between the English and Irish crowns, providing that whoever was King of England was to be King of Ireland as well, and so its first holder was King Henry VIII of England. Henry's sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, was the first Queen consort of Ireland following her marriage to King Henry in 1543. This followed the failure of the plan to make The 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset (1519–1536) the King of Ireland. Although Richmond was made Lord Lieutenant, the King's counsellors feared that creating a separate Kingdom of Ireland, with a ruler other than that of England, would create another threat like the King of Scotland.
The title of King of Ireland was created after Henry VIII had been excommunicated in 1538, so it was not recognised by European Catholic monarchs. Following the accession of the Catholic Mary I in 1553 and her marriage to Felipe, Prince of Asturias, in 1554, Pope Paul IV issued the papal bull "Ilius" in 1555, recognising them as Queen and King of Ireland together with her heirs and successors.
For a brief period in the 17th century, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms from the impeachment and execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Irish Restoration in May 1660, there was no 'King of Ireland'. After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Irish Catholics, organised in Confederate Ireland, still recognised Charles I, and later Charles II, as legitimate monarchs, in opposition to the claims of the English Parliament, and signed a formal treaty with Charles I in 1648. But in 1649, the Rump Parliament, victorious in the English Civil War, executed Charles I, and made England a republic, or "Commonwealth". The Parliamentarian general Oliver Cromwell came across the Irish Sea to crush the Irish royalists, temporarily uniting England, Scotland, and Ireland under one government, and styling himself "Lord Protector" of the three kingdoms. (See also Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.) After Cromwell's death in 1658, his son Richard emerged as the leader of this pan-British Isles republic, but he was not competent to maintain it. Parliament at London voted to restore the monarchy, and Charles II returned from exile in France in 1660 to become King of England, King of Scotland and King of Ireland.
The Acts of Union 1707 merged the kingdoms of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain. This entity was also known as the British Crown. The effect was to create a personal union between the Crown of Ireland and the British Crown. Later, on 1 January 1801, an additional merger took place between the two Crowns. By the terms of the Act of Union 1800, the Kingdom of Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain, thus creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the separation of most of Ireland from that political entity, the remaining constituent parts were renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927, five years after the establishment of the Irish Free State.
In early December 1922, most of Ireland (twenty-six of the country's thirty-two counties) left the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. These 'Twenty-Six Counties' now became the Irish Free State, a self-governing Dominion within the British Empire. Six of Ireland's north-eastern counties, all within the Province of Ulster, remained within the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. This left the new Free State with only 26 counties. As a Dominion, the Free State was a constitutional monarchy with the British monarch as its head of state. The monarch was officially represented in the new Free State by the Governor-General of the Irish Free State.
The King's title in the Irish Free State was exactly the same as it was elsewhere in the British Empire, being from 1922 to 1927: "By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India" and, from 1927 to 1937: "By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India". The change in the King's title was effected under an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom called the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act, 1927, intended to update the name of the United Kingdom as well as the King's title to reflect the fact that most of the island of Ireland had left the United Kingdom. The Act therefore provided that "Parliament shall hereafter be known as and styled the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland [instead of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland]" and "In every Act passed and public document issued after the passing of this Act the expression 'United Kingdom' shall, unless the context otherwise requires, mean Great Britain and Northern Ireland."
According to The Times, the "Imperial Conference proposed that, as a result of the establishment of the Irish Free State, the title of the King should be changed to 'George V, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India.'" The change did not mean that the King had now assumed different styles in the different parts of his Empire. That development did not formally occur until 1953, four years after the new Republic of Ireland had left the Commonwealth.
When the Statute of Westminster was passed in 1931, the Irish Free State became legislatively independent from the United Kingdom and, despite a lack of change in his title, George V's position as king of that country became separated from his place as King of the United Kingdom (as occurred with all the other British Dominions at the time). The Government of the Irish Free State was confident that the relationship of these independent countries under the Crown would function as a personal union.
The constitutional crisis resulting from the abdication of King Edward VIII on 11 December 1936 was used by de Valera's government as a catalyst to amend the Constitution of the Irish Free State by eliminating all but one of the King's official duties. This was achieved with the enactment on the same day of the Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act and, on 12 December, the External Relations Act, which provided that the Irish monarch would represent Ireland "for the purposes of external representation". The following year, all references to the monarch and the governor-general were eliminated when the majority of Irish people ratified the Constitution of Ireland. This left only a purely external role for the King, meaning that, from 1936 to 1949, the King's role in the Irish Free State/Éire was greatly reduced and ambiguous. This ambiguitity was eliminated with the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which came into force in April 1949, and by the repeal of the 1936 External Relations Act, which also declared the State to be a republic. The position of the King in the Irish state was finally and formally ended by the Oireachtas with the repeal of the Crown of Ireland Act 1542 by the Statute Law Revision (Pre-Union Irish Statutes) Act 1962.
The British monarchy, specifically, continued and continues in Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the sovereign state that is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. From 1921 until 1973, the British monarch was officially represented in Northern Ireland by the Governor of Northern Ireland.
Kings George I, II, and III had reigned as "King of Ireland"; after a constitutional change Georges III & IV had reigned as "King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland."
The king's title in the Irish Free State, when it became a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire, and its constitutional successor from December 1936 to April 1949, was the same as elsewhere in the British Commonwealth, but it was unclear whether the President of Ireland was Irish head of state from 1936 to 1949 or the King, George VI, and differences affecting the description or Names of the Irish state persisted until resolved following the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement 1998.
The changes in the royal style in 20c. took into account the emergence of independence for the dominions from the Imperial Parliament of the United Kingdom. The kings successively and their advisers and governments in the United Kingdom were fully aware that the republican intent of the representatives of the Irish Free State was in marked contrast to the intent of the governments of certain other dominions, such as Canada. and such differences were manifested in this period in the design and use of flags and other national symbols for the Irish Free State and other dominions.