O’Conors : High Kings of Ireland
The Coronation Stone or Inauguration Stone of the O’Connors can still be seen at Clonalis to this day.
In Gaelic tradition, Irish and indeed Scottish, when a king was inaugurated he symbolically married the soil over which he was to rule and a sacred stone was used for this purpose. The stone acted as the Kings bride and the ceremony was known as “Banais Ri” (” the Kings marriage”). The stone at Clonalis was probably used to inaugurate up to 30 O’Conor Kings. The ceremony took place at Carnfree near Tulsk in Roscommon, about 12 miles from Clonalis on a hill overlooking the 5 counties which formed the Kingdom of Connacht.
The ceremony was highly ritual and was performed in front of the Bishops, Abbots and sub-kings of Connacht. Part of the ceremony required the King to put his foot in the footstep which is carved in the top of the stone, probably as an act of consummation. The Coronation Stone was only one of a number of such stones that existed in the past, however the only other such stone known to me to be still in existence is the Stone of Scone now in Edinburgh Castle in Scotland and formerly under the throne in Westminster Abbey.
The Coronation Stone is resonant of a time when the O’Conors were Kings, not only of their province Connacht, but for a time, of Ireland. Without doubt the greatest O’Conor King was Turlough Mor O’Conor, High King of Ireland in the 12th century AD and who left us many reminders of his reign.
The most significant of these is the Cross of Cong, commissioned in 1123 to carry a piece of the ‘True Cross’ around Ireland, as the King processed through the nation to accept the submission and tribute of the provincial rulers. This magnificent work of art is made of oak sheathed in metal. The front and back are decorated in bronze panels of animals interlacing and the central crystal on the front of the Cross is surmounted by a panel of spiral filigree in gold. Around the margins are settings of glass and enamel enclosed in circular frames.
The sides of the cross are covered with silver and bear inscriptions in Latin and Irish, one of which reads ” a prayer for Turlough Mor, King of Erin for whom this cross was made”.
Turlough Mor should also be remembered for the great Chancel Arch in St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam and the High Cross in Tuam, Co Galway, both of which he commissioned. On his death in 1156, Turlough Mor O’Conor was buried beside the High Alter in St Kieran’s Church at Clonmacnoise, the famous medieval Monastic City on the banks of the River Shannon.
On Turlough Mor’s death he was succeeded by his son Rory, as King of Connacht. It was not until the year 1166 that Rory, as the most powerful provincial King was recognised as High King of Ireland. However events were moving against Rory. Almost 100 years after the Normans had successfully invaded Britain in 1066, they were now turning their attention to Ireland. The treacherous King of Leinster, who had been expelled from his kingdom by Rory’s father, Turlough Mor, persuaded the Normans to help restore him to the throne of Leinster.
On May 1st, 1169 a small force of 30 knights, 60 men in half armour and 300 archers and foot soldiers landed at Bannow Bay in Wexford, in the heart of the kingdom of Leinster. This was the first day of a new chapter in Ireland’s history that was to last 800 years. In the months ahead the Normans reinforced their bridgehead but while Rory O’Conor had a number of chances of easily defeating the Normans he prevaricated and eventually was unable to resist the invaders.
Rory, dejected by his failure to expel the Normans, abdicated in favour of his son Conor Moinmoy and retired to the Abbey at Cong, which he had previously founded. There Rory lived out the rest of his life as a monk. So it was that the last High King of Ireland died as a monk in the year 1198 and was buried at the Abbey.
With Rory’s death the Irish monarchical system ended. The monarchical system had governed Ireland for almost a millennium. Thirty years after his death, Rory’s body was reburied beside his father’s at Clomacnoise.