Honour in Medieval Ireland: why King Ronan slew his son?

One of the most popular topics in world literature is murder, and of course, ancient Irish literature is no exception to this pattern. This article will analyse an excellent example of the Irish medieval legends. The tale named How Ronan Killed His Son holds a lot of cultural, historical and literary treasures that have attracted researchers for many years, but before all, it perfectly represents the structure of values and morals of Ireland of the Middle Ages.

The general line of the plot

The saga’s plot revolves around King Rónán looking for a new wife. He married the young daughter of the northern king Eochaid though the new queen lusted after her newly minted stepson, Máel Ḟothartaig. Loyal to his father, the hero rejected any attempt of hers to commit adultery. Furious, Eochaid’s daughter slandered him in front of his father. Insulted, Rónán orders a servant to kill his innocent son. However, the death of Máel Ḟothartaig, a national hero and an undoubted leader, causes indescribable discontent among the population, which leads to a rebellion and the overthrow of the King Rónán.

What is an act of Fingal?

The saga is built around the phenomenon of Fingal (kin-slaying) which is represented in the title of the story, Fingal Rónán. The kin-slaying was one of the worst crimes of the era. The structure of early Irish society was instituted on the relations and links within one’s kin. So the act of murder within a family was not just a serious, but an unforgivable deed [1]. If the court classified the murder as Fingal, then the murderer was set adrift to die painfully. But even if the person survived and returned to land, the court provided for measures so that the culprit would not avoid the punishment.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that Ronan was not driven by simple jealousy, but the reason for the murder was much deeper and more complicated, because Fingal would not have remained unnoticed even to the king [2].

Father, Son and Honour

The concept of honour in medieval Ireland is a key notion of the story. Honour was fundamental and even determining to people’s social identity, especially to royalty and nobility [3]. In the story, King Rónán was publicly humiliated and disgraced by the scene when his wife told about his son’s harassment.

Thereby, in an honour-based society, King Rónán had no other choice but to slay the son in order to save the reputation and restore his honour even despite the irreversible consequences [4] .

At the same time, Rónán was not set adrift and left to the mercy of God as it was required by law for kin-slaying. Probably, the reason is that he was punished for poor governance and unfair decisions, but not for sonicide.

The wordplay and the title

The literary merit of the story encompasses the choice of characters’ names that might be purposeful. The name of Máel Ḟothartaig’s murderer, Aedán (Son of Aed), coincides with the full name of his father – Rónán maс Aeda (Rónán, son of Aeda). This fact implies a hypothesis that Máel Ḟothartaig was slayed not by a father’s warrior but by his father’s literary alter ego. Furthermore, if we are to follow the logic of names, then it is possible to assume that Rónán did not have one, but two alter egos. The first (Aedán) was jealous of his wife, and the other one faithfully loved his son. The latter is represented by Aed, Máel Ḟothartaig’s son who avenged him by riddling Rónán with a spear. Thus, it turns out that in the end Rónán himself is mortally wounded by his own alter ego.

Consequently, the title itself is purposely equivocal. Fingal Rónáin commonly stands for Rónán Killing His Son while Rónán himself is a victim of fingal. Hence, the title may be equally read as Rónán Slain By His Kin.

Were the characters real?

The main characters of the tale have real historical prototypes. Thus, Rónán is a literary incarnation of Rónán mac Colmáin from Uí Dúnlainge dynasty who was the king of Laigin. In the saga, he is the king of Leinster, possibly because he was confused with another Rónán mac Colmáin, the king of Leinster, who also lived in the 7th century. Then, the father of Rónán’s new wife is identified in Eochaidh Iarlaithe mac Lorgan, the king of the Cruithne (Ulster). Plus, Máel Ḟothartaig and Eochaid’s daughter are also mentioned in genealogies, though there is few data about them.

Is this a purely Irish story?

According to a widespread opinion, Fingal Rónáin represents an Irish adaptation of the tragedy Hippolytos by Euripides and the play Phaedra by Seneca. Actually, this case is not exceptional for Irish literature of that time.

Phèdre by Alexandre Cabanel (1880), Musée Fabre

Phèdre by Alexandre Cabanel (1880), Musée Fabre, Montpellier
Credit: public domain photograph, Source: Musée Fabre
JPEG - 833.3 ko

Multiple scholars such as Professor Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, Caren Esser and Jonathan Slocum agree on this point recognizing in the tale the ancient Greek and Roman stories put in medieval Irish settings.

Indeed, the similarities are so striking that it is impossible to imagine the randomness of these coincidences. Likewise, P. de Bernardo Stempel believes that the Irish story has much more in common with Seneca’s play than with Euripides’ original tragedy.

Nevertheless, Uáitéar Mac Gearailt considers this story to be more independent of ancient influence [5]. In the article The making of Fingal Rónáin, he suggests that the general idea of Phaedra might serve as the inspiration, but the tale is a completely different and autonomous literary creation.

First of all, he proves that the tale’s literary style is thoroughly Irish. Similar to other early Irish literature like Táin Bó Cúailnge, the form of expression is built on dialogues and significant narrative passages unlike Seneca’s play.

Then, he exposes the fact that even though the basic components are the same in both works, the Irish author creates his own material concerning characters, plot twists and important details. To point out, the image of Máel Ḟothartaig is described as the best of Leinster’s sons, loyal and involved, contrary to distant and misogynic Hippolytus [6].


Firstly, jealousy is generally seen as the main reason for the kin-slaying in the story. However, the reality most likely lies in the combination of many factors such as the protection of honour in an honour-based society, human envy and fear of being overthrown by the son, consequently, the fear of losing status.

Secondly, Rónán was not punished in accordance with the law on fingal of that time, but was killed in fight. Thus, it is possible to regard the saga as a guide for rulers warning how vital it is to make informed decisions and be a fair king.

Thirdly, the saga’s title provides two meanings. On one hand, this is the murder of the family by Rónán (he is responsible for the death of all the characters not just his son’s one). On the other hand, it may be considered to be the act of fingal in which Rónán himself is the victim.

In addition, whether the author copied Seneca’s play or not is not that significant since the proper literary value of the saga is undeniable. Then, it is plausible that the storyline is universal for all cultures (Greek, Roman or Irish) for as much it meets general human nature.

Finally, the story perfectly illustrates the position of honour in the value system of society in medieval Ireland. History proves that the concept of honour was so important that it could justify an act of fingal.


[1King, P., Sigillito, G., & Deady, S. (Eds.). (2004). The Wisdom of the Celts. Citadel Press

[2Berg, M. (2012). Acts of Fingal in Early Irish Literature (Bachelor’s thesis).

[3Wilson, D. N. (2004). Honour and Early Irish Society: A Study of the Táin Bó Cúalnge [sic] (Doctoral dissertation, University of Melbourne, Department of History).

[4Ó Cathasaigh, T. (1985). Varia III. The Trial of Mael Ḟothartaig. Ériu, 36, 177–180.

[5Mac Gearailt, U. (2006). The making of Fingal Rónáin. Studia Hibernica, (34), 63-84.

[6Poppe, E. (1996). Deception and Self-Deception in “Fingal Rónáin.” Ériu, 47, 137–151.

Published 8 September 2023 (Edited 3 May 2023)