The Political & Social Structure of Ancient Ireland

We begin by taking a brief look at the political and social structure of Celtic Ireland when our ancestor, Eochaidh Muigh Meadhoin (OH-he Muee -Moyvone), became Ard-Rí, the 124th Monarch of Ireland, in 357 AD. In the early years of Celtic Ireland, great war-lords dominated the land with their chariots and hill forts. Such heroic ages as they are known do not last long but they are remembered and indeed recorded at the time in the earliest of Old Irish sagas by men who united native and Latin learning. Ireland had settled down to become an agricultural country, divided into a number of small kingdoms or tuatha (TOO-ha), with the number gradually increasing to about one hundred and fifty by the turn of the seventh century AD, and each ruled by a king or rí (REE). A number of these rulers were also over-kings, receiving tribute from neighbouring kings. There were also kings of provinces, and a high king, or ard-rí of all Ireland. The two pivotal institutions of the time were the fine (FEEN-eh) or joint-family which was the social unit, and the tuath (TOO-eh) or petty kingdom- the political unit. The fine included all relations in the male line of descent for five generations and in it was vested the ultimate ownership of family land, fintiu (FEEN-chew).

Initially Ireland was divided into the so-called 'five fifths of Ireland'. These corresponded to the present provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Munster and Leinster, except that north Leinster formed the Middle Kingdoms or the ancient Irish territories of Mide (Mee-de) and Brega or Breagh (Breh), which roughly equate to the modern counties of Meath and Westmeath. The plain north of the Liffey River was referred to anciently as Brega, and it held one of the great ritual and royal sites in ancient Ireland, that of Tara (Teamhair). Later, however, two additional units were formed on the borders of Ulster by the defeat of the Ulaid (dynasty) who were driven east of the Bann by Connachta (dynasty). These were Aileach and Airgialla.

There was no system of primogeniture. Land was shared equally between brothers but the head of the senior line of descendants was the cenn fine (CAN), who represented the family. Moreover, the fine was responsible for the transgressions of its members. If, for example, one of its members was slain, it was its duty to exact blood vengeance. More often than not a payment of blood-money was accepted from the slayer or his fine whose responsibility it was ultimately to ensure this payment known as the éraic (AIR-rick) was made. Female members of the fine could not inherit land, but they could have a life interest in their father's land if they had no brothers.

In royal families, each king was elected from a small group of people, known as the geilfhine (GAYL-fee-ne) or derbfine (also deirbfhine) as often called, and comprising the male descendants of a common great-grandfather, four generations in all. Thus a king could be succeeded not only by a son or grandson, but also by an uncle or a great-nephew. What is particularly interesting to note here is that if one branch of the family was allowed to hold the kingship for four generations, the others could fall outside the derbfhine and so lose their royal status. Consequently, the temptation was there to kill one's own kin or commit fingal (FEEN-gul), the worst crime in Irish society as there could be neither legal vengeance nor compensation. To prevent this, a tánaiste rí (TAWN-ish-teh) or heir-apparent was usually elected during the king's lifetime. Given the ramifications of the fine and deirbfhine, it is easy to see why Celtic or Irish noble families were so careful to preserve their genealogies.

Beneath the king were the nobles or flaithi. The highest grade of nobleman or the aire tuise(AH-reh CHEW-sheh) was the toisech (TEE-shock) or chief of a large group of aristocratic kinsmen known as a cenél (ken-ALE). These were warriors and owners of cattle, and had an important role as patrons of the áes dána, the 'men of art', who constituted the most important element of early Irish society and comprised the learned classes, the poets, the brehons, the historians and genealogists as well as the musicians, and the skilled craftsmen. They alone enjoyed franchise outside their own tuatha and travelled freely throughout Ireland. They were all originally druids. In the centuries before Christianity reached Ireland the druids exercised great influence, not merely as priests but also as learned men who could judge disputes and advise kings. Their training lasted possibly a dozen years, and their traditions were passed on orally. The druids practised magic and claimed to foretell the future. They conducted public sacrifice, offering captured animals to the gods after a successful battle. Christianity meant the end of the druids, but the poets and the brehons continued to have a very important role in Irish history.

The brehons were professional lawyers, who had drawn up a very elaborate scheme of the different degrees of relationships, and when disputes arose, it was to them that people turned as arbitrators, for there was no public enforcement of law. There was a complicated system of sureties to make certain that contracts were fulfilled or that the parties to an arbitration accepted its outcome.

The filidh were more than poets. In addition to composing and reciting poetry they were custodians of the history, mythology and genealogy of the Celts. In the Christian era the filidh acquired much of the authority which had once belonged to the druids, and did much to preserve Irish tradition and learning. The chief poets and brehons were known as the Ollams. Socially, an Ollam was of equal status with the king of a tuath, a status also enjoyed later by bishops and abbots.

Next came the freemen, the tillers of the soil, usually bound by contract to a nobleman. Under this contract, which could be terminated by either party, the nobleman provided protection and lent the freeman cattle to graze his land, receiving in return a rent which might consist of sacks of wheat or malt and possibly a salted pig or a young calf. These people lived in individual farms but the better homesteads were raths (ring-forts) surrounded by an earthen rampart and stockade, the so called 'fairy forts' of the modern countryside. The king's house, according to Brehan law, should have a double rampart. His main functions were to lead his people in war and preside over the óenach (OWN-nock) or fair where the people of the tuath met to conduct public and private business and for entertainment. There were also slaves, probably captured in war, but comparatively little is known about them and they may not have been very numerous. All freemen, though, were landowners. The lawyers catalogued elaborate sub-divisions of each class according to property qualifications. The b6aire or higher grade of freeman had to have land worth thrice seven cumals that is to say an amount equalling the value of 63 milch-cows. The Irish had a simple agrarian economy and did not use coined money. The basic unit of value was a sét (SHATE-Modern Irish séad)- a young heifer. A higher unit was the cumal - a female slave, reckoned as equal to six séts. We find similar units in Homeric Greece, and even the Latin word for money pecunia, comes from pecus, 'cattle'. The cumal and sét are not always to be understood in their literal sense, for they were equated with sums reckoned in shekels and ounces of silver, and we find the cumal also used as a measure of land*.
While the information here is derived from a number of sources, the main two are a brilliant book entitled "Early Irish Contract Law" by Dr Neil McLeod and "The Course of Irish History" edited by TW Moody and FX Martin.

Previous ‹-------› Next