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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Eight

                Christian Period (400-800 AD)

 Summary. Describes the social and economic conditions in ancient Ireland, the economy, free farmers, unfree classes, warfare, functions of chiefs, grades of chiefs, craftsmen, poets




Social and Economic Conditions in England            

Social and Economic conditions in Ireland

The Social Stratification of Irish Society

The Structure of the Economy

The Farm



Travel and Trade

The Structure within the Tuath

The Grades of Tuatha

The Family and Kinship

The Five Provinces


The Life of the People


Situation in Europe and Britain (400-800AD)


This period covers the centuries during which Christianity and writing were brought to Ireland. On the Continent, it was a period of slow economic decline, a period of adjustment as the barbarian chiefs from the other side of the Rhine took over the government, fought each other from time to time, and assimilated Roman culture more or less successfully. Only at the very end of the period was there one chief who managed to control quite a large part of the Western Empire, and a large piece of western Germany as well. In places like the Visigothic kingdoms in Italy and Spain, life was little different from what it had been under the Roman emperors. In the nineteenth century, dominated by Darwinian ideas of race struggles, it was regarded as a period of reversion to barbarism. Irish Romantic historians depicted Ireland as a solitary beacon of light and learning virtually cut off from the rest of Christendom, with Irish missionaries going out to reconvert Europe.

It could be described as lasting from the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain in 410 AD until the first Viking raid in 795 AD. The beginning was marked by a significant and as it proved irreversible weakening of central Roman government in the western provinces, and the beginning of the settlements of the semi-Romanised peoples from outside the frontiers of the Empire inside those frontiers. The end of the period is marked by the onset of the Viking invasions. The wars and migrations of the Christian and semi-Romanised ‘barbarians’ between 400 AD and 800 AD were comparatively mild, unlike the time after 800. The period was also marked in western Europe by the successful absorption of the various barbarian peoples, their adoption of Christianity, the spread of Christianity into the countryside and among the common people, the general use of Latin among the educated classes, the revival of writing, followed by a revival of trade, a revival of architecture in stone, and so on.

            The Roman Empire by 400 AD had reached its greatest extent, and there is no obvious reason why the Latin part of it should collapse so suddenly. By the year 800 the Empire was about a quarter the size of what it was in 400 AD, was centred on Byzantium, was Christian, and was Greek-speaking. It became known as the Byzantine Empire though it was merely the continuation of the state that started in Rome. The root problem seems to have been that the productive capacity of the Empire was insufficient to defend all its frontiers at the same time, and to enforce internal discipline. On the eastern frontier Persia had been restored under the Sassanid dynasty. Along the northern frontier the Teutonic-speaking tribes seemed no more dangerous than in the days of Julius Caesar. Yet between the year 378 when the Visigoths won the battle of Adrianople and 698 when the Arabs captured Carthage the Roman Empire lost two thirds of its territory. Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople for the defence of the more valuable eastern provinces. Two emperors were provided, one for the east and one for the west. The western emperor made Milan, not Rome his seat, again with a view of facing the greatest threat.

            The decline of the Roman Empire and of long distance trade and travel led to a shrinking of the towns. Trade, roads, and transport were virtually unchanged from the preceding period, but the collapse of a central government, central defence, and central taxation meant that trade became largely local. Ships however were constantly improving, and it would appear that reasonable conditions prevailed over the whole of the North Atlantic. There seems to have been increasing confidence in sailing out of sight of land, so that even before the Viking period voyages were being made to the Faeroes, and even Iceland and Norway. By the time the Holy Roman Empire was established under Charlemagne, it could be felt that the losses had been largely regained. Those barbarian tribes like the Franks, the Angles, and the Saxons had accepted Christianity, and the guidance of the Church, and were themselves promoting the spread of Christianity.

            In these 400 years here was not anarchy or reversion to a primitive social and economic life. Cities may have shrunk, but they still existed. The Roman roads may have been ill-repaired and unsuitable for wheeled traffic, but they still existed. It may have been advisable to travel in groups along with some men who carried arms. A person travelling from Northern France to Rome could follow the straight Romans roads from city to city the whole way. As late as the early nineteenth century an English bishop travelling to Rome would hire post chaises until he reached Rome. The time taken would have been little different from travelling on horseback. Bishop Poynter left London on 28 November 1814 and arrived in Rome on 14 January 1815. The journey cost him £40 sterling (about £1600 today). Cost in the early Middle Ages would have been proportionate, something that a bishop or chief with access to some means of earning or borrowing cash could afford. With regard to trade, we can remember the words of Pope Gregory when he saw fair-haired English slaves being sold in the slave market, ‘Non Angli sed Angeli (not Angles but angels). Slaves were still a commodity that could be transported at a profit. The source of most of the slaves were the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, and slavus replaced servus as the common Latin word for slave. Pilgrimages like that of the Spanish nun Etheria to the Holy Land made at the end of the fourth century were not as easy as they had been. But they were certainly not impossible. It would be possible for Charlemagne’s army to march from Aachen on the Rhine to Rome, given good conditions, in six weeks in summer. An Irish messenger to Rome in these centuries would probably have taken somewhat longer than Bishop Poynter in 1815. He would probably have been held up at various points by the need to negotiate a passage through the next state, and the need to await a body of trustworthy armed men going in his direction. He would probably have needed twice as much money to allow for gifts and bribes and for a longer stay in Rome. There would always be delays when the alpine passes were blocked during the winter. So it would not be unreasonable to allow a full year for a return journey to Rome, with three months to go, three months to return and six months in Rome awaiting a decision and for the passes to reopen. A journey to a Church council in the north of France could be undertaken in a single summer. So the lack of contact between Ireland and Rome in these four centuries is quite remarkable. 

            Semi-nomadic or nomadic peoples outside the borders of the Empire caused the problems. The region that stretched from the Atlantic coast to the borders of China was controlled by the descendants of pastoral nomads who were split into three linguistic groups. These were the Indo-European group, the Finno-Ugric group and the Altaic group. Among the Indo-European tribes the Teutonic-speaking group occupied all of Central Europe, replacing the Celtic-speakers, all of northern Europe except Finland and Estonia, and spread far to the east into southern Russia. The most important of these were the Goths, originally from a small area in Sweden who had carved out a huge kingdom for themselves in southern Russia. There they came under pressure from Huns. The division into Huns, Turks, Tartars, and Mongols was largely one of language, though the later Mongols coming from the easternmost part of the steppes were Mongoloid rather than Caucasoid in appearance. Their economy in the dryer parts of the steppes had to be based on the horse and the sheep, rather than on cattle and pigs. Their skills in horsemanship gave them a military advantage for several hundred years over the settled agriculturists. From the fourth to the seventeenth century various steppe peoples formed transient empires and attacked every place from France to North China. Up the year 800 the disturbances were to a large extent caused by migrations of semi-Romanised peoples into the shelter of the Empire. After 800, the steppe-dwellers directly attacked the new Christendom.

             Fighting on horseback instead of from chariots was now the rule among the steppe-dwellers. As they had no stirrups and their seat was not very secure on the horse’s back they used arrows and a light spear for thrusting downwards. The general tactic was to wear down defending forces with repeated swoops using arrows, until it was time to overwhelm the weakened defenders with a rush. For defence and attack against them Romans, Byzantines, and Persians used combined forces of cavalry and infantry, with increasing emphasis on cavalry. The heavy cavalry with armour, the cataphracts of the Byzantines and Persians, and the heavy cavalry of the Franks and Crusaders, had the advantage in a pitched battle.

 The first of the steppe-peoples to come into contact with the Roman Empire were the Huns. The incursion of the Huns set up a movement of peoples that the Germans call Voelkerwanderung or wandering of the peoples. This was an extraordinary complex movement of peoples. The movement of the Goths from Sweden to southern Russia and then back into Italy and Spain is typical. Many of them too were already Christian, the Goths and the Vandals being Arians. To the south the Arabs, rapidly, and with very little destruction took over large parts of the Roman and Persian empires and life in the cities continued virtually unchanged. The Goths and Vandals similarly established themselves in the urban environments of Italy, Spain, and North Africa. It was customary in the past to exaggerate the disturbances these movements of the peoples caused.

            Further north, other Teutonic-speaking tribes, still pagan, like the Franks crossed the Rhine, and they did not favour life in cities. The cities did not completely disappear, but urban life became much less important, and the great men of the region preferred to live on their estates. The Saxons, Angles, and Jutes who settled in Britain spoke variants of Teutonic, itself a branch of Indo-European. In manners, social organisation, and manner of warfare they differed little from the Celtic-speaking warriors in Ireland. In England they rapidly absorbed all that the local Romano-British peoples could teach them, and were rapidly absorbed into the local population. Like the Franks, they did not take to life in towns.

            There are two very important dates marking the beginning of the period. The first was the battle of Adrianople near Constantinople in 378 AD when the Gothic cavalry defeated the Roman legions. The other date was 406 AD when the river Rhine froze over and the Teutonic tribes passed into the Empire in overwhelming numbers and were never driven out. Then in 410 AD the Christian Visigoths under Alaric burned Rome, but that city was no longer of military importance. In 451 the Huns themselves under Attila arrived in Gaul, but were defeated by a combination of Romans under Aetius and the Visigoths under Theoderic their king. In 476 the last Roman emperor in the west, Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Ostrogoths who then founded their own kingdom of Italy. In 486 Clovis, king of the Franks conquered north-eastern Gaul. In 496 he was converted to Christianity. In 529 Justinian, the emperor in Constantinople, published his Law Code which was to influence canon and civil law ever afterwards. In that same year St Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery on Monte Cassino which gave the definitive character to western monasticism. In 533 Justinian attempted to re-conquer the west but failed. In 552 the Turks in central Asia achieved over-lordship over the other tribes. In 622 Mohammed started his new religion. His followers captured Syria in 636 and Baghdad in 638. In 679 they failed to capture Constantinople. In 694 they captured North Africa, and in 711 invaded Spain. In 732 the invading armies of the Muslims were defeated at Poitiers by Charles Martial, leader of the Franks. In 793 occurred the first Viking raid on England. In 800 Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks Holy Roman Emperor. 

            The Empire itself had become officially Christian in the reign of Constantine (306-337) and the Christian religion was increasingly and openly practised throughout the Empire.

            The defence of Rome against the Huns and Vandals was largely left to Pope St Leo I. He was able also to assert the authority of Rome even in the East at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  The Church prospered in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths in Italy, and from this period dates the famous mosaics at Ravenna. The chants in the church services became more elaborate and those in Rome were collected and approved by Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604), and have been known ever since as the Gregorian chant. In the period 400 to 800 AD the diocesan system and the monastic system spread all over the Western Empire and beyond.

            The diocesan system, and connections with Rome, remained always possible. Travelling to Rome was not too difficult especially for those who could afford horses. Even those who went on foot, and that was the vast majority of people, could walk to Rome.

            Monasticism was in deep trouble almost from the start. It was all very well when it was confined to a few communities under the direct supervision of the Desert Fathers themselves. But anybody could become a monk. A novice could go to one abbot and ask for instruction, then wander off and ask for instruction from another, or not, as the case might be. Various attempts were made to draw up a rule of life for monks before St Benedict of Nursia wrote his famous Rule or Regula Monachorum in 540 AD. [Top]


            In Britain the period commenced with the withdrawal of the imperial legions in 410 AD to meet the threat of the threat of the Visigoths. They were never to return. The Romano-British were advised to provide for their own defence against the raids of the Irish, Scots, and Picts. The Romano-British rulers, following Roman custom, invited in some of the barbarians, namely Angles and Saxons to defend them. During the Roman occupation the carrying of arms by the British ruling families except if they joined the Roman army was forbidden.  The lower ranks were all mercenaries in the original sense of paid soldiers, (mercenarius a hired servant). Civilian officials or landowners became officers as the need arose. The only difference in the organisation was with regard to who paid the soldiers. The Roman officials, mostly Romanised Britons, were told to organise the payment of the soldiers from Britain's own tax receipts. This was no doubt seen as a temporary measure.  The tax receipts, however, mainly from taxes on merchants, continued to fall.

            The century and a half between the first reported arrival of the Saxons and the mission of St. Augustine was a real ‘Dark Age’ in Britain, an age in which there were no written records, and about which we know virtually nothing. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain is almost as much a mystery as the arrival of the Celtic-speakers in Ireland. We know almost as little about fifth and sixth century Britain as we do about Ireland. The only difference is that we knew a great deal about Roman Britain because written records had been kept. When written records ceased to be kept there was little difference between the various parts of the British Isles. We know the beginning of the process, the semi-Romanised province of Britannia, with Latin spoken by the ruling classes and British spoken by the others. We know the end of the process with English-speaking petty kingdoms in England, and British-speaking petty kingdoms along the western coasts. But of the process itself we know almost nothing. Bede skips from his narrative about St Germanus of Auxerre to the mission of Saint Augustine a hundred a fifty years later. From the mission of Augustine in 597 until Bede’s History a hundred years later we are largely dependent on what Bede could collect. (On Bede’s sources see Bede.)

In the nineteenth century it, in the heyday of Darwinian Rassenkampf or struggles between races, it was believed that hordes of Angles and Saxons bringing all their women with them, exterminated the local people and occupied their land. This theory was abandoned not least because there was not the slightest evidence for it. Against it was argued that the change of language could be explained if St Augustine and his fellow missionaries had adopted English rather than British or Latin for their ecclesiastical courts. Why should they do this? Because English happened to be the language of the court in Kent where they first landed. There is no evidence for this either, but it remains a distinct possibility.

There is also the possibility that the process of change from the Roman provincial administration to local chiefdoms was identical in both parts of Britannia, the only difference being the language spoken by the most prominent local warrior. In each case the chiefdom would have been about the size of a county, Essex, Kent, and Sussex on one side, and similar states like Dyfed, Powys, and Gwynedd on the other. By the end of the period, i.e. 780, Anglo-Saxon speakers had reached the borders of present-day Wales, and there the king of Mercia, Offa, built his dike. According to a contemporary cleric called Gildas, towards the end of the fifth century various British chiefs united and defeated the Anglo-Saxons so severely at a place called Mons Badonicus (unidentified) about 493 AD that the advance of the Anglo-Saxons towards the west was stopped for forty years. Warfare was endemic not only between Britons and Saxons but also between the various tribes on each side. After the battle of Deorham near Bath in 577 they reached the Severn. By 780 they reached the limit of their expansion. In 350 years they had advanced about 200 miles across England.

Much the same can be said about the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England as has been said of the Celtic conquest of Ireland. Written records virtually disappeared towards the end of Roman rule and then ended altogether. They brought chiefly their language, and were quickly swallowed up by the native inhabitants. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon customs closely resembled each other in any case. The newcomers had much to learn from the natives who already had experienced four centuries of Roman rule. They had to learn the latest techniques of agriculture. A strange feature of the post-Roman period was the disappearance of Roman art-forms.  They certainly kept their own religion. It is very doubtful if there were any Christians in the countryside apart from in some Roman villas. As the towns decayed the number of Christians would have fallen drastically. There is no need to assume that Christianity entirely disappeared before the arrival of St Augustine in 597. Whether there were Christian priests and bishops in Saxon-occupied territories we do not know for we have no records. The fact that St Gregory sent a bishop, rather than a group of priests, would seem to indicate that he expected that there would be some Christian priests in the region even if no bishop was known to reside in that area. Nor do we know how long or to what extent the Roman administrative system survived. The same is largely true of British-speaking areas. To what extent some of the newcomers also spoke Latin and British we have no idea. In Kent, which was close to the Continent they partially adopted the Roman way of life, but in other parts, where Roman influence had virtually disappeared or had never existed, they may have just brought the customs of their own lands. There was probably little difference between the two parts of Britain. Indeed the advance of the Anglo-Saxon warrior families closely resembled the advance of the Eoganacht and Ui Neill families in Ireland.

The precise social organisation of the Anglo-Saxons in England after they arrived is not clear, for we have no records. Obviously their military adventures had to be co-ordinated. Yet units like those of Mercia or Northumbria of Bede’s day are too large. These would correspond to those of the provincial chiefs in Ireland. Settlements like those in Middlesex and Surrey were always dependent on greater chiefdoms like Kent and Essex. So it is reasonable to assume that there were many smaller local units with elected chiefs who was bound to provide so many warriors to a hosting of the greater chiefs. The other possibility is that they used the old Roman administrative divisions, where similarly a local person would be elected to organise the hosting.

Artistic objects from Britain and Ireland towards the end of this period closely resembled each other. In England, as in Ireland, the old La Tene motifs were revived and developed into forms of the utmost complexity. The practices of the chiefs and of the ecclesiastics in both islands were almost identical. So too were the monasteries.  Very soon after the conversion of England Anglo-Saxon missionaries went to preach on the Continent as the Irish monks were doing. In England as in Ireland lesser chiefs were eliminated leaving only a handful of great chiefdoms that really counted. England was somewhat ahead of Ireland at achieving political concentration. But a unified English kingdom was not achieved before the ninth century. It can be said that there was a common culture, despite differences of language, across the whole British Isles.           

From the very north of Scotland including most of the west of Scotland, England west of the Pennines and then down the Cotswolds and across to Devon and Cornwall there were a string of Celtic-speaking chiefdoms. With regard to historical writings, the Celtic parts are only slightly better off than the Anglo-Saxon part. In the sixth century were the monk Gildas who wrote a religious sermon or tract on the evils of his time, and two poets, Anieran and Taleisan, who wrote obscurely about certain events of their time. Later in the ninth century a writer called Nennius wrote a ‘history’ which is not altogether dismissed as rubbish, because it may contain more ancient material. There are also Lives of various saints that may contain some historic matter.

It may be that in the immediate post-Roman period a common Celtic language was spoken in all this part of England and Scotland and the whole of Ireland. But as it was not written it is impossible to say for certain. The Celtic language was in a period of rapid change at this time, and by Bede's day (700 AD), Welsh, Gaelic, and Pictish were distinct languages. The British language in Wales and Ireland changed rapidly in very different directions. The western parts of Scotland followed Ireland. The Pictish chiefdom was in the north east of Scotland. Here again, because of lack of records, we know little about these chiefdoms apart from their names. 

In the north, three British/Welsh chiefdoms were emerging, of which we at least know their names. By the end of the period, records were more abundant though still not numerous. The first was Strathclyde around Glasgow that was its ecclesiastical centre. By this date Hadrian’s Wall was a complete irrelevance. The fact that the boundary between England and Scotland was finally fixed not far from the Wall was a pure coincidence. Scottish kings claimed Northumbria as part of Scotland, while English came to be spoken as far north as Stirling before the border was finally fixed. The church in Glasgow was founded by St Kentigern (6th cent) but Christianity north of Hadrian’s Wall dated at least from the time of St Ninian early in the fifth century. This was probably the chiefdom of Coroticus (Carodoc, or Ceredeg) to whose soldiers St Patrick wrote. The second was Gododdin, based on Edinburgh. The Gododdin seem to have been the Votadini of Roman times, a semi-Romanised tribe who controlled the land between Hadrian’s wall and the Firth of Forth. The earliest surviving written work in the British/Welsh language Y Gododdin was written in the sixth century by the poet Aneirin. Welsh literature dates from the sixth century. The third, Rheged, was based on Carlisle. These latter two were to succumb to the Northumbrians in the 7th century. It is not clear when they became Christian.

Further north, in the Highlands and in the north-east, the rival chiefdoms and over-chiefdoms of the Picts and Scots had emerged from among the Caledonian British chiefdoms of Roman times. It would seem that in Scotland as in Ireland and Wales the fracture between British/Welsh and British/Gaelic had not been neatly along the seashore. The Pictish language was always distinguished from British/Welsh. It may be that the non-Indo-European speech that preceded British or Celtic was still spoken in parts of Scotland in Roman times. The Picti and Scotti of later Roman times were not races but the names of clans, usually but not invariably named after the ruling family. The Picti were also found in Ireland though there they always in historical times spoke Gaelic. The Scotti too may have spread to Ireland or even originated in Ireland, but their ruling over-chiefs in historical times came from the Dal Riata (Dal Riada) of north Antrim. The ruling family of the Scotti was supposed to be descended from a chief of the Dal Riata of Antrim called Fergus Mor mac Erc. (This Erc/Earca seems to have been the grandmother of the Erc who married Muiredach and whose son was Muirchertach Mac Earca if the genealogists can be trusted. Again, the genealogies may contain historic matter. This connection was with the Cenel Eogain. But Erc apparently was married first to Fergus Cenn Fada son of Conall Gulban that would establish a link between the Cenel Conaill and the Scottish Dal Riata). The most important Scottish chief of the Dal Riata at this period was Aedan Mac Gabrain, and he was 'ordained' king by St Columcille on Iona in 574. Though Aedan Mac Gabrain drove the Ulaid of east Ulster out of Man he was more preoccupied with the war against the Northumbrians, and in this he received assistance from the Cenel Eogain. He was defeated and killed by the Northumbrians in 603. Bede noted that the defeat was so heavy that no further attacks were made on the Northumbrians up to his own day a hundred years later. In Scotland as in Ireland there was not centralised government within the provincial chiefdoms. The over-chief held sway and exacted tribute and assistance in war from the lesser chiefs when he was able. The Scottish Dal Riata were over-chiefs like the Ui Neill in Ireland, and secured their independence from the Irish Dal Riada. The unification of Scotland did not commence until after 800. 

            Of the early part of the period in Wales like elsewhere, the fifth and sixth centuries, we know virtually nothing. Later, records become more abundant, but as we might expect chiefly concerned with monastic interests. As in the North we know the names of the chiefdoms but little else.

Wales gradually formed itself out of the late Roman province of Britannia Prima into the chiefdoms of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Morganwg, Gwent, and Powys, and various ruling families took over and administered parts of the province. These corresponded to the over-chiefships in Ireland. The basic administrative unit within the petty state was the ceneld that seems to have been the exact same as the cenel in Ireland, a group of families descended from a single ancestor. Later it came to include other local residents or even conquered peoples (Evans 58) Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire were originally part of this province, but when the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex reached the Bristol Channel the two parts were cut off. Later still the Mercians reached the sea at Chester, and the Celtic-speaking region was split into three. This was an insuperable obstacle to the emergence of a strong, unified, Celtic-speaking kingdom in the west of England. Evans notes that no local chiefdoms emerged in the parts that were to become England. The reason for this is doubtless that the people clung to Roman administrative forms as long as was possible, and that the local tribal chiefs had become Romanised. With the decline of trade, and the lessening of taxation, the raising of troops, whether locally or by hiring mercenaries from Wales, would have been ever more difficult. This in itself would explain the slow defeat of the British until, at Offa’s Dyke, the Saxons encountered those who had reverted to the old clan system of fighting. Cornwall, the last Celtic-speaking chiefdom in the South West was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons about 800 AD, while Strathclyde a little later succumbed to the Scots. The British rulers survived only west of Offa’s dyke. 

            Christianity had come to Britain during the Roman occupation, and it survived the departure of the Romans. It is no surprise that it survived most strongly in a Roman city, nor that from there the conversion of rural Wales commenced. From the Roman city of Caerleon priests set out and converted most of Wales. Some of Wales was being converted in the second half of the fifth century at the same time as Ireland. But most of the conversion was in the sixth century as in Ireland. There may have been individual Christian rulers in Wales from 490 onwards, and all of them would have been Christian from 570.  St Illtyd in Wales flourished around 520 AD. St Cynog founded churches in Brecknockshire around 500 AD. St David flourished in the second half of the 6th century.

In Scotland too, just beyond Hadrian’s Wall, St Ninian established the church at Whithorn in Scotland that was flourishing early in the sixth century. It is likely that St Patrick belonged to this church and became its bishop. St Kentigern (518 to 603?) was the great apostle of the kingdom of Strathclyde. Strathclyde, whose centre was Dumbarton on the Clyde about eighty miles beyond the Wall, became a Christian kingdom in 573. If the accounts of his life can be relied on, there were Christians in the region before that. He is said to have rebuilt a church in Glasgow, built originally by Ninian.  Further north among the Scots of Dal Riada Aidan Mac Gabhrain, the patron of St Columcille, was probably the first Christian king after 575 AD. The centre of the kingdom was at Dunadd, about forty miles west of Dumbarton. Both the Ui Neill and the Eoganacht rulers in Ireland embraced Christianity in the decade 560-570.

The first Saxon ruler to embrace Christianity was Ethelbert of Kent in 597. There was little difference in time between the last Welsh, Irish, and Scottish chiefs accepting Christianity, and the first of the English. Northumbria followed in 626, Wessex in 635, and Mercia, the last in 655. (Clovis, king of the Franks, had accepted Christianity about 500.) The is little doubt that Christianity spread through the rest of Britain in what was to be called England at the same time and in the same way. Bede's remark that the British clergy were unwilling to preach to the Anglo-Saxons should be treated with some caution. Or if it were true might have applied only in parts of Northumbria. Bede attributes their conversion to a mission of Pope St Gregory the Great to Kent (597 AD) and a mission of the Irish of Iona to Northumbria (635 AD). But writing nearly two hundred years later Bede’s knowledge of the matter was slight. Even if St Augustine had never been sent, we would expect the Anglo-Saxon chiefs to have accepted Christianity early in the seventh century, namely about a century after Wales, Ireland, and southern Scotland.

            Once organised, the Church in England had one great advantage over the Church in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and that was its closeness to the Continent enabled Rome to take a closer interest in what was being done, and enabled the English Church to keep in closer contact with the Church in Gaul. Not only was Augustine sent from Rome by Gregory I, but also Bishop Birinus was sent by Honorius I to the West Saxons in 635.  Of inestimable value was the appointment of Theodore of Tarsus as archbishop of Canterbury in 664. He was able to re-organise the Church in accordance with the latest developments abroad, and also to ensure that proper standards of learning were acquired by the clergy (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 205 ff). He personally taught Greek and Latin, astronomy and the calculation of the calendar, the scriptures and the sacred chants. This latter he caused to be adopted in all the churches in England. If a similar archbishop had been sent to Ireland at the same time reform would probably have not been delayed until the twelfth century. With him came Benedict Biscop who had studied on the Continent, and had purchased many religious books there. He went to Northumbria, built the monasteries Jarrow and Wearmouth, and ensured that the latest developments in Rome were adopted.

            Once they had been converted to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon clerics, beginning with St Boniface early in the eighth century, began to preach to those tribes like the Friesians who were still pagans.

            A great deal of nonsense has been written about the supposed Celtic Church in the British Isles and a supposed Celtic monasticism. None such ever existed. Neither bishops nor monks in the British Isles ever attempted to develop forms different from those in Gaul. Where differences arose in Ireland it was because the Irish were tenaciously holding on to traditions that they had received from Gaul. In the fifth century there was no difference between a monastery in Gaul and one in Ireland, except that in Gaul abandoned Roman buildings were easier to find.

            Virtually nothing is known about the origins of monasticism in Britain. It would seem that a British priest St Ninian visited St Martin, and about 397 AD founded a monastery like St. Martin's beyond Hadrian's Wall. This monastery was built of stone and was white from which was derived its name Candida Casa or Whithorn. The modern town of Whithorn in Galloway takes its name from the church. However, this early date is not certain. The first converts would have been among the semi-Romanised tribes just north of the Wall. It would seem too that St Patrick's father was a minor Roman official on the coast near Carlisle, south of the wall, and facing Whithorn across the Solway Firth. This would fit in with the tradition that he was a slave in the north of Ireland. [Top]

Social and Economic Conditions in England

            There was very little cultural difference between those in the British Isles who spoke a Celtic language, and those who spoke an Anglo-Saxon one. Regional differences of course there were. Eastern England was more exposed to developments on the Continent than western Ireland. Tillage was more important on the dryer lighter soils of eastern England than the wet boggy lands of western Ireland. But mixed farming prevailed everywhere. Though long-distance trade, taxable and recordable, had virtually ceased, it does not follow that local trade, local tillage, local improvements in agriculture, local drainage, and so on ceased. It does not follow that local skills in woodwork and metalwork ceased. When the superstructure of Roman life was removed the old life of the country continued, and such evidence as we have indicates that craftsmanship was of a high order, and much the same over the whole British Isles. The skills necessary to build boats, put roofs on houses, make swords and shields were not necessarily affected. Agricultural too was not necessarily lost. The coulter was now added to the plough, a sharp vertical knife fastened in front to the ploughshare that made it easier draw the plough and cut the sod. This proved particularly useful on heavy clay soils. Over the centuries the ploughs and ox teams grew larger, but the both were probably very small at first. The great changes in agriculture were several hundred years into the future but tiny incremental improvements continued. The climate was improving, and no doubt, population was increasing.

            As we would expect, the social structure among Anglo-Saxons was virtually identical with that among the Celtic-speakers. The chief was the elected leader of a warband. The choice of chief was restricted to members of certain families and the electors were similarly restricted. The earliest chiefdoms we know about were about the size of a county, and corresponded to the ruiri in Ireland. Towards the end of the period, the stronger chiefs had carved out larger chiefdoms similar to the ri ruirech of chief of a province in Ireland where a similar development was occurring. Towards the end of the period there arose a vision of one chief of all the Anglo-Saxons, the Bretwalda like the similar vision in Ireland of one king or ard ri for the whole of Ireland. There must have been a grade corresponding to the ri tuaithe in Ireland, responsible for the hosting of men in a section of a county. Their ability to rule depended on their ability to control the warrior families within their territory. Warfare and the grabbing of land was their chief occupation. Over a period of centuries they were on the whole more successful than the Celtic chiefs whose lands they coveted. But we have no idea which lands were conquered and which just adopted the English language. Intermarriage would have been very common especially among the ruling class.  The territorial gains of the Anglo-Saxon chiefs coincided with the territorial gains of the Ui Neill and Eoganacht in Ireland at the same time. In the Danish period the pressures grew for a stronger and more centralised monarchy. The division of the chiefdoms into shires under aldermen directly responsible to the chief dates from the time of Egbert of Wessex (d. 839) in the following period.

            Basically there were three grades, the chieftain’s kin (athelings), the freemen (carls or churls), and the slaves. Both chiefs and churls dwelt in farmsteads (hams or tuns named after the family that lived there). There were no officials, no administration, and no public control of law and order. Every atheling and every churl was responsible for the maintenance of public order, and disputes could be brought before the chief who arbitrated. Then the aggrieved party carried out the sentence, aided if necessary by forces provided by the chief. In the early days the freemen, or churls, attended the chief’s moot and could be called to arms by the chief for defence purposes.

            The churls were the free cultivators who might have from thirty to a hundred acres, corresponding to the boaire. With regard to the chiefs and their athelings they were in a very weak position, and open to exploitation, as were the boaires .If he could not meet the demands of his local lord he had to borrow stock, perhaps his own stock, back from him, and became a gebur or boor, i.e. tied to the lord until the debt was discharged. This resulted usually in a permanent dependency with hereditary tributes of services, fines, and produce. The constant raids and wars and heavy costs of defence during the Viking virtually eliminated the free classes  (Bryant Makers 121 ff). They were not slaves however, for they owned the produce of their lands after paying the annual tributes. But neither were they free. They could not leave their land nor the service of the local lord. As will be seen later, the social structure in Ireland and its evolution was virtually identical. In the various courts or assemblies called by the chief or local lord evidence was taken on oath and a weight was given to the oath in accordance with the man’s status. The possibilities of abuse for example with regard to debts or ownership of land are obvious. [Top]          

Social and Economic conditions in Ireland 400 to 800 AD

General Observations

            Just at this time we are able, for the first time to get information from various written sources about Irish society. Putting Irish society in its geographical and historical context the picture is one of a fully mature society which had been developing and changing for millennia.  It was also probably broadly typical of similar societies in Northern Europe that had never been part of the Roman Empire. There is little present that could not have been present in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze periods. Most of the information in this chapter comes from written sources in the eighth and ninth centuries, but should be reasonably valid for the whole period, for the pace of social change was slow. The information we have concerns the higher classes both on the lay and clerical sides. We have almost no information regarding the poorer classes.

Some of the information comes from written sources, for example the legal documents. These written sources have to be studied in context. The same is true of other documents like the Lives of the saints, and the sagas. Sociology and economics did not exist at that time so writers had other concerns. But it is possible with care to extract much useful information from them. But they need to be carefully interpreted. One concern of the lawyers seems to have been to preserve every custom or judgement no matter what its source. Lawyers collected laws whether or not the laws were contradictory. Occasionally a great ruler like Justinian might ask his legal experts to reduce the collections to some kind of order. Often they were no more than collections of traditional laws and judgements from various sources, and of varying value. Secondly, because every man had a blood price or honour price in accordance with his status it was necessary to assign some place to him in the hierarchical order. Thirdly, as all these laws had to be memorised, they had to be cast into a form suitable for learning by heart. The modern student therefore becomes uneasy when he hears of seven degrees of nobility, and seven degrees of freemen. Seven is a useful number and occurs often in the Bible. But as in the collections of laws in the Bible itself much information about a society by studying the collections of laws even if an artificial framework is ignored (see Exodus 22). For information on historical events up to the year 800 we are largely reliant on annals kept in monasteries in the northern half of Ireland, especially Iona and Clonard. Therefore we have more information on the various branches of the Ui Neill than we have on all the rest of the chiefly families put together. Information about Munster is especially hard to come by.           

Climatically, the Sub-Atlantic period had come to an end, and the weather became slightly dryer. The temperature continued to rise. Conditions for farming were better than at any time since the Middle Bronze period. Mitchell notes that at this time the population was growing and by 800 AD all the potential agricultural land was tilled (153 ff). Potential that is in the social and economic conditions of the time. But this at the time probably did not amount to a tenth of the surface of the country. The great clearances of forests and reclamation of land in Europe did not commence until after 1000 AD. In terms of geography, economic production was local. There was little long distance trade or production for distant markets, or exports to purchase luxurious imports such as was to be found in the southern lands. Nor was there a purchaser like the Roman army buying up surpluses. Nor does there seem to have been large local markets where products like wheat or cattle could have been bought or sold. Nor was there a real effective coinage. One can see the problem when the basic unit of exchange was a female slave. In terms of history, social and economic conditions in Ireland from the fifth to the eighth century did not differ greatly from those in the preceding Iron Age nor from the better-documented Viking Age that succeeded it. It should be noted that a non-money economy persisted in parts of Ireland until the nineteenth century.

The Ordnance Survey Map of Monastic Ireland illustrates the distribution of monasteries founded between 600 and 1100 AD. (This distribution differs very little from that of monasteries founded between 1100 and 1500 AD) What are remarkable are the vast areas in which there were no monasteries. The populated areas also coincide with the areas that are known to have been bishoprics. It also clearly shows why no boundaries were assigned to dioceses at the synod of Rathbreasail. This does not mean that the intervening spaces were entirely unoccupied. For one thing, each occupied area would have had vast areas of woodland for their cattle and pigs to be herded in. Also it is likely that obscure corners of tillable soil were occupied by lesser or broken tribes who had been driven off the lands and who survived partly, if not wholly by plunder. These would not have sufficient land, or a secure enough grip on it, to endow monasteries. But the distribution is still puzzling. While in Ulster much of the unoccupied land was of poor quality even after it was drained and reclaimed, this can hardly be said of large parts of Munster. One can only suppose that many of the soils were water-logged, and that drainage did not commence until the Middle Ages. It should be noted too that many of the lands granted to the Normans and changed to their system of cultivation proved unsuccessful. But when considering the various battles and conquests, and attempts at conquest this map should be kept in mind. For example, the first expansion of the Ui Neill from Inishowen was along the north coast, and then up the Bann valley towards the west side of Lough Neagh. Then another branch advanced along the valley of the Strule towards Omagh and Clogher. 

The population would have been less than half a million, but increasing between 600 AD and 800 AD (O’Corrain). Population density over the whole island would have been about 10 to the square mile. But within a tuath in an inhabited area it might be several times that figure There were probably considerable fluctuations caused by plagues and famines, but the overall reproduction rate was probably in any case only slightly above the 2.4 children required nowadays to maintain the population. This figure should be calculated as meaning the survival of that proportion of children to an age when they had children themselves, for almost certainly infant mortality was high. The number of pregnancies of a fertile woman would naturally have been far higher than that, allowance being made for infertile women, miscarriages, still-borns, and those who died in childbirth, and infant mortality. We would expect that every fertile woman and girl was made pregnant as soon and as often as possible. The aristocracy, if nobody else, would have ensured that. We would expect the reproductive rate of noble women, calculated thus to be higher than those of freewomen, which in turn would have been higher than those of the poorer classes and slaves. A typical household might consist of up to thirty people, half of them children, and as many others including relatives, servants, and slaves directly dependent on the family for shelter, food and clothing. The density of these farms would be about 6 to the square mile that equals 640 acres (Mitchell 153 ff). But the vast part of Ireland seems to have been uninhabited or inhabited very thinly by scattered peoples, broken clans, and outlaws.

    A Celtic language was everywhere spoken and always by the upper class but the older language may have survived in pockets among the poor people or broken tribes (de Paor, Saint Patrick's World 23 ff).  The language was however changing very rapidly. Recognisably Gaulish names in the fourth century like Cunagosus had become Congus by the seventh. The velitas (poet) had become a file. [Top] 

The Social Stratification of Irish Society 

Whatever it may have been in the more peaceful Neolithic or Bronze Ages, Ireland had now definitely a warrior society. It was not intended to be either a free society, or an equal or just society. The principal aim was to increase the wealth and power of the noble classes, which in practice meant any relatives even distant of the chiefs. Society was by no means free. Nobody was free in the modern sense, free to do whatever he liked. Such an idea is very modern, and very American. A phrase like ‘I am white, American and 21, so I can do what I like’ was inconceivable. Everyone had his own place in society, and was strictly bound by the rules regarding that place. By the same token each person had his traditional rights and duties. The sons of chiefs might have considerable latitude with regard to the lower orders, but within their father’s house were strictly bound by his rules. The only way to escape was to murder their father. Absalom’s attempt to seize the thrown of his father David was far from unique (2 Samuel 15). On the farm, for example, everyone had to get the permission of the freeman who was head of the family for anything not in the ordinary course of their duties. All the freemen similarly had to get permission of the chief of the tuath for anything out of the ordinary. (Until the twentieth century, an Irish farmer could decide himself to take a day off to attend a market or hunt. Nobody in his family, and none of his servants or farmworkers had such liberty. All money was paid to him and he paid all the bills. Naturally, the state of independent farmer was highly desired, even if he had no more than five acres.) 

The entire schematic picture given in the law codes probably lasted a very short time. Social relations and the structure of power were constantly and rapidly changing. It is easy however to get a simple picture of the general outlines of society. The old Indo-European class or caste system that became fossilised in Hinduism can clearly be discerned. These classes were (1) the priests, scholars and learned persons, (2) the warriors and rulers (3) farmers, and traders or merchants, (and artisans, labourers, servants and slaves). Beneath these were those outside the system, called Untouchables in India. Classes like castes could be broken up into innumerable sub-classes or sub-castes. As elsewhere, everybody’s rank was determined by the honour price assigned to it. This, above all, showed a person’s position in society, and it embraced all the various classifications. (To this day, official protocol, in royal and diplomatic services as well as the armed services, the Churches, and the universities, lays down precise rules regarding rank and precedence.)

Some schemes of social stratification were excessively simple, for example the threefold division into aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and workers. For each of these was subdivided into several grades.

In Ireland in the nineteenth century, there was a rigid class system, and members of one class never mixed socially with the classes above or below them however good neighbours they might be. The scale might be as follows: beggars, manual labourers, cottiers, small farmers, farmers, strong farmers, big farmers, gentry divided into near county families and county families, and finally, the various grades of nobility. The learned classes, clergymen, doctors and lawyers were allowed to be gentry as were military officers. Shopkeepers and merchants were slotted in among the farmers in accordance with their wealth. Shop assistants did not associate with factory workers, who in turn considered themselves superior to farm labourers. There were some outside the system, travelling folk of all kinds who had no roots in any locality, tinkers, gypsies, travelling musicians, pedlars, thimble-riggers or three card trick men who frequented markets and fairs, tight rope walkers and other circus folk. 

It is obvious that ancient Irish society was organised on similar rigid class or caste lines, and that the lawyers busied themselves with providing descriptions of each, and their relative order. In general, it is well to keep in mind the simple basic structure exemplified by the Anglo-Saxons in Kent, nobles, free farmers, and other workers who were not free in the technical sense that they were not free to speak in the assembly, while remembering that each category had several grades. Women, slaves, travellers, and foreigners had no rights within the community.

 Families were divided into two chief categories, the free and the unfree. Free was a technical term, meaning essentially free to speak at a public meeting. The free were divided noble (flaith) and commoner or freeman (aithech) families. There were basically, seven orders of nobles to which also the learned classes, lawyers, druids, etc were assigned, both because of their honour price and their holdings of land. (These were ri ruirech, ri, aire forgaill, aire ard, aire tuise, aire echta, and the lowest aire desa. These divisions have no particular significance to us nowadays.) All the nobles could have clients; the boaire and those below him could not. The lowest of them had to have at least 10 clients, five free and 5 unfree. Once again we see the structure of the warband. Each lord and chief was owed tributes in goods and services from those beneath him. One law decreed that the house of a chief should measure 37 feet while that of a lord should measure 30 feet. Chiefs, lords, and boaires all had their family farms, but the chiefs and lords had additional revenues, for example from clientship. Clients could be free or even noble and these entered into free clientship and this was usually to the benefit of both parties. There was however also a so-called 'base clientship' which was heavily to the lord's advantage. In the cases of the stronger and more aggressive clans, it is likely that most of the wealth of the chiefs came from warfare, not only from seizure of cattle but also from the seizure of lands. There is no other way that the Ui Neill could have expanded except by seizing the lands of other chiefs. It may be that they at first seized only the lios and farm of the local chief or ri, but as time went on, most of the other farms in the tuath would have been seized as well. In such cases, all those below the level of boaire would have been left in place to do the work.

Two kinds of clients were distinguished. Free clients were those to whom they lent property in the form of cattle with the right to graze them within the tuath. In return he had to give one cow in three every year to his lord for seven years, a rate of interest of 33%. Clients could be members of the noble or free classes. They were bound to support their lord, who in turn was bound to support them. There was also a harsher kind of clientship called base clientship. Each year the client had to pay one cow in twelve (8.5%), but he also had to supply food and services. The supplying of food was particularly onerous, for the lord with his retinue could turn up and demand to be fed. Later this became the notorious practice of coshering, or imposing soldiers on the client at free quarters.

As the economy was primarily a pastoral one, with wealth measured in terms of cattle, we can assume that most of these cattle were kept in the forests and waste lands that covered at least nine tenths of the surface of Ireland, and the rights of the chiefs and noble classes to assign grazing rights to clients was an important source of their wealth. There was no point in giving a man cattle unless he was also granted grazing rights.  

Beneath the nobles were seven orders of freemen, including farmers and craftsmen, and the unfree classes. The top rank of the freemen was that of the boaire or independent farmer. Freedom in this context meant freedom to attend and speak in the chief’s assembly. In any four generation extended families or fine, only the head of the family was free in this sense. Next came those on his level, chariot makers, carpenters, cloth figurers, leather workers, relief carvers and harpers. Below them were wood-turners, fetter-makers, other leather workers, wool combers, and fishermen.

Among the unfree classes would have been cottiers or cottagers, and included herdsmen, shepherds, collectors of shellfish, and those who practised the minor trades. If their cases ever came to a lord’s court that was unlikely, they would have to get a freeman to speak for them. (No provision seems to have been made for their concerns, such as was provided by Norman manorial courts. Nor is it likely that they could afford to approach a judge.) Then there were the labourers or cottiers who had no political rights, the bothachs who seem to have been herdsmen, fuidhirs possibly from outside the tuath, sen-cleithes possibly descendants of mercenaries or prisoners who had rights of residence but were bound to the land of their lord and so were hereditary serfs, and at the very bottom came the slaves who were owned by the landowners, and who had no rights whatever. Servants and slaves usually belonged to somebody who might take an interest in them. Among those at the very bottom were jockeys, charioteers, steersmen, mummers, jugglers, buffoons, and clowns travelling minstrels and entertainers, tolerated fugitives, and so on. The lowest grades had no honour price; only the honour of those who kept them was considered (Byrne 175). 

Cutting across this simple division of society based on holding of land was another based on those esteemed for their learning or craft. They too would have been noble or free, and would have had at least the basic family farm. But the honour price assigned them to particular ranks. These were divided into two classes, the saer nemed and the daer nemed. Among the saer nemed were scholars, churchmen, nobles and poets, while among the daer nemed classes were members of the skilled trades. The chief craftsmen, oaken house builders, shipwrights, and mill rights were given an honour price equal to the lowest grade of nobility, while chariotmakers, leather workers, stone carvers, and harpers were give an honour price equal to that of the boaire (Byrne).  

Wealth was extremely unevenly distributed. This is usual in primitive societies.  The vast bulk of wealth was in the hands of the chiefs, their families and noble classes. As time went on, the nobles and the chiefly families came to be much the same thing. At the bottom of society, the unfree classes probably had very little, and would have been the first to perish in a time of famine. It was a fact everywhere in the ancient world that a slave was in one respect better off than a free worker, because in times of famine he could depend on being fed.

Relatives of the chiefs took lands. As the latter had several wives besides other women their children were very numerous, and a major duty of the warband was to find land for them outside the tuath if it could not be found inside. O’Corrain notes the acquisition of land by the Dal Cais in east Clare between the eighth and twelfth centuries, progressing from owning no land in the area to having 200 named land-owning families (44f). The history of Ulster is largely one of land-grabbing by the Ui Neill and then by the O’Neills. 

The honour price or blood price, the amount payable to his family in case of injury or death.  The higher the rank the higher the honour price. Persons like druids or Christian bishops could be assigned an honour price equal to that of a lesser noble person. Lawyers ranked people in accordance with their honour price, and divided the noble families into seven descending ranks accordingly, and the free man similarly. The punishment was called the eiric (erk). Payment was made in cattle. Only the freeman could make claims in person. He had to undertake the claims for injuries done to his sons, other members of his family, his servants and slaves. The weight of a person’s testimony varied as his honour price. Also a person could only give securities to the value of his honour price. A successful complaint might mean that judgement was given to him, but he then had to execute the sentence. This of course created difficulties for those of lower rank trying to get redress from one of higher rank, and the law was not intended to make it easy for him. If a man became a client of a lord, the lord shared in the compensation, as so presumably would help to collect it. Women were regarded as chattels to be disposed of as their father or husband wished. Divorce was easy. There was no limit on the number of wives. The very lowest ranks had no honour price, but could be regarded as a chattle of a lord or freeman. The whole system made it easy for the rich to defraud the poor, and the poorer classes became more and more oppressed. Ireland was no worse than the rest of Europe in this respect, or not much worse. Once anybody, from the boaire down failed to repay a loan promptly, and this would have been common in years when crops failed whether from natural causes or from wars, he could only slide down the path towards serfdom. (For the situation at the end of the Middle Ages see Ellis, Tudor Ireland.)

 With regard to honour price, there is a famous saying from the twelfth century, always misquoted by nationalist politicians, that the Normans did not regard it as murder to kill an Irishman (Hibernicus). The point was that the Irish labourer (Hibernicus) employed by the Norman, had no honour price either in Irish or Norman law, so that killing him did not amount to murder (homicidium) in any court. Killing an Irishman with free status would of course have been murder in either jurisdiction. [Top]

The Structure of the Economy

Society was organised about two basic units, the political one and the economic one. Strictly speaking the tuath was both the political and the economic unit, and almost all the business, whether political or economic, was accomplished within the boundaries of the tuath. But it makes sense to describe the basic production unit, the family farm, which supported the different grades of nobles, freemen, craftsmen, and men of learning, while recognising that much sustenance came from the flocks and herds in the forests, as well as from the hunting of wildlife. Other sources of goods whether from warfare or from trade from outside the tuath passed directly through the hands of the chiefs or the markets and fairs they permitted. Hence the eternal desire of the greater chiefs to get control over a stretch of seashore or navigable estuary. But not only coasts and estuaries had an economic value. A stretch of shore of a large lake like Lough Neagh or Lough Erne could be valuable. Hence the desire of the O’Donnells to get a toehold on Lough Erne. For a trader would pay not only to enter their territory also to cross it and pass out of it. A tuath which controlled both part of Belfast Lough and Lough Neagh could milk the trade from the whole of Mid-Ulster..

The economic unit, the family farm of about 70 to 100 acres, was the basic unit of production. (Compare with the 160 acres in Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act.) This farm would correspond with the later townland which until the nineteenth century was the basic unit of taxation. (Town was originally the enclosure surrounding the farm buildings of the ham or home.)  The family farms largely supported the economy. Every noble, free man, important craftsman, and learned person would have possessed a farm or townland. The family was the extended family of four or five generations. The family farm produced almost all the daily essentials in the line of shelter, food, and clothing, and so could have had many kinds of servants like herdsmen or milkmaids. Slaves seem to have been numerous, but their numbers would depend on successful wars. Presumably much of the work was done by family labour except in the case of the noble families. There were also numerous specialist producers, house-builders, smiths, and so on that would have their skills in addition to the family farms. Though spinning and dyeing would have been done by all women, weaving that required a loom, was probably mostly done by specialist weavers

There were smaller specialist producers, apparently all belonging to the unfree classes, like fishermen, fowlers, or fur trappers presumably had a cottage and a small patch of ground on which to live. There also categories of labourers or herdsmen, employed on the farms, who probably also had small pieces of ground and a cottage or hut, and who were used as hired labour. The laws mention the categories of bothach, fuider, and sen-cleithe. Bothach (bodach) is translated as cottier. His name (from bo a cow) would seem to imply that he was a herdsman, but presumably the fowlers, fur trappers and such like came under these headings. Fuiders were similar, and may originally have been mercenaries whom a lord settled on his land. Sen-cleithes seem to have been serfs bound to the soil, perhaps originally bothachs and fuidirs who had not kept up their payments. The ancient world was an unforgiving world. It is also possible that many of these rented lands, perhaps and entire farm, in common on the rundale system (O’Corrain). The advantage of the rundale system was that the burden of the rent fell on the entire group, so that if one member was prevented by illness or other cause from working the others would support him.) Many of them may have lived in villages.

 Bothachs (bodachs) did not own land but could be given land by the chief to work in return for services or on the share-cropping principle and no doubt the cows with which their name seems connected. It is likely that associated with every farm or group of farms, there was a village composed of miserable huts, each with a patch of land. They may have amounted to more than half of the total population, for in a pastoral society, the herdsmen who tended the great herds of cattle, would have been numerically very important. Unfortunately, as these had no honour price, their affairs were of no interest to anybody, and if they were mentioned at all it was only as a butt of jokes, so we know almost nothing about them beyond there existence. However, most of the cattle they herded would have belonged to others, the clients of the lords. The name bodach came to signify oaf or clod to the literary classes. (In the English Doomsday Book in the eleventh century, numerous villani (villagers) bordarii (smallholders) and cotarii (cottagers) were mentioned. Some of the latter held up to five acres. Some of the land was rented, the rent being paid in days of labour.) As noted earlier, the lower the status, the less we know about them.

                Though the poorer classes were undoubtedly exploited and oppressed as they were in the days of Amos the prophet, it does not mean that they were actually over-worked. Most of them probably suffered more from lack of employment. Taylorism, or the management of labour in such a manner that a man employed for eight hours actually works eight hours, is a twentieth century invention. The forty-hour week was largely adopted because it was the most efficient way to use labour. A man working from dawn to dusk in the traditional manner spent much of his time not working. At certain times of the year there would be a great rush to get work done while the weather was good, followed by no work at all for weeks. By the fifteenth century, with an ever-increasing noble class who did no work, and who expected to be maintained by the workers, these classes were as exploited as the French peasants before the Revolution. But with a much smaller population, and much more open land for foraging, there is no need to suppose that they were excessively exploited during this early period. [Top]

The Farm

The strong farmer, the boaire (bo aire cattle-minder, perhaps cattle boss) was the typical farmer, and his farm or townland was the typical farm, though the chiefs and nobles also, of necessity, had farms.  A description of the boaire’s farm or townland will suffice for all. As the name boaire implies, cattle raising was the principal economic activity. The boaire, or strong farmer, must be distinguished from the bothach who actually herded the cattle. But pigs, goats and sheep that also had to be herded, would also have been kept. There would have been some tillage with cereals like oats and barley to provide porridge and beer. It is likely that in the early part of the period, around the time of the coming of St. Patrick, that the boaire and his sons formed the backbone of Irish society, corresponding to the churl in Anglo-Saxon society. It is clear that both the boaire and the churl had a much more important place in society in the fifth century than they had in the twelfth century when both were reduced to a status resembling villeinage.  In both countries the relatives of the chiefs, the athelings, had become much more numerous, had taken control of the land and formed a governing class, the so-called noble class.

            The free farming family would have had a holding of about 70 to 100 acres, a town, or townland or bally (baile; compare -ham and -ton; -ington corresponds to Ballymac the town of the sons of), and would have lived in huts or houses inside circular enclosures called raths. Later, all the townlands would have extended to meet the boundaries of all other town lands within a tuath, to make a complete patchwork, but presumably earlier much wasteland was intermixed with the farmed land. At some stage the townland became the unit for taxation and remained such until the nineteenth century long after it had become split up into separate small farms. The farm family would also have rights of pasture, timber and peat, in the surrounding bogs and woods. A townland has still today about a hundred acres. The family was largely self-sufficient producing all its own needs. It is also likely that some families specialised in particular tasks like curing leather, brewing or weaving so that their services would have been in demand on other farms.

            Each farming family owned its own farm. It was an allodium, namely it was not held from the chief, and no services were due to the chief because of it. This was also the system of land tenure among the Teutonic peoples, before the development of feudalism. Rotations of ploughing would have taken place within the bounds of each. Some form of the infield-outfield system was probably practised. The infield was the part of the farm nearest the rath, which was heavily manured and folded, and cultivated by rotation. The outfield was much rougher, and was ploughed only occasionally in a fallow year, largely to clear the weeds. In the fallow year, the land was ploughed two or three times at intervals of a few weeks and constantly harrowed. This allowed as many seeds as possible to sprout and be killed. Then after the fallowing the crop was sown in the autumn. The outfield was normally very dirty, what would be called nowadays rough grazing. The entire group of farm buildings could have been shifted periodically round the townland. This would have been a substitute for fallowing. Heavy manuring would have maintained fertility but would not have prevented a build up of weeds and pests. With the introduction of the heavy plough larger fields would have been cultivated, with probably two fields cultivated in alternate years. These would naturally not be manured as heavily as the infield because of the difficulty in transporting heavy wet manure. As often there is much speculation in this.

There was a certain amount of tillage, but this was left to the unfree classes and slaves, who seem to have been quite numerous. Pastoral societies detest heavy work in the fields, whether ploughing, sowing, reaping, threshing, or grinding corn. So there is no reason to believe that the standard of husbandry was high. It was easier to burn another piece of scrubland that to hoe and harrow regularly. But there was another reason for depending chiefly on animal husbandry. All crops were liable to devastating failure. The damp Irish climate, at the limit of cereal production may have been particularly favourable to plant diseases. Even in the nineteenth century, the germination of root crops apart from the potato was uncertain, and it was this fact that produced an unhealthy dependence on the single root crop. Cattle too were occasionally subject to a murrain of cattle plague, and this inevitably resulted in famine. How and where ploughing was carried out is hard to determine. Small fields close to the rath or farmstead could have been ploughed with a light plough drawn by at most two oxen. But a larger, heavier plough would have required a larger oxteam that in turn would have required heavier fields. In England the length of the furrow became standardised at 220 yards. With a double furrow in yard wide, the ox-team would go up and down 22 times to plough an acre. The small square fields were about 70 yards square. It may be that when the heavy plough was introduced, the outfield was being ploughed. Sowing was normally done in the spring. A boaire would have tilled about eight acres a year for cereals and planted two varieties of wheat, with barley, rye, oats, beans, peas, and flax (Mitchell 165 ff). The most common cereal was oats, wheaten bread being regarded as a delicacy. Later root crops became more common (O’Corrain).

Slaves were kept for the heaviest work. The number of slaves kept probably varied as the supply. Slaves at the time of St Patrick would have been abundant, and also again in Viking times.  A hired labourer at least in the eleventh century was paid one cow and one cloak for a year's labour, and this may have been the practice too at an earlier date It is unclear if this was in addition to his daily food or not, but presumably it was. The Jewish law insisted that the labourer hired by the day should be paid at the end of the day (Lev. 19.13). But in Ireland, as still in the nineteenth century, he would have been paid at the end of his hire. The cloak would have been the single garment of a working man. The slave would have been given his daily food and a garment, probably a cast-off.

With regard to techniques of farming the old theory that new techniques were brought in by new waves of invaders, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, etc. has long been abandoned.  Innovations could arise anywhere and they were gradually diffused in times of war and peace. The coulter plough, with a coulter or vertical iron blade at the front to cut the sod reached Ireland about this time. A team of oxen pulled it. The stronger farmers would have had their own teams, the lesser farmers shares in a team. Each farmer presumably had his own plough, for the wooden ploughs were easy to make. Milch cows would have been more valuable than oxen, so each farmer would have limited the number of the latter to what was absolutely necessary. The introduction of new technology never ceased, but it was at an incredibly slow pace. Towards the end of this period the mouldboard plough was introduced. This was a board set at an angle behind the ploughshare and its function was to stand the furrow on its edge. This partially buried the weeds and also brought up nutriments from below to the surface. The larger and heavier the plough, and the larger the ox-team, the greater the depth that could be cultivated. Cultivation probably reached its greatest extent by 800 AD The subsequent decline in tillage may or may not be connected with the Vikings. Many of the fields identified in the in-field were quite small, scarcely more than an acre.  Large fields give hostages to the raiders. But many smallholders probably still used the spade and hoe. The poorer people would have used a wooden spade tipped with metal as they did up to the nineteenth century. There was no haymaking.

The boaire would have had a share in the watermill if such existed. They were becoming more common towards the end of the period (O’Corrain.) During this period water-driven corn grinding mills were being introduced, a horizontal watermill being known from the seventh century. This was not a very efficient mill. The mill wheel was horizontal with half of if projecting into a fast-running stream. But it is simple to construct, and the shaft drives the horizontal millstone directly. The undershot vertical wheel was known from Roman times, but for grinding corn it requires two shafts joined by a right-angled gear. Corn-drying kilns became equally widespread. Damp corn quickly rots. All cereal crops were subject to great fluctuations in yield, whether from poor sprouting lack of rain, too much rain, and numerous diseases. (The great popularity of the potato in later times was the great regularity of its cropping an apparent immunity to disease.)

 Iron tools were introduced. Good quality iron tools were superior to those of stone or bronze, but much of the iron available to the poorer classes was probably of low grade. The most important tool was the plough. All the other tools would have survived from Neolithic times. The spade was now given an iron tip, and this was probably true of many tools. It had long been obvious that any tool for cutting or thrusting was best shod with iron even when made largely with wood.

Conditions on the farmstead would have been much like they were a thousand years earlier and a thousand years later. There would have been a large hall, and several other smaller buildings all surrounded by a circular enclosure called a rath or lios. They were not strongly fortified, and the boundary was probably chiefly to keep out animals like boars or wolves or human thieves. The guard dogs would have been let loose at night. If there are any signs of fortification as with crannogs we can assume that a noble family occupied it. The family would have ground its own corn, baked its own bread, salted its own meat, cut its own turf or firewood, and brewed its own ale. Few of the raths had wells inside them indicating that the people fled when an invasion was threatened. But even in urbanised Palestine in King David's day the main well of the fortified town was often outside the walls which indicated that an easily defensible point was preferred to one with a good supply of water. The well would be covered over and obliterated at the approach of an enemy, or else so close to the walls that the enemy could not get to it. The inference is that sieges were expected to be short, and that the supplies stored within would outlast the supplies of a raiding party without. Or else that the entire family dispersed into the woods carrying their goods and driving their cattle before them. All the large trees in the farmed area would have been cut away, so that all the raths would have been visible from each other. The resulting scrubland would have been used for firewood, as well as for browsing cattle. This would aid defence if the raiding party was small or split up

                The farmstead would also have had a fold for sheep, a pen for calves, a sty for pigs, a barn, a kiln for drying the grain, all within the circular fence or rath, The extended family would have had a house thirty feet long inside its rath. Traces of at least 30,000 raths are known to survive. The outer fence was normally banked with earth at this period that explains why so many from this period survive. Many of the houses were constructed of wattle covered with mud and whitewashed which may have indicated a shortage of good timber. The houses were thatched and the eaves would have extended a considerable way, three or four feet, beyond the walls to protect them from the rain. There was doubtless a large porch at one end where the men would assemble during the daytime if it were too wet or too hot. Inside there would have been a fireplace, not necessarily for cooking, and perhaps a few chairs and beds. But most people would have sat down or slept on straw or rushes. There would have been no tables for dining. By the ninth or tenth century, some of these farmhouses may have built of stone. .  There would be other buildings, some of them lean-tos inside the rath or lios. Almost all work was done outdoors, and these works would have included spinning, weaving, cooking, metalwork, copying manuscripts, and so on. (Even in the stone-built Benedictine monasteries, the monks lived in the open cloisters, summer and winter.) [Top]


Though there was a limited amount of tillage, the economy was essentially a cattle-rearing one. Indeed the best parallels to Irish society were to be found among the warlike cattle-rearing tribes of Sub-Saharan Africa like the Masai or Zulus where a society very similar to that of the Indo-Europeans had developed. Status and wealth were measured in the number of cattle. Herding and warfare were the duties of men; tillage was left to women, hired men, and slaves. The real productive area would have been the vast woods, and scrubland, and bogs, and hills outside the settled townlands. Cattle-herding and cattle-raiding were not really distinguished.

The animals, cattle, sheep, and pigs would of course have been grazed in the forest, and would have required numerous cowherds, shepherds, and swineherds, all assigned to the bothach (cowboy or vaquero) class. It is likely, though there is no direct evidence of this, that these were housed in small cottages in villages, each with a small patch of land for cultivation, and with rights to a certain amount of wood or peat for fires, and a certain proportion of milk and meat from the cows. The easiest way to pay a cowherd was in so much milk each day. In a cashless society, this was the way they were paid. As O’Corrain notes the cottagers probably had a single piece of land held in common, on the rundale system and fenced with hurdles to keep out cattle and wild animals. It is likely too, given the pastoral basis of society that most of the effort was directed to maintaining the herds and flocks roaming in the great forests, like the open range in the American West. As there were no fences or boundaries, herdsmen were absolutely essential. In many places too distant summer pastures were distinguished. Not only the herdsmen but also the milkmaids would have to stay there with the cows. One duty of the herdsmen was to prevent the calves from drinking the cows’ milk, as the owners required this.

The animals were still the small Iron Age breeds, with the sheep kept chiefly for wool. The wool could have been almost any colour. There was less preoccupation with producing a pure white wool or even a fine wool. Pure white or black fine wool if obtainable would have been used by the rich.  Cows were kept principally for their milk, and an ability to survive the winter outdoors on naturally occurring hay was an important consideration. Pigs were semi-wild, rangy beasts able to forage for themselves. Swineherds, like shepherds and cowherds were probably numerous. We can also assume that many of these were brought along when the chiefs went on a cattle-raid in order to locate and drive off the stock.            

             Each farming family would have been allocated the number of each kind of animal it was allowed to pasture in the woods By law (presumably to maintain his status as a freeman with rights at the oenach and to distinguish him from a mere cottager) the boaire had to have at least 20 cows, 2 bulls, and six oxen, presumably the standard ox-team. This was to reflect his honour price. But we can assume that he was not allowed by the chief to exceed this number without permission. He could always add to the number by entering into clientship. (In the days of the British Empire, one of the principal duties of the colonial administrators on the tropical grasslands, was to assign the number of beasts each family could have. When they left, the grasslands were over-grazed and tended towards desert.)

The emphasis was on dairying and consequently on ways of preserving the milk (O’Corrain 55). There were some attempts where the terrain was suitable to have distant summer farms where the cattle could be pastured in the good weather. This would have kept the nearer woodlands and bogs until later in the year, and the outfield for winter. The animals were still unimproved, being still the old hardy stock that could survive the winter outdoors with little fodder. Grass dries and turns naturally to hay if it is uncut. But a lot of it may fall down and rot or be trampled on. Also such grass is very woody and lacking in nutritional value. Haymaking improves both quantity and quality. All farm produce was subject to diseases and plagues, or failure to grow. Murrains were likely to strike cattle herds. (Murrain was a generic term for diseases that killed cattle.) This in turn would cause great mortality among the poorer classes. The rich classes would make sure they themselves had enough to eat. Pigs were common and were tended in herds in the forests. The annals noted the years in which mast (the fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other forest trees) was abundant. Horses were kept, chiefly for riding and military purposes it would seem. Cavalry was not however important. They may also have been used as pack animals. They were still the small native ponies. Oxen were used for draught and ploughing.           

            As far as farming was concerned, the nobles, i.e. the relatives of the chief or members of the ruling family, would have lived in exactly the same way as the free land-owning farmers. But they would have had larger holdings of the better land.  Their rath or lios would have been better prepared for defence, and so perhaps would have had a well within its bounds. [Top]


In many ways the craftsmen would have been like the boaire but with presumably lesser obligations regarding stock. Many of them were freemen, and could attend the chief’s court in person. We know almost nothing about how they fitted into the general economy in a cashless society. Though the output of their crafts was prized it was extremely labour-intensive. Nor often, whatever was paid for a shield or sword, or house etc., would the recompense cover the expenses of the smith’s household for the period, or be of any use in that direction. If a chief gave what he had, perhaps barrels of wine, in return for a sword, the smith would be glad to drink it. But if a farmer paid in days of labour on the smith’s fields for sharpening his ploughshare, it was more useful. Highest of the craftsmen were oaken house builders, shipbuilders, and millwrights whose honour price was equal to that of the lowest grade of nobleman. We have no idea how often they were required, or if those with skills in lesser crafts like carpenters were usually used. Chariot makers and carpenters had an honour price equal to that of the boaire or highest grade of freeman (Byrne 173). Accidental fires and systematic burning by raiders have left no examples of their work. The houses of the rich and the churches may have been built as elaborate timber structures. It is a pity that not a single example of timberwork survives. It was probably highly carved like metal work or stone work. But in most cases there seems to have been little desire to develop domestic architecture. It would suffice if the roof kept out the rain and snow.

 Domestic utensils were made almost universally of wood. Among the craftsmen were those whose skills were less esteemed like the makers of leather, and workers in wool, weavers and spinners, dyers of cloth, turners of wood, brewers, and fishermen. The home brewing was probably of not a high standard Clearly too there had to be butchers, cooks, and laundresses, and seamstresses.

How exactly this kind of work was organised is not clear. Obviously, for some goods the nobles and landowners would have many of the crafts carried on within the lios or rath. It would seem obvious that most of the family of a boaire, male and female, would be expected to work. But it is not obvious how much work was expected for example from the female members of a noble’s family. But this did not necessarily mean that the craftsmen and craftswomen worked there full time. A brewer would not be needed full time. Similarly, the services of a smith producing swords would not be required all the time. A chief could only buy what he could afford, nor does it seem that there was any great economic surplus. The first charges on the revenue of a chief would have been the maintenance of his household, providing them with food and clothing. All the members of his family, especially but not exclusively the women would demand new clothes. 

Nobody knows how or where the lowest classes lived, those without connection with a lord or freeman, but no doubt each had a small plot of land and a right to pasture a cow or two.  During the course of the year we can imagine one of these small people taking their goods, furs, fish, rush baskets, berries and nuts to the local farmer to be exchanged for an old cast-off garment, or an old pair of boots. Or taking them to the chief’s annual fair for a similar exchange. For such people a short piece of thread would be a precious commodity. One can imagine a woman and her children gathering sheep’s wool from the bushes to spin. As late as the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell admitted that nobody had any idea how the very poorest classes survived. They may have lived in small hamlets of wattle huts all traces of which have long since disappeared. Many of them probably lived like the very poorest classes in pre-Famine Ireland, in little huts or mudcabins they made themselves, and getting work where they could find it. Like in pre-Famine Ireland, the least of a small patch of ground would have been essential for survival. For most of the year the women could beg, and the men seek casual employment. Others were probably like cottiers, having a small patch of ground and a cow, and getting regular employment from the boaires either for the whole season or at seed and harvest. They could be jockeys and charioteers, steersmen of boats, and entertainers such as acrobats, gatherers of shellfish or seaweed, fowlers, trappers, woodsmen and tree-fellers, or even casual labourers, who had no honour price. A simple barter economy could supply most of their limited needs. The travelling entertainers undoubtedly went from farm to farm and were given food in return for their entertainment. 

The forests were strictly controlled, and the law codes imposed restrictions on the cutting of various trees. The chiefs and leaders of the warbands had great interests in the forests. Grazing rights in the forests seems to have been the basis of the client system. They were also essential for purposes of defence. Much of the hunting was probably restricted to the chiefly families. The felling of mature trees was probably also restricted to the noble families. On the one hand, grazing had to be restricted, and on the other hand tree-felling either for the purposes of getting timber and firewood or clearing for tillage had to be prevented. There is little doubt that at a quite early date all the good timber was cut away for quite a distance from the homesteads. Not only was it constantly required for firewood, but also all buildings were of wood, and one of the chief purposes of a cattle-raid was to burn the dwellings of the farms raided. It is recounted in the Life of St Darerca that she worked a miracle to transport a tree for the ridgepole of a church, which could only be found in an inaccessible spot (de Paor, St Patrick's World p294). The problem was probably a common one. Houses were therefore made of wattle and daub. A hall 30 feet by 20 feet would have required about thirty rafters each about 20 feet long. The ridgepole of the roof would have been 30 feet. It is not clear why it could not have been spliced. The ordinary people probably used poles of hazel, and built circular huts to avoid using long, heavy timbers. The huts need not have been large, for most of their life was passed outdoors. 

                Increasingly, landowners claimed the fishing rights on their waters, and also the waters for their mills. In the nineteenth century, one of the greatest obstacles to improving inland navigation and inland drainage was the fact that every piece of water was owned by somebody, and weirs and fish traps abounded. Almost certainly salt was traded widely for it is virtually an essential human food. It could be obtained by evaporation on the seacoasts. One wonders how much a poor cottager inland would pay in days of work to his richer neighbour for a small piece of salt for his family. Even in the nineteenth century poor families on the west coast found it dear and difficult to get salt [Top]       

Travel and Trade

With regard to roads, as always we must consider the military situation not that of trade. A road was a path cleared through the forest. The Irish word bothar (boher), like boaire and bothach, seems to be also connected with cows, and presumably meant local tracks within the tuath along which cattle were driven. A provincial king would insist that roads be kept clear and maintained within the area from which he exacted tribute, so that he could speedily reach recalcitrant subjects. On the other hand he would insist that the roads on his borders be kept as poor as possible and the clearings as narrow as possible so that they could be easily blocked in time of invasion. As such attacks took place in the summer, forests not bogs provided the best defence. At the first signs of an enemy's advance trees and bushes were plashed across the highways. As late as 1690 there were only one or two places between Belfast and Newry where an army could deploy in line of battle. So any army strung out along the line of march was liable to be ambushed. Julius Caesar lost an entire legion in this way in Gaul. In  1700 the road between Dundalk and Armagh passed for sixteen miles through uninhabited bogs and mountains. This had been the O’Neill's great defensive belt. When the armies from the Pale passed the belt they still had the problem of maintaining garrisons beyond it. But even cross-border roads had to be maintained to some extent for it was essential to channel all traffic whether military or commercial along a few designated tracks. Nor would a chief be happy if the merchants coming to him were robbed before they arrived. For it was the privilege of the chief to do the robbing.

            That is not to say that there were not long distance paths through the bogs and forests. Central Ireland benefited particularly from relics of the Ice Age called eskers. These were long lines of gravel ridges that provided dry paths through the bogs. The Shannon, though it was the largest river in Ireland, was fordable in its upper reaches for much of the year. There was a route from central Ireland into Munster that followed the higher ground along the Slieve Bloom Mountains in a south-westerly direction. There were only two feasible routes into Ulster, one on the east coast and the other on the west coast, and both were easy to defend. By Viking times it was possible to transport boats from Lough Neagh to the Shannon, though how this was managed is not clear. There was no easy route into Leinster or out of it in any direction. (A bridge between Leinster and Central Ireland was built by the Vikings who carved out a tiny chiefdom around the city of Dublin. Possession of this little chiefdom proved eventually to be the key to the conquest of the whole of Ireland.) Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and to a certain extent Connaught, remained islands in the forests largely cut off from each other. But certain privileged classes like smiths, bards, priests, and monks, not to mention the despised travelling entertainers, apparently were allowed to travel freely. These would be able to use water routes, such as along Lough Erne, not available to armies.

            The fact remains that no Irish chief was ever able to conquer all the other chiefs and hold them subdued for long. Only a handful of chiefs succeeded in doing so for more than a few years. Only when the Government in Dublin, backed by the resources of Elizabeth I’s English treasury, after a prolonged and ferocious campaign that matched the barbarity of the Irish chiefs, did any Irish Government succeed in subduing the whole country in 1603. 

            It is clear from the literature that boats were important, as elsewhere in Europe at the time. We read that St Columbanus went by boat into Burgundy in the east of France. As geographically Ireland is a low plateau all the rivers fall off it close to the sea from ten to twenty miles from the coast. The inland waterways are not connected. Ships from the sea cannot sail up the Shannon above Limerick. Above the falls at Assaroe, for much of the year the river is a raging torrent. Even in summer, as late as the nineteenth century boats large enough to navigate the lakes on its course were too large to cross the many shoals in its bed. The two Lough Ernes formed the longest continuous body of water but had only local significance. Lough Neagh was the largest body of water but much of its shoreline was scarcely inhabited. Nevertheless, it would seem that boats were much used for local use. 

            There was no coinage in Ireland until some time after the arrival of the Vikings. All trade, fines, and compensations were reckoned in terms of nominal sets and cumals. The set was given the value of half a heifer or milch cow. The cumal was a female slave, but in terms of value regarded as being six sets (O’Corrain 73). But the alternative system of using fractions of an ounce of silver, doubtless used by foreign merchants, was also used. 

            In common with the rest of North Western Europe there was a decline in trade in the post-Roman period. Trade reverted to its pre-Roman status. Long-distance trade in luxury goods, as before, was confined to the noble classes. The chief and his family would benefit from the compulsory gifts of the traders. It is hard to reconstruct how the markets held at the chief’s assembly or oenach worked. Though it is relatively easy to construct a picture of the economic situation at the level of the individual farmer we can still only conjecture how trade and manufactures were carried on. From time immemorial, foreign traders frequented the coasts. If Cornwall had its tin, Ireland had its gold. Ireland could produce forest products like furs, wool, and as we know from a reference by St. Patrick, dogs, presumably hunting hounds. The forest products that remained a staple of export from the northern forests until the twentieth century, were almost the sole exports. Ireland, unlike Russia and the Baltic countries, was not rich in these. The merchants could sell wine, and exotic dyed cloths. But if a local weaver wished to sell rough woollen cloths woven by himself and dyed by his wife and daughter, how would he be paid? . Who was responsible for collecting the skins and furs? Were there families living in the woods that specialised in hunting and trapping, and exchanged these for other necessities?

            Ireland at this stage had virtually no manufactured goods whether of stone, pottery, metal, or textiles, for use as exports. That most of the trade passed through the hands of the chiefs who exacted tolls and gifts was a basic fact since trade began. That traders should present themselves at the chief's rath in order to trade was both prudent and profitable. But were any persons other than the chiefs and the greater nobles belonging to the ruling tribe involved? Could a boaire for example collect furs and exchange them for wine or fine textiles? Or more likely, was this a chiefly monopoly. If furs could only be sold to the chief, the trapper would get very little for them. Wine, however seems to have been the chief import, and the drink of the upper classes. These would have been secured by whatever means were necessary, sufficient furs and hides to enable them to pay for the wine. Slave-raiding was always a profitable trade; it was an essential component of the Viking economy. Presumably it was also the staple export of the Gaelic chiefs, for Ireland was not rich in tradable goods. One basic unit of exchange was the cumal (cool, slave woman). In the many wars in Ireland those captured in battle whose families could pay a ransom were not killed (O’Corrain p 46). Were there any Irish merchants at the time? We can assume that most of the traders on the Irish coasts were foreign, mostly at this time from the Atlantic coast of Gaul. But de Paor thinks it possible that St Patrick escaped on board an Irish merchant ship (p 24).  

            Who were the metal workers, and how did they fit into the social structure? The Cuchulain (Koohullin) story of Cullan the smith shows that the latter had a rath of his own and with it no doubt an appropriate amount of land. Cullan would of course be the head of an extended family of smiths. A great smith could entertain the local chief and his retinue. (This is not to endorse the historicity of the Tain but only to point out what contemporary listeners would have found reasonable.) But had all smiths and metal workers their own raths and farms? And the stone carvers? Were some itinerants who proceeded from chief to chief executing work for him and being given food and lodging while they did so? Or were they hawking previously made goods from place to place? It seems more likely that each family of craftsmen had their own home farm on which to support themselves. From this they could set out at certain times of the year to sell their goods. If they had to carve an object on site, like a stone cross at a monastery, the person commissioning the work would no doubt have been responsible for their support while they were accomplishing it. Like the later ‘hiring fair’ the worker would only be paid at the end of the year.

            The problem of establishing how the Irish economy worked arises from the nature of the surviving sources. These were concerned with the affairs of the noble classes, the affairs of the courts, warfare, and compensations due for individual wrongs. There were no treatises on farming, on metallurgy, on machines, on mining, on trade, or any such subjects. Unlike those Romans who considered these subjects suitable to write about most Irish writers agreed with the sentiment of Horace, Odi profanum vulgus (I loath the unlettered crowd). 

            With regard to the size of monasteries we can assume that the lands assigned for the support of the monks did not exceed the size of one farm. The lands of the larger monasteries could probably have supported a hundred persons at most including all the servants and farm workers. The Irish monks were not bound to till the fields themselves, though some did. So even the largest monastery would not have had more than thirty or forty monks. Stories that thousands of scholars flocked to the schools of Ireland are clearly legendary.  O’Corrain suggests that some monasteries may have had a sizeable town around them (p72).  This however would argue that there was a considerable body of merchants attached to them all owning land in the vicinity, or else much tribute and gifts pouring into the monastery. By the twelfth century lands to the extent of a medieval manor were given as endowments. The custom of giving more than one townland or farm to endow a monastery may have begun earlier. In such a case we would expect a chief or noble to have more than one farm as well. [Top]

The Structure within the Tuath

How did numerous tuatha combine together before the system of over-chiefs and provincial chiefs developed. In particular who or what were the Laigin and the Ulaid? One was a ruling group in Leinster and the other in Ulster. They are treated as a collective by the chroniclers and are always seen as acting together. Leading families within each group sought to be recognised as their leader. Yet this was centuries before particular chiefs had assembled enough power to enforce the rights of the ri ruirech or chief of a province. We may perhaps assume that there was some kind of confederacy of equals, as among the so-called Children of Israel. This confederacy would probably be developed around a common shrine. When any large-scale enterprise was to be undertaken, such as a raid into Britain, the confederates would elect a chief of the common warband. If everyone observed the rules, and there was a fair distribution of rewards, confederacies could be powerful and long lasting. But they were of their nature ad hoc affairs geared to particular enterprises. Some could have been very short-lived especially if some members felt they were short-changed. But where there were powerful cohesive bodies like the Laughing and the Ulaid, we can suspect a strong confederacy. An alternative explanation is a cyclical view of power relations. This assumes that there were once powerful provincial kings, but that these had largely lost their power by the historic period to local chiefs. All this is speculation. 

The chief of the tuath was called ri in Gaelic, rix in the Celtic of Gaul, and rex in Latin. Despite the Celtic names there is no indication that the political structure was imported by the Celts. A similar organisation was to be found among the Anglo-Saxons in the early days of their conquest of England.  On the other hand the hierarchical structure may have been imposed by the leaders of the warbands on a principle like the sub-infeudation of Norman times. Every superior chief, a ri ruirech and ruiri, was also a ri in his own tuath, where the mensal lands of the chief lay. By at least 400 AD but presumably much earlier, as leader of the warband the ri made peace and war, entered into agreements with the neighbouring chiefs, and could accept a position of superiority or inferiority with regard to any of them. The weaker tuatha had very little choice other than to accept clientship under a more powerful neighbour. The process then was cumulative, as a chief over two or more tuatha was more powerful than a chief over only one. . The term ri for the chief of a tuath was increasingly abandoned, but ri/rex was continued for the chief of a province until the end of the Middle Ages.

The ri still continued to be regarded as a sacred person and was bound about with taboos to ensure victory, freedom from pestilence, and fertility. Success in war and the fertility of the herds of cattle equally depended on their proper observance. Though religion among the Celtic families was very vague the chief was bound by various taboos, unlucky things he had to avoid and lucky things he had to do, to ensure the success of his reign. Any defect such as the loss of a limb or an eye made it impossible for a man to be chief. Wherefore, blinding a rival excluded him from the succession. The chief function of foster parents was to prevent the killing or maiming of potential claimants to the chieftainship. As de Paor (Saint Patrick's World 27) points out, the older tradition of the king as a sacred figure seems to have survived. It would seem that the remnants of the age-old rites of initiation survived until at least the twelfth century AD. It would seem too in the texts that the exponents of the sacral character of kingship in the Christian period drew heavily on the Old Testament. (Like many superstitions they probably survived on a 'just in case' basis.)

The chief would have had his own farm, probably a large one and on the most fertile land. Most of his income however would have come from the annual returns from clients. The base clients who had to supply the chief and his retinue with food were especially liable to be exploited. The supplementary dues from them also could be tailored to meet the needs of the chief’s table. It is likely that the tillage on the farm of the chiefs was devoted to the production of beer. The chief had also other rights, dues, tributes and spoils to support his state. The division of the spoils from a war or a raid passed through his hands. Everyone approaching the chief for any purpose had to first present a gift. When a member of the tuath enlisted his help in recovering an honour price, the chief got a share of it.

Yet the chiefs themselves were not wealthy except in the sense that they got the best food, clothing, weapons, and women. A chief would not last long if he did not win battles, or at least avoid disastrous defeats. The plunder, gifts and tributes, mostly in kind, would have been the source of most of a chief’s wealth. The chief himself, no matter how much was given to him, would have been unable to accumulate personal wealth for he was obliged to distribute it to relatives and supporters. For the chief was expected by his followers to give with an open hand, to practice a ‘princely generosity’. If he did not he would not remain chief for long. The standard of the dwellings of most Irish chiefs and the poverty of their furnishings seems to have remained at a very basic level until the end of the sixteenth century. (The same was true in the Highlands of Scotland before the introduction of the sheep in the eighteenth century. Only the introduction of English law, primogeniture, and the payment of fixed cash rents in peaceful conditions allowed the chiefs to accumulate wealth.) The relatives of the chiefs battened on them. What they wanted was plenty of food, drink, and women, opportunities for hunting and raiding, and the display of personal dress, ornamentation, and weapons.

Warfare apart, the duties of a chief were light. It was considered that he should devote two days in the week to them. Talking, in the form of bragging and boasting, which could rapidly result in bloodshed, seems also to have been an essential occupation. Gambling was probably very limited because few, if any, people, had possessions of their own. For lesser chiefs, success was measured in terms of survival. If a chief managed to hold on to most of his families lands and succeeded in keeping a sufficient number of his family alive to ensure the continued independence of the family, he was considered successful. A chief of the McQuillans in the reign of Elizabeth I claimed that all the chiefs in his family for four centuries had been killed fighting.

In the early stages (at least according to the law codes) the ri was supreme in his tuath but within limits. Essentially he was the leader of the warband. But as war had a sacred character, he was consequently a sacred figure bound by ritual rules and obligations. His duties were defined by the needs of a warband and dealt largely with relations, hostile or otherwise, with other tuatha.  He did not own the land, nor could he make laws. Nor was he the official judge of disputes, nor the enforcer of judgements. Cases were tried by the judges, and enforced by the winning party. The judicial functions of the chief consisted in settling disputes among his leading followers, most of whom would have been related to him in some degree. If however it involved a point of law, the matter had to be referred to a judge.  Disputes among warriors would have been frequent. Most laws (of the kind that were eventually written down) would have been for the regulation of the affairs of this class.

It can be assumed that the kings and judges were corrupt. No judgement was given without a prior gift. It can be assumed too that no relative of the chief ever lost a lawsuit whether tried before the chief. This practice would have facilitated the transfer of land to the relatives of the chief. The worst case was in Ulster, where over a thousand years, almost all the land in mid-Ulster was transferred to the O’Neills and their sub-clans. The rest of the population was reduced to the level of landless labourers. The same process went on in south Ulster and east Ulster were Oirgialla and Ulaid families were dominant. 

The rath or lios of the ri and his great hall were just larger versions of that of the boaire. A circular earthen bank topped by a wooden palisade would have been sufficient to stop a raiding party that came neither equipped for a siege nor with sufficient time for it. The aim of a cattle raid was to seize cattle, drive them off successfully and return home before another chief could raid the home territory. But we really know nothing of the strategies of offence and defence. A chief would have had more people in his household, and would have in many ways resembled the continental villa even though the chief did not own all the land around it. His own retainers and warriors would have shared his hall at night and sat and slept on the rushes.  Almost certainly many of these domestic warriors or supermen (corresponding to the housecarls) would have been drawn from among the freemen or from among strangers, not from among the chiefs relatives, for exactly the same reason that King David’s personal bodyguard was composed of Cretans and Philistines. (Later, chiefs who could afford them depended on foreign mercenaries drawn especially from Scotland.) Their loyalty would have been to the chief personally and they would have no interest in murdering him.

The house or hall of a chief would have been similar to that of the boaire only slightly larger. He would have had a large chair, or perhaps two, one for inside the hall and one for the porch His chair, like that of a bishop, would have been the symbol of his authority. Justice would have been administered from his porch, though on occasions of larger gatherings it could have been carried to the spot appointed. In England the king dispensed justice from his bench which was placed in his courtyard. Foreign dignitaries met the king not in his chamber but in his courtyard or court. (Court and yard mean much the same thing.) Later a small part of the hall would have been set aside for the bedchamber of the chief. (To this day, trials are held in open courts, which are nowadays roofed over, but judges have personal chambers to which they can retire.) Part of it would in course of time have been set aside for the noble ladies. This would not have amounted to more than a small room. Even in the twelfth century in England the queen had only a small room for herself in the castle. 

With regard to the people of the tuath it is hard to say how many farms or townlands were in an ordinary tuath, but it was probably not more than 50 or 60, and the total population of each would have been about 3000. There were about 150 of them in Ireland at any given time giving a total population of about 450,000. As the cultivated land was along the rivers all five might have been contiguous for a distance of thirty miles, and all surrounded by the same great forests. Indeed, up the twelfth century at least, and probably much later, it is wise to envisage cultivated lands in Ireland as isolated islands in a great forest. Similarly, within the tuath it is difficult to determine how many of the farms were owned by the relatives of the chief. It would seem that their share of the land was increasing all the time. For example, at one time the chiefly family of the Mugdorna may have had only one farm in the barony of Cremorne to which they gave their name. On the other hand, even at the beginning of historic times, all the land whether in the hands of the nobles or the freemen could have been shared out among the descendants of a common ancestor who was a chief. The question is when did the process of land-grabbing by the families of the chiefs start, or did it proceed in cycles. 

The tuath was a distinct area of ground, not the name of a clan. But as the ruling family or clan and its various septs acquired control over more and more tuatha, the clan became more important. (Though sometimes used in Ireland the word clan was chiefly Scottish, where there was a similar system of control of land by particular families. It is a useful concept. The idea of both clan and tribe are based on kinship especially of the ruling elite.) Chieftainship was derived from an election by free members of the tuath. It was not feudal. The tuath often had not a name of its own but took it from the ruling family. It is not clear if this was universal. But there were occasions when the ruling family changed and the old name remained. There are many examples of such tribal names transferring to a piece of land.

            The social structure of Ireland can be observed in miniature within the tuath. Status, rank, and honour price in Irish society at large have been dealt with above.  Within the tuath that as we have noted was typically about seven miles square society was highly stratified. As the population of the tuath did not exceed 3000 people it is obvious that the numerous grades of lordship and freemen involved very minor differences, and might involve a single family in each. Though of course every tuath need not have the full range. By the time the laws were written the old semi-equality of the local farmers presided over by a local chief had long disappeared. It is very doubtful if the complicated social structure given in the lawcodes was the original one. Rather it has the appearance of a working over by legal families of traditional materials to assign everyone a grade, a precedence, and a blood price at a time when movement was fairly free within a province, and every province had a paramount chief. At an earlier stage when the tuath was the most important structure and the chiefs were not numerous it is probable that there was a simpler social structure such as we find among the Anglo-Saxons, another Indo-European group, in England.

 A man had no rights outside his own tuath. Only his own chief could support his interests. Also no man could act inside the tuath personally but only through the head of his extended family of derb-fine. Everyone was assigned a status or honour price. The value of a testimony varied as the honour price. This meant that any of the chiefly rank could out-swear in court those below him in rank. This naturally would be very useful in disputes over land.

            Only the heads of the noble and free families would have had the right to attend the great annual fair and speak at it. (This state of affairs was not unusual. In Athens most of the population were not citizens. All women, slaves and foreigners were excluded). Probably less than a tenth of the population had the right to vote and attend the chief's court. Unlike in Rome where the right of the plebeians were set out at an early date, we can be fairly sure that only warriors attended the chief’s court unaccompanied by a patron. In the feudal system only the upper classes could attend the king’s courts; all the other attended their local manorial courts. But there do not seem to have been in Ireland any equivalents of the manorial courts for lesser people. (We can assume however that boaires and those of similar rank would have settled disputes on their own farms.) It is unlikely that much attention was paid to those freemen and landowners who had a right to attend the chief’s court and speak there if they were not of the warrior class or related to the chief. In a military society these substantial farmers would have very little influence. [Top]   

The Grades of Tuatha

Society seems to have developed somewhat since the Bronze Age, but not by very much. Society however was changing rapidly. Around 400 AD, it may have been that the chief of the tuath was still the most important figure. But super-chiefs were coming in, who were superior over several chiefs. By 800 AD, some families were establishing themselves as provincial chiefs. By 1000 AD there were attempts being made to establish a single chief for the whole of Ireland. This mirrored the attempts to establish great regional counties and duchies in Western Europe, culminating in the attempt to re-establish the Western Empire. In Britain too there was the never-ending attempt to establish a single kingdom in Britain, which was strenuously resisted by the chiefs in what were to become Wales and Scotland who were trying to establish kingdoms of their own.    

Society, as far as the upper classes were concerned, was centred on war. That was their principal occupation. All offices, laws, contracts, education, religious rites, the entire economy, and all trades, etc. were geared towards producing successful outcomes in battles. The chief value of gold ornaments, for example, was to reward successful warriors, or those whom the chief needed if he were to succeed in war. The chief was the elected leader of the warband. This was also the case with all other peoples in north western Europe.

             At this time the economy and warfare were closely linked. Cattle-raising was preferred to tillage; piracy to trade. Standing crops could be burned, and normally were by an invading force. Cattle however could be driven to more remote and more secure woods. Attempts to search for them left the invader open to ambushes. Conversely, the great object in warfare was to drive off as many of the opponent’s cattle as possible. The victorious chief gave them to members of the lower orders who had then to repay him with so many cows a year for his table. The chief got the food for his lavish feasting and hospitality for nothing. The routes by which an invading force would have to advance were known. These could also be altered so that the invaders would not be able to drive off the cattle by the shortest route.

            The other great object of war was to secure new lands. This was far from easy. It seems to have been difficult to secure the necessary preponderance of force to capture another tuath and to occupy it and hold it safely. The chiefly families in the defeated tuath would disappear into the woods, and re-appear in the depths of winter to regain their lands. There was need therefore to wear down the targeted tuath if necessary for generations.

            The learned classes, religious leaders, and the craftsmen too were bound into the warrior culture. Historians and genealogists had to establish and prove the legitimate claims of the chief. If genealogies had to be faked, then they were faked. Poets were employed to glorify and entertain the chiefs. The historian must always ask Cui bonum?  Who profits from this propaganda exercise? Those who were in charge of religious rites had to ensure that the supernatural forces worked for the chief and the war-bands, and in Christian times provide the moral justification for his wars. Craftsmen made the weapons of war. They also made the objects of art which could be used as gifts to chiefs, and which the chief could use as gifts to his followers.

With regard to political organisation the basic building block in the early historical period was still the tuath  (too-a, plural tuatha too-ha). This was a tiny territory six or seven miles square. In many cases it probably coincides fairly well with the later baronies, or indeed in places with civil parishes (see maps in Moody, Martin, and Byrne 94-96) Though its nature is clear from the law codes, it is not always easy to harmonise this information with other information such as the genealogies of the principal families. One can try to compare the maps of the distribution of the chiefly families given by O’Corrain with those just mentioned, and the obvious difficulty emerges, namely that families increased their territory or lost it over time. The land assigned to the Dal Fiatach and Dal nAraide in Antrim and Down covers several baronies. Did these own the tuatha, did they install their own relatives as the local ri, or did they just exact tribute from the original tuatha? Or did they do all of these progressively? It would seem that all these processes were involved. Superior chiefs like the ruiri had client tuatha, in some of which his relatives were installed as chiefs, and in others of which the local ri had been forced to petition for clientship. These latter were known as fortuatha or daertuatha and they paid tribute. If the ri was a relative of the ruiri he paid no tribute and his tuath was called a saertuath. Fortuatha, aithech tuatha, and daertuatha seem to have been much the same thing, namely a subordinate tuath (Byrne). The urge to be the top ri in the group, and also to install relatives on captured lands would have been overwhelming. In this book I have always assumed that all grants of land to monasteries were made from captured tuatha.  

By the time the classical law tracts were written down by the middle of the eighth century, three grades of chiefs were recognised. These were the ri, the ruiri, and the ri ruirech which could be translated as the chief, the mesne chief, and the over or paramount chief. (The translation 'chief is preferred, as 'king' has entirely different connotations nowadays and as in the Bible is totally misleading. This was recognised as early as the eighth century O’Corrain) The last named was the chief of the province, the one who could exact tribute from all the others. Naturally he only remained chief so long as he could exact the tribute. The same was doubtless true of the relationship between the ruiri and the ri. The chief of a province, the ri ruirech was equated with the king of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom during the so-called heptarchy. (The MacMurrough-Cavanaghs were using the title rex Lageniae king of Leinster until the end of the Middle Ages, their situation being similar to a king of Wessex or Northumbria.) The ruiri could be equated with the earl, and the ri with the baron. Every ri ruirech was also a ruiri and was elected from among their number. The rules regarding election from within the derb fine would still apply, in theory at least.) Later, when the hierarchical system of chiefs in a province was fully established, subordinate tuatha were either free or unfree. The free tuath paid no tribute to their over-chief, the reason apparently being that they belonged to the same family as the over-chief. Unfree tuatha had to pay tribute. The vassals of the great provincial chiefs were called urraghs (from oir ri an underking, Curtis) by the English in medieval Ireland. It is a useful term. The relationships between these were complex, but this situation was far into the future. This system was fully developed in the Viking period, but had certainly commenced before then (O’Corrain, Byrne). The expansion could have been more or less peaceful, proceeding by marriage into another tuath and then manipulating election to get a son of the union chosen as chief. It is useful in every case of a targeted tuath to assume that some figment of legitimacy was secured by a marriage. The very slowness of expansion of the Ui Neill for example shows that overwhelming force was rarely available.

We have to remember, for example, when studying the struggles of the Ui Neill for the kingship of Tara and the overlordship of the north that we are dealing with chiefs who had effective rule over their own home barony only. Their authority over other tuatha or chiefs had to be enforced, and only applied to subordinate tuatha.

As was customary among the Indo-Europeans the grades of chieftainship were elective, and the person chosen from the close kin-group was the one who was most likely to gain success in battle. When elected he could normally depend on the support of the other chiefs in the ruling family in war, and they may even have brought him customary gifts. Though doubtless the force of law and custom as well as the force of arms enabled them for the most part to do this. As O’Corrain remarks, the structures of subordination were complex and subject to change. [Top]

The Family and Kinship

Most of what is said in this chapter refers to the families of the chiefs, for we know most about these, and what happened in these families had the greatest social and political consequences. In view of the fact that the population was stable or growing only slightly, we can assume that the size of an extended family such as that of a boaire was stable over the centuries, and that each year as many members were lost from the group as were added to it. As to how the stability of population was achieved we can only speculate. Fertility depends principally on the number of fertile women of child-bearing age within the group. It can be assumed that every such woman within the group, married or unmarried, slave, free, or dependent, willingly or unwillingly, bore as many children as was physically possible. Breast-feeding prevented conception until the child was weaned which might be at the age of three or four. Exposure of infants was the usual form of population control. We can assume that most marriages were within the tuath. We can also assume that most marriages were between members of the same grade in society, that men did not marry either above their rank or below it. This might mean pools of not more than 150 to 200 for each group. This conversely could mean that as few women within the tuath came to marriageable age each year, wives would have to be sought from all over the tuath. This could be done conveniently at the annual fair or aonach. But we know also, that with regard to the nobility at least, most marriages were within the Roman degrees of forbidden kinship. These were much wider than required by canon law nowadays, and proved impossible to enforce in Northern Europe.

There has been in the past considerable misunderstanding regarding the word clan. Clan or cloinn simply means family, the derb fine (derb finneh). A four-generation extended family was called a derb fine, a five-generation an iar fine and a six generation family an ind fine. The later three-generation family was called the gel fine (MacNicholas). Thus the O’Neill clan simply meant those members of the derb fine who were entitled to elect a chief. Families which had been excluded from the derb fine formed another, subordinate one of their own, and these in the Middle Ages were commonly called septs. The word clan never meant that all members of a tuath were blood relatives and descended from a common ancestor. Yet it is easy to see how the misunderstanding could arise. By the sixteenth century, almost every freeman in for example county Tyrone could claim descent from the Ui Neill. All others would have been reduced to the ranks of the unfree, whom neither the Irish or the English saw fit to consider. O'Corrain mentions the same with regard to the Dal Cais in east Clare.

Assumptions regarding what applied to boaires or smiths for example, cannot be made regarding the polygamous families of chiefs who had greater sources of wealth. If in every generation there was a slight excess of births over deaths, then with each generation some members of the chiefly families would have to seek new family farms. As the area of tillage was increasing slightly, and at times apparently contracting, these farms would have to come from the existing holders of lands within the tuath or from another tuath. This we know is what happened. We know that from the Viking period onwards, the chief princely families moved like plagues of locusts across the face of Ireland, seizing all the land for themselves.

This early period was still the period when property and rights were held in common. The unit for holding these properties and rights was the extended family, the derb fine. The family farm, or the chieftainship, or the rights of seneschal to a monastery, or the tools of the smith’s trade, or what ever belonged to the derb fine. A family consisted of four generations. Those in the fifth generation ceased to belong to a family, and were regarded as belonging to a different family. Those who could not claim to be a great-grandson or a great grand nephew of a former head of the family were excluded from the family. They also forfeited their claims to the lands, chieftainship etc.

The most important result of this system was that only those whose great grandfather was a reigning chief could claim the chieftainship. But it is unclear how it worked in practice. When the head of a family died, one of his derb fine was chosen as the new head. The old chief's sons, brothers or cousins of the new chief, still remained part of the family in virtue of their connection with the deceased chief. The death would have involved some changes in the occupancy of the parcels of land belonging to the family, but probably not much. Whoever succeeded the chief would get the chief farm, along with the tributes and dues. But almost certainly, from an early date, most of the contenders to the chieftainship had farms of their own, or occupied one of several farms owned by the late chief. This latter option was probably the practice at the early date, but the custom, as elsewhere in Europe, of giving individual farms to individual sons in the chief’s lifetime gradually prevailed.

The law codes gave seven grades of noble families, which grades however do not seem to have been derived just from relationship to a chief. The word ‘noble’ is another one we must watch. We must not imagine powerful figures like the Dukes of Normandy or Burgundy ruling over vast territories and possessing vast wealth. The term noble was a technical one in Irish law, and simply meant a farmer or warrior with superior privileges and better opportunities for enriching his family. They corresponded to the patrician families in Rome. We have no idea how the aristocracy originated, but almost certainly a family had to begin with a successful leader of a warband. No doubt, every single person descended from any such leader, and any wife of any such leader, clung to his position as a member of a grade of nobility. Subsequently, when leadership of a warband was restricted to members of noble families the chances of a commoner becoming a noble diminished. There was an old joke that every Irishman was descended from a king, and there can be little doubt that by the end of the Middle Ages and the Gaelic order in Ireland at least half the population could claim noble status. Though the day was to come when an O’Neill or O’Brien would have follow the plough. Many of the nobles were probably very impoverished.

A chief would have been constrained to provide farms for his relatives. There were only two ways to get separate farms for them, to acquire them in battle, or to take them from a boaire. The fact that any member of the noble class could over-swear any member of the free classes was probably very useful in this. It was always technically possible for a boaire to be promoted to the noble class. Many of the latter were probably richer, more powerful, and more useful to the chief, than those in the lowest grades of nobility. Nor, as far as we can see, were chiefs sympathetic to failing members of their families, their land being taken by more successful branches.

The selection of a chief however was confined to members of the derb fine or extended family of the deceased or deposed chief, both as regards candidates and voters. The tuath was not a democracy. (This was true of the English monarchy until the time of Stephen, when the barons exercised their right to choose, except that the number of contenders was much more restricted.) Only male members of the derb fine of the deceased chief could vote. Members of the ruling family, which extended out to embrace second cousins, decided among themselves who should be the new chief. In practice, only one or two members of the derb fine would secure enough support to be serious contenders, and a contested election was very likely to result in an internecine war. Also, murdering a likely opponent was considered legitimate practice. The election of a chief was curiously like the election of the captain of a pirate ship. The person likely to bring most plunder was chosen. At least in theory. For various factions had vested interests in keeping the office within their own branch. The chief interest of

Any chieftainship not only brought in a supply of tribute, or of pillage of the recalcitrants, but also enabled the incumbent chief to seize land from his neighbours whether within his tuath or in other tuatha. Though branches that had not the chieftainship, or were subordinate chiefs, also helped themselves to other people's land when they had the opportunity, and their overlord did not object. For example, the McCawells of the Cenel Feradaig, and the O’Gormleys of the Cenel Moen branches of the Ui Neill carved out their own territories from the lands of the Oirgialla. It is not always clear when it is recorded that certain lands were conquered whether it was for purposes of merely exacting tribute, or whether the lands were taken for occupation. Eventually all the lands in a given area would of course have been distributed to relatives of the chief. Notwithstanding claims that Ireland had a legal system, the Brehon Law, when it came to the possession of land it was a case of dog eat dog.

Despite the image fostered by the Romantic writers it is doubtful if it is possible to say anything good about the warriors from the noble families. They seem to have been vain, boasting, greedy and eternally quarrelsome. The saying could probably be applied to all of them, that they spared no woman in their lust or man in their anger. Men of lesser rank would have kept out of their way, or approached them only in the most obsequious manner. Avoidance not only of poverty but also of work was their abiding passions. 

            As success in war was the chief requisite it was regarded as a point in his favour if an aspirant shortened the odds by murdering his rivals. This was still the custom among the O’Neills in the 16th century AD. This led to the institution of fosterage. Leading men placed their sons with various noble dependants and reciprocally took their children into their own household. Much romantic nonsense has been written about this custom. The aim of fosterage was to ensure the children's protection (especially from their uncles), and the children received into the chief’s house were hostages to ensure there was no treachery. The morals were those of gangsters. [Top]             

The Five Provinces

            There was no history of Ireland in this period, but rather the separate histories of the five provinces, the Five Fifths, as described in the preceding chapter. Ireland had traditionally been divided into five regions or provinces, but by whom or for what reasons we do not know. It may in part have been due to cosmic speculations of the learned classes or to a recognition of geographical facts, or even a description of a temporary military fact like the Heptarchy in England. As far as this period is concerned the Five Fifths were Ulster, Mide, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught. Mide corresponded to the northern half of present day Leinster and so was much larger than county Meath

Ulster’s southern boundaries were the rivers Boyne and the Drowse. The border followed roughly the northern boundaries of counties Meath and Cavan through largely unpopulated country. The Drowse joins Lough Melvin in county Leitrim to the sea. The sea formed all the other boundaries. The northern part of Leith Cuinn, which roughly coincides with the present day nine-county province of Ulster had four main geographical regions. Like the other provinces, it was cut off from the others by a belt of largely impassable forests and bogs. It comprised various geographical regions. Between the east coast and the line of the River Bann and Lough Neagh, in present day counties Antrim and Down, there was much dry fertile land interspersed with some mountains and bogs. This was under the control of the Ulaid. By mountains is meant upland areas over 1,000 feet partly forested and partly covered by heather and rough grazing. Even today, though, less than half the land can be cultivated, and in the sixth century this would have been much less. In the 13th century, in the earldom of Ulster, the densely populated areas were around Strangford Lough, between Belfast Lough and Larne, and at the mouth of the Bann. Along the west coast was present-day county Donegal. Here the mountainous were much more extensive, though some fertile land was found in the northern and southern extremities of the county. It was in this wild under-populated region that the Ui Neill first established themselves. Mid-Ulster, between these two regions there was a central core of mountains and bogs especially in the region of the Sperrin Mountains. South of the Sperrins was an agricultural region. The parts that were cultivated were not necessarily joined to each other. This inhabited region was occupied by the dispersed clans known as the Oirgialla, none of whom ever seem to have become large or powerful. Indeed they were very like their southern neighbours, the small tribes who occupied clearings in north Meath. The bulk of the population and wealth was probably to be found in a south eastern triangle bounded by lines from Clogher to Drogheda and from Clogher to the top of Lough Neagh, and represented by the later diocese of Armagh and Clogher.

Mide lay between the Shannon and the Irish Sea, south of Ulster and north of Leinster. Munster started at point halfway along the Shannon above Lough Derg, was bounded on the west by the Shannon, on the north east by a line which ran through difficult territory to reach the lower Suir, and from there to the sea. The province of Meath could be described as having a dry fertile eastern region extending inland from the Irish Sea, and surrounded by a horseshoe of wooded and boggy lands to the north, west, and south. The further one approached the Shannon the boggier the land became. The bulk of the population would have been in the eastern parts.

Connaught was the part west of the Shannon, and south of the Drowse. Both banks of the Shannon seem to have been well occupied at least in the middle and upper reaches of the river, and then up to the coast. In this strip were the present dioceses of Clonfert, Elphin, and Achonry, and the old dioceses of Roscommon and Ardcarn, being more or less the counties of Sligo, Roscommon, and the eastern part of Galway. This strip would have varied in width from nothing to 20 miles. Then there seems to have been a largely unoccupied strip parallel to the first, about twenty miles wide separating the first row of dioceses from the second. The second row of dioceses ran down the middle of Connaught and were Killala, Mayo,  Cong, Tuam, Annaghdown, Kilmacduagh, and Kilfenora. (Most of these were later swallowed up by Tuam.) Mayo, Cong, Tuam, and Annaghdown, were on the fertile lands around Lough Mask and Lough Cong. The fourth and last strip was the virtually uninhabited lands to the west of the lakes. As was often the case these tended to become occupied by displaced tribes who rarely became important. They became the refuge for the powerful O’Flahertys when they in turn were displaced. The bulk of the population seems to have lived in a northeastern triangle bounded by the Shannon and the coast between Killala and the river Drowse

Munster had the general shape of a parallelogram, with the points, not the sides, at north, southeast and west. The Dal Cais later wrested lands north of the Shannon from Connaught. Munster was then described as Thomond (North Munster) namely the part north of the Shannon, Desmond (South Munster) the part south of the Shannon, and Ormond (East Munster) the part east of the Shannon. This gives us a clue that the bulk of the cultivated land in Munster lay within twenty miles of the Shannon. The distribution of the monasteries in this period would indicate that the bulk of the population was in Ormond, and consequently that the early successes of the Eoganacht and Dal Cais were against small tuatha in thinly populated places. The other region of Munster with some population was along the south East coast. . The great interior of Munster seems to have been scarcely occupied, perhaps only by isolated tuatha, or fragments of clans too small to endow a monastery, and too poor and too defensible to attract the attention of the stronger chiefs. Only after 600 AD does written information about Munster become available. Cork and Cloyne were carved out of Desmond, and Limerick and Killaloe out of Thomond, while Cashel represented cover most of Ulster and Mide. But Mide was to be dominated by the southern Ui Neill and Ulster by the northern Ui Neill, so that by the twelfth century, when ecclesiastical provinces were being established, Mide and Ulster formed a single province. Later in the Middle Ages Mide was joined to Laigin and forms the present day Leinster. In the centuries we are describing in this chapter, though there was a single overlordship of Tara recognised by the Ui Neill, the northern and southern branches were quite independent of each other, and also appointed separate chiefs in their respective provinces.

 The five regions were separated from each other by thinly-populated and easily defensible boundaries. Within each of these there were smaller centres of population similarly separated by naturally defensive boundaries. It is noteworthy that when drawing up the list of dioceses in each province in the twelfth century no definite borders were assigned to them but only points marking their limits. There was no high king of the whole island. Inside the limits of each province, the various chiefs sought to become overchiefs or mesne chiefs and finally the chiefs of the province. A mesne chief would control the tuatha within a modern county. Before the process of consolidation was completed within each province the strongest chiefs in each province began interfering in neighbouring provinces.

            It seems fairly clear in this period there emerged in Munster and Connaught two families or groups of families, known as the Eoganacht in Munster and the Connacht in Connaught who were gradually able to establish domination over their respective provinces. We cannot say for certain, for the genealogies were manipulated for political reasons. The meaning and origin of the names is also obscure. In two of the other provinces there were also dominant groups, one called the Ulaid and the other the Laigin. These seem to have been composed of unrelated families. Nor is it clear what extent of their province or Fifth either controlled. It would seem that from the Connacht, and not merely from Connaught, there emerged an historical dynasty the Ui Neill, who were all descended from one chief Niall Naoigiallach who went on to establish powerful dynasties in other provinces but not their own. Though this point is doubtful.

We know nothing of the history of Meath or Ulster before Niall Naoigiallach and his sons invaded them. It is not clear, who, if anybody, controlled Meath at this time. It was formerly assumed that it was controlled by the Laigin, whoever or whatever they were. But we need only assume that the Ui Neill initially conquered the tuath in which the sacred site of Tara was situated. It is very clear that the Ui Neill, coming from what was scarcely more than a tuath in Connaught, were not a mighty military force at the start. They were formidable fighters but were not numerous. In the north it took them centuries to reduce the middle-ranking chiefdom of the northern Cianacht. In Meath too, they only slowly reduced the southern Cianacht, and these seem to have dispersed themselves into the hilly ground in south Louth called Ard Cianacht after them. They were constantly at war with the Laigin and the Ulaid but made no further progress. The view that the Ui Neill, in a sudden rush dispossessed the Ulaid of most of Ulster, and the Laigin of half of Leinster is just not credible in view of their later incredibly slow progress. Their chief successes seem to have been westward from Tara into what is now county Westmeath. They also succeeded in gaining control of some tuatha in Donegal. Nor, apart from Donegal could they make further progress into Ulster. The most likely reason for their initial success in Meath was that there was internal strife among the southern Cianacht or Deise in Meath that allowed an inrush of clans from Connaught to seize valuable lands. It is not clear if the Cianacht at this stage controlled more than one tuath. We must always allow for the possibility that the Cianacht were an expanding clan also. The connection between the northern Cianacht in Derry and the southern Cianacht in Meath is also obscure. Several tuatha had the same names though in different parts of Ireland. Most of the lands seized by the Ui Neill and later the Ui Briuin Breifne were poor and marginal. However once firmly established around Tara, the southern Ui Neill steadily conquered the lesser tuatha in Meath and Westmeath, making better progress than the Northern Ui Neill in Donegal. They split into too many families, so a rough balance of power was achieved between the northern and southern branches when two main ruling families developed in each. The fact that they alternated in the chiefdom of Tara indicates that neither felt strong enough to eliminate the other. Agreements to share power lasted only as long as one side was not able to eliminate the other.

At one time it was assumed that before the fifth century the Ulaid controlled the whole of Ulster, the Laigin the whole of present day Leinster, and the Connacht the whole of present day Connaught. If the Eoganacht did not dominate the whole of present day Munster they were certainly trying to. The Corcu Loegde were supposed to have dominated much or all of Munster before the rise of the Eoganacht and indeed may have had some success over several tuatha. The problem of the history of Munster still continued. It had virtually disappeared in the Iron Age, giving the impression it was uninhabited or completely isolated. References in written sources continued to be sparse.

However, we may question what political and military realities lay behind the mythical and mystical division of Ireland into ‘Five Fifths’ (de Paor, St Patrick’s World). There seems little doubt that the distribution of occupied and cultivated areas in a vast wilderness of bog, swamp, and forest led to the counting of five major occupied areas to which other minor settlements could be aggregated. Though prosaically called ‘fifths’ they were rendered into Latin in ecclesiastical times as provinciae. By the twelfth century, the term provincia undoubtedly had a military and civil significance. By that time too the claim of the diocese of Armagh to primacy on the grounds of priority of foundation was unchallenged. But there is no need to assume that these ‘fifths’ had any military or political significance in the fifth century. The natural boundaries were not overcome until modern times. It can be said that there was no unified history of Ireland before 1688 when a unified Jacobite army faced a unified Williamite army under two kings claiming the throne of Ireland. Even in Elizabethan and Stuart times when there was widespread revolts against the crown, the military campaigns were separate in all four provinces. But once the process of domination by one tuath over others, the logic called for it to be continued until there was a single provincial chief, and finally a chief of All-Ireland. This latter aim was achieved at least temporarily by Brian Boru in 1000 AD.

            By 800 AD we can assume in all the provinces the bulk of the population belonged to the lesser tribute-paying tuatha. In some places the mesne chiefs, or chiefs over counties seem to have been the more important, in others many tiny tuatha ruled by tiny insignificant tribes seem to have persisted. Even a provincial over-chief was himself merely the chief of a tuath, and his financial and military resources were essentially those of the tuath. For power in battle he had to rely on the assistance of subordinate tuatha.  Some of these at least gave their assistance gladly and boasted of their positions in the overchief’s hosting. As time went on the dominant families seized more and more land for the various subdivisions of the ruling family. It would seem too that these subordinate branches of the clan were obliged to join the chief’s hosting, though the origin of that obligation is not clear. Self-interest and self-preservation would ensure their adhesion. The conquered tuatha who still preserved their ruling families would of course be forced to join a hosting besides paying tribute. But this was not necessarily the case in the fifth century. It remains a mystery how a family based in a barony, or tuath in north Donegal could come to dominate large parts of Ulster and Meath. But it is certain that few tribes wished to meet them in battle.

            Munster was in many ways the province which was most cut off from the rest of Ireland. It was also probably the weakest and least densely populated. If the settlements around Cashel only follow the arrival of the Eoganacht we can see it protected by a thick belt of thinly inhabited country stretching across the country from Waterford to the Shannon Not until 721 AD, eighty years before the arrival of the Vikings, was there a military clash between Munster and the rest of Ireland.  Historians like O’Corrain try to make sense out of the distribution of the principal clan names. Who the Eoganacht were or where they came from are mysteries. It was not until the beginning of the seventh century that a satisfactory list of the chiefs of Cashel can be drawn up, and even then there is no indication of the extent of the domination of the Eoganacht group of families. Ulster too was protected by a wide band of forests, lakes and bogs stretching from Derry round to the Boyne. Kilmore, hacked out by the Ui Briuin was a kind of island in this wide belt. The Ui Briuin were not of course the first occupants. The refuges in the midst of the woods and bogs would have been long occupied by broken tribes and robber bands, much the same thing, over which the Ui Briuin established an overlordship. Similarly, Ossory was hacked out of the wild country between Leinster and Munster. Though always small chiefdoms, they were almost impossible for anyone to dominate them in their fastnesses. It was commonly believed that the Ulaid, who through the historical period occupied the two eastern counties of Ulster, had dominated the entire province, and that the other tuatha, labelled the Oirgialla, or tribute payers paid tribute to them, until this overlordship was seized by the Ui Neill. But the obvious military weakness of the Ui Neill in the early centuries makes a story of a sudden conquest improbable, and suggests re-writing of history at a later date (Nor are tales of the Red Branch Knights, and a great fortress at Armagh now credible.). South Leinster too was surrounded with its wide ring of forests and bogs. Some of it was fertile ground, and in these valuable lands the overchiefs commenced to dominate. In was ruled by the Laigin, who like the Ulaid consisted of various families, who did not however occupy the whole province. Parts of Leinster were never permanently subdued by anyone until the sixteenth century. Local families succeeded in establishing themselves as local chiefs, over an area about the size of a modern county, and like Ossory and Kilmore proved impossible to dislodge. The Loigse and the Ui Failge occupied parts of the modern counties of Laois and Offaly. In Connaught the belt of thinly inhabited land runs down the middle. But the ruling tribes were in east Connaught, and there the frontiers were thinnest and defences weakest. Twice tribes from Connaught broke out to conquer surrounding territories. But though the Ui Neill were able to exclude the chiefs of Connaught from the overchieftainship of Tara, they seem to have made no attempt to impose a tribute on their relations in Connaught. Until the end of the Middle Ages, the O’Donnell branch of the Ui Neill was still striving to exert authority in North Connaught. So again a province with good natural boundaries could nearly always fend off outsiders. The connection between the Connacht and the ruling Ui Briuin is obscure. It may be that the Connacht split into Ui Briuin and Ui Neill, or it may be that this was just a tidying up by the genealogists.

            The distribution of the various tuatha and families in each province will be dealt with in the next chapter. [Top]


             The chief was essentially the leader of the warband that was drawn from the warrior class. At a later date the warrior class did nothing except fight and enjoy themselves at hunting and similar recreations and that is the picture presented in the Tain. But then the Tain like the Iliad is essentially a war story placed in a war situation. The tales in the Tain and about the Fianna had much the same character as science fiction comics have today. They were simple stories in which the heroes had special extraordinary powers. As the Celtic warriors were originally herdsmen they may have continued to take part in activities like the general rounding up of cattle until quite a late date. At what date the convention arose that a member of the aristocracy could not take part in plebeian occupation we do not know. The evenings they spent in eating and drinking, at times listening to musicians, watching jugglers and tumblers and other entertainers in the great hall, but probably mostly talking. There were certainly great feasts from time to time, but on ordinary days plain food would have been served either with a weak ale or with whey, skimmed milk, or buttermilk to drink. Wine would be kept for the feasts.

But unlike the small Norse warband it would seem that a huge crowd from the tuath went out on the raid, including many women and musicians. They would have taken some food with them on the hoof but would rely for the most part on capturing supplies on the way. A lowing herd would have marked the warband. It has been remarked that the Celtic warriors had an essentially parasitic military economy (de Paor, Peoples).   

             They always fought on foot. There is no historical or archaeological evidence that chariots were ever used in Ireland. With the state of the Irish roads, and the boggy soils it is difficult to see how they could have been used. Apart from the use of cavalry by the Romans fighting on horseback was not introduced until the time of the Norse invasions. The Celtic warriors were noted for their impetuous rush, and they persisted in this tactic down to Culloden in 1745. But like the cavalry charge it was easily defeated by well-drilled and disciplined infantry who fought under close command. Much warfare was in fact psychological, convincing the opposing troops that they could not win. The tactic of the massed charge was re-introduced with great success into the French revolutionary armies. Wellington remarked that their opponents were defeated before the first shot was fired. But when the Allies drilled their troops to stand the first shock the days of easy French victories were over. This raises the question what the alleged cheveau de Frise (Friesian cavalry), the rows of stones surrounding Iron Age forts, were for. (The name was given to stakes sharpened at both ends, driven into the ground by the Friesians, to break up cavalry charges.)

            The chief weapon seems to have been the sword as it was at Culloden. Spears were also used probably chiefly for throwing, as edged weapons like the sword or battle-axe are handier in a melee. Most of the Iron Age swords found in Ireland are of the shorter stabbing variety  (Raftery 141). The spear was also widely used, but perhaps mainly for hunting and on raids as it is not handy in a melee. Those armies that relied on spears or lances had to be highly drilled. Shields were of light wood covered with leather. Metal shields were for ornament.

            When opposing peoples less skilled in warfare than themselves the sudden massed onrush led to easy conquests of much of western Europe. The armies were not large, consisting perhaps of a hundred warriors armed with a sword and a throwing spear, and accompanied by others carrying slings or blowing trumpets to make a terrifying noise. The only tactic for attack seems to have been a wild rush towards the centre of the opposing force. The battle would usually be very short, perhaps not more than five minutes, the courage of one side or the other suddenly failing. Those who fled had an advantage over their pursuers, for the pursuers would need to keep themselves in a compact body in case they met another compact body (2 Sam 2. 20). Horses were later used for the pursuit. Warfare was incessant, an annual event. As the King David's chronicler put it, 'In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle (2 Sam 11.1). Pitched battles between large opposing forces seem to have been rare. A major and equally matched battle might not occur more than once in a century, and were used by the annalists to mark epochs. Such battles would always have been the result of miscalculations with each side arriving on the battlefield with stronger forces than the other had calculated. A face-to-face slogging match in which neither side could cause the other to panic and flee would be outside the experience of most fighters. (We can imagine something like the much later faction fight, with the sides alternately rushing forward and then withdrawing, and individual warriors dropping out from time to time for a rest and refreshment, or to procure a new weapon.)           

            More popular was the less dangerous cattle-raid or tain. Cattle-raiding could be carried out for two reasons. The first was for sport. A raid was made into the territory of a neighbouring tuath, and as many of his houses burned and peasants killed as possible before the opposing chief could gather his forces. Raids, though carried out on foot, were probably smaller and swifter affairs than the formal battles, and carried out solely by small bands of the warrior class accompanied by bothachs to help drive off the cattle. (Despite its name the Tain was a full-scale invasion by an army.) Then as many of the cattle of the peasantry were rounded up and driven off home, ambushes for the pursuers being carefully laid. In many ways this was a sport like chess. Before making an attack, defences had to be marshalled in other areas, to prevent someone else attacking them. When the counter-attack was made elaborate ploys could be made to lure the attacker into ambush in the woods.  Slave-raiding into the Roman Empire was just the same. Apart from slaughtering some of the peasantry for a bit of sport, killing the unfree classes was not the purpose of the exercise. These were always required to work the land and to serve their new masters. Yet it was not easy to completely dislodge those already occupying a tuath or groups of tuatha. The remnants could flee to a more defensible part of the forest. In the Middle Ages, when the more fertile parts of mid-Leinster were occupied by the Normans, the Gaelic chiefs followed traditional practice and withdrew into the mountains and bogs on either side. Similarly, when the more fertile lands of north Munster were seized by the Normans, the leading Gaelic rulers just seized lands from weaker peoples in South Munster. The distribution of tribal names in the fifth century could lead us to the conclusion that the practice of dispossessing weaker families was already the current practice.

            The other type of raid was more serious, and occurred when a determined effort was being made by a stronger clan to seize the lands of a weaker one. The targeted tuatha were annually and systematically raided until they became depopulated, and the local chief too impoverished to offer further resistance. It did not matter if the chiefs of the targeted tuath were related to their attackers by blood or not. The object was to seize the land of someone unable to defend it. Then the stronger clan just took it over. In this way the O’Neills conquered most of Ulster in the Middle Ages. But in any military campaign spoiling and pillaging and looting was more important than fighting the enemy face to face. Like the cattle raid, the matter had to be carefully considered and discussed in the preceding winter. Alliances had to be made, and defences prepared to protect their backs when away at war. (In the Hundred Years War when the English kings led volunteer armies into France, the chevachee or horse raid was very popular with the knights as it offered easy opportunities for looting, pillaging, and burning, which fighting pitched battles did not. Though this was not helpful in keeping an army together. It is likely most Celtic wars were fought on the same principles.)  

            This rough sport continued on the borders of England and Scotland until the union of the crowns in 1603, for then the king controlled both sides of the border. In Ireland it continued until Tudor times, and the system of Plantations was put into effect to stamp it out. Nevertheless it continued in places until the end of the seventeenth century, the seizure of cattle often being the sole means of support of broken clans. The last of the cattle-raiding gangs is mentioned about 1730. Nobody counted peasants killed. 

                We can make surmises with regard to another aspect of war which was not of interest to the chroniclers. Almost certainly, each army was followed by various bodies of looters and freebooters, whether local bandits or from smaller tuatha. These would follow the main hosts but at a respectful distance. Their aim would have been to loot whatever they could find in the disturbance caused by the passing of a host. If the main hosting was just marching through a territory by arrangement with its chief they could circle around and gather up dispersed herds of cattle. They probably caused more trouble to the ordinary farmers and peasants than the main armies. The main army would not remain for long in a district. But the marauders could keep stealing until the local ri could gather his forces. It was not possible to bind up the jaws of livestock for more than a few days at a time, to prevent them from disclosing where they were hidden. The marauders had only to remain hidden for a few days until it was time to give a drink to the cattle. [Top]

The Life of the People

            Romantic nationalists, from the poet Thomas Moore onwards, depicted life in Ireland in the days before the Norman invasion as an earthly paradise. Scholars nowadays, being more concerned with the welfare of ordinary people, might consider that the ‘life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan). Yet very much depends on what people were used to and what their expectations were, and how they reacted to it. One thing we would probably notice was the amount of colours that were used. Garments would be dyed as brightly as possible, and houses painted garishly. But these would only be the garments and houses of the rich. The ordinary people would use undyed cloth, or died only with local flowers. One is however inclined to agree with the opinion of Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall replying to the argument of her husband’s cousin Horace Plunket, that the Catholic priests in the nineteenth century should have spent the people’s money on better objects than stained glass windows in churches. ‘For, I said, the poor people have so little beauty and colour in their lives. And the churches, with their brilliant, often crudely coloured Stations and Saints, and the vestments and flowers and incense, supplied all their need of colour and beauty. Whatever we might feel, the churches were beautiful for the majority of people for whom they were built. And that Refuge, for all that it means to the Faith of the Irish poor, gave them what they wanted, and made their hard lives bearable’ (Hinkson, Seventy Years Young). It is reasonable to assume that everyone was proud of the great hall of their boaire, and the even greater hall of the chief. The churches too would be decked out in all the splendour that the priest or the bishop or the abbot could command.

            There were the great festivals, when all who could attended the chief’s assembly, all dressed in the brightest colours. There might be a nobleman mounted on an imported horse. Everyone, like at a race meeting, would throng around to see the rider and the horse, and the event would be retold around the firesides during the winter. There were weddings to celebrate, and also funerals to enjoy. Despite the grief of those immediately bereaved, everyone else would have the satisfaction of seeing the funeral rites observed properly in accordance with everyone’s station in life. The can be little doubt that there was a great feast when the harvest was safely gathered, and a still greater one during the annual cull of cattle in late autumn when almost everyone would eat meat. By that time too, the beer from the barley harvest would have been ready, with plenty for those who had nothing to drink except whey or buttermilk during the rest of the year.

            People too tend to decorate their own homes to the best of their ability if they know they have a reasonable fixity of tenure. If they do not have this reasonable expectation they expend as little effort as possible on their homes, and try to keep all their valuables portable. There is little point in expending effort if you are liable either to be evicted, or to have the house burned by raiders. Unfortunately we have no example left to establish this point.

            Quite a lot of work was done by groups of men or women in common, and often in the ancient world there were chants or songs to accompany each task. The most famous example in modern times was the sea shanty of the seamen. This often consisted of an interminable ballad, with each verse interspersed with a chorus or refrain. This same method of singing was also used in church, and no doubt all the people could join in. In more recent times, dancing at a crossroads was often noted. Much depends on the character of the people. If they are a happy people, they can make sport and merriment even in the poorest conditions.

Religion, Knowledge and Art

            In Ireland by the seventh or eighth centuries there was not a simple druid class responsible for all concerning religion, judgements, genealogies and rights, law, history, healing poetry, and astronomy. The file (filleh, translated as poet) originally occupied more or less the position of the Gaulish druids. But as with most things in Ireland we may question whether there was much of a Celtic input, or whether the institutions had developed in Ireland in the Late Bronze Age (de Paor 28). Their duty was to commit to memory all the lore of the ancients, to know the law and the genealogies, or manufacture them as necessary. They also had to preside over the inauguration of the new chiefs. They had to praise good kings and satirise evil-doers. (On the duty of the poet to chant a spell against the chief’s enemies see Numbers 22). With the coming of Christianity they lost any remaining duties concerning religion, but otherwise came to terms with the Church. The religion practised in Ireland seems to have been more traditional, even shamanistic, than Celtic (ibid.) But at an early date the caste had split into separate families of lawyers, poet-historians, and praise-poets (O’Corrain 76f)

            The written law, commonly called Brehon Law, reflected the immemorial customs which had been preserved by the poets until at last it was committed to writing from the seventh century onwards. It resembled British Common Law in this that it was not a compilation of statutes and decrees but of judgements preserved in the form of verses. The most famous judgement was that supposedly given against St Columcille who had copied a book of the Bible without the permission of its owner. The judge awarded the copy to the owner of the book with the words, ‘To every tree its fruit; to every book its copy’. It then became fossilised. It probably always had been semi-fossilised. Given that the warband was the basic social unit in Ireland as among the rest of the Indo-Europeans we should not look for abstract principles of justice but rather for rules governing the conduct of the warband. In modern times the closest counterparts are the rules drawn up by bands of pirates in a pirate ship before heading out on a cruise. The first thing to do was to elect a chief or pirate captain, and then to draw up a set of rules for the conduct of the voyage and the division of the spoils, and relations with other pirates. But when claims of chiefs were not involved, and in the early period most cases would have been between ordinary individuals, brehons or judges were not necessarily more venal or unjust than was customary at the time. Even in the Bible it is unclear how many judges were unjust, or were swayed by the size of the customary gift (Luke 18). It would be unwise however to hold them up as models of probity.

            Traditional historical lore remained the function of the poet historians. Their chief function in the historical period was to justify the political claims of the warlords, with truth if possible. If a warrior captured a tuath a genealogy was manufactured as a matter of course to reflect if not justify this. But genealogies are not to be regarded as altogether worthless. In the Bible for example the genealogies are used to indicate relationships between peoples. The sons of Noah, in a famous example, Ham, Shem, and Japheth were the fathers of the Semitic-speakers to the east, the Hamitic-speakers in Egypt and Africa, of the various peoples in the Aegean including the Greeks (Gen. 10). So in Ireland, when genealogists group certain tribes together we can be sure there was some connection between them. In course of time the captaincy of the warband was restricted to those who were closely related to former chiefs, so genealogies assumed a fundamental importance.

            The praise poets were responsible for the sagas. They were primarily entertainers. Among their duties were to recite stories to the chief till he fell asleep. Some might even write genuine poetry.

            Most knowledge was craft-related. Everything related to metallurgy was kept secret and passed on the families of smiths. We can assume that there was specialisation, and the workers in precious metals were different from workers in iron or bronze. Smiths may have sought out and discovered their own deposits of iron ore. Deposits of iron ore, though not large, were reasonably plentiful, and there was an abundance of charcoal for smelting.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.