Map of Ireland

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


SOCIAL CONDITION OF THE IRISH PREVIOUS TO THE NORMAN

INVASION.


The total population of Ireland, when the Normans first entered it, can only be approximated by conjecture. Supposing the whole force with which Roderick and his allies invested the Normans in Dublin, to be, as stated by a cotemporary writer, some 50,000 men, and that that force included one-fourth of all the men of the military age in the country; and further, supposing the men of military age to bear the proportion of one-fifth to the whole number of inhabitants, this would give a total population of about one million. Even this conjecture is to be taken with great diffidence and distrust, but, for the sake of clearness, it is set down as a possible Irish census, towards the close of the twelfth century.

This population was divided into two great classes, the Saer-Clanna, or free tribes, chiefly, if not exclusively, of Milesian race; and the Daer-Clanna, or unfree tribes, consisting of the descendants of the subjugated older races, or of clans once free, reduced to servitude by the sword, or of the posterity of foreign mercenary soldiers. Of the free clans, the most illustrious were those of whose Princes we have traced the record--the descendants of Nial in Ulster and Meath, of Cathaeir More in Leinster, of Oliold in Munster, and of Eochaid in Connaught. An arbitrary division once limited the free clans to six in the southern half-kingdom, and six in the north; and the unfree also to six. But Geoffrey Keating, whose love of truth was quite as strong as his credulity in ancient legends--and that is saying much--disclaimed that classification, and collected his genealogies from principal heads--branching out into three families of tribes, descended from Eber Finn, one from Ir, and four from Eremhon, sons of Milesians of Spain; and ninth tribe sprung from Ith, granduncle to the sons of Milesius. The principal Eberian families' names were McCarthy, O'Sullivan, O'Mahony, O'Donovan, O'Brien, O'Dea, O'Quin, McMahon (of Clare), McNamara, O'Carroll (of Ely), and O'Gara; the Irian families were Magennis, O'Farrall, and O'Conor (of Kerry); the posterity of Eremhon branched out into the O'Neils, O'Donnells, O'Dohertys, O'Gallahers, O'Boyles, McGeoghegans, O'Conors (of Connaught), O'Flahertys, O'Heynes, O'Shaughnessys, O'Clerys, O'Dowdas, McDonalds (of Antrim), O'Kellys, Maguires, Kavanaghs, Fitzpatricks, O'Dwyers, and O'Conors (of Offally). The chief families of Ithian origin were the O'Driscolls, O'Learys, Coffeys, and Clancys. Out of the greater tribes many subdivisions arose from time to time, when new names were coined for some intermediate ancestor; but the farther enumeration of these may be conveniently dispensed with.

The Daer-Clanna, or unfree tribes, have left no history. Under the despotism of the Milesian kings, it was high treason to record the actions of the conquered race; so that the Irish Belgae fared as badly in this respect, at the hands of the Milesian historians, as the latter fared in after times from the chroniclers of the Normans. We only know that such tribes were, and that their numbers and physical force more than once excited the apprehension of the children of the conquerors. What proportion they bore to the Saer-Clanna we have no positive data to determine. A fourth, a fifth, or a sixth, they may have been; but one thing is certain, the jealous policy of the superior race never permitted them to reascend the plane of equality, from which they had been hurled, at the very commencement of the Milesian ascendency.

In addition to the enslaved by conquest and the enslaved by crime, there were also the enslaved by purchase. From the earliest period, slave dealers from Ireland had frequented Bristol, the great British slave market, to purchase human beings. Christian morality, though it may have mitigated the horrors of this odious traffic, did not at once lead to its abolition. In vain Saint Wulfstan preached against it in the South, as Saint Aidan had done long before him in the North of England. Files of fair-haired Saxon slaves, of both sexes, yoked together with ropes, continued to be shipped at Bristol, and bondmen and bondwomen continued to be articles of value--exchanged between the Prince and his subordinates, as stipend or tribute. The King of Cashel alone gave to the chief of the Eugenians, as part of his annual stipend, ten bondmen and ten women; to the lord of Bruree, seven pages and seven bondwomen; to the lord of Deisi, eight slaves of each sex, and seven female slaves to the lord of Kerry; among the items which make up the tribute from Ossory to Cashel are ten bondmen and ten grown women; and from the Deisi, eight bondmen and eight "brown-haired" women. The annual exchanges of this description, set down as due in the Book of Rights, would require the transfer of several hundreds of slaves yearly, from one set of masters to another. Cruelties and outrages must have been inseparable from the system, and we can hardly wonder at the sweeping decree by which the Synod of Armagh (A.D. 1171) declared all the English slaves in Ireland free to return to their homes, and anathematized the whole inhuman traffic. The fathers of that council looked upon the Norman invasion as a punishment from Heaven on the slave trade; for they believed in their purity of heart, that power is transferred from one nation to another, because of injustices, oppressions, and divers deceits.

The purchased slaves and unfree tribes tilled the soil, and practised the mechanic arts. Agriculture seems first to have been lifted into respectability by the Cistercian Monks, while spinning, weaving, and almost every mechanic calling, if we except the scribe, the armorer, and the bell-founder, continued down to very recent tunes to be held in contempt among the Gael. A brave man is mentioned as having been a "weaving woman's son," with much the same emphasis as Jeptha is spoken of as the son of an Harlot. Mechanic wares were disposed of at those stated gatherings, which combined popular games, chariot races for the nobles, and markets for the merchants. A Bard of the tenth or eleventh century, in a desperate effort to vary the usual high-flown descriptions of the country, calls it "Erin of the hundred fair greens,"--a very graphic, if not a very poetic illustration.

The administration of justice was an hereditary trust, committed to certain judicial families, who held their lands, as the Monks did, by virtue of their profession. When the posterity of the Brehon, or Judge failed, it was permitted to adopt from the class of students, a male representative, in whom the judicial authority was perpetuated: the families of O'Gnive and O'Clery in the North, of O'Daly in Meath, O'Doran in Leinster, McEgan in Munster, Mulconry or Conroy in Connaught, were the most distinguished Brehon houses. Some peculiarities of the Brehon law, relating to civil succession and sovereignty, such as the institution of Tanistry, and the system of stipends and tributes, have been already explained; parricide and murder were in latter ages punished with death; homicide and rape by eric or fine. There were, besides, the laws of gavelkind or division of property among the members of the clan; laws relating to boundaries; sumptuary laws regulating the dress of the various castes into which society was divided; laws relating to the planting of trees, the trespass of cattle, and billeting of troops. These laws were either written in detail, or consisted of certain acknowledged ancient maxims of which the Brehon made the application in each particular case, answering to what we call "Judge-made law." Of such ancient tracts as composed the Celtic code, an immense number have, fortunately survived, even to this late day, and we may shortly expect a complete digest of all that are now known to exist, in a printed and imperishable form, from the hands of native scholars, every way competent to the task.

The commerce of the country, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, was largely in the hands of the Christian Hiberno-Danes, of the eastern and southern coast. By them the slave trade with Bristol was mostly maintained, and the Irish oak, with which William Rufus roofed Westminster Abbey, was probably rafted by them in the Thames. The English and Welsh coasts, at least, were familiar to their pilots, and they combined, as was usual in that age, the military with the mercantile character. In 1142, and again in 1165, a troop of Dublin Danes fought under Norman banners against the brave Britons of Cambria, and in the camps of their allies, sung the praises of the fertile island of the west. The hundred fairs of Erin-- after their conversion and submission to native authority --afforded them convenient markets for disposing of the commodities they imported from abroad.

The Gaelic mind, long distracted by the din of war from the purifying and satisfying influences of a Christian life, naturally fell back upon the abandoned, half-forgotten superstitions of the Pagan period. Preceding every fresh calamity, we hear of signs and wonders, of migratory lakes disappearing in a night, of birds and wolves speaking with human voices, of showers of blood falling in the fields, of a whale with golden teeth stranded at Carlingford, of cloud ships, with their crews, seen plainly sailing in the sky. One of the marvels of this class is thus gravely entered in our Annals, under the year 1054--"A steeple of fire was seen in the air over Rossdala, on the Sunday of the festival of St. George, for the space of five hours; innumerable black birds passed into and out of it, and one large bird in the middle of them; and the little birds went under his wings when they went into the steeple. They came out and raised up a greyhound that was in the middle of the town aloft in the air, and let it drop down again, so that it died immediately; and they took up three cloaks and two shirts, and let them drop down in the same manner. The wood on which these birds perched fell under them; and the oak tree on which they perched shook with its roots in the earth." In many other superstitions of the same age we see the latent moral sentiment, as well as the over-excited imagination of the people. Such is the story of the stolen jewels of Clonmacnoise, providentially recovered in the year 1130. The thief in vain endeavoured to escape out of the country, from Cork, Lismore, and Waterford, "but no ship into which he entered found a wind to sail, while all the other ships did." And the conscience stricken thief declared, in his dying confession, that he used to see Saint Kieran "stopping with his crozier, every ship into which he entered." It was also an amiable popular illusion that abundant harvests followed the making of peace, the enacting of salutary laws, and the accession of a King who loved justice; and careful entry is made in our chronicles of every evidence of this character.

The literature of the masses of the people was pretty equally composed of the legends of the Saints and the older Ossianic legend, so much misunderstood and distorted by modern criticism. The legends of the former class were chiefly wonders wrought by the favourite Saints of the district or the island, embellished with many quaint fancies and tagged out with remnants of old Pagan superstition. St. Columbkill and St. Kieran were, most commonly, the heroes of those tales, which, perhaps, were never intended by their authors to be seriously believed. Such was the story of the great founder of Iona having transformed the lady and her maid, who insulted him on his way to Drom-Keth, into two herons, who are doomed to hover about the neighbouring ford till the day of doom; and such that other story of "the three first monks" who joined St. Kieran in the desert, being a fox, a badger, and a bear, all endowed with speech, and all acting a part in the legend true to their own instincts. Of higher poetic merit is the legend of the voyage of St. Brendan over the great sea, and how the birds which sung vespers for him in the groves of the Promised Land were inhabited by human souls, as yet in a state of probation waiting for their release!

In the Ossianic legend we have the common stock of Oriental ideas--the metamorphosis of guilty wives and haughty concubines into dogs and birds; the speaking beasts and fishes; the enchanted swans, originally daughters of Lir; the boar of Ben Bulben, by which the champion, Diarmid, was slain; the Phoenix in the stork of Inniskea, of which there never was but one, yet that one perpetually reproduced itself; the spirits of the wood, and the spirits inhabiting springs and streams; the fairy horse; the sacred trees; the starry influences. Monstrous and gigantic human shapes, like the Jinns of the Arabian tales, occasionally enter into the plot, and play a midnight part, malignant to the hopes of good men. At their approach the earth is troubled, the moon is overcast, gusts of storm are shaken out from the folds of their garments, the watch dogs and the war dogs cower down, in camp and rath, and whine piteously, as if in pain.

The variety of grace, and peculiarities of organization, with which, if not the original, certainly the Christianized Irish imagination, endowed and equipped the personages of the fairy world, were of almost Grecian delicacy. There is no personage who rises to the sublime height of Zeus, or the incomparable union of beauty and wisdom in Pallas Athene: what forms Bel, or Crom, or Bride, the queen of Celtic song, may have worn to the pre-Christian ages we know not, nor can know; but the minor creations of Grecian fancy, with which they peopled their groves and fountains, are true kindred of the brain, to the innocent, intelligent, and generally gentle inhabitants of the Gaelic Fairyland. The Sidhe, a tender, tutelary spirit, attached herself to heroes, accompanied them in battle, shrouded them with invisibility, dressed their wounds with more than mortal skill, and watched over them with more than mortal love; the Banshee, a sad, Cassandra-like spirit, shrieked her weird warning in advance of death, but with a prejudice eminently Milesian, watched only over those of pure blood, whether their fortunes abode in hovel or hall. The more modern and grotesque personages of the Fairy world are sufficiently known to render description unnecessary.

Two habitual sources of social enjoyment and occupation with the Irish of those days were music and chess. The harp was the favourite instrument, but the horn or trumpet, and the pibroch or bagpipe, were also in common use. Not only professional performers, but men and women of all ranks, from the humblest to the highest, prided themselves on some knowledge of instrumental music. It seems to have formed part of the education of every order, and to have been cherished alike in the palace, the shieling, and the cloister. "It is a poor church that has no music," is a Gaelic proverb, as old, perhaps, as the establishment of Christianity in the land; and no house was considered furnished without at least one harp. Students from other countries, as we learn from Giraldus, came to Ireland for their musical education in the twelfth century, just as our artists now visit Germany and Italy with the same object in view.

The frequent mention of the game of chess, in ages long before those at which we have arrived, shows how usual was that most intellectual amusement. The chess board was called in Irish fithcheall, and is described in the Glossary of Cormac, of Cashel, composed towards the close of the ninth century, as quadrangular, having straight spots of black and white. Some of them were inlaid with gold and silver, and adorned with gems. Mention is made in a tale of the twelfth century of a "man-bag of woven brass wire." No entire set of the ancient men is now known to exist, though frequent mention is made of "the brigade or family of chessmen," in many old manuscripts. Kings of bone, seated in sculptured chairs, about two inches in height, have been found, and specimens of them engraved in recent antiquarian publications.

It only remains to notice, very briefly, the means of locomotion which bound and brought together this singular state of society. Five great roads, radiating from Tara, as a centre, are mentioned in our earliest record; the road Dala leading to Ossory, and so on into Munster; the road Assail, extending western through Mullingar towards the Shannon; the road Cullin, extending towards Dublin and Bray; the exact route of the northern road, Midhluachra, is undetermined; Slighe Mor, the great western road, followed the course of the esker, or hill-range, from Tara to Galway. Many cross-roads are also known as in common use from the sixth century downwards. Of these, the Four Masters mention, at various dates, not less than forty, under their different local names, previous to the Norman invasion. These roads were kept in repair, according to laws enacted for that purpose, and were traversed by the chiefs and ecclesiastics in carbads, or chariots; a main road was called a slighe (sleigh), because it was made for the free passage of two chariots--"i.e. the chariot of a King and the chariot of a Bishop." Persons of that rank were driven by an ara, or charioteer, and, no doubt, made a very imposing figure. The roads were legally to be repaired at three seasons, namely, for the accommodation of those going to the national games, at fair-time, and in time of war. Weeds and brushwood were to be removed, and water to be drained off; items of road-work which do not give us a very high idea of the comfort or finish of those ancient highways.

Such, faintly seen from afar, and roughly sketched, was domestic life and society among our ancestors, previous to the Anglo-Norman invasion, in the reign of King Roderick O'Conor.




Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page



Map of Ireland