The Society of Ancient Ireland

Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction character Created by Kevin L. O'Brien

Bloodsong: Detail 1, © by Boris Vallejo

D.O., © by CR-Space

The Society of Ancient Irelandreland had what could be called a sophisticated primitive society. This is a society that is otherwise quite advanced culturally and technologically, but lacks several key features that are normally associated with a non-primitive society. For the Irish, these features were a written language, urban centers (e.g., cities and towns), and money (e.g., currency). This essay describes what is currently known about ancient Irish society. Where necessary, singular and plural forms of Irish words are indicated by the following code: singular form / plural form. Please see the Pronunciation Guide for a key on how to pronounce the various word sounds.

The ancient Irish social structure was stratified, though not as heavily stratified as other sophisticated primitives. Its hierarchy was established by three separate, yet superimposed, organizations. One was based on blood and kinship, another on profession, and the last on class.

A Celtic husband and wife.First and foremost in Irish society was the familial organization. The basis of this organization was the immediate family (fine / finí). An Irish family was not like a modern family, with just parents and children. It included everyone who lived under the same roof, which not only meant grandparents and grandchildren, but often unmarried aunts and uncles, and at times even nephews and nieces. Next up was the extended family (sept / septeanna), which included married aunts and uncles, and often closely related cousins. After that came the clan (clann / clanna), which included all the families that claimed lineage from a single ancestor. Several related clans then formed a tribe (tuath / tuatha), which was generally recognized as the smallest political unit. Several interrelated tribes formed a kingdom (dál / dála), while a number of individual kingdoms formed a province (coiced / coicedí). There were five provinces in ancient Ireland — Ulster (Ulaidh), Connaught (Connacht), Leinester (Laigin), Munster (Mamu), and Meath (Mide) — and while in later centuries Ulster and Meath got split up and recombined by various tribes, the other three remained intact until the disastrous failure of O'Neill's rebellion to force out the English.

A warrior on his chariot.Superimposed on the familial organization was the professional organization, which was fairly simple. People were divided into three groups: the warriors (láech / láecheanna), the craftsmen (cerd / cerdí), and the laborer farmers (aithech / aithecheanna). The warriors were the elite. They ran the society at large, but they also protected it. As well, their status as heroes meant that, rather than resent them, the laborer farmers honored them, even revered them. Even so, the laborer farmers were the backbone of the society. They tended the land, raised the food, and herded the cattle. Without them, the warriors would starve, so rather than ride roughshod over the commoners as in other societies, the warriors treated the laborer farmers with respect. Meanwhile, the craftsmen (and women) composed the middle rank. They too depended upon the warriors for protection, but they also depended upon the laborer farmers for food. However, the other two classes depended upon the goods that the craftsmen created. They made the weapons, armor, and chariots the warriors used; they made the farm implements the laborers used; and they made the everyday items everyone needed, and the objets d'art everyone appreciated. They also included priests, musicians, poets, scholars, law keepers, physicians; anyone needed to make a civilization viable.

Celtic queenThe class organization was more complex, and sometimes crossed professional boundaries. There were six classes: the rulers, the aristocrats, the freemen, the laborers, the serfs, and the dependents. Each level had its own rights and privileges, and was in turn subdivided into additional levels and/or positions. However, unlike many other societies, this was not a caste system. No one was rigidly fixed into the profession, class, and position into which he or she was born. In fact, it was possible for anyone at any level, even the lowest, to advance to a higher level through hard work and diligence.

The ruling class was composed of the chiefs and kings, who led each level of society. At the bottom was the clan chieftain (rí clainne). For the most part, clans tended to be rather small, so more often than not, the clan chieftain was also the village chieftain, but some clans were large enough to encompass a number of villages, in which case the subordinate village leaders were simply known as chiefs (rí / ríthe). Next up was the tribal chieftain (rí tuaithe), and above him was the leader of the local kingdom (rí dáil). Finally, the provincial leader (rí coicede) was high king (ard rí) over all within the province. Theoretically, the provincial kings were subordinate to the High King of Ireland (rí ruírech), but the high kingship was largely a ceremonial position, and the High King had authority only over the territory immediately around Tara. As such, the provincial kings were pretty much free to act as they saw fit. The only time the High King could rule undisputed was during a national calamity, and even then the provincial kings often were not fully cooperative. The first, and only, High King to truly rule undisputed was Brian Boru, and his power died with him at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 C.E.

The aristocrat class was privileged (nemhedh), which meant they could hold the land and control its usage and distribution. In Iron Age Ireland, land was not privately owned, but owned by the tribe as a whole. However, the aristocrats held the land in trust for the general tribal membership (céile). The tribe as a whole determined the division of arable tribal land between that held by the chief or king to support his rule, that held by the nobles and their tenants, and that shared by all the free commoners. The rest was non-arable wasteland, which was treated by the tribe as common land unclaimed by any class and could be used by all people for grazing, hunting and gathering food, collecting firewood, etc. Nonetheless, the leaders and aristocrats received the bulk of the arable land, and they were free to determine how to use it and who could work it.

A warrior aristocrat.There were two types of aristocrats: the warrior nobility (uasal) and the professionals (flaith). All warriors, no matter how humble, were noblemen (airech / airecheanna), and needed land to support them so they could devote themselves to fighting. The highest rank a warrior could hold, however, was not the equivalent of a modern military or titled rank, but that of champion (fénnid / fénneada). This makes sense, though, considering the heroic nature of Irish Iron Age Celtic society. The professionals also needed land, to support themselves as they devoted their efforts to their professions. These included physicians (fáithliag / fáithliaig), historian poets (fili / filidh), law-keepers (breitheamh / breitheamha), and the priests (druih / druihe).

The freemen (aire / airí) were not privileged (doernemhedh), so they could not hold land themselves, but they could rent it from a nobleman, or they could be granted it by the tribe as a whole. They could, however, own personal property, including cattle. Most freemen were farmers (bóaire / bóair), but among their ranks were also certain skilled tradesmen. These were people who performed tasks that were highly prized by the aristocracy; these included the musician poet (bard / baird), blacksmith (gobae / gobaí), and charioteer (arae / araí). This last might seem odd, but charioteers did not engage in battle themselves, except under the most dire circumstances. However, this was a way a freeman could be advanced to the aristocratic level, if he distinguished himself in combat.

The laborers (féine / féiní), on the other hand, as well as being non-privileged, were not allowed to own personal property. Nor were they able to rent land from the aristocrats. Instead, they either lived on whatever land the general tribal membership assigned them to, or squatted on unclaimed tribal land. As with the freemen, most were farmers (bothach / bothaigh), but many worked at some sort of craft. These people were usually employed by the aristocrats, but were not held in as high regard as the free tradesmen. Some of these crafts included wright or carpenter (saer / saereanna), bodyguard (amuis / amosa), hospitaler (briugu / briugunna), watchman (dercia / derciana), chef (rannaire / rannairí), steward (rechteaire / rechteairí), and messenger (techt / techte).

Members of a Celtic community.Yet despite their social handicaps, the freemen and the laborers were all free commoners and members of the tribe. This gave them a say in tribal affairs and full voting rights, including the election of the leader and the division of tribal land. In fact, they formed the bulk of the tribal membership, and so were the ultimate foundation of law and authority in Irish society.

The serfs (sencleith / sencleithí) worked the land for the nobles and some of the free commoners who were granted land. They were tied to the land, unable to leave it without permission, but they were not slaves. They were in fact still considered to be members of the tribe, and while they had no voting rights, they still had a right to occupy tribal land and to prosper from their own labor.

The dependents (fuidir / fuidirí), however, had no such rights, and were generally considered to be bonded, little better than slaves in most cases. There were two types of dependents. Outsiders (saer-fuidir / saer-fuidirí) were law-abiding strangers who, for whatever reason, were without a tribe. They were granted the right to squat on unclaimed tribal land by the chieftain or king, contingent on their continued good behavior, but they had no voice in tribal matters and were dependent upon the tribe's goodwill. The other type (daer-fuidir / daer-fuidirí), however, consisted of captives, criminals, and slaves, all of whom had no rights whatsoever. Even so, Irish law favored emancipation, and it was possible for anyone in this class to be freed and/or adopted by the tribe, as a reward for extraordinary service. Male slaves (mug / muig) were often called bondmen; female slaves (cumhal / cumhala) were often called bondmaids or bondwomen, and were used as a unit of currency to describe the worth of other valuable items.

A Celtic woman.One other aspect of heroic Irish society that should be discussed is the rights of women. There is some confusion over this issue, with one group of people maintaining that the women were no better than chattel, and another arguing just as strongly that the women were equal, even superior, to men. What needs to be kept in mind is that the former derive their opinion from Medieval sources, whereas the latter derive theirs from the ancient sagas. However, both groups of sources are to some extent exaggerated; the truth most likely lies somewhere in between. Using these sources as guides, and adding other sources such as the Brehon Laws, the picture that one gets is that, while ancient Irish society was strongly paternalistic, women enjoyed many rights and could yield considerable power, given the right mix of talent, ambition, and opportunity.

For example, in Medieval societies in general, it was the father's right to choose who his daughter would marry. In ancient Ireland, though, the woman was free to marry whomever she chose, regardless of her father's wishes. In addition, she was free to divorce her husband whenever she wanted. Whereas in Medieval Europe, women were restricted to being wives, nuns, or whores, in ancient Ireland no trade or craft was barred to them, not even the privileged professions. We know for a fact that they could hold any position in any class, even that of tribal, kingdom, or provincial leader. And in matters of property, whereas Medieval husbands were free to do whatever they wished with their wives' property, in ancient Ireland neither husband nor wife could sell, barter, or make contract for the property of the other without permission. Moreover, if a couple divorced, they divided up the property by the same ratio as they each held when they married. For example, if the wife owned twice as many cows as her husband when they married, she retained twice as many cows as he when they divorced, even if their collective herd had grown considerably.

One particularly controversial issue is whether women fought as warriors in battles. Many scholars maintain that there is no credible evidence for Celtic women warriors, and that even historical figures such as Boudicca may have led battles, but they didn't fight in them. Yet we also have the testimony of contemporary Greek and Roman commentators of women fighting alongside men, and a law was passed in 697 C.E. that forbade women from fighting. So the issue is far from settled. For various reasons, Kevin L. O'Brien has chosen to accept the idea that Celtic women could be warriors just as the men, but he does not claim that this is an historical certainty.

Still another aspect of ancient Irish society worth discussing is community structure. Before the coming of the Vikings, there were no true towns or even villages in Ireland. Instead, the people lived in what were more like homesteads and ranches in the Old West. They all shared the same basic design and are known as ring-forts. They consisted of a roughly circular area enclosed by a defensive ditch. Inside the inner perimeter, the dirt excavated to create the ditch was piled up to form a rampart (see the model below right); revetments were usually built into the inner face to protect it, and sometimes wooden palisades were erected along the top as an added barrier. At least one entrance was cut through the rampart, defended by a double-gate system, with smaller ramparts built up on either side of the path.

A typical ring fort.  A model of a ring fort.

Larger ring-forts had more elaborate defenses, including multiple concentric rings of rampart and ditch constructions, labyrinthine gate complexes, and, where possible for the largest structures, rock walls. Some were also defended by an outer barrier called a chevaux de frise. This consisted of a field of broken boulders, with their sharp points and edges facing outward. These served the same function as tank traps: they prevented chariots from getting too close, and they broke up massed infantry charges. Many forts were built on top of hills and raised mounds, taking advantage of their natural defenses; these are called hill forts. Some of the largest ring-forts were actually composite structures, with a number of closely-spaced smaller forts contained within a single large fort; these were the seats of the provincial kings and of the high king at Tara.

A diagram of a typical hillfort.There were three types of ring-forts. The small, simple ones (ráth / ráthanna) housed immediate families and sometimes even small extended families. The somewhat larger and more heavily fortified ones (caisel / caisil) housed extended families and smaller clans. The largest, most heavily fortified type (dún / dúnta) were the strongholds of the leaders. Some were large enough to house whole clans, and a few were much like towns, in that they tended to house the professionals, the tradesmen, and the craftsmen.

Inside the defensive perimeter, there was at least one round house, usually with a number of smaller out-buildings. A round house consisted of a circular wall made out of wattle covered in mud daub; in rare cases, heavy unmortared stone could be substituted. There was a main entranced flanked by two smaller, secondary entrances, and usually there was a rear entrance as well. The roof was cone-shaped and covered in thatch, but with no hole for smoke from the central fire to escape. Instead, the smoke would accumulate inside the roof space and seep out through the thatch. This oxygen-poor environment was perfect for preserving and storing food, especially meat. A round house could be of any size, and the larger ones had an inner ring of posts to help support the roof rafters, but even small houses had considerable floor space.

A typical roundhouse.  A diagram of the floorplan of a roundhouse.

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