Celtic Design

SECTION IV.

THE AENACH

From The Brehon Laws by Laurence Ginnell, 1894

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Celtic O
F local assemblies, the Aenach appears to have been the most generally important. Aenach is the word now translated fair, and is, in fact, the present Irish term for a cattle - fair. But though some such fairs originated in aenachs, they bear very little resemblance to the original. Fair is no translation of the word, but is one of those things which one would rather have expressed differently. Aenach means, first, an assembly; second, a hill, from assemblies meeting on hills; third, a cattle-fair, from such fairs springing up where aenachs once were held. Wherever an aenach was held a fair sprang up, but the latter was purely a consequential and collateral adjunct to the former. The aenach proper was an assembly of all the people of a district, without distinction of rank, and apparently without distinction of clan. Some were held annually, others triennially.

Originating, like all the other Irish assemblies, in pagan funeral or commemorative rites, the aenach continued even in Christian times to meet in a cemetery. There is no definite statement that the aenach enacted laws; but one of the many objects of the assembly was that the laws might be published, and where this was done the effect of the laws may have been in some way modified. The aenach was also taken advantage of for holding a high court of justice for the trial of appeals and cases of special difficulty, a Church synod in Christian times, a place for musical and bardic contests, for the recitation of martial and other poetry and family pedigrees, a weapon-show or sort of military review, feats of arms, horse-racing, athletic sports, and all the games of the time, and, of course, for the distribution of honours and prizes amongst the successful competitors. So far the assembly might be considered the aenach proper. But all these proceedings, and the multitude of people they brought together and detained in one place for a couple of days, rendered a market for refreshments necessary; and this developed into a market for all kinds of wares and produce and for cattle. Owing to the scarcity of towns and shops in those days, this incidental feature of the aenach was found very convenient; and it grew to such an extent that it ultimately overshadowed the primary purposes of the aenach, and furnished a practical if not an etymological reason for translating the word into fair. For the commercial purposes of the fair those meetings were frequented by merchants, Irish and foreign, and a brief but vigorous trade was carried on.

Aenachs were held in many places throughout the country, and the word still forms part of the names of a number of places, the best known in this respect being Nenagh. But the accident of retaining the name is no indication of the relative importance of the different aenachs held in those places. For they did differ greatly in importance. The aenach of Carman was for a long time one of the most celebrated in the South of Ireland. Carman was a place near the site of the present town of Wexford, and, I believe, is the Irish name of that town. The last aenach was held there in A.D. 1033, under Donnchadh MacGillaphadraig, Chief of Ossory, who was King of Leinster then. Greek merchants are spoken of as having attended the aenach of Carman for commercial purposes.

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