The Céiles and the Land Laws (6)

From The Brehon Laws by Laurence Ginnell, 1894

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The tributes being in kind, too, it really was hard to make a better use of them than that indicated. But the system was a bad one, bound to break down as soon as the check of a local assembly was removed. Perhaps the flaith exacted nearly as much tribute from the people in a time of peace as in a time of war, and perhaps after exacting tribute he left public works undone, or left those who had paid for them to do them as well; and with so much property of various kinds in his hands and coming into them, and a feeble assembly or none to demand it or an account of it from him, the temptation to regard it all as his own imposed a strain on the virtue of the flaith, impelling him at once to oppress those beneath him and to shirk his own duty to those above him and to the State. The state receiver became a receiver for himself; the executive officer did not trouble himself to execute much beyond what was to his own advantage.

Some landholders of adequate means raised sufficient stock for their own use, and had no occasion to purchase or hire stock; or they purchased what they wanted in the ordinary way, from the flaith or from somebody else, and had no account to render. All the céiles were classified as Saer and Daer, which terms are translated as free and base respectively. We are told that the difference was like that which prevailed, and to some extent still prevails, in England between freeholders and copyholders. Beyond this vague comparison, those who make it do not attempt to explain the distinction in the case of those who did not hire stock; and if the distinction existed among such ceiles—as it appears to have done—I have failed to discover in what it consisted. Of this I am very sure, that the difference was not the same as that between English freeholders and copyholders, that the conditions of the one country rendered the relations of the other wholly inapplicable, and that the references made to those tenures do not help us in the least. Possibly they are as often made to excuse the writer from explaining as to assist readers to understand. In my opinion, the tenure of all who did not hire stock was a perfectly free tenure, and in their case the terms saer and daer had reference to their comparative wealth and status, and not to the nature of their tenure.

The transactions of the flaith in cattle, however, appear to have consisted in practice mainly in letting out cattle on what may be called a hire-purchase system, which itself was of two kinds; and it is in the difference between these two kinds that, so far as regards the céiles who hired stock, the real difference between saer and daer consisted. The translators describe this difference, in half-English, as saer-stock tenure and daer-stock tenure. One of our modern writers says that the difference between the saer-stock and the daer-stock tenant was, that the latter paid Biathad (pronounced Beeha), a word signifying Food-Tribute, or a payment made in any eatable material. This is a mistake. Nominally, indeed, certain persons were bound to pay certain amounts of food-tribute, but in practice either or both paid it whenever it happened to be the most convenient form of payment. It was in the quantity and the other terms that the difference consisted. And with regard to both these terms, tenure being a word used in English law only with reference to land or something issuing out of land, it can hardly be a correct translation at all, since what the flaith let out to the céiles was not land but cattle. In what is called saer-stock tenure the flaith gave the stock without requiring any security, and without any bargain whatever, but subject to the general law which was known to both parties. My own impression is that the flaith was bound to do this, and that the person to whom he so gave stock was a clansman entitled to get stock in this way, and was not a tenant at all. However, let that pass. The flaith gave the stock, and for it the law entitled him to an annual return for seven years of one-third the value of the stock given. This payment being duly made, at the end of seven years the stock became the absolute property of the céile, and he had no more to pay for them. This was a substantial return. Though not so heavy as modern rent, especially in view of its short duration, it was heavier than the gross amount of tributes paid by the céiles who did not hire stock. The céile might, if he liked, not begin to pay the instalments until the end of the third year, but he was bound to pay up then for those three years.

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