The case of Ireland, when carefully considered, does not appear to be peculiar as regards ethnic origins. It is not disputed that the Irish are cognates of peoples that have founded highly organized States in England and on the continent. That the Irish did not do so is to be attributed to historical accidents. Of these, the most far-reaching in its effects was the fact that Irish tribal forms of social and political organization were never broken up by passing under the harrow of Roman law. Another important circumstance was that the spread of Christianity in Ireland retained and utilized tribal institutions that on the continent were broken down and discarded. When Charlemagne was hammering Christianity into the heathen Saxons in the eighth century he was smashing their tribal system at the same time. At that period Ireland had been a Christian country for centuries, and was famous as a center of missionary activity and yet it still retained its archaic pattern of social and political organization. The Irish kings, with some vicissitudes, successfully resisted invasions that were triumphant in England. In the first quarter of the eleventh century when the empire of Canute the Dane extended over England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden, Ireland was under native princes whose historiographers could point to a succession of victories over the Northmen, destroying their settlements and uprooting their power.

It was not until the Norman invasion established a State in England with consolidated resources and centralized authority that the military inferiority of Irish institutions was manifested in the relations between the two countries. But while thereafter Ireland remained a prey to English invasion, her tribal polity displayed marked capacity for absorbing the invaders into the mass of native Irish. Irish nationality is a modern concept. Ancient and mediaeval Ireland was a country given over to internecine warfare. Foreign intervention in the aid of some native interest was sought and welcomed. A native chronicler, referring to the Anglo-Norman invasion beginning in 1169, says: "Earl Strongbow came into Erin with Dermod Mac Murrough to avenge his expulsion by Roderick, son of Turlough O'Connor; and Dermod gave him his own daughter and a part of his patrimony, and Saxon foreigners have been in Erin since then."

The Norman adventurers tried to carve the land into feudal fiefs, and the feudal system came into violent conflict with the Irish tribal system, but the latter showed greater endurance. The Anglo-Norman nobles found the vague, customary powers of Irish chiefry more favorable to their authority than the more explicitly defined rights and duties of a feudal lord. When Henry VIII. came to the throne of England in 1509, many old Anglo-Norman families had either disappeared or were merged into the Celtic mass. English polity was restricted to an area extending over a radius of about twenty miles from Dublin, known as the "Pale," and a still smaller area about Kilkenny. Over the greater part of the island Celtic tribal institutions still supplied the legal and political framework of society. It was not until after the accession of James I. that the division of the land into counties was completed, and Ulster the last province to be brought under civil jurisdiction. In Elizabeth's time a scheme of county organization for Ulster was adopted, but there was no machinery of government. Sir John Davies says of the period before Chichester's administration: "The law was never executed in the new counties by any sheriff or justices of assize; but the people were left to be ruled still by their own barbarous lords and laws."

The distinctive characteristics of Irish history may be attributed chiefly to the fact that an archaic type of polity was accidentally preserved to modern times. The struggles and sufferings that ensued from the clash of cultures were such as have always attended such a situation. It was with reference to this that Sir Henry Maine in his Ancient Law remarked: "The history of political ideas begins with the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions, nor is there any of those subversions of feeling which we emphatically call revolutions so startling and so complete as the change which is established when some other principle, such as that for instance of local contiguity, establishes itself for the first time as the basis of common political action."

When recorded history begins the Greek and the Latin tribes are discovered in the throes of this revolution from which civilization issued.

On the continent of Europe the change took place in the darkness of barbarism and left few records to history. The peculiarity of Ireland's case is that it was, as Lord Bacon observed, the last European country to pass from tribal status to civil polity. But that very circumstance now makes her native institutions specially interesting to scholars. What Bacon deplored as barbarous customs and habits that "enchant them in savage manners" are now the very things in which students are chiefly interested, for detailed knowledge of them would throw light upon the social and political organization of all the Indo-European tribes in the prehistoric period. An elaborate apparatus existed for the perpetuation of the customary laws and historical traditions of the tribe. There were brehons, who were repositories of tribal law; shanahs who were genealogists and incidentally recorders of titles of lands; rhymers who related the deeds of the heroes; and harpers, whose music celebrated the honor of the sept. Biographers of Thomas Moore tell us that his Irish Melodies are based upon Irish folk songs, a fact which must impress one with the variety and refinement of musical rhythms native to Ireland, and also serve to corroborate archaeological evidence to the effect that artistic culture was attained under native institutions.

In thus drawing upon native Irish sources Moore enriched the metrical resources of English verse and established his own best claim to fame. It seems to have been no more than a plain statement of the actual facts of the case when the poet wrote:

"Dear Harp of my Country! In darkness I found thee,
The cold chain of silence had hung o'er thee long,
When proudly, my own Island Harp, I unbound thee,
And gave all thy chords to light, freedom and song!"

The point at which the clash of Irish tribal status and English law was most acute was in the matter of land tenure. Although English law admitted various kinds of tenure in land it was exacting and insistent on the point of individual rights. Under the tribal system surviving in Ireland the individual had no rights as such defined by law, but as a tribesman he had certain traditional privileges in the common lands of the tribe conditioned upon customary dues and service to his chief, so vague that they might vary greatly according to the disposition and opportunity of the chief. The sort of tribal communism that existed in Ireland is exemplified in the following petition of one Neale O'Donnell to Chichester, October 9, 1613:

"It is not unknown to your lordship that the Irish gentry did ever make their followers' purses their only exchequer. And I beseech your lordship (now anew) to take notice that mine ancestors left me as great an inheritance (in this kind) as any other man's did unto himself. Of which stock, as I never employed any part (of things given by myself) unanswerably claim as any Ulcestrian whatever. My humble suit, therefore, unto your honorable good lordship is, that as your honor has restored their commins unto all others, so you would.... help me unto my commins also.... I beseech your lordship, in regard to them, to cause my tenants (or if need be, force them) to bring up my children to school till I otherwise dispose of my commins at least."

These "comynes," for so the term usually appears in the State Papers, denotes a custom based upon the relations of the chief of a sept to his people. He claimed all the lands as his in trust for his people. It is a trusteeship that is merely customary and not legally defined, but it intermingles his private estate and the common wealth. His own exertions belong to his functions as ruler, judge and captain of his people. Instead of gathering wealth into his own possession, he distributes cattle or other goods among his people and in return they provide for his wants, rear his children and meet the expenses of their education. These dues are the chief's comynes. In instructions issued August 28, 1610, for settling claims of comynes, Chichester remarks that some of the tenants and followers of the Irish gentry "have by their customs of comynes gotten into their hands the greater part of those goods and chattels; and are, therefore, in far better estate than their landlords, except there be restitution made of some just portion thereof to him or them from whom the same have been received by way of comynes."

Such facts show how closely the interests of the native gentry were bound up with the maintenance of tribal custom in land tenure. The principal chiefs frequently showed themselves not averse to taking title from the English Crown for themselves, but they were bent on keeping their people in the position of tenants-at-will, their holdings subject to the disposition of the chief. It was the policy of the English Government to break up this dependence of the people upon the will of their chiefs. In one of his early letters from Ireland Sir John Davies pointed out that it was just by such control over tenants that the feudal barons of the Middle Ages were able to carry on rebellion:

"Whereas, at this day, if any of the great lords of England should have a mind to stand upon their guard, well may they have some of their household servants and retainers, or some few light-trained fractious gentlemen to follow them; but as for those tenants who have good leases for years.... those fellows will not hazard the losing of their sheep, their oxen and their corn, and the undoing of themselves, their wives and children, for the love of the best landlord in England."

Just such independence on the part of their tenants the Irish chiefs instinctively feared, and their obstinate resistance to surrendering their tribal sovereignty was the root from which rebellion kept growing. The collective right of the people to the soil, characteristic of Irish tribal polity, has received much praise from writers in our own times as an arrangement securing the individual against social degradation and the pressure of want. So judicial a historian as Lecky says of the Irish clansman: "His position was wholly different from and in some respects very superior to that of an English tenant." His superiority consisted in the fact that whereas the English tenant had to pay rent and in case of default might be ejected, "the humblest clansman was a co-proprietor with his chief." But in practice this co-partnership generally meant that the clansman retained only what his chief chose to leave him. The industrious could not possess for themselves the rewards of their industry, and as invariably happens in all such cases industry did not thrive. There was no motive for people to build and improve, when their accumulations might be appropriated by the chiefs and they themselves be shifted to other fields.

The system kept the people under primitive conditions of pastoral life. Some of the chiefs dwelt in clay houses; others of them followed "creaghting," a term denoting the practice of moving about the country with their live stock, chief and people living in booths made of boughs coated with long strips of turf. Such habitations could be easily run up and lightly abandoned. "Such are the dwellings of the very lords among them," remarks an English traveler who was in the country in 1600. What tillage there was was carried on in the rudest fashion: several horses were fastened each by the tail to a short plough with a man to every horse to urge and direct the animal. In this way they raised oats for their horses and barley for distilling into whiskey. The principal flesh meat of the people was pork, while oatmeal and herbs furnished vegetable food. There were also supplies of milk and butter, chickens and rabbits. There must have been a rude plenty, for it appears that wandering hawkers were familiar visitors to the creaghts, bargaining for country produce. The chiefs passed their leisure time hunting in the woods and coshering among their tenants. "Coshering," from an Irish word meaning feasting or entertainment, denotes the right of the chief to free quarters and supplies for himself and his retinue. This mode of life had such charms that even Anglo-Irish lords adopted it. At this time equally primitive conditions existed among the Celtic peoples of the Scottish Highlands and indeed continued there beyond the eighteenth century. In Lockhart's Life of Scott it is related that on Scott's first visit to the Highlands he found his host and three sons, with attendant gillies, all stretched half asleep in their tartans on the hearth, with guns and dogs, and a profusion of game around them. In an enclosure far below appeared a company of women actively engaged in loading a cart with manure. Scott was astonished to find that these industrious women were the laird's own lady and her daughters.

Read this book at your leisure

The Scotch-Irish in America cover

There ain’t nothing like the real thing — get the softcover second edition to read The Scotch-Irish in America at your leisure and help support this free Irish library. The author, Henry Jones Ford had this to say about the book:

“This book tells the story of the Ulster Plantation and of the influences that formed the character of the people. The causes are traced that led to the great migration from Ulster and the Scotch-Irish settlements in America are described. The recital of their experiences involves an account of frontier manners and customs, and of collisions with the Indian tribes. The influence of the Scotch-Irish settlements upon American institutions is traced, particularly in organizing and propagating the Presbyterian Church, in spreading popular education, and in promoting the movement for American national independence. In conclusion, there is an appreciation of the Ulster contribution to American nationality.”

Library Ireland Facebook