Social Structure in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER I....continued

The people were divided into tribes and clans, each group, whether small or large, governed by a king or chief; and at the head of all was the high king of Ireland. But these kings could not do as they pleased: for they had to govern the country or the district in accordance with old customs, and had to seek the advice of the chief men on all important occasions—much the same as the limited monarchs of our own day. There were courts of justice presided over by magistrates and judges, with lawyers to explain the law and plead for their clients.

The houses were nearly all of wood, and oftener round than quadrangular, the dwelling of every comfortable family being surrounded by a high rampart of earth with a thorn hedge or strong palisade on top, to keep out wild animals and robbers. Beside almost every homestead was a kitchen-garden for table vegetables, and one or more enclosed spaces for various purposes, such as out-door games, shutting in cattle at night, or as haggards for corn-stacks. In some places the dwellings were clustered in groups or hamlets, not huddled close as the houses in most of our present villages, but with open spaces between. The large towns—which, however, were very few—lay open all round, without any attempt at fortification.

The people were bright and intelligent and much given to intellectual entertainments and amusements. They loved music and singing, and took delight in listening to poetry, history, and romantic stories, recited by professional poets and shanachies; or, in the absence of these, by good non-professional storytellers, who were everywhere to be found among the peasantry. They were close observers of external nature, too, and had an intense admiration for natural beauty—a peculiarity everywhere reflected in their literature, as well as in their place-names.

In most parts of the country open-air meetings or fairs were held periodically, where the people congregated in thousands, and, forgetting all the cares of the world for the time, gave themselves over to unrestrained enjoyment—athletic games and exercises, racing, music, recitations by skilled poets and storytellers, jugglers' and showmen's representations, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. So determined were they to ward off all unpleasantness on these occasions, that no one, at the risk of his life, durst pick a quarrel or strike a blow: for this was one of the rules laid down to govern all public assemblies. An Irish fair in those times was a lively and picturesque sight. The people were dressed in their best, and in great variety; for all, both men and women, loved bright colours; and from head to foot every individual wore articles of varied hues. Here you see a tall gentleman walking along with a scarlet cloak flowing loosely over a short jacket of purple, with perhaps blue trousers and yellow headgear, while the next showed a colour arrangement wholly different; and the women vied with the men in variety of hues. Nay, single garments were often particoloured; and it was quite common to see the long outside mantle, whether worn by men or women, striped and spotted with purple, yellow, green, or other dyes.

But outside such social gatherings, and in ordinary life, both chiefs and people were quarrelsome and easily provoked to fight. Indeed they loved fighting for its own sake; and a stranger to the native character would be astonished to see the very people who only a few days before vied with each other in good-natured enjoyment, now fighting to the death on some flimsy cause of variance, which in all likelihood he would fail to understand if he made inquiry. These everlasting jars and conflicts—though not more common in Ireland than in England and Scotland—brought untold miseries on the people, and were the greatest obstacle to progress. Sometimes great battles were fought, on which hung the fate of the nation, like those we have seen contested in Ireland within the last two or three hundred years. But the martial instincts of the people were not always confined within the shores of Ireland; for Irish leaders often carried war into the neighbouring countries both of Great Britain and the Continent.

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