The Ceiles and the Land Laws (4)

Laurence Ginnell

In respect of the quantities of the things paid in kind, nice calculations must have been difficult, but the laws distinguish three degrees. The first and lowest was the ciss fixed by law as payable by every clansman who held land. In the English version of the Ancient Laws of Ireland this word is translated "rent." This is due to the modern importance of rent acting on the minds of the translators. Rent is neither a correct translation of the word nor a correct description of the thing. The correct translation of ciss is tribute; and the ciss was not rent, but tribute. It constituted the ordinary revenue for public purposes; and it was levied on land as being at once the principal class of property and the natural source of support for the state. The second species of payment resembled rent more closely, being a stipulated payment for land to which a man had no title arising from clan status or from the law. The third was called the ciss ninscis, or wearisome tribute, and it was rent in reality. It was paid under agreement by a person who did not belong to the clan, that is, either by an outsider or a non-free person residing in the territory.

The measures by which the actual quantities in each case were ascertained were the cumhal (pronounced cooal) and the sed (pronounced shed). These terms are of constant recurrence throughout the laws wherever measurable quantities are in question. Cumhal means, literally, a bond-maid or female slave; but in the laws it is never used in any other sense than as a measure of quantity, or rather of value, perhaps what was originally supposed to equal the value of such a slave. As applied to land (tir-cumhal), it meant the usufruct for one year of about twenty acres, less or more, according as the land was good or bad. For land was not always measured by its actual superficial extent, but by the number of cows it was capable of feeding. This is still quite a usual mode of measuring land and of calculating its worth. Also if a mill or other useful or profitable structure stood on the land, less of that land would amount to a cumhal than if there were no such structure. In short, cumhal was a measure of value, not of extent. As applied to other things than land, cumhal meant the value of three cows. Translators appear to hesitate at the word sed, probably on account of the number of senses in which it is used. It is rendered, "a jewel, a cow, a thing of value." It, however, does not mean any particular species of property, but a certain standard of value, irrespective of species; and in the Senchus Mor five seds equal three cows. Of course the knowledge of these equivalents hardly helps us at all in determining the present money value of either.

The free clansmen had, in addition to their private lands, the right to turn out cattle and swine to graze on the Fearan Fine or common land, the number of beasts that each person might so turn out being fixed in a general way by the law and specifically determined by the jury already mentioned. This use was not free, however. The rent usually paid for it was one animal yearly for every seven fed in this way.

A céile who required more land than he possessed could obtain it from the chief for one year, or, with the consent of the tribe, permanently, out of the Fearan Fine or any waste land that could be spared. For this the céile paid tribute of the second class mentioned above for ten years, after which the land was subject only to tribute of the first class. The land having in the meantime become more valuable, it is possible that the actual amount of the tribute remained the same.