The Ceiles and the Land Laws (5)

Laurence Ginnell

Of the smaller payments to which landholders were subject, some were certain, others contingent. One of the certain payments was that made by all for the support of the poor, the aged, orphans, and the like belonging to the clan, in addition to the Cumhal Senorba, or Old Age Inheritance, which stood dedicated to their use. The immediate relatives of a criminal were contingently liable to pay compensation for his misdeeds; and the sept, and even the whole clan, were liable in the contingency of the nearer relatives failing. There was also a somewhat similar liability in respect of certain contracts, if entered into with the consent of the relatives or of the clan.

All the tributes mentioned were paid to the flaith, not as landlord but as a public officer, not for his own use, except so far as the absence of money and other circumstances rendered his use necessary, but to be spent in the interests of the clan. Neither the land nor the tribute issuing out of it belonged to the flaith. He had no power whatever to evict a clansman, whether the tribute was paid or not. He might evict an outsider, or a non-free person, to whom he had let land by agreement, if the rent agreed upon was not paid, or for other sufficient cause. But the free clansman's tenure was not the result of any agreement, and was not from the flaith at all, but was a right accruing to him at his birth; and if he was in default with the tribute the utmost the flaith could do against him was to distrain his cattle or other goods for the amount due. In the case of a number of debts due by the same person, and sued for at the same time, arrears of tribute had to be paid first; but if a céile died owing arrears of tribute, the amount of those arrears could not be recovered from the céile's heirs. "Every dead man kills his liabilities. It results from the neglect of the flaith that there is no liability upon the heirs of the céile, unless they themselves have committed default after the death of their father."

The collection and expenditure of tribute was the weakest point in the whole Irish system, as it was in that of Rome. The Roman system of government was probably as perfect for the time as is any system of modern Europe, with the exception of this one flaw—the taxes were farmed out to undertakers to collect, instead of being collected by the State. The Irish system provided the flaith for the collection of the tributes, but left them when collected in the hands of the collector. The flaith was at once state receiver and chief executive officer of his district. What did he do with all this rent in kind which was being continually heaped upon him? The system theoretically provided many useful things for him to do with it; but the temptation to abuse his position gained as that system lost in controlling power. He was obliged to pay some tribute to the king or chief above him. In time of war he was bound to provide a fixed number of men and horses, together with food for them. He was bound to entertain the king and certain high officials with their respective retinues on certain periodic visits. He was bound to make suitable provision for the public officers of his own small territory. He was bound, with the concurrence of the local assemblies, to keep roads, bridges, and ferries in repair and to make new ones where necessary; to provide protection against storms and floods; to maintain the public mill of the district, the public fishing-net, and other public institutions which varied with the nature of the district.

It was his duty to supply, where needful, the farmers and cottiers with live stock for their lands, chiefly young cattle, according to their various wants, the quality of the land they held, and other circumstances, so that they might, by feeding and using these animals in their respective ways, support themselves and pay the tribute out of the profits. One farmer would, from taste or suitability of circumstances, make a specialty of breeding one particular class of stock, another a different class; and the flaith took up the tributes from the different men at different seasons of the year, thus making the supply keep pace with the demand, always having enough on hands to satisfy all requirements, and letting out to one what he had received from another. In order that the supply should not fail and that the sept should not suffer, the law required every clansman who had a superfluity of stock to dispose of to apprise the flaith of his district before selling them, and the flaith was empowered to enforce this law if necessary. The flaith was also bound to provide bulls and stallions for the use of the sept. These were very useful functions, and they by no means exhausted the duties which by law the flaith was bound to discharge, and probably did discharge (through servants, of course), so long as the local assemblies exercised their powers of guidance and control.