Celtic Design

Clan System in ancient Ireland

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic A
KNOWLEDGE of the real nature of the clan or tribal system would be a master-key to much connected with ancient Ireland that is now mysterious, and would remove many stumbling-blocks, if not all. Possibly the lost books, and lost portions of books, would have furnished this key and given us glimpses of life of which without them we can never dream. They would, at the very least, have illuminated some obscure passages in the existing remains which are now subjects of doubt and liable to misinterpretation. But without them full knowledge of this most interesting subject is lost to us, and if it be recoverable at all can only be so by the expenditure of much labour of many minds.

For although the existing remains are in many parts extremely familiar with social and domestic economy, providing even for the legal enforcement of some duties which with us are of merely moral obligation, still the information given, clear enough no doubt for those for whom it was intended, who knew its objects as self-evident facts and were themselves in the current of actual life, is in many respects not clear to us who grope in the dry channel through which that current passed. On certain points no information at all is given; and although great trouble is taken to explain other points, the writers, so to speak, do not begin at the beginning, but start on an assumed basis of knowledge which we no longer possess. We seek in vain for the why and the wherefore of things which apparently were so well known to the writers and their contemporaries that they did not need to be stated; and though much is said round and round a subject, the fundamental facts are evasive. From the time the system began to break up the prolonged agony of the nation has prevented the production of a writer capable of rescuing its fading features from oblivion. We are therefore obliged to pass over the subject very lightly and with uncertain tread, though it is really the most interesting branch, not alone of the law, but of the whole social and political economy. A few facts only appear to be pretty conclusively ascertained.

Mr. Seebohm, a diligent searcher after the truths of antiquity so far as regards England, comes to the conclusion that the tribal system was almost, perhaps wholly, universal—that is to say, that every nation has had its tribal period. He says, "It is confined to no race, to no continent, and to no quarter of the globe. Almost every people in historic or prehistoric times has passed or is passing through its stages." This is so; but while in continental countries, owing to international friction and other external influences, tribes generally suffered disintregation and dissolution, and ultimately disappeared, in Ireland, owing mainly to its remoteness, insularity, and freedom from those influences, the tribal system, while becoming Hibernicised in some respects, perfected and strengthened itself, and attained a highly artistic degree of development such as it probably never reached on any continent; and it was made, and long continued to be, the basis of right, duty, property, law, and civilisation itself.

Tuath, Cinel, and Clann, were the words used interchangeably to denote what we now call indifferently a clan or tribe. It resembled the Gens of ancient Rome in that all the members of it claimed descent from a remote fine, and from a common ancestor as head of that fine, and were therefore kinsfolk, were entitled severally to various rights dependent on the degree of relationship and other facts, and formed collectively a state, political and proprietorial, with a distinct municipal individuality and life, with a legislature of its own and an army in gremio; but in these two latter respects slightly subject to, and forming a member of, a superior state consisting of a federation of similar communities. Each clan was composed of a number of septs, and each sept was composed of a number of fines. Kinship was the web and bond of society throughout the whole clan; and all lesser rights whatsoever were subject to those of the clan. Theoretically it was a true kinship of blood, but in practice it may have been to some extent one of obsorption or adoption. Strangers settling in the district, conducting themselves well, and intermarrying with the clan, were after a few generations indistinguishable from it. A chief or a flaith also occasionally wished to confer on a stranger the dignity and advantages of clanship—practically meaning citizenship—and when he had obtained the sanction of the clan assemblies, the stranger was adopted in the presence of the assembled clan by public proclamation.

In the course of time the name Tuath came to be applied to the district occupied by a clan, and Cinel (pronounced Kinnel) was then the word used to denote the clan itself. Fine (pronounced Finna) was also sometimes used in the broad sense of clan, and this was not strictly incorrect since every clan originated in a small fine; but the word fine properly meant one of a number of sub-organisms of which the clan consisted. It was a miniature clan, and in fact the germ of a clan and the real social and legal unit. It was considerably more comprehensive than our word family. It has been compared with the Roman familia, but it was more comprehensive than even that. When complete it consisted of the Flaith-fine (also called Ceann-fine), and sixteen other male members, old members not ceasing to belong to it until sufficient new members had been born or adopted into it, upon which event happening the old were in rotation thrust out to the sept, and perhaps began to form new fines. Women, children, and servants, did not enter into this computation. The flaith-fine, or paterfamilias, was the head and most important member of the group, in some sense its guardian and protector, and was the only member in full possession and free exercise of all the rights of citizenship. All the members had certain distinct and well-recognised rights, and, if of full age, were sui juris and mutually liable to and for each other; but so long as they remained in the fine, the immediate exercise of some of their rights was vested in the flaith-fine, who should act for them or in whose name they should act. "No person who is under protection is qualified to sue."

There are various conflicting theories as to the persons of whom and the manner in which this organism was composed, and even as to whether it was in fact ever composed or ever existed except as a legal fiction; and no explanation of it or conjecture about it is free from difficulty. Having regard, however, to the frequent mention of it, and of the "seventeen men" of whom it consisted, by various legal and other writers at times far apart and in various connections, it is quite impossible to believe that it was fictitious; but in practice it may not often have attained or long retained that perfect organisation which the law contemplated; and the law itself may have contemplated different things at different times. Whether the members of it became members on their birth, or on attaining manhood and acquiring property; whether they included or represented all within the fifth degree of relationship, or all within the seventeenth degree, are matters in dispute. Without presuming to settle them, let us construct a provisional fine for the purpose of conveying some idea of what it was like. When complete it consisted of "seventeen men" who were always classified in the following manner:—

1. The Geilfine consisted of the flaith-fine and his four sons or other nearest male relatives, most of whose rights were vested in him, who on his death were entitled to the largest share of his property, and would succeed to the largest portion of his responsibilities.

2. The Deirbhfine consisted of the four male members next to the foregoing in degree of relationship to the flaith-fine, upon whom, contingently, a smaller share of his property and responsibilities devolved.

3. The Iarfine consisted of the four males whose degree of relationship was still farther removed, and upon whom, contingently, still less property and responsibility devolved.

4. The Innfine consisted of four males the furthest removed from the flaith-fine, upon whom, contingently, the smallest portion of his property and responsibility devolved.

On the birth of a new male member in the first of these groups (or, according to a more probable theory, on his becoming a man and owner of property), the eldest member of that group was crushed out to the second group, the eldest member of the second group was crushed out to the third, the eldest member of the third was crushed out to the fourth, and the eldest member of the fourth, if he had not died, was crushed out of the fine altogether, and became an ordinary member of the sept, or clan, with no special rights or responsibilities in connection with his former flaith-fine. Thus the members of the groups were cast off like the coats of an onion, not all at once, but gradually, the groups themselves remaining complete all the time, and never exceeding four members each. And as they were cast off they suffered a loss of rights, but gained in freedom of action and freedom from liabilities, and the fiaith-fine ceased to represent them, act for them, or be responsible for them. The members of the fine also owed a mutual responsibility to each other, were bound in certain cases to enter into suretiship for each other, were liable to compensate for crimes committed by any one of them if the criminal failed to do so; and in general the law held that there was a solidarity among them. A member who became a criminal was, of course, primarily liable for his own crimes. It would also appear that a person otherwise entitled to become a member in a certain event, forfeited that right, with all the advantages attached to it, by crime. My own opinion is that the members of the fine were all full-grown men living on divisions of a farm which had been originally one; yet that the group included only persons within the fifth or sixth degree of kindred, and did not extend to the seventeenth, and that the organisation was a natural outcome of the ordinary sentiment of family affection, perhaps somewhat intensified, but at all events systematised and enforced by law.

Various other fines are mentioned, and the word fine is used in a number of combinations; but the organism provisionally outlined is the only one of the name of real importance; and the text, after stating much about the seventeen men, adds, "It is then family relations cease." Presumably it was then the rights of inheritance and the dangers of liability also ceased. Where in the system one should look for the exact counterpart of the modern family is not clear; nor is it clearly known whether the number of women, their presence or absence, at all affected the constitution of the fine. The original purpose and main object of the whole system are, for lack of true knowledge, matters of much conjecture. It is probable that the system continued perfect only so long as the Celtic race remained pure and predominant, and that it became disorganised in the course of the thirteenth century.