Celtic Snakes


Classification of ancient Irish Society

Laurence Ginnell



Celtic P
ERSONAL rights of the political and social order were in ancient Ireland arranged upon a graduated scale of status, and society was divided into a great number of classes, or grades, quite distinct in many respects according to the position they occupied on this scale. One of the Gaelic commentators of the Middle Ages says, among other things, "The world was at an equality until the Senchus Mor was written." That part of his statement may be disregarded.

At all events, I go on the assumption that it is incorrect; nor do I deem it necessary to state my reasons. For our present purpose, however, ancient Irish society may conveniently be divided into six general classes—(1) the kings of various grades; (2) the professional classes; (3) the flaiths, who constituted a sort of official nobility; (4) freemen possessing property; (5) freemen possessing none (or very little); and (6) the non-free classes. But although quite distinct, these classes were not utterly exclusive castes such as we read of in Eastern countries. It was possible for persons to rise (or sink, as the case might be) from one class to another. Rank and office meant nearly the same thing; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that wealth, rank, office, power and responsibility were considered as co-ordinate ingredients of status, and therefore always vested in the same persons proportionately according to their respective positions from the king downwards. Progress from one rank to another was no doubt effected in a variety of ways, as by duly qualifying for a learned profession, by displaying conspicuous valour, conspicuous skill in some department, the performance of some signal service to the community, and the possession of wealth. The first mentioned qualifications were personal and of immediate effect; this latter one was proprietorial and not always immediate. Its frank recognition shows that our ancestors were of a far more practical turn of mind than they now generally get credit for.

Their complex political, social, and military system was avowedly based on the possession of wealth to even a greater extent than the system founded at Rome by Servius Tullius. The effect of wealth in this respect was arranged and calculated frankly upon fixed rules, and not left uncertain and indefinite as is now generally the case. Such a system at least furnished an incentive to thrift and industry. Every clansman was eligible, provided he possessed sufficient property, and had not forfeited his right by crime, to become an Aire (pronounced Arra); if he owned the qualifying property of a Flaith, and his family had owned that property for three generations, he might become a Flaith; and a Flaith was always eligible for the highest office in the state. On the other hand, loss of wealth below a given amount involved loss of the status to which that amount corresponded. The Irish system had this advantage over the Roman system, that when persons of an inferior grade had not sufficient property individually to qualify for the full rights of citizenship, as the rights of suing, of being jurors, witnesses, sureties, &c, a number of them might combine, form a guild or partnership, take a piece of land (presumably waste land), and this joint property, after they had cultivated it for ten years and fenced it off, would give a qualification for one of them to become an Aire, with all rights of citizenship and power to act for the partnership without external assistance. A similar right of forming partnerships was given to artisans and others who lived by handicrafts and such forms of industry; and having combined, they could choose from among themselves a person to become an aire, act for them, and enjoy full rights of citizenship on their behalf. These partnerships, or guilds, were a very important economic feature in ancient Ireland. Each rank in the ascending scale brought to the man who had reached it an expansion of liberty, an accession of rights and privileges, and a corresponding increase of liabilities. Also the fines recoverable in case of injury depended upon rank; and rank depended largely upon wealth.

There are indications that the different classes were distinguished by the colours of their dress; but there is no trace of any one having been punished for having violated this rule, and I think we shall not be far wrong in concluding that the rule strictly applied only to public occasions, that it was enforced rather by pride than by enactment, and that its extension to private life was due not so much to either of these causes as to convenience.

Let us now consider the various classes in the order named.

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