Celtic Snakes


Feis of Tara

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic T

HE most important of all the ancient assemblies was the Feis of Tara. It is said by some to have been founded, in the year of the world 3884, by King Ollamh Fodhla, whose name means Sage of Ireland, and whose reign was so propitious that "it was difficult for the stalk to bear its corn in his reign." Others say the Feis originated in funeral games. The truth probably is, that it originated in funeral games, and was turned to the other purposes by Ollamh Fodhla. At all events, a national assembly was held at Tara from a very early period down to A.D. 560, when the last was held there under King Dermot, son of Fergus.

The Feis of Tara was an assembly of the leading men of the whole island—kings, tanists, flaiths, warriors, brehons, chief poets, &c.—not a meeting of all classes of society. It was not ambulatory, like the English national assembly of later times, held now in one place, now in another, wherever the king happened to be; nor was it haphazard like that by which Magna Carta was adopted. Its constitution and its place of meeting were fixed, and its times of meeting fairly regular. It met at Tara every third year, three days before the 1st of November, and it continued in session three days after the 1st of November. Thus its ordinary session lasted for seven days. For some time before it ceased, however, it had been summoned less frequently.

There was an important pagan festival observed all over the country on the feast of Belltaine, which was the 1st of May; and at Tara it was the occasion of an assembly lasting for some days. But those assembled on this occasion seem to have been brought together mainly by religious and social motives and the attractions of the royal court.

Dr. Joyce is of opinion that some of the ancient Irish national assemblies did directly enact laws, but that the Feis of Tara was not one of these; and he doubts that the Feis was convened to enact laws, and says there is no ancient authority for holding that it was. Other authorities do not agree with Dr. Joyce in this latter view, and I find himself speaking in another place of the summoning of the Feis on "some urgent occasion." An assembly which was summoned on an urgent occasion, when there were serious matters to be considered and dealt with, was certainly summoned for some practical purpose, and must have been in some sense the Great Council of the Nation; and if it did not enact laws, it must have deliberated on national affairs with effect, which is a near approach to law-making.

In a poem, written in the tenth century, the Feis is spoken of as having been convened "to preserve laws and rules." Edward O'Reilly, the Gaelic scholar, calls the Feis "a parliament." It may be that neither the Feis of Tara nor the other assemblies were convened for the express purpose of making new laws, or ever professed to make new laws, but only to promulgate, reaffirm, retrench, modify or otherwise affect laws long known but for some temporary or partial or local reason suspended, or to extend to the whole kingdom some advantageous local custom, or to correct or abrogate some vicious custom, or to enforce uniformity among the brehons in case of conflicting judicial interpretation, or to restrain on the ground of some local or temporary hardship the strict enforcement of a law otherwise just. There are countless things like these which a national assembly could do well, and in doing which it would be modifying the law; and although it never called itself a legislative assembly, and never claimed to make laws, we are still quite justified in calling its acts legislative. While many eminent authorities hold that the Feis of Tara did these things, Dr. Joyce's view cannot be accepted as final.

Among the other duties performed at the Feis was one of some importance even now, but of infinitely more then, because on it the title to rank, property, and privileges largely depended. This was the comparing and checking of the local pedigrees with each other, and with the Monarch's Book, or Register, kept at Tara. Analogous duties are now divided between the offices of the Herald and the Registrar-General.

King Dermot died in A.D. 563 (or 565), and after his death no Ard-Rig resided at Tara. No separate Ard-Rig was any more appointed with the kingdom of Meath for his mensal. One of the provincial kings usually assumed the office, or at least the title, retaining and residing in his own province. Tara was deserted, and no place for holding a national assembly was ever substituted. To the time from this date onward, the saying applies that there was no central legislative authority acting for the whole island. Once after the reign of Dermot a national assembly, or convention, was held at Tara, but although legislative it can hardly be called the Feis. It was held in the reign of the monarch Loingseach about A.D. 697; and at the instance of Saint Adamnan a law was adopted which, among other things, freed women from liability to military service, and prohibited their presence in battle.

After the abandonment of Tara as a royal residence, and the consequent discontinuance of a national assembly, it can hardly be said that one concrete state, broad and national in basis and concentrated in executive power, existed in Ireland. As though Tara had been the vivifying sun of true national life, a summons or word of command from any other source never could be and never was frankly recognised as the voice of the Ard-Rig, never could and never did inspire the old generous patriotism, but often inspired bitter jealousy of (as was deemed) a local usurper in the person of the nominal Ard-Rig, a desire to dispute his title if possible, and to set up a rival. Many holders of the office after Dermot's time are marked kings "with opposition"; and though this opposition was not successful, its existence had a disintegrating effect among the people, and in law actually reduced the king's status and rights in certain cases.

True national unity, and with it true national security, was at an end. The nation was divided into a large number of small isolated communities called Tuaths, the territorial extent of which is in many cases represented by the modern baronies. These communities had some of the characteristics of states, and fancied themselves such, but were in reality fragments of a nation falling asunder, and were doomed to become political ruins if not re-united. Small nationalities are dear to the Spirit of Freedom, but she loves not the aimless subdivision of a nation that is really one in race and interest. There always had been much independence of action in the several tuaths; and this was well so long as it originated in worthy aims, or in wholesome and honest rivalry, and could be subordinated at once to the interests of the tuath, and of the nation by the controlling and assimilating influence of a supreme central authority. But once that authority ceased to exist at Tara it de facto ceased to have any existence; the several tuaths pursued what they deemed their several interests, keen in the assertion of a puny autonomy but blind and indifferent to the common national interest; and the country sank into the condition of England under what is called the Heptarchy, when the petty Saxon kingdoms were so independent that they were almost constantly at war with each other.

It is thought that one of the events which had most influence in bringing about the consolidation of England was the reduction of the Church there to a single national Church by Theodore of Tarsus, when Archbishop of Canterbury, in the latter part of seventh century. Before his time, the territorial limits of ecclesiastical jurisdiction had varied and shifted with the varying fortunes of the little kingdoms. He fixed permanently the limits of spiritual jurisdiction, and subjected the Church throughout England to one central authority. Some such service would then have been a boon of inestimable value to Ireland, even if it had come from foreign lands; for while over-centralisation is undoubtedly a great evil, so much of it as is necessary to inspire a common patriotism and prevent the degradation of local rivalry to sordid jealousy is as undoubtedly a great good. It happened that the Church in Ireland exerted no such influence and afforded no such example, for it had from the beginning accommodated itself to the genius of the people to the extent of assuming somewhat of a clannish complexion without the national organism and outward visible bond with which we are now familiar. Each clan aimed at being self-provided, self-contained, and self-existing in every respect, spiritual and temporal. It built small churches, monasteries, and schools; endowed them with lands, stock, and all necessaries, in the same generous manner in which, in previous generations, it had provided for the Druids and other learned men; it dedicated, as a rule, every first-born son to the Church; and it retained to itself the right of succession to all posts, clerical and lay, so long as it possessed qualified persons. Indeed, the requirement of qualification can hardly have been always very rigorously insisted upon, inasmuch as positions of great importance were in many instances filled for successive generations by members of the same family, as though in a sense hereditary. This latter feature, however, was due to a certain general tendency, which we shall have a more suitable occasion to notice.

The clan had its bishop too, or an abbot having episcopal faculties; and so far as territorial jurisdiction was known at all his was coterminus with that of the clan. The bond between those pastors seems to have been of a very vague character, the chief connecting link apparently being the purely spiritual one of a common faith. The successor of Saint Patrick was always Primate, and always held in special reverence over the whole country. The occupant of that position could have done for Ireland what Theodore did for England; but being usually a man of Irish training, and seeing things as he had been accustomed to see them and with Irish eyes, the necessity for organising the Church on the modern principle does not appear to have occurred to him with sufficient force to call forth effective action in its attainment until a later time, just when the nation had become incapable of profiting by the example.

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