The Fuidhirs

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic F
UIDHIR was a name applied to all who did not belong to a clan, whether born in the territory or not. This was the lowest of the classes of the non-free people. This also was sub-divided into saer and the daer fuidhirs being the class

most closely resembling slaves. Even this lowest condition was not utterly hopeless; progress and promotion were possible, and indeed were in constant operation. But on the other hand the ranks of the fuidhirs continued to be recruited from various sources. It was here prisoners of war were to be found. The pagan Irish were wont to go on warlike expeditions to Britain and Gaul, and on their return to bring home, along with other booty, some of the natives whom they reduced to slavery in Ireland.

It was in this way Saint Patrick was brought to Ireland, and it was as a daer fuidhir he lived in Ireland in his youth. Centuries after Saint Patrick's time the Irish used to send to English ports and purchase children as merchandise from their English parents, who sold them freely. These children were brought up as fuidhirs in Ireland. And, as already mentioned, the ranks of the fuidhirs afforded a general refuge for convicts, fugitives from justice from other clans, tramps, outcasts, and unfortunate persons of all sorts. A freeman could remain in his own tuath and become a daer fuidhir if all his property when given up was insufficient to pay his debts—a species of bankruptcy plus capitis diminutio. No fuidhir, saer or daer, was entitled to bear arms, or to recover eric for the murder of a member of his family, or to inherit property if by any chance he found himself in a position in which he would otherwise inherit. The law recognised the fuidhirs in some respects, however, in certain matters not fit to be stated here. The lowest of them were regarded as intelligent persons, as human beings, not mere chattels.

Fuidhirs and the non-free of all classes resided for the most part on the flaith's land; for, apart from the satisfaction of specific claims, the flaiths alone, as a class, had the general right of keeping non-free persons on their lands. This exclusive right originated in the legal theory that they were public officers, bound among other things to perform certain public works requiring unskilled labour of a coarse kind, and they were allowed to keep non-free people for the performance of these works for the benefit of the community, as with convict labour of the present day. In practice they mostly employed the fuidhirs in works for their personal benefit. They were free to give patches of land to the saer fuidhirs either on their official lands or on their private property. In practice they gave them patches on the common or waste land also, exacted rent for it as though it were private, and in this way appropriated that land.

The land so given was usually the poorest, most inaccessible, and most difficult to utilise. The saer fuidhirs might, however, if they had the means, bargain with the flaith for good land and hold it for the term of one year, and during that term they could not be disturbed. For this land they paid him high rent, because he could charge them as much as he pleased, a thing he could not do with the clansmen. The daer fuidhirs, so long as they remained such, could hold no land whatever for any term, and no contract made with them had any binding effect. They worked for the flaith, and by means of their cheap labour he was able to cultivate his land, and some of the common land of the clan if it suited him. Both classes of fuidhirs helped the flaith to encroach on the property of the clan. Hence he had an interest in increasing the numbers of fuidhirs, and with their increase his dependence on the clan in some respects diminished.

The moral and material interests of the free clansmen leant the other way. They disliked the presence and still more the increase of fuidhirs. The policy of the law, too, was distinctly and uniformly adverse to slavery and to the introduction and keeping of fuidhirs, and it imposed some checks on the practice. For the performance of servile labour for the benefit of the community it allowed rather than entitled chiefs and flaiths having control of districts to keep a limited number of fuidhirs in proportion to the size of their respective districts. This particular restriction as to number does not appear to have been operative. The law, however, held the chief or flaith responsible to his clan and to his king for all legal liabilities arising from the acts of fuidhirs. It made his rank and privileges depend on the number of céiles in his district. It bound him to be ready when required to bring a certain number of armed men into the field of battle, and as the fuidhirs were neither bound nor entitled to take part in military operations at all, this demand could be satisfied only by free clansmen. For all these reasons, however the flaith might desire to increase the number of fuidhirs for his personal advantage, he could do so directly at the expense of the céiles only to a limited extent.

In other ways also the law discouraged the introduction of fuidhirs; and when they had been introduced it favoured and facilitated the well-being and emancipation of such of them as were not criminal. Therefore all families did not remain permanently in this kind of servitude but gradually rose from a lower to a higher degree according to a certain scale of progress, unless they committed some crime which would arrest that progress and cast them down again. This progress was arranged according to the time a fuidhir family had resided in the territory, and its thrift as evidenced by the amount of wealth acquired, subject to the effect of conduct. Though a flaith might not keep any bargain with a daer fuidhir, if as a fact he let land to him and did keep the bargain, a status began to be acquired. In the third generation the fuidhir family attained some partial connection with the clan and a foothold in the soil, so that they could not be driven away except for a crime. As time went on, if the progress was maintained, the rights of their descendants increased and expanded, they gradually intermarried with the clan and became indistinguishable from it, and their origin was forgotten.

In later times as the flaiths assumed the character of lords, all poor people, whether originally free or not, gravitated towards the condition of the ancient fuidhirs; and under Queen Elizabeth the majority of the Irish people were indiscriminately reduced to almost the same level. So they and their descendants remained for almost three centuries.

Celtic Knotwork