Celtic Design


The Non-Free in Ancient Ireland

Sub-Section I.—Preliminary.

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic F
INALLY, with regard to the last great division, the non-free. One is sorry to find that there were in Ireland in ancient times, as there have been in other countries in times ancient and modern, people who were not free, some of whom were not regarded as members of the clan (that is, not regarded as citizens), and had no birthright in any portion of the property of the clan. This was so in Christian as well as in pagan times. There were fluctuations both in the numbers who were not free and in the severity of their condition; and there is much reason for thinking that that condition hardly ever reached the degree of extreme abjectness.

The origin of servitude in Ireland is lost in the mist of pre-historic ages. We are dependent on conjecture, the most probable being that the Milesians reduced to a condition of sufferance and servitude some portion of the Firbolg, Cruithni, and other races that had preceded them. But the distinction between bond and free did not long correspond with racial distinction, because on the one hand many persons of the earlier races subsequently rose to rank and power and became scarcely distinguishable from the rest of the community; while on the other hand many persons of undoubted Milesian race sank, either in punishment of their personal crimes or as a result of war or other misfortune, to the very lowest rank of the non-free. Again, a distinction must be observed between individuals in bondage all over the country and Firbolg communities which occupied separate districts in some parts of the country until the Middle Ages. These latter cannot be classed as non-free. They were long treated as an inferior race, defective in status and in political rights and power; their language and their manners in so far as they differed from those of the dominant race were considered, as usual in such cases, marks of inferiority; and they probably paid higher tributes than other people did. But they often proved themselves sturdy people, and in course of time the distinctions mentioned came to signify no more than the local characteristics at present observable in different parishes.

Without admitting that servitude in any form or degree can be justified, or suggesting that any number of wrongs can make a right, one is free to observe that it is very hard to entirely eradicate from any social system, and especially from one so interwoven and complex as that of ancient Ireland, a social condition which has taken deep root in it and become part of it. Its continuance or discontinuance does not always rest with the free choice of individuals: that choice may be overruled by national requirements or what are deemed to be such. There being no prisons or convict settlements in Ireland, except where the natural prison afforded by a small island was available, reduction to a species of slavery, permanent or temporary, was considered a reasonable punishment of criminals guilty of capital offences but whose lives had been spared, and of other criminals who could not or would not satisfy the fines imposed upon them. Slavery in such cases differed very little from transportation or penal servitude. The taking of persons as hostages, too, for various purposes in civil matters was quite an ordinary proceeding in Ireland as in other European countries in ancient times. When any of these persons were forfeited the law entitled the holder to keep them in servitude, permanently or until they were redeemed or his claim satisfied by their labour or otherwise according to its extent.

Cowards who deserted their clan in the day of trial on the field of battle, or got wounded in the back (while running away), lost their status however high or low it might have been, and virtually lost with it their freedom. And, unfortunately, war oftentimes in its consequences reduced the brave as well to slavery. It always at once increased the number of slaves and furnished a pretext for holding them. The wars with the Danes had this two-fold effect. Stress and trial came, however, and were neither prevented nor surmounted by the holding of slaves in increasing numbers. It is said that they were more numerous in the twelfth century than ever before, notwithstanding the condemnation of the Church. In England also in the same century slaves were very numerous, notwithstanding a similar condemnation. Slavery continued to exist in England to some extent down to the end of the sixteenth century, when it died a natural death; in Scotland down to the end of the eighteenth century, when it was abolished, in 1799, by the Act 39 George the Third, chapter 56; and in America, the land of the free, slavery existed until our own time.

In Ireland there were several grades in the non-free state, as in all classes of the free state; but there are three principal non-free classes distinguished in the laws, namely, the Bothachs, the Sen-Cleithes, and the Fuidhirs.

Celtic Knotwork