Irish Septs

Laurence Ginnell

The Sept was an intermediate organism between the fine and the clan. It consisted of a number of fines, as the clan consisted of a number of septs. It was one of the divisions of the clan assigned a specific part of the territory, and over it and this district a flaith was supposed to preside. No rule is stated, and I think none existed, as to the number of persons or of fines that might be in a sept. The right of the sept to undisturbed possession of its assigned portion of the territory was greater than that of the fine, was subject only to that of the clan, and was very rarely interfered with.

The rules of kinship by which the clan was formed were the same rules by which status was determined; and this status in turn determined what a man's rights and obligations were, and largely supplied the place of contract and of laws affecting the disposition and devolution of property. The clan system aimed at creating and arranging definite rights and liabilities for every member of the clan at his birth, instead of leaving individuals to arrange these matters in their own ways. Kinship with the clan was the first qualification for the kingship, as for every minor office; and the king was the officer of the clan, and the type of its manhood, not its despot. Whatever its constitution, the clan when formed was a complete organic and legal entity or corporation, half social, half political, was proprietor of everything and supreme everywhere within its territory. Within historical times the clan owned the land—part of the land directly and immediately, the remainder ultimately. In earlier times it is very probable that the clan owned all the land and every other kind of property absolutely.

It is very probable that at first neither individual property in land nor even the property of the fine in it was recognised, but only that of the clan, and that these smaller rights of property were at first temporary usufructs, which subsequently became permanent encroachments on the rights of the clan. At no time did the land belong either to the state in the broad sense or to the individual absolutely. Each clan was a distinct organism in itself, and the land was its property—its absolute property at first, till parts of it were encroached upon by the growth of private rights, but its ultimate property so long as the clan existed in its integrity. The clan was the all-important thing. After the clan in degree of importance came the sept, where one existed, and then the fine.

The individual was left little to do but to fill the position assigned him and conform to the system. Among ordinary people the flaith-fine was the most important; but even his duties and liabilities were so clearly laid down as part of the system itself that he does not seem to have been left a wide discretion. This insignificance of the individual seems to us calculated to stifle the best qualities of man and to prevent all progress; and the whole system seems to be one of disintegration rather than of cohesion, and therefore adverse to the growth and continued existence of a true state. Its influence is so all-pervading in public as well as in private life that it amounts to a different system of civilisation from ours.

The average young man from Oxford or Cambridge, or even from Dublin University, with a mind full of fancy theories, may say lightly that it is the absence of civilisation. It is the absence of his civilisation, but not necessarily of all. There existed a spiritual bond, purer and more potent if wisely utilised than the modern one of a common nationality, the creature of power. And, however the fact is to be explained, the finest qualities of our race have been exhibited under the clan system. They may not have been due to it, but it did not prevent them. Having regard to the number of its inhabitants at the time, Ireland produced more distinguished men under the clan system than it has since done. This is a fact which no fancy theories can displace. It proves that, restricted though the clan system appears to us, it in fact afforded sufficient margin for a person to distinguish himself. A large measure of individual capacity was not alone attainable, but attained.

The bravest and most skilful warriors, the most zealous and successful missionaries, poets, musicians, and literary men in astonishing numbers and of astonishing power, taste, and skill, even some artists whose works have scarcely ever been surpassed, and above all a virtuous and happy people, grew up and flourished under the shadow, or the light—whichever it was—of the clan system. All this could not have been the absence of civilisation, but really was a true civilisation different from ours. Our modern notions are therefore an unreliable standard by which to test or judge the clan system. It is entitled, like every other system, to be judged by its results. So judged it has produced much which we are proud to inherit and might be proud to produce. It is quite certain, too, that in those far-off times the clan, with the rights it gave and maintained, formed the greatest bulwark of the poor and weak; and this explains to some extent the grateful tenacity with which the poor long clung to it. If it restricted men's natural right to make what bargains they pleased, the restriction applied most to the strong and wealthy; and if it arranged people's affairs for them to a large extent, the service was obviously most useful to those who, from any cause, were feeble. In this way it effectually prevented that violent antagonism of classes which is at once the danger and the disgrace of modern civilisation.