Books of Irish Genealogies

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter V

The Books of Genealogies and Pedigrees form a most important element in Irish pagan history. For social and political reasons, the Irish Celt preserved his genealogical tree with scrupulous precision. The rights of property and the governing power were transmitted with patriarchal exactitude on strict claims of primogeniture, which claims could only be refused under certain conditions defined by law. Thus, pedigrees and genealogies became a family necessity; but since private claims might be doubted, and the question of authenticity involved such important results, a responsible public officer was appointed to keep the records, by which all claims were decided. Each king had his own recorder, who was obliged to keep a true account of his pedigree, and also of the pedigrees of the provincial kings and of their principal chieftains. The provincial kings had also their recorders (Ollamhs or Seanchaidhé [1]); and in obedience to an ancient law, established long before the introduction of Christianity, all the provincial records, as well as those of the various chieftains, were required to be furnished every third year to the convocation at Tara, where they were compared and corrected.

The compilers of these genealogies were persons who had been educated as Ollamhs—none others were admissible; and their "diplomas" were obtained after a collegiate course, which might well deter many a modern aspirant to professorial chairs. The education of the Ollamh lasted for twelve years; and in the course of these twelve years of " hard work," as the early books say, certain regular courses were completed, each of which gave the student an additional degree, with corresponding title, rank, and privileges.[2]

"In the Book of Lecain (fol. 168) there is an ancient tract, describing the laws upon this subject, and referring, with quotations, to the body of the Brethibh Nimhedh, or 'Brehon Laws.' According to this authority, the perfect Poet or Ollamh should know and practise the Teinim Laegha, the Imas Forosnadh, and the Dichedal do chennaibh. The first appears to have been a peculiar druidical verse, or incantation, believed to confer upon the druid or poet the power of understanding everything that it was proper for him to say or speak. The second is explained or translated, 'the illumination of much knowledge, as from the teacher to the pupil,' that is, that he should be able to explain and teach the four divisions of poetry or philosophy, 'and each division of them,' continues the authority quoted, 'is the chief teaching of three years of hard work.' The third qualification, or Dichedal, is explained, 'that he begins at once the head of his poem,' in short, to improvise extempore in correct verse. 'To the Ollamh, ' says the ancient authority quoted in this passage in the Book of Lecain, 'belong synchronisms, together with the laegha laidhibh, or illuminating poems [incantations], and to him belong the pedigrees and etymologies of names, that is, he has the pedigrees of the men of Erinn with certainty, and the branching off of their various relationships.' Lastly, 'here are the four divisions of the knowledge of poetry (or philosophy),' says the tract I have referred to; 'genealogies, synchronisms, and the reciting of (historic) tales form the first division; knowledge of the seven kinds of verse, and how to measure them by letters and syllables, form another of them; judgment of the seven kinds of poetry, another of them; lastly, Dichedal [or improvisation], that is, to contemplate and recite the verses without ever thinking of them before.' "[3]

The pedigrees were collected and written into a single book, called the Cin or Book of Drom Snechta, by the son of Duach Galach, King of Connacht, an Ollamh in history and genealogies, &c, shortly before [4] the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland, which happened about A.D. 432. It is obvious, therefore, that these genealogies must have existed for centuries prior to this period. Even if they were then committed to writing for the first time, they could have been handed down for many centuries orally by the Ollamhs; for no amount of literary effort could be supposed too great for a class of men so exclusively and laboriously devoted to learning.


[1] Seanchaidhé ;(pronounced "shanachy").—It means, in this case, strictly a historian; but the ancient historian was also a bard or poet.

[2] Privileges.—We can scarcely help requesting the special attention of the reader to these well-authenticated facts. A nation which had so high an appreciation of its annals, must have been many degrees removed from barbarism for centuries.

[3] Before.—O'Curry, p. 240.

[4] Before.—This, of course, opens up the question as to whether the Irish Celts had a written literature before the arrival of St. Patrick. The subject will be fully entertained later on.