Pre-Christian Ireland

Eleanor Hull
Pre-Christian Ireland

When Agricola in the fifth year of his British campaign (A.D. 82) “manned with troops that part of the British coast which faces Hibernia, with a forward policy in view,”[1] the fate of Ireland, for good or ill, hung in the balance. Wherever the Roman arms made themselves felt, wherever by conquest or colonization Imperial law, religion, ideas, extended themselves, there followed as an inevitable consequence the profound modification, if not the extinction, of the native habits of life, and mythology.

Ireland for many hundreds of years fell under no such yoke as that imposed by the Roman rule in Britain and Gaul. In spite of the Roman general’s belief that “with one legion and a fair contingent of irregulars Hibernia could be overpowered and held,” he never set foot upon her shores; for seven centuries after Agricola’s day no important attempt was made by any outside power to subdue and colonize Ireland. Set apart by the surrounding ocean from the overwhelming catastrophes that overtook Europe after the fall of Rome, Ireland was left undisturbed to work out her own destiny.

In Gaul and Britain, with the dying out of the native tongue and the adoption of a debased form of Latin, the native records, oral or written, were to a great extent lost; our knowledge of the customs, traditions, and beliefs of these countries, except for a few inscriptions and monuments, is derived solely from the observations of the conquerors.

In Ireland, on the other hand, thanks to its exemption from Roman dominion and the preservation of the native tongue, a mass of traditions, which were later preserved in writing, remain. Most of them have come down to us in the form of stories connected with special districts and relating to personages some of whom appear to have had an actual existence in history, and they are so full of detail as to habits, dress, and ways of life that we can form from them a clear idea of social conditions in Ireland at a time before history proper can be said to begin. They supply the most complete record of a civilization during the pre-Christian period preserved by any European nation north of the Alps. They claim to represent the life of the first century of the Christian era and onward; and the results arrived at by archæology serve to confirm the truth of this tradition.

Some of the ornaments described in the tales, for instance, are known to have ceased to be worn elsewhere within the first century of our era; and, though this does not preclude the possibility that in a country so remote from the general current of European influences as Ireland was they may have continued to be worn until a later period, it does tend to prove that the extant descriptions date from a period when these ornaments were still familiar to the story-tellers.

Such are the beautiful brooches of the La Tène period and especially the leaf-shaped fibulæ found in Ireland, descriptions of which occur as part of the dress of heroes in the Cuchulain tales; in Britain and Gaul, where they were also worn, they fell into disuse before the close of the first century. Though not nearly so common as the penannular brooch, with the circle pierced by a long pin, of which the Tara brooch is the best-known example, six specimens of the fibula have been found, three having been discovered at Emain Macha or Navan Rath, the centre of the Cuchulain tales in which these descriptions occur. It is evident that the bards who recited these stories, and possibly those who first committed them to writing, must have seen such brooches actually in use, otherwise they could not have been so accurately described.

The earliest tales of Ireland are partly concerned with mythological personages who seem to have been regarded as deities, known as the Tuatha De Danann, and partly with the doings of a group of heroic men and women, of whom the hero Cuchulain is the central figure. The chief centre of the group was Emain Macha in Ulster. In this district the outlines of forts, burial-places, and chariot-paths may still be seen, and the neighbourhood still retains old names and traditions corresponding to the legends as we have them written down in manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries. The same may be said of the neighbourhood of Rath Cruachan, now Croghan, in Connacht, which is the centre of a similar group of Connacht traditions.

In general the tales relate to an ancient struggle for pre-eminence between Ulster and Connacht, which was then ruled by a queen named Meave (Medhbh) as formidable as the British warrior-queen Boadicea (Boudicca). She is said to have gathered to the contest the “Four Great Fifths”or provinces into which Ireland was then divided and to have invaded Ulster, primarily to regain possession of a famous bull, but actually to assert the authority of Connacht and the South over that of the North. The incidents and fights into which the war resolved itself, in which her chosen warriors fought in single combat the champion of Ulster, Cuchulain, form a long and varied story. The Táin bó Cualnge is the chief epic of early Ireland.

There has been much dispute as to how the early division into five provinces was made. According to an old tradition, the first partition was carried out in the time of the Firbolg, one of the pre-Gaelic peoples of Ireland, and was later confirmed by the Milesians (or Clann Mileadh), the last invaders of ancient Ireland. According to this division Ireland consisted of Leinster, Connacht, Ulster, and two divisions of Munster. At the date of the Cuchulain or Ulster cycle of tales the monarch of Ireland, Eochaidh Feidhlioch (pronounced Yohee Feiloch), the father of Queen Meave of Connacht, redistributed the country in exactly the same way; which was, as Keating says, “the most permanent division ever made in Ireland.”[2] This was also the tradition related to Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) when he came to Ireland with Henry II.

Professor Eoin MacNeill gives prominence to the Leinster tradition, which divided Leinster, instead of Munster, into two sections, and included Tara in the northern half, but this division was probably only temporary.[3]

The erection of Meath into a separate province was only accomplished, according to an old belief, in the reign of Toole the Legitimate (Tuathal Teachtmhar), who reigned for thirty years at the end of the first and beginning of the second century.

The local sept were the Luighne of Tara, a branch of a family of the same name settled in the Sligo district. At the close of the Ulster cycle we find the reigning king, Cairbre Nia Fear, giving his name to the territory of Meath as “Cairbre’s Fifth” or Province, and disposing of part of his inheritance by gift to Conor (Conchubhar), King of Ulster, in return for the hand of his daughter in marriage. But from the earliest times the kings of Tara would seem to have exercised some undefined superiority over the provincial princes, and the repartition of the provinces by Eochaidh while monarch of Ireland shows that this right was submitted to and recognized. But all these ancient traditions must be received with caution. It was to the interest of each province to claim for itself the glory of having given High-kings to Tara, and the local writers did their best to give expression to these provincial aspirations. From an historical point of view little reliance can be placed on them.

As time went on frequent changes took place. The early Ulster stories place the centre of the Northern power in the eastern portion of the province, with Emain Macha as its chief seat of authority. The chief incidents in the stories occur in parts of the present counties of Louth, then called Murthemne or Cuchulain’s country, which was included in Ulster, and in Armagh, Down, and Antrim. Western Ulster takes no part. But during the Norse period the centre of power has swung west, and we find the princes of Ulster reigning from Aileach, five miles north-west of Derry in Co. Donegal, where a great fort is still to be seen.

In Tudor times the large part of Ulster west of the Bann was in the hands of the two powerful families of the O’Neills and O’Donnells, with their underlords or “Urraghs.” The O’Neills occupied Tir-Eoghan or Tyrone, which then comprised, besides the present county of this name, the whole of Derry north to Lough Swilly, while the principality of the O’Donnells occupied Tir-Connell or Donegal.

The other provinces underwent similar changes. Munster, in Norse times, was divided between the Eoghanachts with Cashel as their capital, and the Dalcais or Dalcassians under the great family of the O’Briens, who made their chief seat at Kincora, near Killaloe on the Shannon, the succession to the kingship of Munster alternating between the two families. But later the province was partitioned into North Munster or Thomond, ruled by the O’Briens, which sometimes included Tipperary, Clare, and part of Limerick, sometimes only Clare; and South Munster or Desmond, which extended over Kerry, Cork, Waterford, and the south of Limerick. Co. Clare seems by geographical position to belong naturally to Connacht, and it passed back to that province about 1579 during the viceroyalty of Sir Henry Sidney, though the Earls of Thomond resisted the change.

The chief business of each province was transacted at public assemblies, to which people from all parts of the province congregated and to which merchants, native and foreign, brought their wares for sale. At these meetings laws were promulgated, the genealogies and provincial records rectified, and decisions come to by the brehons. Games and horse-racing formed part of the recreations of the assembly, and they may have had a religious significance.

At the time of the marking out of the territory of Meath several of the sites where these gatherings (aonach) were accustomed to be held were brought within the limits of the central province, and forts were built beside them for protection. The meetings seem to have been connected with the quarterly festivals, for the assembly of Tlachtgha met with sacrificial rites at the beginning of winter (samhain), and that of Usneach at the beginning of summer (bealtaine).

At the assembly of Taillte, held at the beginning of August (lughnassa), the marriages of the young people were arranged by their parents for the year, the men keeping themselves apart on one side and the girls on the other, while the arrangements were talked over and contracts made. Contracts for service seem also to have been part of the business of the fairs.

Originally these festivals had been the provincial assemblies of the separate provinces of Munster, Connacht, and Ulster, but they seem to have assumed a more general character with the readjustment of the provinces to form the new province of Meath. Ossory or Southern Leinster retained its own important fair of Carmen, which was divided into three parts, “a market of food, a market of live stock, and a great market of foreign goods.” It is said to have been attended by Greeks, bartering gold and splendid clothing.

One slope was given up to racing, another to cooking, and a third to women employed in making embroideries. The preliminary public business of law-giving and the execution of justice being disposed of, debts having been settled, arrests and distraints composed, and horse-racing tricks reprimanded, the company gave themselves over to gaiety and buying, while jugglers, bone-men, fiddlers, pipers, and masked actors carried on their trades in one part, and storytellers related the ever-fresh Fenian tales of destructions, cattle-preys, and courtships to crowds who never wearied of hearing them.[4]

These annual or triennial festivals served the purpose of keeping all parts of a province in touch. They were meeting-places for friends from a distance, and probably, like the still existing ‘pardons’ of Brittany, they had a religious purpose. Each was established on the site of the burial-place of some ancient female deity, and no doubt arose out of celebrations organized in her honour, with sacrifices and ceremonies which kept alive the cult.[5]

The assembly or feis of Tara was the most important of all these meetings. It met once in three years in times of peace, and was attended by representatives of all the provinces. It was a sign of unusual disturbance if it were omitted. There the laws were promulgated or recited and rectified, annals and records added to, and genealogies brought up to date. It formed the central authority for the whole country, and was the main symbol of union between the provincial kingships. Men of rank attended it from all parts of Ireland, each captain of a band of warriors being followed by a shield-bearer.

The monarch of Ireland or Aird-Rí presided, and banquets of great ceremony were held, each guest having his appointed place arranged beforehand according to rank and marked by the hanging of the owner’s shield behind the seat he was to occupy. The women were provided for in a separate chamber, just as they had separate portions of the ground set apart for them at the fairs. The trumpet sounded three times as the guests entered and took their seats, each under his own shield.

In the time of Cormac mac Art these assemblies were solemnized with great splendour; the dress of the king and his nobles being described as magnificent. That these old descriptions are substantially correct is rendered probable by the beauty of the ornaments actually recovered, such as finely decorated brooches, torques or waist-belts, rings and collars, all of which must have been worn by persons of rank.[6] Very fine examples of inlaid or chased bronze scabbards have also been found. Sickles and reaping-hooks for cutting rushes or reaping corn show that the custom was to cut the ears of the grain, which was then frequently stored in underground granaries for safety in times of turmoil. The cultivation of wheat was so general that it is referred to as a standard of value; barley was grown for malt; and ale was drunk, as well as mead, from early times.

The High-kingship of Cormac mac Art in the third century may be accepted as historical; it represents the climax of the power of the kings of Tara in pre-Christian times. His reign is the centre of a number of stories pointing to the magnificence of his Court and the extent of his influence, but so many of the legends surrounding him are clearly folktales, that the whole tradition must be treated with reserve. It, however, incorporates one certainly historical fact, that of the dispersion of the clan of the Deisi, who migrated from Meath to the south of Ireland and to South Wales about this time. It is possible that at one time Connacht occupied a similar position of eminence to that which Tara obtained in Cormac’s reign, for the pre-Christian kings of Ireland were buried at Clonmacnois, where the monastery of St. Ciaran was afterward built. From early times this seems to have been a sacred spot.

Tara itself was undoubtedly a religious centre before becoming the political headquarters of the High-king, and the rites with which the king was initiated point to a religious sanction for his election, and also to the belief that in his person he represented a divine idea. Though he was possessed of special privileges his life could hardly have been a happy one, for he was encompassed with taboos (geasa) which he dare not break without forfeit of his life or good fortune, and omens accompanied his every action. His existence must have been hampered at every point by ancient regulations. All Irish kings were subject to these restrictions, but they accumulated about the person of the king of Tara, as being the superior ruler, and a semi-divine personage.[7]