Pre-Christian Ireland (2)

Eleanor Hull
Pre-Christian Ireland | start of chapter

How the election of a king of Tara was carried out is not clear. The choice was probably in the hands of representatives from the different provinces, but it had to be ratified by certain ancient omens, such as the crying out of the Lia Fail, or “Stone of Destiny,” when he stood upon it. Such omens were probably worked, as in other primitive societies, by the priests or Druids. The election of the provincial kings was also accompanied by curious and, to us, sometimes repugnant ceremonies, which continued in the native parts of the country up to a late date. Each king had his fixed retinue of officers of the household, his bards, law-givers, story-tellers, porters, stewards, and military body-guard, who attended to the regulation of the royal precincts, and to the arming or provisioning of the household.[8]

If any uncertainty as to the succession existed the aid of soothsayers seems to have been resorted to. These men, after incantations, proclaimed the successor in a dream or ecstasy. In such a case as the election of King Conaire, the person indicated by them was quite unexpected by the electors. In the choice of Lugaidh of the Red Stripes a Convention of the Four Provinces of Ireland was held, attended by princes from all parts of Ireland, and this may have been the ordinary procedure.[9]

The inauguration ceremonies varied in different parts of the country. They took place on special hills or under ancient trees of great size, consecrated by time and tradition to this use. Though Keating and other Irish historians contest the truth of the old accounts, they are undoubtedly not imaginary, for they correspond closely to those of many peoples in a similar stage of progress. Some of the rites, such as that of handing to the newly elected chief a white rod as a symbol of the justice that ought to attend his rule, are of a solemn and suggestive character.

A high standard of moral rectitude was set before the king, and such precepts as the following were laid down for him by his instructors. They are an appeal to the old wisdom of the fathers.

“Speak not haughtily. Mock not, insult not, deride not the old. Make no demands that cannot be met. … Let not prescription close on illegal possession. … Let the heir be established in his lawful patrimony; let strangers be driven out by force of arms. Do not sacrifice justice to the passions of men.”[10]

In historical times elections were made in a more regular manner. The election was by popular vote and was taken at a mound (dumha), where the electors assembled and recorded their decision by shout or proclamation. The claimant had to be of the ruling family, and he was “the best of the noble heroes in knowledge, true learning and princely honour.” If the election was disputed, both claimants appeared richly attired and armed, and when the decision was made the chief nobles placed their hands in his in token of fealty and placed the royal diadem (mind-righ) round his head, giving thanks to God for sending him. They then gave hostages for fidelity to the newly made king. Such an election is recorded of Callachan, King of Cashel, in the tenth century.[11]

Disputes and consequent wars for the succession were of constant occurrence. Primogeniture was not recognized, and sons born out of wedlock were equally eligible with the legitimate sons. The claimant was seldom the son of the late chief, but usually a cousin or nephew, chosen within certain family limits[12] for his position or capability. Though this system was good in theory, as being directed to the selection of the strongest candidate, the uncertainty with which elections were attended led to perpetual family feuds, murders, and mutilations, in order to get rid of possible rivals, a mutilated man being incapable of holding the princely office. This gave rise to the system of ‘tanistry’ in later times, by which the incoming chief was chosen during the lifetime of the reigning king, and thus secured the recognition of the sept, with the hope of a peaceful succession. But even this did not always secure the end in view; and the question of the succession of the Irish princes was one of those crucial points on which the English and Irish differed seriously throughout the Tudor period.

For centuries, from the date of the battle of Ocha (483) in the reign of Laery, we find the High-kingship of Tara held by the line of the Northern and Southern Hy-Neill in regular and alternate succession; but after the death of Malaughlan II (1022) it was seized by the O’Lochlans, a branch of the same house, and held by them in contest with the O’Conors of Connacht, one of whom, Roderick O’Conor, was in power at the date of the Anglo-Norman invasion.

Once before, in the reign of Dathi (d. 428), Connacht had been the superior power, but only for a short interval. Munster had never placed a king in the royal seat until Brian wrenched the sceptre from Malaughlan II and reigned till his death at Clontarf; his son was sometimes reckoned as his successor. But through centuries, Ulster held, almost undisputed, the supreme power.

The old tales and laws present us with a picture of a warlike people whose children were trained from their boyhood to the use of arms, the sons of chieftains being admitted to knighthood at the age of seven and girded with miniature weapons suited to their age. This custom was continued up to a late period, for when the four provincial kings, O’Neill of Ulster, O’Conor of Connacht, MacMorrogh of Leinster, and O’Brien of Thomond, were invited to Dublin to meet King Richard II and offered English knighthood, they replied that they had been knighted when they were seven years of age. The little spears put into the hands of the young aspirant to knighthood were not empty symbols; they were intended to test his expertness in the actual implements of warfare which he would be called upon to use in after life, war being considered as the natural activity of the vigorous man.

Instruction in horsemanship, hurley, swimming, and shooting was given at an early age even to sons of the smaller chiefs, while children of the lower ranks were taught the care and herding of lambs and calves, kids and young pigs, kiln-drying, combing wool and wood-cutting; girls learned the use of the quern for grinding corn, and also kneading, dyeing, and weaving. They afterward took a large part in the work and superintendence of the farm and agriculture. Girls of high rank were trained in sewing, cutting out, and embroideries. The fine needlework of the Irish women was famous. The ‘Raven-banner’ of Earl Sigurd the Stout of Orkney, carried by him at Clontarf, which spread out in the wind like a flying bird, had been wrought for him by his Irish mother, a daughter of King Carroll (Cearbhal) of Ossory; and one of the prettiest pictures from old Irish romance is that of Emer, daughter of Forgall, seated in the pleasure-ground before her father’s fort at Lusk, teaching the daughters of the neighbouring farmers fine needlework and embroidery.

Children of high rank were brought up and taught by foster-parents, fosterage forming among the Irish and Scotch Gaels the most enduring and the closest tie, as it was the most perfect expression of the unity of the clan as one family.

From the son of the chief downward, every child of the higher ranks was nurtured by a family of a lower class. This formed an indissoluble bond of affection and a sure foundation of mutual sympathy between members of the clan.

The chieftain who had been brought up in a farmer’s family and had passed the first seventeen years of his life among his children had a knowledge of the conditions of life among his own retainers and a sense of their needs such as could have been gained in no other way. On the other side, the love of the foster-parents for their foster-children exceeded the affection which they bestowed upon their own offspring, and the families who fostered the chiefs felt for them a passionate affection. It was a bond at once sane and romantic, and it was seldom broken through life.

The foster-son was bound to aid or support his foster-parents in old age or poverty just as much as the fosterer was bound to train and instruct him in youth. The obligations and the affection were mutual. The laws of fosterage were rigorously laid down; the fosterling’s food, his clothes, his instruction, his payments, being all regulated by law. The child went provided with suits of clothes according to his rank; satin and scarlet, with silver on the scabbards and brass rings on the hurling-sticks, and brooches of gold for the sons of kings; plain black and white or saffron woollens for the humblest grades. Each child had to bring at least two suits of clothes, one new and one worn, the children of the highest chiefs wearing two colours every day and new clothes of two colours every Sunday, embroidered with gold and silver; the richness and variety of the colours worn corresponding to the rank of the wearer. They probably wore tartans.

The food of the poor child was ‘stirabout’ with salt butter; the higher-born child ate the same, but it was made with new milk and wheaten meal, while the sons of kings had fresh butter and honey. Chess-playing, the chief recreation of the higher classes in Ireland from the earliest times, was taught to boys of these classes along with more solid occupations. Girls paid a larger fosterage fee than boys, as being less useful to their foster-parents, but less was expected from them by way of return. The girl was of full age at fourteen years, the boy at seventeen; but if he were a king’s son he was presented with a horse at seven. It was the duty of his tutor to instruct him fully in preparation for his degree, and to chastise him without undue severity.[13]

The old laws show that the position of women in early Ireland was legally high, and the position of the ‘wife of equal rank’ where the marriage was made with the full consent of both parties was a good one. It carried with it equal rights between the husband and wife. Each owned the property—lands and household stuff and cattle—brought in at marriage, and both retained their rights over their own share, all family decisions about the children being made by mutual consent. In cases of separation, which had to be open and public, the woman took away with her all that she had contributed to the marriage stock. In law their word was equal, the evidence of the woman being equally admissible and equally valid with that of the man.

Wedding gifts were divided, one-third going to the woman and two-thirds to the man, but the man, not the woman, paid the dowry. The wife received a stipulated share of all profits on farming or industry carried on by her; and, as the care of the farm as well as of wool and cloth-weaving, dyeing, malting, and similar pursuits, seems to have been in her hands, this must have amounted to a considerable regular income in the case of large farming operations. If she had been “a great worker” during her married life she was entitled on separation to one-ninth of the increase.[14]

All women might give presents to their poor neighbours out of their separate property, and the woman might entertain half the company allowed to her husband. In the absence of her husband she could make contracts or reclaim debts. If she failed to enforce a debt there was a curious provision by which the contending parties might make “a lawful combat with their distaffs and comb-bags” in the presence of their guardians.

The elaborate provisions relating to separated couples show that separation was frequent. A variety of other connexions besides regular marriage between men and women are provided for, the woman who bore sons having always a superior claim to the sonless woman.

“The woman of equal rank, and the first wife with sons and without sons, and the adulteress with sons, these four women may give their own ‘honour-price’ in excess (of the actual debt) in presence of their husbands or in their absence, in loan and in lending at interest, in bargains and contracts. The adulteress without sons shall not give, in the absence of the man, anything but a hook and a distaff and such implements; and she shall not give in his presence anything but what her partner may order.”[15]

The power to exact an ‘honour-price’ in case of injury received showed that the aggrieved person held a position of dignity recognized by the clan. The ordinary sufferer from an injury could only exact compensation for the actual injury done him; but the man or woman of position claimed, over and above this, an extra compensation equivalent to their rank, rising by stages until it reached the ‘honour-price’ of the chief. If the culprit failed to pay the due compensation, it fell to his relatives to pay it, or in the last resort to the chief. Fines were regulated and debts reclaimed by the laws of ‘distress’ which form a very large part of the Irish ‘customary law.’[16] They were paid, as a rule, in cattle, which were driven into the village pound and retained there until the debt was discharged. Only persons of the lowest class, who owned no property that could be used to repay a debt, were imprisoned. Such a man was fettered or chained about the neck and fed on the smallest possible amount of food until the chief compelled him to do his duty.[17].

The descriptions of the dress of high-born women, as well as of kings, and of their utensils are of the most elaborate kind. Eochaidh, King of Ireland, is said to have seen Etain “at the edge of a well with a bright comb of silver adorned with gold, washing in a silver basin wherein were four golden birds and little bright gems of purple carbuncle in the rims of the basin. Her mantle folded and purple, a beautiful cloak with silvery fringes and a brooch of fairest gold. Her kirtle long, hooded, of green silk with red embroidery of gold. Marvellous clasps of gold and silver in the kirtle on her breasts and shoulders. On her head two golden-yellow tresses, each plaited in four locks, with a bead at the point of each lock. The hue of her hair seemed like the flower of the iris in summer, or like red gold after the burnishing.”[18]

The wide cloak, reaching to the knees or the feet, was common to all classes and periods and served many purposes, but a short cape with hood and tight-fitting jerkin with kilt were also worn. The linen undergarment was loose and thickly pleated and usually dyed saffron-colour.

Weapons were the broad sword, used for a downward stroke, spears and javelins of many kinds, and large bronze, hide, or wooden shields. Warriors fought from chariots, some of which were scythed like those of the Britons. Chiefs and charioteers were experts in the management of the horses, as they became in later times in horsemanship, when riding took the place of the chariot. Irish feats of skill in springing on to running horses, riding without saddle, and executing feats of agility on horseback were recorded with wonder by many visitors to the country, and horsemanship is still a passion in Ireland. Chariots were the usual means of entering into battle up to the seventh century, and decorated bronze bits have been discovered in Co. Mayo, adorned with late Celtic designs. Battles were, in the main, a series of single combats, ending with a general engagement. The duels were frequently fought in streams on the borders of territories, and a stranger was challenged in passing from one province to another by the warrior appointed to watch the ford.

One chief cause of wars was the raid for cattle, in which, along with personal and household goods, the wealth of a tribe consisted. Position depended upon the number of herds and flocks possessed by a tribesman, and there was an elaborate system by which cattle were loaned out by the chief or by large owners to those who needed them, in return for services rendered. According to the amount obtained, the borrower took a higher or lower place in the community, and rendered heavier or lighter service. It would appear that these middlemen were the ‘Brugaid’ or ‘Bruigfer’ of whom we hear as occupying large farms, which also acted as inns or houses of hospitality for wayfarers at central points along the main roads.