The Tenure of Land

Patrick Weston Joyce

53. The land was held by individuals in five different ways.

FIRST: The chief, whether of the tribe or of the sept, had a portion as mensal land for his support, for life or for as long as he remained chief.

SECOND: Another portion was held as private property by persons who had come to own the land in various ways. Most of these were flaiths or nobles, of the several ranks; and some were professional men, such as physicians, judges, poets, historians, artificers, &c., who had got their lands as stipends for their professional services to the chief, and in whose families it often remained for generations.

THIRD: Persons held as tenants portions of the lands belonging to those who owned it as private property, or portions of the mensal land of the chief; much like tenants of the present day: these paid what was equivalent to rent—always in kind.

FOURTH: The rest of the arable land, which was called the tribe land, forming by far the largest part of the territory, belonged to the people in general; no part being private property. This was occupied by the free members of the tribe or sept, who were owners for the time being, each of his own farm. Every free man had a right to his share. Those who occupied the tribe land did not hold for any fixed term, for the land of the sept was liable to Gavelkind (58) or redistribution from time to time—once every three or four years. Yet they were not tenants at will, for they could not be disturbed till the time or redistribution; even then each man kept his crops and got compensation for unexhausted improvements; and though he gave up one farm he always got another.

FIFTH: The non-arable or waste land—mountain, forest, bog, &c.—was "commons" land. This was not appropriated by individuals; but every free man had a right to use it for grazing, for procuring fuel, or for the chase.

54. The revenue of the chief was derived from three main sources. First, his mensal land, some of which he cultivated by his own labourers, some he let to tenants: Second, subsidies of various kinds from the tribesmen: Third, payment for stock as described farther on. But in addition to this he might have land as his own personal property.

Every tribesman had to pay to his chief a certain subsidy according to his means. The usual subsidy for commons pasturage was in the proportion of one animal yearly for every seven, which was considerably less than a reasonable rent of the present day. Probably the subsidy for tillage land was in much the same proportion.

A man who takes land must have stock:— cows and sheep for the pasture-land, horses or oxen to carry on the work of tillage. A small proportion of the tenants had stock of their own, but the great majority had not. Where the tenant needed stock it was the custom for the chief to give him as much as he wanted at certain rates of payment. This giving or lending of stock was very general, and from it the chiefs derived a large part of their income.

55. The tenant was called a céile [caila]. Some tenants were saer-céiles, free tenants: some daer-céiles, base or bond tenants. The free tenants were comparatively independent; the bond tenants had to pay heavy subsidies, which always kept them down.

The céiles or tenants hitherto spoken of were all free men. Each had a house of his own, the right to a share of the tribe land and to the use of the commons. In this sense the daer-ceiles were free men, as well as the saer-céiles.

56. The daer-tenants were bound to give the chief refection on visitation, called coinmed [coiney]; that is, the chief was entitled to go with his followers to the house of the tenant, who had to supply the company with food and drink. The number of followers, the time, and the food, were carefully regulated by the Brehon law, according to the amount of stock the tenant borrowed from the chief. But it was a bad and a dangerous custom.

The Anglo Irish lords imitated and abused this regulation by what was called Coyne and Livery. A military leader, when he had no money to pay his soldiers, turned them out with arms in their hands among the colonists to pay themselves in money and food. This was Coyne and Livery. No distinction was made; and the soldiers being under no restraint, plundered and oppressed the people and committed many other crimes. Many severe laws were passed against Coyne and Livery, but notwithstanding these, it continued to be practised by the great lords for generations. Bad as the Irish coiney was, Coyne and Livery was much worse.

57. The non-free people were those who had scarcely any rights—some none at all. They had no claim to any part of the tribe land or to the use of the commons; though the chief might permit them to till land, for which they had to pay ruinous rent. Their standing varied; some being absolute slaves, some little removed from slavery, and others far above it. The most numerous class of the non-free people were those called fudirs; they had no right to any land they tilled, and were in complete dependence—tenants at will, who could be put out at any time.

We know that Slavery pure and simple existed in Ireland in early times: and that it continued to a comparatively late period is proved by the testimony of Giraldus Cambrensis, who relates that it was a common custom among the English to sell their children and other relatives to the Irish for slaves; Bristol being the great mart for the trade. Slaves in those days formed a recognised item of traffic in Ireland.

58. LAND descended in three ways.

FIRST: As private property, in the usual way from father to children.

SECOND: By tanistry, i.e. the mensal land held by the chief went, not to his heir, but the person who succeeded him in the Chiefship.

THIRD: By Gavelkind. When a céile or free tenant who held a part of the tribe land died, his farm did not go to his children; but all the tribe land belonging to the sept was redivided or gavelled among all the male adult members of the sept including the dead man's adult sons. Gavelkind in a modified form still exists in Kent.

59. It should be remarked that all payments were made in kind: Cows, horses, sheep, or silver. A cow was the unit of value, and as such was called a séd [shade]. A cumal was equal to three séds.