Structure of Society under the Brehon Laws

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER IV....continued

4. Structure of Society.

Five main Classes of People.—The lay people were divided into classes, from the king down to the slave, and the Brehon Law took cognizance of all—setting forth their rights, duties, and privileges. The leading, though not the sole, qualification to confer rank was property; the rank being, roughly speaking, in proportion to the amount. Under certain conditions, persons could pass from one class to the next above, always provided their character was unimpeachable.

There were five main classes of people:—1. Kings of several grades, from the king of the tuath or cantred up to the king of Ireland: 2. Nobles, which class indeed included kings: 3. Non-noble Freemen with property: 4. Non-noble Freemen without property, or with some, but not sufficient to place them among the class next above: 5. The non-free classes. The first three—Kings, Nobles, non-noble Freemen with property—were the privileged classes; a person belonging to these was an aire [arra] or chief. Kings have been treated of in chapter ii.

Flaiths or Nobles.—The Nobles were those who had land as their own property, for which they did not pay rent: they were the owners of the soil—the aristocracy. An aire of this class was called a Flaith [flah], i.e. a noble, a chief, a prince. There were several ranks of nobles, the rank depending chiefly on the amount of landed property.

Non-noble Freemen with Property.—A person belonging to the other class of aire—a non-noble rent-paying freeman with property (No. 3, above)—had no land of his own, his property consisting of cattle and other movable goods; hence he was called a Bo aire, i.e. a 'cow-chief' (bo, 'a cow'). He should rent a certain amount of land, and possess a certain amount of property in cattle and other goods, to entitle him to rank as an aire. As in the case of the nobles, there were several classes of bo-aires, ranking according to their property. If a person belonging to the highest class of bo-aires could prove that he had twice as much property as was required for the lowest rank of noble, and complied with certain other conditions and formalities, and also provided his father and grandfather had been aires who owned land, he was himself entitled to take rank as a noble of the lowest rank.

The three preceding main classes—kings, nobles, and bo-aires—were all aires, chiefs, or privileged people: the first two being flaiths or noble aires, the third, non-noble aires, i.e. free tenants, with property sufficient to entitle them to the position of aire. All three had some part in the government of the country and in the administration of the law, as kings, tanists, nobles, military chiefs, magistrates, and persons otherwise in authority; and they commonly wore a flesc or bracelet on the arm as a mark of their dignity.

Non-noble Freemen without Property.—The next class—the fourth—the freemen with little or with no property, were céiles [kailas] or free tenants. They differed from the bo aires only in not being rich enough to rank as aires or chiefs; for the bo-aires were themselves céiles or rent-payers; and accordingly a man of the fourth class could become a bo-aire if he accumulated property enough: the amount being laid down in the Brehon Law. These céiles or tenants, or free rent-payers—corresponding with the old English ceorls or churls—formed the great body of the farming class. They were called aithech [ah'-egh], i.e. 'plebeian,' 'farmer,' 'peasant,' to distinguish them from the aires or chieftain grades: and the term féini or féne [faine], which means much the same as aithech, was also applied to them.

The land held by the féine or free tenants was either a part of the tribe-land (for which see p. 82, below), or was the private property of some flaith or noble, from whom they rented it. Everywhere in the literature, especially in the laws, the féine or free farming classes are spoken of as a most important part of the community—as the foundation of society, and as the ultimate source of law and authority.

Tradesmen formed another very important class of freemen. The greater number belonged to the fourth class—freemen without property. Some crafts were 'noble' or privileged, of which the members enjoyed advantages and privileges beyond those of other trades: and some high-class craftsmen belonged to the class aire or chief.

The Non-free Classes.—So far we have treated of freemen, that is those who enjoyed all the rights of the tribe, of which the most important was the right to the use of a portion of the tribe-land and commons (for which see p. 83, below). We now come to treat of the non-free classes. The term 'non-free' does not necessarily mean that they were slaves. The non-free people were those who had not the full rights of the free people of the tribe. They had no claim to any part of the tribe-land, though they were permitted, under strict conditions, to till little plots for mere subsistence. This was by far the most serious of their disabilities. Their standing varied, some being absolute slaves, some little removed from slavery, and others far above it. That slavery pure and simple existed in Ireland in early times we know from the law-books as well as from history; and that it continued to a comparatively late period is proved by the testimony of Giraldus Cambrensis—twelfth century—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. From this, as well as from our own records, we see that some slaves were imported. But the greater number were native Irish, who, from various causes had lost their liberty and had been reduced to a state of slavery.

Groups of Society.—The people were formed into groups of various sizes, from the family upwards. The Family was the group consisting of the living parents and all their descendants. The Sept was a larger group, descended from common parents long since dead: but this is an imported word, brought into use in comparatively late times. All the members of a sept were nearly related, and in later times bore the same surname. The Clan or house was still larger. Clann means 'children,' and the word therefore implied descent from one ancestor. The word finè [finna] usually meant a group of persons related by blood within certain degrees of consanguinity, all residing in the same neighbourhood; but it was often applied in a much wider sense. The Tribe (tuath) was made up of several septs, clans, or houses, and usually claimed, like the subordinate groups, to be descended from a common ancestor. The adoption of strangers—sometimes individuals, sometimes whole groups—into the family or clan was common; but it required the consent of the finè or circle of near relations—formally given at a court meeting. From all this it will be seen that in every tribe there was much admixture; and the theory of common descent from one ancestor became a fiction, except for the leading families, who kept a careful record of their genealogy.

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