Geasa or Prohibitions

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....concluded

11. Geasa or Prohibitions.

There were certain acts which people were prohibited from doing under penalty of misfortune or ill luck of some kind. Such a prohibition was called geis or geas [gesh, gass: g hard as in get, gap]: plural geasa [gassa]. A geis was something forbidden. It was believed to be very dangerous to disregard these prohibitions. Because Conari the Great, king of Ireland in the first century of the Christian era, violated some of his geasa—most of them unwittingly—the peace of his reign was broken by plunder and rapine; and he himself was finally slain in the sack of Da Derga's Hostel. Some geasa were binding on people in general. Thus, on the day of King Laegaire's festival, it was geis for the people to light a fire anywhere round Tara till the king's festival fire had first been lighted. It was geis for anyone to bring arms into the palace of Tara after sunset.

The most interesting of the geasa were those imposed on kings: of which the object of some was obviously to avoid unnecessary personal danger or loss of dignity. For example, it was a geis to the king of Emain (i.e. of Ulster) to attack alone a wild boar in his den: a sensible restriction. According to the Book of Acaill and many other authorities, it was geis for a king with a personal blemish to reign at Tara: so that when King Cormac mac Art lost one eye by an accident, he at once abdicated. The reason of these two geasa is plain enough. But there were others which it is not so easy to explain. They appear to be mere superstitions—obviously from pagan times—meant to avoid unlucky days, evil omens, &c. Some kings were subject to geasa from which others were free. The king of Emain was forbidden to listen to the singing of the birds of Lough Swilly, or to bathe in Lough Foyle on a May Day. The king of Ireland and the provincial kings had each a series of geasa. To the king of Ireland it was forbidden that the sun should rise on him while lying in bed in Tara, i.e. he should be up before sunrise; he was not to alight from his chariot on Moy Breagh on a Wednesday; and he was not to go round North Leinster left-hand-wise under any circumstances. Many others of these kingly geasa may be seen in my larger "Social History of Ancient Ireland," vol. i., pages 311-312.

It is well known that geasa or prohibitions were, and are still, common among all people, whether savage or civilized. They flourish at this day among ourselves. Some people will not dine in a company of thirteen, or remove to a new house on a Saturday, or get married in May: what are these but geasa, and quite as irrational as any of those enumerated above?


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