Measures, Weights and Mediums of Exchange in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Ornament on leather case of Book of Armagh

Ornament on leather case of Book of Armagh



SECTION 1. Length and Area.

Letter L
IKE other ancient peoples, the Irish fixed their standards of length measures, for want of better, mostly, but not exclusively, with reference to parts of the human body. The troigid [tro-id] or foot was the length of a man's foot, which was counted equal to twelve ordlachs—thumb-measures or inches: so that this troigid was practically the same as the present English foot.

The following table of long measures, which is given in the Book of Aicill, may be taken as the one in most general use. The grain, i.e. the length of a grain of wheat of average size, was the smallest measure used by the Irish:—

3 grains, 1 ordlach or inch.
4 inches, 1 bas, palm, or hand.
3 palms, 1 troighid or foot.
12 feet, 1 fertach or rod.
12 rods or fertachs, 1 forrach.
12 forrachs in length
by 6 forrachs in width,
1 tir-cumaile(i e. 'cumal-land').

According to this table a tir-cumaile contained about 34 English acres; and it was so called because it was considered sufficient to graze a cumal, i.e. three cows.

When English ideas and practices began to obtain a footing in Ireland, after the Anglo-Norman invasion, various other measures of land were adopted, the most general of which was the acre. Land was commonly estimated in acres and ploughlands according to the following table:—

120 acres, 1 seisrech [sheshera] or ploughland.
12 ploughlands, 1 baile, bally, or townland.
30 bailes, 1 tuath or tricha.

Various other length-measures were in use. A céim [kaim] or step was 2 ½ feet. For small measures the bas [boss] and the dorn [durn] were in constant use. The bas or 'palm' was the width of the hand at the roots of the fingers, which was fixed at 4 inches. The dorn or 'fist,' with the thumb closed in, was 5 inches: with the thumb extended, 6 inches.

Lengths and distances were often roughly indicated by sound. For example, in connexion with the law of distress, certain distances, called in the Senchus Mór "magh-spaces," were made use of; and the old commentator defines a magh-space to be "as far as the sound of the bell [i.e. the small handbell of those times] or the crow of the barn-door cock could be heard." The crow of a cock and the sound of a bell, as distance-measures, are very often met with; and the ancient Germans also used them. Other vague modes of estimating lengths were used. The legal size of the faithche [faha] or green round a house depended on the rank of the owner; and the unit of measure was the distance a man could cast a spear standing at the house.

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