Preface to 'A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland'

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Sculpture over doorway in Cormac's Chapel

Sculpture over doorway in Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel: Centaur shooting at a lion (from Petrie’s Round Towers)


THIS book is an abridgment of my larger work, "A Social History of Ancient Ireland." It consists mainly of simple exposition: most of the illustrative quotations and proofs, which are given in detail in the larger work, and nearly all the numerous references to authorities, are here omitted.* Yet the book is something more than a mere dry array of fact-statements; and I hope it will be found, not only instructive, but readable and interesting.

The social condition of most of those ancient nations that have made any figure in the world has been investigated and set forth in books; and perhaps it will be acknowledged that Ireland deserves to be similarly commemorated. For, besides the general importance of all such studies in elucidating the history of the human race, the ancient Irish were a highly intellectual and interesting people; and the world owes them something, as I hope to be able to show. In this book an attempt is made to picture society, in all its phases, as it existed in Ireland before the Anglo-Norman invasion; and to accomplish this work, every authentic source of information within my reach has been turned to account.

The society depicted here—as the reader will soon discover for himself—was of slow and methodical growth and development; duly subordinated from the highest grades of people to the lowest; with clearly-defined ranks, professions, trades, and industries; and in general with those various pursuits and institutions found in every well-ordered community: a society compacted and held together by an all-embracing system of laws and customs, long established and universally recognised.

From the account here given, and from the evidences adduced in this and in the larger work, we may see that the ancient Irish were as well advanced in civilisation, as orderly, and as regular, as the people of those other European countries of the same period that—like Ireland—had a proper settled government; and it will be shown farther on that they were famed throughout all Europe for Religion and Learning.

The subject of the social condition of Ancient Ireland has been to some extent treated of by other writers, notably by Ware, O'Curry, and Sullivan; and I have taken full advantage of their learned labours. But they deal with portions only: my Essay aims at opening up the entire field.

This book does not deal with pre-historic times, except by occasional reference, or to illustrate the historic period. My survey generally goes back only so far as there is light from living record—history or tradition.

I have taken occasion all along to compare Irish Social Life with that of other ancient nations, especially pointing out correspondences that are the natural consequence of common Aryan origin: but want of space precluded much indulgence in this very desirable direction.

The writer who endeavours to set forth his subject—whatever it may be—in "words of truth and soberness," is sure to encounter the disapproval or hostility of those who hold extreme opinions on either side. In regard to my subject, we have, on the one hand, those English and Anglo-Irish people—and they are not few—who think, merely from ignorance, that Ireland was a barbarous and half-savage country before the English came among the people and civilised them; and, on the other hand, there are those of my countrymen who have an exaggerated idea of the greatness and splendour of the ancient Irish nation. I have not been in the least influenced by writers belonging to either class. Following trustworthy authorities, I have tried to present here a true picture of ancient Irish life, neither over-praising nor depreciating. I have not magnified what was worthy of commendation, nor suppressed, nor unwarrantably toned down, features that told unfavourably for the people: for though I love the honour of Ireland well, I love truth better.

The Irish race, after a long-protracted struggle, went down before a stronger people; and in addition to this, from causes which it would be out of place to discuss here, they suffered almost a total eclipse at home during a period nearly coincident with the eighteenth century. Chiefly for these reasons the old Irish people have never, in modern times, received the full measure of credit due to them for their early and striking advance in the arts of civilised life, for their very comprehensive system of laws, and for their noble and successful efforts, both at home and abroad, in the cause of religion and learning. Of late indeed we can perceive, among Continental and British writers, something like a spontaneous movement showing a tendency to do them justice; but the essays in this direction, though just, and often even generous, as far as they go, are fragmentary, scattered, and fitful. Those who are interested in this aspect of the subject will perhaps be pleased to have the whole case presented to them in one Essay.

I am glad to be able to say that the large Social History has been successful even beyond what I had expected, But as it is too expensive for the general run of readers, 1 am induced to bring out this abridgment, which can be sold at a price that places it within reach of all. For, irrespective of mere personal considerations, it seems to me very desirable that a good knowledge of the social condition of Ancient Ireland, such as is presented here, should be widely diffused among the people: more especially now, when there is an awakening of interest in the Irish language, and in Irish lore of every kind, unparalleled in our history. This smaller book, however, is not designed to supersede the larger work, but rather to lead up to it.

The numerous Illustrations relate directly to the several current parts of the text: and I hope they will be found an instructive and pleasing feature of the book.

I am indebted to Dr. Kuno Meyer—the well-known distinguished Celtic scholar—for many valuable corrections and suggestions. These were given in connexion with the larger Social History, but many of them are reflected in this book.

Mr. J. T. Gibbs, of the University Press, read the proof-sheets all through, and suggested many useful verbal corrections and alterations.

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* From this it will be understood that for all the important statements in this book, authorities, references, and illustrative quotations will be found in the larger Social History.