Celtic Land-Tenure

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

EVERY writer on the Irish land-question from Spenser to the most recent pamphleteer, if he has referred at all to the system of land-tenure under the ancient chiefs, has declared that in those days the tenant paid no fixed rent. The picture, though painted by different pens and for purposes the most opposite, has been essentially the same. The tenant, we have been told, wandered with his flocks and herds wherever he would, from valley to mountain pasture; the lands were, almost without exception, held in common, whether pasture or tillage; the chief did not receive, nor would the tenant yield, any fixed and certain rent. The former, however, could go and billet himself and his followers on the tenant; and the latter, who would refuse giving any certain tribute, was quite content to live under this system of "coshering" to welcome all uncertain exactions, and to take for his motto "Spend me, but Defend me," as Spenser says.

The inferences drawn from the fact of such a state of things having existed varied, of course, with the prejudices of the commentator. But it appears to have been most frequently referred to as furnishing ground for arguments such as this:—The Irish tenant as a matter of fact, has no real grievances which an impartial observer could regard as such. What afflicts him and makes him always ill at ease is the traditionary sentiment that his forefathers paid no rent for the farm he holds, and that rent, therefore, is an oppressive novelty. He is still beset by the old desire to regard the land as a sort of commonage, where he can squat or settle at will, without having any rent to pay. He will not object, however, to be "spent" by his landlord. On the contrary, this is exactly what he likes, because it harmonizes with all his traditions. He will be delighted if he is allowed to send up to the "Great House" the best of his produce and poultry; to draw off his horses and carts from his own work to get in "the master's" potatos or bring home "the master's" corn; and he will feel it a personal favour if he is permitted to half-ruin himself in lavish entertainments to the young master, or in food for his horse and hounds. But do not expect him to feel that he is under any obligation to pay his rent on quarter-day. In point of fact, he prefers the old system of "coshering" and uncertain exactions; and much of what we hear now about "compensation for improvement" has been invented for him by agitators.

Those in England who take up the cry do not understand the Celtic peculiarities of the Irish people. This theory is plausible, but without any basis of fact. There are two radical mistakes in it which destroy it as an argument: it is not true that the Celtic tenant paid no fixed rent, and it is equally erroneous to fancy that he regarded his chieftain as an absolute master. According to the provisions of the native laws which ruled the larger portion of Ireland until the plantation of King James I., the chief was essentially a limited and constitutional prince. It was not at all a maxim of the Brehon law that a king could do no wrong; on the contrary, as the people had power to select him, they had power likewise to depose him on cause shown. As a king he, indeed, "excelled in testimony," and his decision prevailed against all classes, with two exceptions. There were two orders which took an equal rank with royalty; the order of learning as represented by a doctor of laws, and the order of religion as represented by a bishop. These being the king's equals acted as a check upon his executive power.

The code which ruled Ireland from the fifth to the seventeenth century was compiled and confirmed in a council composed of three kings, three bishops, and three doctors learned in the law. It was a code of checks and counter-checks, which, by the precision of its language and the minuteness of its details, seemed to provide for every possible emergency. It specified the rights, duties, perquisites, and privileges of all classes and conditions of men, and was of such authority that no judge could abrogate any portion of it. Such a code may have tended occasionally to promote litigiousness, but it prevented usurpation, and must have moulded the people into a nation essentially loyal in the strict sense of that word, that is, law-abiding. This it is which accounts for the declaration of King James's Attorney-General in Ireland, that no people under the sun loved equal and impartial justice better than the Irish. If it is objected that in a rude, or indeed in a civilized, state of society, power sometimes over-rides the provisions of the law makers, we should recollect that in Ireland the laws had the guarantee of the Church, and the Church was strong in the faith of the people. Instead of a monarchy there was a trinity of powers, each of which had a representative in the smallest sub-division of the land, and the right of the people was recognized to elect their future ruler, who should act as Tanist or coadjutor to their chief during his lifetime. In fact, the tendency was the reverse of despotic, and one of the chief causes of the instability of the system was the weakness of the central government, which was unable at all times to enforce its decrees. The country was never more peaceful and prosperous than when a wise usurper, as King Brian has been termed, assumed the reins of power and made his strong hand felt in the government.

Taking these things into consideration, we shall find that the chieftain of a territory was neither a master as the word is here defined, nor a landlord with unlimited power to evict, as the term signifies at present in Ireland. He was chosen by the tribe as their principal or agent for certain purposes, and they endowed him with certain prerogatives. They could depose him for what the law defined as false judgment, and the office did not lapse as of right to his eldest son, or to any of his children. He was a prince of the Irish, a "chieftain of the men of Erinn," but not a lord of the soil, as now understood, with a right of ownership in the land so absolute as to mean occasionally, supreme mastery over the lives and fortunes of its inhabitants. Whichever of the clan had a complaint against him might sue him, and if he evaded the issue, might, in proper form, and with a law agent as witness, distrain his cattle, which would be impounded, and after a few days' grace become forfeited, unless the decree were satisfied.

But although their rule was limited and strictly defined there yet were landlords, sub-chiefs, who inherited and let lands in Celtic Erinn. To fancy that all the landed property was held in common and redistributed at the deaths of the holders is an absurd and vulgar error. There was indeed land set apart in commons as amongst other nations, but this was only a fraction of the tribe lands. On other portions were to be distinguished the two classes of limited landlords and their tenantry. Tenants were of two kinds—the free-tenant and the base-tenant: beneath these was the labourer, who was a bondman, generally a foreigner, and not unusually an Anglo-Saxon. Instead of there being no rent, as popularly imagined, there were three kinds of rent.

One of these was known as the wearisome or rack-rent, and was exacted from a person of a stranger tribe; another was termed the not-painful or light rent which was that yielded by members of the clan themselves; and the third was the stipulated rent which might be agreed upon either with clansmen or with strangers. This mention of aliens, indicates that the Irish Celts were never exclusive nationalists, in the narrow sense of the word; not a few Norsemen and others are named in their ancient records as having settled amongst them amicably. Of the classes mentioned, the labourer was the worst off. Being a serf or bondman, if he got into debt a fetter might be placed on his foot or a chain around his neck, and he could be imprisoned and kept on spare diet until his chief would guarantee to pay the debt. If not redeemed within a stated time, he might become forfeited, like other chattels. The contract of the labourer without sanction of his chief was as invalid as the contract of the base-tenant of abbey lands without his abbot's consent, or the contract without the father's consent of a son who was a minor, or "not emancipated." But then the labourer was allowed to keep cattle, and it was a disputed point whether or not these could be distrained. He could, however, like any other foreigner, having got a native to back him, sue his master, and could distrain, always provided that he did it in due form and with a law agent present as a witness. If, indeed, the master evaded pleading, even an informal distress was excused, it being agreed that he who sought to elude his contract should suffer for it and his bondman go free. The system of bondage did not disappear from Ireland until the period of the Anglo-Norman invasion; and then its termination was effected by the action of the Council of Armagh in 1171.

Giraldus Cambrensis relates that the Irish clergy agreed to regard this invasion as a sort of divine chastisement for having purchased English persons for slaves, who had been sold either by pirates, or traders, or even by their parents; for, he adds, "Communi gentis vitio, liberos suos venales exponere et priusquam inopiam ullam aut inediam sustinerent filios proprios et cognatos in Hiberniam vendere consueverant." He is speaking of the Anglo-Saxons, for whom as a Welshman he had a lofty contempt; but it is possible that in later days, at all events, they thought their sons would suffer as little hardship among the Celts as under their Norman task-masters. The Celtic chiefs and Anglo-Saxon lords had not been without many ties between them. But in directing the emancipation of all slaves, the Council of Armagh only followed the example set by the Council of London in 1107, which had proscribed the traffic as fraught with many evils.

Turning from the labourers to the tenants, we shall find that the latter, besides paying their rent, had certain duties to perform, which might indeed vary in amount with circumstances, but which were pretty strictly defined. Generally speaking, they had to yield military and civil services; the head of every family of the lay-grades went out with his chief to do battle—at any time if called upon to repel an incursion; at stated periods if the war were for other purposes, all which purposes were described in the laws They were likewise to perform such civil duties as the making and repairing of roads, bye-roads, forts, and fences, especially those fences which divided pasture from grain land. The duties of the base-tenant were the more severe in all things; every seventh day he was obliged to go to the chase of wolf or pirate, and every third day in harvest he had to turn out to keep off aggressors. He had food-tribute also to pay; but then it must be remarked that the chief stocked his farm for him, which of course placed him in a different position from that held by a free-tenant. Finally, the tenants had to furnish stated materials to keep up the good name of their chieftain's occasional entertainments, and to supply him with a band of reapers to reap his corn, and men to build his tomb.

As a counterpoise to these duties, it must be remembered that the chief had many things to do besides leading the clan to battle. He had, for instance, to attend in the councils where interterritorial laws and regulations were arranged; he had to watch over the reserved land of the tribe, and see that its proceeds were properly distributed for providing the sick with physicians, the poor with food, the aged and incurable with sustenance and shelter. There were commonages both of pasture lands and of tillage; but that the lands of the tenants were not held in common is evident from the fact that one tenant could sell his farm to another. There was regulations duly made for enforcing distress in cases of non-payment of rent (another fact which tells against the popular theory), but there does not seem to have been any provision for evictions. In those days a district was never cleared of its human inhabitants by process of ejectment. There was one case, indeed, in which the tenant forfeited his land, but this was an exception which proves the rule; it was not for non-payment of rent, but for not conforming to the dictates of humanity—for neglecting to provide for the support of the aged members of his family.

Observers have sometimes been puzzled how it happens that the Irish peasantry are at the same time fond of democratic institutions, and yet somewhat aristocratic in their instincts. The reason is evident from the conditions under which they lived. Their system of government allowed the people a prominent position in the making and sustaining of the laws, and thus gave them, no doubt, that inclination for democratic institutions which close students have remarked. On the other hand, there was a stratum of bondage beneath them, and this, of course, had a tendency to make them somewhat aristocratic, and to give them a Norman contempt for clowns and churls. As we have said, their loyalty consisted in being law-abiding rather than in servility, although they were not devoid of the personal loyalty which is yielded on account of ties of consanguinity. With such a system to mould them it is easy to imagine how bitterly they would dislike the change which, for an elective chieftain, gave them an absolute lord, suppressed their constitutional checks of judge and priest, and concentrated in the hands of one master the power to create tenures, to evict, and to pass judgment as it seemed best for his own interests. The Irish do not appear to have ever contemplated making a stand as a nation against the English invasion until they began to be aware of these usurpations of power to which they would have to submit under the new regime.