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Dating christian Tra Mhor Ireland

The allegiance of the free born Irishman was given in the first place to the head of his family, kindred or sept, and through the family head to the chief of the tribe of which his family formed an element. He claimed that Irish law had a national character and further that the king was supreme judge and law-giver. It is against this background of social organisation, laws and institutions, relevant to the earliest documentary period, that the political history of Ireland in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries is most often presented to us, especially by those who feel it incumbent upon themselves to provide some account of native Irish institutions as a prologue to the history of the Normans in Ireland.

I shall attempt to show that this stage furniture is for the most part anachronistic. I believe, for example, that the Irish were profoundly conscious of themselves as a larger community or natio , that their learned classes were preoccupied with this very notion, and that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the greater kings attempted to turn that consciousness to political advantage. There are indications, too, that the Irish were not as far out of the mainstream of European life as might at first be imagined.

The position of the law has to a great degree been misunderstood and it is possible to show that, in the later period at any rate, the king was not as impotent in law or at least in practice as has been alleged. Lastly, I hope to give some indication—sketchy and unsatisfactory as it may be—of the ways in which kingship developed between the era of the classical law-tracts and the twelfth century. Naturally, we are at a loss to know precisely what consciousness the Irish had of themselves outside the christian context, for the earliest Irish records in regard to this question—the genealogies, origin-legends and related materials—are a tangled skein of pagan and christian threads.

It is certain that they—or at least their royal dynasties—had some explanation of themselves and their origins. Christianity both as an historical religion of the Book and as an origin-legend for all mankind—quite apart from the heritage of Judaic and Graeco-Roman historical literature which accompanied it—naturally posed the question of the origin and identity of the Irish and their place amongst the nations. One of the earliest of our secular poems, the fursunnad of Laidcend mac Baircheda, concerns itself with precisely that problem.

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In this poem, entitled Can a mbunadas na nGaedel? The various names are accounted for by ancestral aetiologies cast in a genealogical mould and the various tribes and dynasties of Ireland, of which he gives a most detailed account, are all linked together in one common line of ascent. Dublittir Ua hUathgaile fl. The main genealogical corpus, much of which is extremely old, is based on this same origin-legend and it is interesting to note that the later the text the more prominent the legend.

Behind this self-conscious antiquarianism is the doctrine that all the people of Ireland derive from one common source however far removed and form one natio. Irish law, however local in application or however much dependent on individual law-schools in fact, [27] regards itself as valid for all the Irish. What is even more interesting, this passage occurs at a point in the tract at which the jurist is implicitly contrasting the customs of Ireland and the universal christian norm advocated by the romanising party.

It is scarcely surprising that the sense of nationality should first emerge amongst them and be cultivated by them.

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Two examples may suffice. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries the poet-historians had elaborated in full the concept of a monarchy of all Ireland and had projected it into the pre-christian past so that, for their contemporaries, the kingship of Ireland—the political unity of Ireland in one form or another—took on the character of an immemorial tradition.

The work of the poet-historians is the political theory which answered to the activities and ambitions of the greater kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and not infrequently provided their inspiration. It is this feeling of identity which I understand by nationality and I think one can feel it in the changing nuances of the annalistic record between the ninth and the twelfth centuries.

It is, for example, quite true to say with Professor Warren that in Irish law equal status was accorded to the king, the principal abbot, and the ollam. The law-tracts, which apparently derive from different schools and vary to a degree in date none is later than the beginning of the eighth century , are not quite at one as to the honour-price or status which they attribute to a bishop and, by implication, to a principal abbot. This is not to say that the king and the abbot exercised equal authority, for one must distinguish sharply between that socio-legal status which is the concern of the jurists and the political authority which was exercised by the kings.

The comfortable status which the church had achieved for itself in the seventh and eighth centuries did not make it the political rival of the king. Rather, as we shall see, the church did much to strengthen kingship. In , for example, the king of the petty kingdom of Delbna Ethra is entitled dux. The older customs which, as Professor Lydon observes, prevented a king setting up puppet kings over neighbouring kingdoms or annexing the kingdoms of others, had also passed away by the eighth century.

One wonders whether these customs ever existed outside the polite and schematic speculations of the jurists.


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In fact, we find frequent annalistic reference to such events in the eighth century. It is probably sufficient to cite two. After this Brecrigi disappear from history. So dim had the memory of such earlier and expropriated peoples become that scholars, working in the eighth and ninth centuries, were already compiling antiquarian lists of them.

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Giraldus Cambrensis gives as the number of cantreds in Ireland. According to Hogan, it denotes a territory associated with a military muster in the earlier period; later i. In fact, it is attested in the Annals of Ulster for the year as a unit of assessment. Other legal institutions which many seem to consider relevant to the twelfth century had long become obsolete. During the seventh century, the derbfhine , the four-generation agnatic kindred group, so important as a legal and property-owning unit in the earlier period, became obsolete and was replaced by the gelfhine , a simpler three-generation group.

What is even more remarkable, if we accept the views of some historians, these institutions were still alive and flourishing in sixteenth-century Ireland [50] —almost a millennium after they had become obsolete and at least five hundred years after the Irish lawyers had ceased to understand at all clearly what they meant. Much of the misunderstanding—about the political conservatism, tribalism, and supposed immutability of Gaelic society over many centuries—is the result of a methodological error on two levels.

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On the more general level, the historians have been deceived by the apparently static picture of Irish society presented them in the sources and, as a result, they have been insensitive to those shifts of emphasis and nuances of expression which indicate change in institutions and political and social innovations in society as a whole.

This is particularly true of Ireland where the bulk of the early historical sources are literary and highly conventionalised products of specialist learned classes, retainers of the contemporary holders of power, who were at pains to legitimise all change by giving it the sanction of immemorial custom and who ruthlessly reshaped the past to justify the present.

Indeed, the unchanging Gaelic Ireland of the modern historical scholars bears silent witness to the effectiveness of their medieval forebears in discharging their duty. On a more particular level, some historians may be said to have mistaken the pedantic archaism of the jurists for the attitude of society at large, and have to a degree taken their legal tracts which were probably conservative if not out of date at the time of writing as a true account of the practice. The customary law did, in fact, change, as can be observed even in the texts of the schools where we see the later glossators attempting, where they under stood them, to bring the rules of the older texts into line with the practice of their own day.

And, as to the later middle ages and early modern period, Dr Mac Niocaill has pointed out that, though the classical tracts were cited as ever, they had no relevance to actual litigation or the manner in which it was conducted. They were cited for the sound rather than the sense and were a useful window-dressing which lent mystique to the men of the law as they went about their business in a much more mundane and practical way. It is equally true to say that the detailed and painstaking work involved in discovering such matters from our all too meagre sources has yet to be done, and I can only offer a few tentative suggestions on the relations of the later kings with the lawyers and the law, their law-making powers, and their rights over the property of their subjects.

However, it is likely that there is another and more general reason for the legend of Patrician revision of the laws, for a glance at the annals between the ninth and the twelfth centuries reveals a most interesting development amongst the practitioners of law. Very many of them are churchmen and many are of high standing. The following examples may serve to illustrate the trend:.

AU Ailill m. Cormaicc, abbas Slane, sapiens et iudex optimus obiit. It is evident then that the practice of the law was much in the hands of clerics and clerical families at this period, and it may be added that, judging by the language and content of some of the earlier legal tracts —Uraicecht becc, Miadshlechta, and others—the churchmen had a powerful influence on legal development at a much earlier date.

It is most probable that the legend of the Patrician revision also served as a justification for their position, and a defence against the attacks of more reform-minded colleagues.


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I am not convinced that the clergy either as churchmen or jurists served as an obstacle to the development of monarchy in Ireland or saw themselves as rivals to political authority. On the contrary, they did much to enhance kingship by their introduction of wider political ideas concerning the royal office and by acting as servitors of the great dynasties. The results of evil kingship are social and economic ruin and, eventually, the loss of sovereignty. The christian king is to judge justly, protect the weak, destroy the wicked, the parricide and the perjurer; he himself is to have wise and sober counsellors and just officials.

This attempt to christianise kingship was never very successful. This activity, of course, has its contemporary parallels in Carolingian Francia and Anglo-Saxon England. From internal evidence, it is certain that it was written by a churchman, and, in date, it is hardly earlier than the tenth century. He is to esteem the clerics and have contented and wealthy clergy.

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However, the king is to rule over them and control them and their dwellings; it is his duty to see to it that at all times the clergy and laity are confined to their own duties. In contrast to this, the advice given him in regard to secular affairs is that he should be ruthless and effective. He is to place harsh fetters on prisoners, for it is better that they should die rather than escape. He is to billet his troops sternly, and in the matter of food-render, or cosher, nobody who possesses a house, not even the kinsman of a king, is to be exempted.

He is to levy his rent to the last penny, because that is the right of a king. Every violent rebel is to be put to death at once. This heady mixture of exhortation to rule rather than reign, to act as supreme judge, to extend royal powers and income, and the constant reference to Old-Testament kingship must have made a powerful impact on the power-hungry kings of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, who were consolidating those greater lordships that dominated Irish political history until the coming of the Normans.

We may now ask from what groups in society were the cleric-jurists, poets, and royal propagandists recruited. It is evident that the clergy moved easily in legal, poetic, and learned circles, and all seem to derive from one source: the politically unsuccessful segments of the ruling dynasties.

This conclusion is amply borne out by the annals and genealogies. He belonged to the politically unsuccessful Cianachta Mide. His son, Echthigern, continued the family association with Monasterboice and died as abbot of that monastery in He is third in descent from Echthigern, brother of Brian Boru and third cousin and contemporary of Muirchertach Ua Briain, whose poet he was.

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We may now enquire as to the relationship which existed between the kings and this class of clergy, poets, and jurists. In general, it seems, this mandarin class provided the professional servitors of the greater kings, and, far from being triarchic, Ireland was monarchic in its concepts of political authority. And their influence on the image which the Irish had of their past is all-pervasive. Here we may at first sight think we are in the presence of the quiet studiousness of bookish men, but the reality is quite otherwise for they were deeply concerned with the politics of their own day.

In the same way as the feudal lords of contemporary Europe listened to the deeds of their ancestors, in the same way as the poems on Charlemagne served the needs of Capetian propaganda, so too the Irish kings paid attention to the work of the synthetic historians and poets and drew political lessons and support from them. After the third quarter of the ninth century it was held with increasing irregularity, and throughout most of the following century it was completely in abeyance.

After it had fallen into desuetude, the synthetic historians and poets remodelled it, and it came to be regarded as an assembly of all Ireland and a notable institution of the kingship of Ireland. Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair celebrated it in To begin with, from all known holders of the abbacy of Killaloe, the central dynastic church, are members of the dynastic families and on occasion the office was held by brothers or other close relatives of the ruling kings.

In the case of the surrounding monasteries, there is a conscious policy on the part of the dynasty to intrude its own members. As the dynasty expanded under the rule of able kings, so did its control of monasteries in the person of its junior segments. The twelfth-century reform did little to change this pattern, and for a century and a half after its inception only members of the dynasty became bishops of the new territorial diocese; of these, two were brothers of the ruling king and all were relatives.

Further, with the increased power of the dynasty, there was an imperialism in church as well as in state.