- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


Since we have no Roman accounts of the form of government or state of society in ancient Erin, we must only depend on the Bards and Story-tellers, so far as their statements are credible and agree with each other. On certain main points they do agree, and these are the points which it seems reasonable for us to take on their authority.

As even brothers born of the same mother, coming suddenly into possession of a prize, will struggle to see who can get the largest share, so we find in those first ages a constant succession of armed struggles for power. The petty Princes who divided the Island between them were called Righ, a word which answers to the Latin Rex and French Roi; and the chief king or monarch was called Ard-Righ, or High-King. The eldest nephew, or son of the king, was the usual heir of power, and was called the Tanist, or successor; although any of the family of the Prince, his brothers, cousins, or other kinsmen, might be chosen Tanist, by election of the people over whom he was to rule. One certain cause of exclusion was personal deformity; for if a Prince was born lame or a hunchback, or if he lost a limb by accident, he was declared unfit to govern. Even after succession, any serious accident entailed deposition, though we find the names of several Princes who managed to evade or escape this singular penalty. It will be observed besides of the Tanist, that the habit of appointing him seems to have been less a law than a custom; that it was not universal in all the Provinces; that in some tribes the succession alternated between a double line of Princes; and that sometimes when the reigning Prince obtained the nomination of a Tanist, to please himself, the choice was set aside by the public voice of the clansmen. The successor to the Ard-Righ, or Monarch, instead of being simply called Tanist, had the more sounding title of Roydamna, or King-successor.

The chief offices about the Kings, in the first ages, were all filled by the Druids, or Pagan Priests; the Brehons, or Judges, were usually Druids, as were also the Bards, the historians of their patrons. Then came the Physicians; the Chiefs who paid tribute or received annual gifts from the Sovereigns, or Princes; the royal stewards; and the military leaders or Champions, who, like the knights of the middle ages, held their lands and their rank at court, by the tenure of the sword. Like the feudal Dukes of Prance, and Barons of England, these military nobles often proved too powerful for their nominal patrons, and made them experience all the uncertainty of reciprocal dependence. The Champions play an important part in all the early legends. Wherever there is trouble you are sure to find them. Their most celebrated divisions were the warriors of the Red Branch--that is to say, the Militia of Ulster; the Fiann, or Militia of Leinster, sometimes the royal guard of Tara, at others in exile and disgrace; the Clan-Degaid of Munster, and the Fiann of Connaught. The last force was largely recruited from the Belgic race who had been squeezed into that western province, by their Milesian conquerors, pretty much as Cromwell endeavoured to force the Milesian Irish into it, many hundred years afterwards. Each of these bands had its special heroes; its Godfreys and Orlandos celebrated in song; the most famous name in Ulster was Cuchullin: so called from cu, a hound, or watch-dog, and Ullin, the ancient name of his province. He lived at the dawn of the Christian era. Of equal fame was Finn, the father of Ossian, and the Fingal of modern fiction, who flourished in the latter half of the second century. Gall, son of Morna, the hero of Connaught (one of the few distinguished men of Belgic origin whom we hear of through the Milesian bards), flourished a generation earlier than Finn, and might fairly compete with him in celebrity, if he had only had an Ossian to sing his praises.

The political boundaries of different tribes expanded or contracted with their good or ill fortune in battle. Immigration often followed defeat, so that a clan, or its offshoot is found at one period on one part of the map and again on another. As surnames were not generally used either in Ireland or anywhere else, till after the tenth century, the great families are distinguishable at first, only by their tribe or clan names. Thus at the north we have the Hy-Nial race; in the south the Eugenian race, so called from Nial and Eoghan, their mutual ancestors.

We have already compared the shape of Erin to a shield, in which the four Provinces represented the four quarters. Some shields have also bosses or centre-pieces, and the federal province of MEATH was the boss of the old Irish shield. The ancient Meath included both the present counties of that name, stretching south to the Liffey, and north to Armagh. It was the mensal demesne, or "board of the king's table:" it was exempt from all taxes, except those of the Ard-Righ, and its relations to the other Provinces may be vaguely compared to those of the District of Columbia to the several States of the North American Union. ULSTER might then be defined by a line drawn from Sligo Harbour to the mouth of the Boyne, the line being notched here and there by the royal demesne of Meath; LEINSTER stretched south from Dublin triangle-wise to Waterford Harbour, but its inland line, towards the west, was never very well defined, and this led to constant border wars with Munster; the remainder of the south to the mouth of the Shannon composed MUNSTER; the present county of Clare and all west of the Shannon north to Sligo, and part of Cavan, going with CONNAUGHT. The chief seats of power, in those several divisions, were TARA, for federal purposes; EMANIA, near Armagh, for Ulster; LEIGHLIN, for Leinster; CASHEL, for Munster; and CRUCHAIN, (now Rathcrogan, in Roscommon,) for Connaught.

How the common people lived within these external divisions of power it is not so easy to describe. All histories tell us a great deal of kings, and battles, and conspiracies, but very little of the daily domestic life of the people. In this respect the history of Erin is much the same as the rest; but some leading facts we do know. Their religion, in Pagan times, was what the moderns call Druidism, but what they called it themselves we now know not. It was probably the same religion anciently professed by Tyre and Sidon, by Carthage and her colonies in Spain; the same religion which the Romans have described as existing in great part of Gaul, and by their accounts, we learn the awful fact, that it sanctioned, nay, demanded, human sacrifices. From the few traces of its doctrines which Christian zeal has permitted to survive in the old Irish language, we see that Belus or "Crom," the god of fire, typified by the sun, was its chief divinity--that two great festivals were held in his honour on days answering to the first of May and last of October. There were also particular gods of poets, champions, artificers and mariners, just as among the Romans and Greeks. Sacred groves were dedicated to these gods; Priests and Priestesses devoted their lives to their service; the arms of the champion, and the person of the king were charmed by them; neither peace nor war was made without their sanction; their own persons and their pupils were held sacred; the high place at the king's right hand and the best fruits of the earth and the waters were theirs. Old age revered them, women worshipped them, warriors paid court to them, youth trembled before them, princes and chieftains regarded them as elder brethren. So numerous were they in Erin, and so celebrated, that the altars of Britain and western Gaul, left desolate by the Roman legions, were often served by hierophants from Erin, which, even in those Pagan days, was known to all the Druidic countries as the "Sacred Island." Besides the princes, the warriors, and the Druids, (who were also the Physicians, Bards and Brehons of the first ages,) there were innumerable petty chiefs, all laying claim to noble birth and blood. They may be said with the warriors and priests to be the only freemen. The Bruais, or farmers, though possessing certain legal rights, were an inferior caste; while of the Artisans, the smiths and armorers only seem to have been of much consideration. The builders of those mysterious round towers, of which a hundred ruins yet remain, may also have been a privileged order. But the mill and the loom were servile occupations, left altogether to slaves taken in battle, or purchased in the market-places of Britain. The task of the herdsman, like that of the farm-labourer, seems to have devolved on the bondsmen, while the quern and the shuttle were left exclusively in the hands of the bondswomen.

We need barely mention the names of the first Milesian kings, who were remarkable for something else than cutting each other's throats, in order to hasten on to the solid ground of Christian tunes. The principal names are: Heber and Heremhon, the crowned sons of Milesians; they at first divided the Island fairly, but Heremhon soon became jealous of his brother, slew him in battle, and established his own supremacy. Irial the Prophet was King, and built seven royal fortresses; Tiern'mass; in his reign the arts of dyeing in colours were introduced; and the distinguishing of classes by the number of colours they were permitted to wear, was decreed. Ollamh ("the Wise") established the Convention of Tara, which assembled habitually every ninth year, but might be called oftener; it met about the October festival in honour of Beleus or Crom; Eocaid invented or introduced a new species of wicker boats, called cassa, and spent much of his time upon the sea; a solitary queen, named Macha, appears in the succession, from whom Armagh takes its name; except Mab, the mythological Queen of Connaught, she is the sole female ruler of Erin in the first ages; Owen or Eugene Mor ("the Great") is remembered as the founder of the notable families who rejoice in the common name of Eugenians; Leary, of whom the fable of Midas is told with variations; Angus, whom the after Princes of Alba (Scotland) claimed as their ancestor; Eocaid, the tenth of that name, in whose reign are laid the scenes of the chief mythological stories of Erin--such as the story of Queen Mab--the story of the Sons of Usna; the death of Cuchullin (a counterpart of the Persian tale of Roostam and Sohrab); the story of Fergus, son of the king; of Connor of Ulster; of the sons of Dari; and many more. We next meet with the first king who led an expedition abroad against the Romans in Crimthan, surnamed Neea-Naari, or Nair's Hero, from the good genius who accompanied him on his foray. A well-planned insurrection of the conquered Belgae, cut off one of Crimthan's immediate successors, with all his chiefs and nobles, at a banquet given on the Belgian-plain (Moybolgue, in Cavan); and arrested for a century thereafter Irish expeditions abroad. A revolution and a restoration followed, in which Moran the Just Judge played the part of Monk to his Charles II., Tuathal surnamed "the Legitimate." It was Tuathal who imposed the special tax on Leinster, of which, we shall often hear--under the title of Borooa, or Tribute. "The Legitimate" was succeeded by his son, who introduced the Roman Lex Talionis ("an eye for an eye and a tooth, for a tooth") into the Brehon code; soon after, the Eugenian families of the south, strong in numbers, and led by a second Owen More, again halved the Island with the ruling race, the boundary this time being the esker, or ridge of land which can be easily traced from Dublin west to Galway. Olild, a brave and able Prince, succeeded in time to the southern half-kingdom, and planted his own kindred deep and firm in its soil, though the unity of the monarchy was again restored under Cormac Ulla, or Longbeard. This Cormac, according to the legend, was in secret a Christian, and was done to death by the enraged and alarmed Druids, after his abdication and retirement from the world (A.D. 266). He had reigned full forty years, rivalling in wisdom, and excelling in justice the best of his ancestors. Some of his maxims remain to us, and challenge comparison for truthfulness and foresight with most uninspired writings.

Cormac's successors during the same century are of little mark, but in the next the expeditions against the Roman outposts were renewed with greater energy and on an increasing scale. Another Crimthan eclipsed the fame of his ancestor and namesake; Nial, called "of the Hostages," was slain on a second or third expedition into Gaul (A.D. 405), while Dathy, nephew and successor to Nial, was struck dead by lightning in the passage of the Alps (A.D. 428). It was in one of Nial's Gallic expeditions that the illustrious captive was brought into Erin, for whom Providence had reserved the glory of its conversion to the Christian faith--an event which gives a unity and a purpose to the history of that Nation, which must always constitute its chief attraction to the Christian reader.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.