Sometimes small incidents, rather than glorious exploits, give us the best evidence of character. So, as portrait painters are more exact in doing the face, I must give particular attention to the marks of the souls of men. — Plutarch

Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead




Ancient Dwellers in Erin

The bards, or Ollamhs, who sang stories of the heroes, were reverenced in Erin above all other men. Two powers were theirs besides the gift of song. Secrets were revealed to them as to the prophets, and on all who injured them they might pronounce a curse. If the bard's spell lay on the land, it could bring forth no pasturage. Nay, it was impossible to tread it without danger till the wrong had been repented and the curse withdrawn.

The chief bard was next in rank to the king and his person was more sacred than that of the king himself. If a man slew the king, he paid the penalty of death, but any who slew a bard knew punishment that did not end with life.

Wrongs done to ordinary men were punished by "erics" or fines. Two great books contain the old laws of Erin, and in the Book of Aicill and the Senchus Mor, we find that most crimes have a fixed penalty. Hurt to the body was always compensated by a fine, but the amount of the fine depended on the part of the body that was injured, whether it were the head, the arm, the leg, the nail of the toe, or the hair of the eyelashes!

A man, stung by a neighbour's bee, had the right of taking "a full meal" of honey, if the sting drew blood, but, if it only raised a lump, leis compensation was reduced to "one-fifth of a full meal." Animals were freed from punishment for taking food which they could eat "in snatches," viz., "three bites on either side of the way." Should a cat eat food found in the kitchen, she would go scot-free by proving that it had been left about by the carelessness of the owner.

Sensible men were punished when they failed in the duty of looking after people not so sensible. Women taking part in "woman-battle" might use their distaffs and comb-bags in the presence of their guardians. "This is after notice and fasting, but, if it is before notice and fasting, it is to be considered for what reason they did it."

Certain rules for the sale of children are to be found in these books, and laws for bequeathing property, which was not left at the will of the possessor. A son had always a better claim than a daughter, who might only demand "the blade of gold, the silver thread and the tartan cloak" belonging to her mother.

Hospitality was the duty of every chief, and there was a law that all great houses must have a road to them for the approach of guests.

Cases in dispute were brought before a Brehon or judge, but he could not always insist on his judgments being carried out. The people were so scattered in different tribes that there was no strong central government to support the authority of the lawgiver. This division of the Irish into tribes was, indeed, the cause of trouble of every kind, and explains how it was that the Irish failed to drive off their enemies in spite of their love of warfare and their strong desire to rule. The tribes consisted of clans or great families of people, all supposed to be sprung from the same ancestry and bound together by ties of blood.

There were five great provinces—Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Meath—and over each province ruled a Ri or king. The Ard-Ri or over-king of all Erin had his dwelling in Tara and Meath, as his special domain. He received tribute from all the other kings, whose tenants paid tribute to them in kind, viz., cattle, honey, butter, wine, and clothing. The wealthier tenants were obliged to entertain their chief and his followers and to provide them with food and drink. This led to an abuse known as "Coyne" and "Livery," by which a military leader, unable to pay his soldiers, turned them out with weapons to seize other men's property as their lawful pay. Livery is thought by Spenser to have been the food "'livered" or delivered to the horses, and the night's allowance of drink given to the retainers in great houses, also the apparel of a serving-man, so-called "for that it is delivered and taken from him at pleasure." "Coyne" was the maintenance of the soldier himself, and perhaps included actual money on some occasions when the meals were not to his taste.

The chief of each clan had the right of naming his successor or Tanist. This was not always an eldest son but might be a brother, uncle, or cousin, who was thought likely to rule well. The land belonged to the clan, and had to be re-divided whenever a new chief was chosen. Men of the same clan were accustomed to support each other in battle, yet there was never a clan in Erin without a prince plotting to be chief, and everything outside the actual territory of the clan was looked upon as plunder.

The tie of Fosterage was the only one that held good beside the tie of blood-relationship. The son of a chief was put out to be reared or "fostered" in the household of some other chief, and after he returned to his own people must still be faithful to the man who "fostered" him. Disloyalty to country was readily pardoned by a race with but an imperfect understanding of the bond which ought to exist between men, of one nation. Disloyalty to a "fosterer" was held to be the blackest of crimes.

The Irish king seldom had a standing army, but called on the men of his tribe to serve him in war as occasion arose. There were two kinds of foot-soldiers—Kerns and Gallowglasses. The first were light-armed men and wore the saffron linen tunic, which all native soldiers preferred to armour. The Gallowglasses had heavier protection and carried battle-axes. Fighting was the favourite occupation of the chiefs, and they were buried standing in full battle array, sword in hand and face towards the territory of the enemy. The men of Erin believed that the body in this position could exercise an evil influence on the foe, who were thereby always defeated in battle.

The religion of such warriors was full of strange beliefs, encouraged by the Druids, who gave instruction in all kinds of learning. They were lawgivers, poets, and physicians, and wielded the power of knowledge over the ignorant and superstitious. They were also skilled magicians. They professed that they could make a man invisible by giving him the "cloak of darkness," that they could drive him mad by flinging a wisp of straw in his face, and foretell his future by consulting the clouds and sky. The ancient people worshipped idols, the chief being "Crom Cruach," a pillar of stone covered with gold and surrounded by twelve smaller idols. They also worshipped wells, the sun and moon, and fire. They had a dim belief in some land of everlasting youth—a place inhabited by fairies, who were said to carry off mortals to dwell with them, sometimes against their will.

Paganism inspired a fighting spirit, and the history of Ireland is one of warfare without end. The women took part in it equally and fought side by side with the men till a law was made to forbid them in the days of Columbkille, which were the golden days of peace. In legendary ages, the Irish often crossed the sea—and traces of their visits can be found in Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, so close to their own shores. Niall of the Nine Hostages was the most adventurous of the early kings. He even led invading armies into Britain, then under the declining power of Rome, and once made an expedition into Gaul.