The Book of Rights divides Ireland into a little more than a hundred petty states (owing to certain peculiarities of treatment, the number cannot be stated definitely.) These are arranged in seven groups, with an over-king at the head of each group. The principal matter of the book is to define certain relations between the over-king of each group and the petty kings under him. All this is told in verse. The plan of the book is to allot two poems to each of the over-kingdoms or groups of states. One of the two poems relates the tributes payable by the petty states to the over-king at the head of the group. The other poem relates the customary gifts given by the over-king to the petty kings. Great importance was attached to this giving and receiving of gifts, and the significance of the gifts is clearly expressed in their Irish name, tuarastal. The meaning of this word, which is still in familiar use, is wages. The gifts then were not favours. The acceptance of them was an act of homage. The king who accepted tuarastal from another king acknowledged himself to be that other king’s man, to be, so to speak, in his pay—if only in a figurative or ceremonial sense.
Not all the petty states were subject to tribute. When the dynasty of a petty state was a branch of the over-king’s dynasty, no tribute was due. In Munster, for example, there were various petty states whose rulers were of the Eoghanacht lineage. These paid no tribute to the king of Cashel, who was also of Eoghanacht lineage. The other states were tributary. This exemption from tribute and liability to tribute goes back to an ancient state of conquest, but of conquest during the Celtic period. The citizens of the tributary states were freemen, whereas the people of the older communities of pre-Celtic origin were, at least in theory, unfree. This does not mean that they were slaves. The status of the unfree communities, roundly speaking, was similar to that of the natives of British India at present; and the status of a tributary state would be comparable to that of a country possessing self-government but subject to what is called an imperial contribution. The non-tributary states might be compared to the existing autonomous dominions of the British Empire. There were distinct names for each class. Non-tributary states were called saor-thuatha, “free states”; tributary states were called fortuatha, which means “alien states”; unfree communities were called daor-thuatha, which we might translate “vassal-states”—and they were also called aithech-thuatha, “rent paying states.” Each free or tributary state had a distinct territory, but the unfree communities were not bounded by the territorial bounds of the others. They might overlap the bounds of two or more States, and some of them were broken into separate groups distributed here and there over a very wide area.
The compilation of the Book of Rights is ascribed to two writers, Selbach and Oengus, acting under the authority of Cormac mac Cuilennáin, king of Munster. Cormac reigned from 901 to 908. As O’Donovan has shown, the Book received certain amplifications under a king of Munster who claimed to be, or aimed to make himself, king of Ireland; and O’Donovan properly argues that this king could only be Brian Bóramha. Moreover I think that there are fairly clear indications of the year 1000 or 1001 as the date of these amplifications.
The Book of Rights was edited by O’Donovan and published in 1847 by the Celtic Society. The Council and officers of this society, whose names follow the title page, form a list which shows a greater interest in Irish historical studies at that time than in our time among Irishmen of high standing in learning and politics. The names include those of Sir Aubrey de Vere, Sir Robert Kane, William Monsell, William Smith O’Brien, Daniel O’Connell, Dr. Renehan, president of Maynooth College, Thomas Hutton, Sir Colman O’Loghlen, Michael Joseph Barry, Dr. Crolly, Charles Gavan Duffy, Samuel Ferguson, Dr. Graves, James Hardiman, William Elliott Hudson, Dr. Matthew Kelly, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, William Torrens McCullagh, John Mitchel, Thomas O’Hagan, John Edward Pigot, Sir William Wilde, Dr. Madden, and Thomas Francis Meagher. The edition belongs to O’Donovan’s early work. A new edition is very much to be desired, with a critical treatment of the text and more accurate notes, taking advantage of the great increase of philological, historical and topographical knowledge accumulated during the seventy years that have passed since this first and only edition was brought out.
I think it likely that only the section relating to Munster was drawn up in Cashel; that this section was circulated as a model; and that each of the other sections was drawn up on this model by writers on behalf of the other principal kings. For example, in the Connacht section, the tributes are said to be brought “hither,” a fairly definite indication that the writer belonged to the personal surrounding of the king of Connacht.
The over-kings in the Book of Rights are the kings of (1) Cashel, (2) Cruachain, (3) Ailech, (4) Oriel, (5) Ulaidh, (6) Tara, (7) Leinster. In the section for Oriel, the statement of tributes is wanting. Its absence is probably not accidental. The kings of Ailech from the fifth century onward kept steadily extending their power eastward and southward, encroaching on the domain of the kings of Oriel. Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital, was in Oriel, and one can clearly trace throughout a long period of time a definite policy, on the part of the Ailech dynasty, of bringing and keeping Armagh within their sphere of influence. The natural resistance of the kings of Oriel appears to have been broken down by their defeat in 827, in the battle of Leth Camm, at the hands of Niall Caille, king of Ailech and afterwards king of Ireland. According to an old tract, from this time forward, the kings of Oriel became tributary to Ailech. This would explain the omission from the Book of Rights, drawn up about eighty years later, of a list of tributes payable to the over-kings of Oriel.
In the tenth century we find the kings of Ailech still inhabiting Ailech. In the eleventh century, the name of their domestic territory, Tír Eoghain, has been transferred from the district of Ailech to that which now bears the name, “Tyrone,” which was formerly the central part of the kingdom of Oriel. I have not been able to determine how or at what time the old Tír Eoghain, now called Inis Eoghain, containing the fortress of Ailech, passed into the dominion of the kings of Tír Conaill. With regard to Oriel, there is one point to be carefully noted. In the early documents of the Anglo-Norman regime, we find the name Oriel used to comprise the present county of Louth, which is called the English Oriel, being occupied by feudal grantees. Only a very small fraction of the county belonged to the Irish kingdom of Oriel; but a few years before Strong-bow’s invasion, Donnchadh O’Cearbhaill, king of Oriel, extended his dominion southward to the Boyne. It was he who, in exercise of this extended dominion, granted the lands of Mellifont to the Cistercians. This recent occupation caused the feudal newcomers to extend the name Oriel to the whole region between Oriel and the Boyne. This nomenclature may well hold good for documents of the feudal regime—but we find it used to import error and confusion into quite a different class of documents. For example, the editor of the Annals of Ulster, in his index, says that Oirghialla comprises the county of Louth, though the name is not used in that sense before the fifteenth century; and he omits to say that in the early annals Oriel comprises Tyrone and the larger part of County Derry.
This method of treatment is unfortunately typical of the manner in which the sources of Irish history have been presented in publication. It is not mere anachronism. The underlying principle is that what is true of one period is true of the whole range of time covered by Irish records. When we find sympathetic editors of these records obsessed by such a view, we are still more inclined, in the case of antipathetic writers, to content ourselves with the judgment recorded by Columbanus—to deem them worthy of indulgence rather than of ridicule.
The tenth and eleventh centuries produced a school of Irish historians whose chief work was to reduce the old miscellaneous matter of tradition to unity and sequence. It would have been well if they had been satisfied with so much, but they went farther. In dealing with the pre-Christian period, they tampered with tradition in two ways. Where they found definite elements of heathenism, they either cut these out or furbished them in a guise which they considered consonant with Christian belief; and this can be shown to have been done consciously and deliberately. They also took a free hand in devising a system of chronology for events that had no chronology. On this point, they did not all act together, and so, for such epochs as the Gaelic invasion, we have six or seven different dates varying from the fourth to the eighteenth century B.C. Not withstanding these defects in their work, the historians of this period acquired in later times a degree of authority that stood up as a barrier in front of the past. Their highly artificial treatment was vested with all the sanctity of veritable tradition. The main work that has now to be done by students of Irish antiquity is to get behind this barrier and bring into the light the abundant remains of older tradition that are extant.
I have said that, in the minds of the scattered Norse community, the battle of Clontarf broke the victorious prestige of their race. It happened at a critical moment, for in the year before it, in 1013, the Danish conquest of England had been completed, and all England had submitted to the rule of Sveinn, king of Denmark. Nearly a century later, king Magnus of Norway endeavoured to restore the empire of the Norsemen. He succeeded in bringing under his authority all the Scottish islands, Caithness, part of Argyle, and the Isle of Man. Once more, Ireland shaped the course of history. In 1102, Magnus, then in the Isle of Man, sent an embassy to Ireland threatening war, and no doubt demanding tribute. Muirchertach O’Briain, then king of Ireland, obtained a year’s truce. About the same time, Muirchertach made peace for a year with Domhnall MacLochlainn, king of Tyrone, who opposed his claim to the high-kingship. Next year, 1103, Muirchertach marched against Domhnall, but was defeated in the neighbourhood of Banbridge. About the same time, and probably taking advantage of this internal conflict, Magnus made a landing on the Ulster coast, but was cut off and fell in the fight. With his fall, the prospect of a Norse empire came to an end.
The weakening of the Norse power at Clontarf restored in some measure the freedom of the seas. During the Norse wars, the old missionary movement from Ireland to the Continent became a refugee movement. Afterwards we see abundant evidence of a freer intercourse. For example, the annals record frequent pilgrimages of Irish kings to Rome, beginning with the pilgrimage of Flaithbertach O’Neill in 1028. During the Norse wars, the condition of the Church in Ireland had not improved. We read strange things in newspapers, and no doubt Providence works in strange ways, but the fact remains that war in itself is the negation of moral and spiritual force. St. Bernard tells us something about the condition of part of Ireland, as described to him by St. Malachy and his companions who visited him at Clairvaux in 1139. The description refers to my native district, the diocese of Connor, the time 1124, when St. Malachy was sent there as bishop. “He discovered,” says St. Bernard, “that it was not to men but to beasts he had been sent; in all the barbarism which he had yet encountered, he had never met such a people, so profligate in their morals, so uncouth in their ceremonies, so impious in faith, so barbarous in laws, so rebellious to discipline, so filthy in their life, Christians in name but Pagans in reality. They neither paid first fruits nor tithes, nor contracted marriage legitimately, nor made their confessions.” There were few clergy and those few but little employed. In the churches neither preaching nor chanting was heard. All this is the language of pious reprobation. In that age, adherence to local custom as against the general practice of the Church was often denounced as impious. And we are told that within eight years, before St. Malachy was transferred from Connor to Armagh, “their obduracy yielded, their barbarism was softened, and the exasperating family began to be more tractable, to receive correction by degrees, and to embrace discipline. Barbarous laws were abrogated, the Roman laws (i.e. of the Church) were introduced, the customs of the Church were everywhere admitted and contrary customs abolished. Churches were rebuilt and supplied with priests. The rites of the sacraments were duly administered, confession was practised, the people attended the church, and concubinage was suppressed by the solemnisation of marriage. In a word, so completely were all things changed for the better that you can apply to that people now what the Lord said by his prophet—’They who were not my people are now my people.'”
The writer of these words, Bernard of Clairvaux, was the most outstanding figure in Christendom at that time. Popes and emperors, kings and peoples, waited upon his word. His abbey of Clairvaux became in his time alone the parent of a hundred and sixty Cistercian foundations in many lands, among the rest in Ireland. Bernard gloried in the acquaintance and friendship of the Irishman Malachy. “To me also in this life,” he writes, “it was given to see this man. In his look and word I was refreshed, and I rejoiced as in all manner of riches.” After some years, Malachy once more visited Bernard at Clairvaux and died there peacefully in the presence of Bernard on All Souls’ Day, 1148. St. Bernard wrote afterwards a life of his Irish friend, partly from what he learned from him and his companions and partly from an account sent to him from Ireland by the abbot Comgan. This life is extant, as also are two discourses by St. Bernard, one delivered at St. Malachy’s funeral, the other at a later anniversary celebration. There are also extant two letters written by St. Bernard to St. Malachy regarding the foundation of Mellifont, in which both had part, and a letter from St. Bernard to the Cistercians of Mellifont giving them an account of St. Malachy’s death. I mention these details to exemplify the close and frequent intercourse between Ireland and the Continent in the period preceding the Norman invasion of Ireland. Many other evidences could be cited to the same effect.
From this intercourse, there arose a strong desire to bring about a closer conformity between the Church in Ireland and on the Continent and to reform the abuses in morality and discipline that resulted from a long period of warfare and partial isolation. This movement for reform, it should be noted, came mainly from within, and the leading part in it was taken by Irishmen. One reforming synod succeeded another. The details may be found in works on Irish ecclesiastical history. Besides St. Malachy, may be noted the names of Cellach or Celsus, who came before him, and Gilla Maic Liac or Gelasius who came after him in the primacy; of Gillebert, bishop of Limerick, whose work, “De Statu Ecclesiae,” was written in the cause of ecclesiastical reform; of Flaithbertach O’Brolcháin, abbot of Derry; and Lorcán, St. Laurence, archbishop of Dublin.
Following the introduction of the Cistercian Order by St. Malachy, the Synod of Bri Maic Thaidg in 1158 undertook to reorganise the old Columban monasteries, uniting them in a single order, over which O’Brolcháin, abbot of Derry, was appointed abbot-general. This abbot was a great builder. In rebuilding his monastery in Derry, he removed eighty houses—from this and from various items regarding Armagh, Kildare, etc., in the annals, we gather that these monastic and scholastic towns had a considerable population. The new buildings were of stone, for the abbot had an immense lime-kiln built, eighty feet square, to provide lime for their construction.
In the year 1164, Sumarlidi, king of Argyle and the Hebrides, and the community of Iona sent an embassy to Derry to offer the abbacy of Iona to O’Brolcháin, but the king of Ireland, O’Lochlainn, and his nobles, would not consent to his leaving Derry. The Norman invasion made an end of the attempt to organise the Columban monasteries.
The Synod of Clane in 1162 ordered that in future only pupils, or as we should now say, graduates of Armagh, were to obtain the position of fer léiginn or chief professor in a school attached to any church in Ireland. This decree then was equivalent to a recognition of the school of Armagh as a national university for all Ireland. I recommend the fact to the notice of those writers who cherish the delusion that Irishmen in that age had no conception of nationality. In 1169, the year of the Norman invasion, the king of Ireland, Ruaidhrí O’Conchubhair, who lived in Connacht, established and endowed in Armagh a new professorship for the benefit of students from Ireland and Scotland.
The position of fer léiginn is first noticed in the annals in the tenth century. This points to a new development in the schools of Ireland at that time. Four men holding this position are named in that century by the Annals of Ulster, and three of the four are in the school of Armagh. The fourth is in Slane. In the eleventh century, Kells and Monasterboice have their fer léiginn. In Monasterboice that position was held by the poet-historian Flann, who belonged to the ruling family in that region, the Cianachta. In the twelfth century, there are notices of the fer léiginn in Kildare, Derry, Clonmacnois, Killaloe, Emly and Iona. The Norman Invasion brought ruin to all these schools. The last notice of the school or rather university of Armagh is in 1188. Three years before this, Philip of Worcester, king Henry’s Justiciary, at the head of a great army, occupied Armagh for a week and plundered the clergy; and Giraldus, who denounces this exploit, says with a jibe, “he returned to Dublin without loss.”
We have seen how St. Bernard reports the strong terms used by the Irish reformers themselves in condemnation of the abuses they laboured to remove. It was this very language of pious reprobation that Henry II seized upon as furnishing the pretext for the commission he sought and obtained from his friend Pope Adrian to reform the Irish Church and people. I take it that the Laudabiliter is genuine. Without discussing all the arguments against its authenticity, but admitting that the heads of those arguments are made good, in my opinion neither any one of them nor all of them together suffice at all to discredit the document. In it, the Pope replies to a proposal made by Henry and states that proposal in these terms: “Laudably and profitably hath your magnificence conceived the design … you are intent on enlarging the borders of the Church, teaching the truth of the Christian faith to the ignorant and rude, exterminating the roots of vice from the field of the Lord, and, for the more convenient execution of this purpose, requiring the counsel and favour of the Apostolic See…. You then, most dear son in Christ, have signified to us your desire, in order to reduce the people to obedience unto laws, and to extirpate the plants of vice …” and so forth. The terms in which these good purposes are stated are merely an echo in brief of such words as those in which St. Bernard describes the reforms already effected by St. Malachy.
Now let us compare what may be called the “war aims” of Henry, thus stated by him to Pope Adrian and approved by the Pope, with the actual measures adopted. The Synod of Cashel was convened at Henry’s instance by Gilla Críst, bishop of Lismore and papal legate, and attended by most of the Irish prelates. Henry was represented by several high ecclesiastics whom he brought to Ireland. The decrees of the Synod were confirmed by Henry. They are therefore of the highest importance as determining what had to be done to “enlarge the bounds of the Church, to teach the truth of Christian faith to the ignorant and rude, and to extirpate the roots of vice from the field of the Lord.” The provisions of the Synod number eight as related by Giraldus Cambrensis:
The first decree forbids marriage within the degrees of kindred fixed by the law of the Church. The second requires children to receive catechetical instruction outside of churches and to be baptised at fonts duly provided in the churches. The third commands all to pay tithes to their own parish churches. The fourth exempts Church property from temporal exactions. The fifth exempts the clergy from paying a share in the compensation for homicide, though of kindred to the guilty person. The sixth regulates the making of wills. The seventh prescribes the religious rites to be performed for those who die in peace with God. The eighth orders that the Church ritual in Ireland shall be the same as in England.
That is all. Giraldus adds: “Indeed both the realm and Church of Ireland are indebted to this mighty king for whatever they enjoy of the blessings of peace and the growth of religion; as before his coming to Ireland all sorts of wickedness had prevailed among this people for a long series of years, which now, by his authority and care of administration, are abolished.” No wonder indeed that our historian Keating names Giraldus the tarbh tána, the leading bull of the herd, of the long-stretched herd of historians, journalists, and zealous reformers of “all sorts of wickedness.” Giraldus, however, was not entirely a partisan of false pretences. Years afterwards, when Henry was dead, he addresses his successor John, reminding him of his father’s pledge to Pope Adrian, then also dead—the first pledge made by an English ruler in regard of Ireland, whereby, he says, Henry “secured the sanction of the highest earthly authority to an enterprise of such magnitude, involving the shedding of Christian blood.” This pledge, he says, has not been kept. On the contrary, “the poor clergy in the island are reduced to beggary; the cathedral churches, which were richly endowed with broad lands by the piety of the faithful in the olden times,” and which, we may add, supported on these endowments the schools already mentioned, “now echo with lamentations for the loss of their possessions, of which they have been robbed by these men and others who came over with them or after them; so that to uphold the Church is turned into spoiling and robbing it.” Even the revenue, the Peter’s Pence, promised by Henry to the Pope was not paid, and Giraldus pleads that it should be paid in future, “in order that some acknowledgment and propitiation may be made to God for this bloody conquest and the profits of it.”
And now, before considering further the character and effects of the Feudal conquests in Ireland, let us take a general view of the domestic polity of Ireland.
In recent times, and only, I think, in recent times we find the whole of this domestic polity, or nearly the whole of it, summed up in one convenient phrase—the Clan System. This phrase is used by the ultra-patriotic just as freely and confidently as by those on the opposite edge—whatever we are to call them—those people who perform for Irish history the not unfruitful function of devil’s advocate. The word system imparts a notion of something arranged in a definite and perceptible order, and those who speak or write about the Clan System indicate thereby that they have some perception of this detailed and co-ordinated arrangement. But I do not know where any one of them has successfully undertaken to reduce his mental view of the system to plain words. I think, however, most of us have gathered in a vague way the underlying notions. They amount to this:
The Irish population was divided into a large number of groups, each of which was a “clan.” At the head of each clan was a chief. The clan and the chief considered themselves to be of one blood, a great family. Each clan occupied a definite stretch of country and was in fact the population of its territory. The clan was a miniature nation. That, I think, is a fair summary of the prevailing notions as to the basis of what is called the clan system.
Some writers prefer to say “tribal system.” I have been reproached with avoiding the word “tribe.” I have avoided it, and for two reasons; first, because some have used it in so loose a sense as to make it meaningless; and second, because others have used it with the deliberate intent to create the impression that the structure of society in Ireland down to the twelfth century, and in parts of Ireland down to the seventeenth century, finds its modern parallel among the Australian or Central African aborigines. Already, in reference to the law of succession, I have mentioned the deirbfine, the Irish legal family of four generations, a man, his sons, grandsons, and great grandsons. O’Donovan calls this family a tribe. I told how, in the battle of Caiméirghe in 1241, Brian O’Néill secured the kingship of Tyrone for himself and his line by cutting off his rival MagLochlainn and ten men of MagLochlainn’s deirbfine. Here the word deirbfine has a very special and technical importance; but the student who has to rely on the official editorial translation misses the whole significance of the Irish term. The translator of the Annals of Ulster renders the passage thus: “The battle of Caiméirghe was given by Brian O’Neill and Mael-Sechlainn O’Domnaill, king of Cenel Conaill, to Domnall MagLochlainn, to the king of Tir-Eogain, so that Domnall MagLochlainn was killed therein and ten of his own tribe around him; and all the chiefs of Cenel-Eogain and many other good persons likewise. And the kingship was taken by Brian O’Neill after him.”
It is certain that in the beginnings of Irish history we find the tradition of the tribal group, just as we find it in the history of the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans, and their offshoots the Anglo-Saxons. It is also certain that Ireland, not having been overrun and shaken up by any of the great migrations after the migration of the Celts, and not having been steam-rolled by the levelling weight of Roman imperialism, preserved a great deal of the old tradition. Our old books are full of it. My third lecture dealt very much with the evidences of ancient tribal communities which survived in some shape into historical time. It is, however, perfectly clear to any student of the materials that already in early Christian Ireland the old tribal distinctions are waning and disappearing under various influences. All Irish people, Ebudeans, Ivernians, Picts, Fir Bolg, Galians, are known to each other by the common name of Gaedhil, itself once the name of the dominant Celtic element; to others they are all known as Scotti. So complete is the fusion that, when by ancient custom this or that portion of the community remains liable to pay tributes or taxes in virtue of their being the successor of some old conquered tribe, our old historians or archivists are careful again and again to say that the people themselves are free and that these imposts are attached only to the lands on which they dwell.
I think that the popular notion of a Gaelic clan is derived from Scottish writers like Thomas Campbell and Sir Walter Scott. “False wizard, avaunt! I have marshalled my clan. Their swords are a thousand, their bosoms are one.” Here we have the picture of the men of Lochiel’s country, Camerons to a man, headed by their Cameron chief. I do not know how far such pen-pictures are true of Scotland and the time to which they relate. I do know that you will find nothing of the kind in historical Ireland. Ask for a similar instance of an Irish clan. I suppose the O’Neills of Tyrone will do. The O’Neills were never more than a small fraction of the people of Tyrone or of any part of Tyrone. Take the period preceding the confiscation of Tyrone. Shane O’Neill, in order to convince certain persons of the futility of trying to poison him, said that if the hundred best men of the name of O’Neill were cut off, there would still be O’Neills to succeed him. That seems to justify Mr. Bigger when he says that there are as many O’Neills in Tyrone to-day as there were then. The fullest lists of the followers of Irish chiefs are to be found in the Elizabethan fiants; and these documents effectually dispel the illusion of an O’Neill at the head of a thousand O’Neills or an O’Brien leading a host of O’Briens. It is quite true, as I have shown in a previous lecture, that by the process of creating mean lords and in other ways, the ruling families provided for their own kinsfolk at the expense of their other subjects, and thus acquired a disproportionate increase. The extension of great families in this manner is the one fact that comes nearest to substantiating the illusion of a clan system.
From the popular I pass on to the learned view. Ireland in the twelfth century, says Mr. Orpen, was still in the tribal state. This is written to justify the Norman invasion. The Normans were not in the tribal state. Mr. Orpen relies strongly on Giraldus as a witness in other matters. Giraldus omitted nothing that occurred to him to say that could justify the invasion, in which his friends and kinsfolk took a prominent part. From first to last it did not occur to Giraldus to say that the Irish were in a tribal state. He knew the facts. If there were outstanding clans in Ireland, i.e., noble kindreds, so were there among the invaders. Giraldus himself belonged to the same clan as Milo de Cogan, Gerald FitzGerald, Raymond le Gros, and others of those bold adventurers. He is not ashamed of it, and being half a Welshman, he is under no delusions about the social structure of the Irish nation.
When we read on to learn what is Mr. Orpen’s idea of an Irish tribe, we are gradually enlightened. We find that the tribe of king Diarmaid is the Ui Ceinnsealaigh. Here is the main authentic basis of the illusion. It is a peculiarity of Irish nomenclature that a territory is called by the name of its ruling family. Ui Ceinnsealaigh thus has two meanings. It means the descendants of Ceinnsealach and it also means the territory over which the chiefs of that lineage ruled as kings, namely the diocese of Ferns. But the Ui Ceinnsealaigh were never at any time more than a tiny fraction of the population of that territory. Énna Ceinnsealach, their ancestor, lived in the fifth century; and however well his posterity may have looked after themselves, they certainly did not displace from the region that got their name any large proportion of its inhabitants descended from other ancestors. The territory called Clann Aodha Buidhe covered a large part of the present counties of Down and Antrim. The tribe named Clann Aodha Buidhe were the descendants of Aodh Buidhe O’Neill, who died in the year 1280. They never at any time amounted to a territorial population. There were clans of Norman origin in Ireland, too, and territories named from them. There were the De Burghs of Clann Ricaird in Connacht, and their country named from them; the De Burghs of Clann William in Munster, and their country still so named; FitzGeralds of Clann Mhuiris in Munster and in Connacht, and the districts still keep their name; there are Power’s country, and Roche’s country, and Joyce’s country, and Condon’s, and Barrymore, and Clann Ghiobúin, the Fitzgibbons—family and country bearing the same name after the Irish manner. Every one of these great families was precisely as much and as little a tribe as any Irish tribe that Mr. Orpen has in contemplation; as much and as little a tribe as the Plantagenets or the Bourbons or the Hapsburgs or the Hohenzollerns.
Undoubtedly in these great families there was a good deal of what we call clannishness—of devotion to their particular interest to the detriment of the public or the national interest. On the other hand, it is quite a mistake to suppose that the hostility of clan to clan, as is often said, was the principal element of harm to peace. The Irish chronicles show clearly that domestic wars arose far more frequently from disputes and rivalries between members of a ruling family. It was the same among the Welsh, and a recent Welsh historian has justly traced this evil to the law of succession which was similar in the two countries—the choice of successor to king or lord being open between a number of claimants. A doubtful succession was the fruitful source of disorder in other countries also. Readers of history will remember its effects in the Roman empire, the wars of the Scottish succession before Bannockburn, the Wars of the Roses in England, the war of the Spanish succession. The feudal law of primogeniture tended to minimise this danger.
Here we find another instance of the ignoring of time and change in books on Irish history. I think I am right in saying that most readers gather from these books the impression that the Irish institution of Tanistry dates from time immemorial. There is no mention of a tanist in the Annals until the thirteenth century, after feudal institutions had been established in many parts of Ireland; and we can trace the gradual spread of the custom in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It seems right then to infer that those who lived under Irish law were impressed by the greater stability afforded by Feudal law in this matter of succession, perhaps also by the aggravation of their own plight owing to the opportunities that a disputed succession gave for the interference of the enemy in their midst; and that they sought to remove this evil and danger by determining the succession beforehand, choosing in the ruler’s lifetime the man who was to succeed him, the tanist.
Another notion which has accompanied the modern illusion of the “clan system,” is that of the communal holding of land by the tribe or clan. This view, like that of the “clan system,” has had its enthusiastic eulogists and its self-complacent censors. On one side we are asked to admire our forefathers for anticipating Sir Horace Plunkett. On the other side we are told that progress and even temporary well-doing in agriculture were rendered impossible by a system under which all the land belonged to everybody at once and to nobody for long. Once more we are faced with that canon of Irish history, “Credo quia impossibile.” We are seriously asked to believe that the lands of a tribe, meaning the population under a territorial chief or even under a king, was held in common by all; and more than that, was periodically thrown into hotch-potch, taken from everybody and redistributed among all. Now we can imagine what an event that would be, taking place all over a district as large as the diocese of Ferns; or even as large as the barony of Forth; what a feature it would have been in the simple life of a large countryside. Strange, is it not? that no account of any such resettlement of a district appears in any Irish writing, even in the form of an incidental allusion. The fact is that no such communal system existed on any scale approaching to the territorial. I have described the constitution of the deirbfine, the legal unit of succession. There were larger family groups, based on the kinship of five, six and seven generations. It was among such groups that property was held in common, when it was property of a kind that did not lend itself to subdivision in accurate proportions—just as succession to the kingship, being indivisible, was common to a family group until its determination became necessary. But as new generations came forward, existing family groups were of necessity dissolved and reconstituted. When this happened, a redistribution of the family property was necessitated. Moreover, there were certain kinds of land—mountain, bog, forest, and marsh, which were not divided by fences or mearings into individual or family holdings—and these were held in common both in ancient and in modern times. And that, I think, is the foundation of prevalent notions about communal land tenure in ancient Ireland.
Those who desire a studied account of ancient land tenures in Ireland—in preference to their own or other people’s imaginings—should read the little book on Irish Land Tenures by Dr. Sigerson.
Connected again with the notion of communal ownership is the denial of proprietary rights of kings and lords. It must not be a question whether the altum dominium, the extreme form of proprietorship in land, was a good thing or a bad thing. We want to know the facts first, before we pass a valuation on them. Mr. Orpen is obsessed with the notion that the Irish order and the Feudal order were as the poles apart. Accordingly he says that the Irish political structure nowise depended on grants of land. I do not know and I do not inquire what may be the peculiar virtue of a polity depending upon grants of land; but I do know that the structure of Irish political society in the twelfth century was mainly based on that foundation. Documentary proofs, referring to various dates from the travels of St. Patrick down to the eve of the Norman invasion, show that every lord in his degree, from the local chief of a small territory up to the king of Ireland held and exercised the power of granting ownership in land over the heads of all occupiers. If the king of Tyrone was also king of Ireland his power of making grants was not confined to his domestic territory of Tyrone. So the Annals tell us that Muirchertach O’Lochlainn, king of Tyrone and monarch of Ireland, granted a town-land at Drogheda to the Cistercians of Mellifont, and a charter of the same king is extant granting lands at Newry to another religious house. Diarmait MacMurchadha was king of Leinster, his domestic realm, or as Mr. Orpen would say his tribal territory, being Ui Ceinnsealaigh. He was also recognised over-king of the Norse kingdom of Dublin, which included a stretch of country northward from Dublin and outside of the kingdom of Leinster. In virtue of this extended kingship, Diarmait granted lands at Baldoyle to a religious community, and the charter of his grant is still extant. In truth, the granting and regranting of lordship over lands is the keynote of the Irish dynastic polity from the fifth to the sixteenth century.
What then of the objections that were raised to the introduction of feudal law under Henry VIII. and afterwards? Was it not contended on the Irish side that the chief or king had no more than a life-tenure of the territory he ruled, and that in accepting feudal tenure he was disposing of what did not belong to him? That is so. In accepting feudal tenure, he disposed of the succession, which he had no legal power to determine: the determination of which, within limits fixed by law, belonged to his people. It was theirs, not by virtue of communal ownership of the land, but by virtue of the right of election to the principality. Of this right they were deprived by the introduction of feudal law. The law of tanistry was a reasonable provision which preserved the right of election and yet determined the succession in advance.