There was one advantage incidental to the feudal law of primogeniture, which did not belong to the Irish law of succession before or after the institution of tanistry. In feudal law, the lawful successor might be a child, an invalid, a demented person, and in some countries a woman. In feudal law, as in Irish law, and in ancient law generally, the ruler was also chief judge and chief military commander for his people and territory. Each of Henry’s feudal grantees in Ireland held and exercised these functions. The kings of England themselves, from William the Conqueror to Henry II. and the Saxon and Danish kings before them, were judges and generals as well as chiefs of State. The Irish law contemplated a ruler who was fitted in mind and body to exercise these functions. The law of primogeniture often failed to secure such fitness. At first sight, the Irish law seems to have the advantage, but on closer consideration the case will appear otherwise.
If the ruler of the state combines in his own person the offices of judge and military commander and performs these offices in person, as well as the presidency of the public assembly, it follows that there must be as many states and rulers as there are presidents of assembly, judges of law, military commanders. And this is what we actually find in ancient Ireland. Most of the modern baronies, so-called, take the place of ancient kingdoms. The ruler being in the people’s mind fit to judge in litigation and to lead in war and to preside over the assembly, and being unfit to rule as king when he could not perform these functions, there was no place in so simple a polity for ministers of State, and there was no regular delegation of these important duties. I think it will be admitted that the development of ministerial offices is one of the greatest phases in political progress.
On the other hand, the feudal law of primogeniture, under which the ruler at times might be a child, an idiot, or a weakling, rendered ministers of State a necessity. When Norman feudalism came to Ireland, it was just emerging from a condition similar to what it found in Ireland, and so the domestic polity of Ireland called for no remark from Giraldus, who was ready to find fault with anything, even with the fact that the Irish reared their children in a natural way, and succeeded admirably with it, instead of shaping their limbs and bodies with swathings and bandages. In southern Italy, the Normans found the civil service of the Byzantine emperors in operation; adopted it, and from them it spread to Normandy and England. This transformation was just taking place at the time of their invasion of Ireland, and was providing them with an apparatus of statecraft which the Irish did not possess.
The Feudal system, thus augmented, tended towards centralisation. The Irish system had an opposite tendency. I notice that Mr. Orpen, in his comparison of the two systems, shows himself a whole-hearted worshipper of centralisation. His book, however, was written before the rulers and ministers of great states had begun to discover and formulate the objects of a righteous war. To my mind, European civilisation has suffered very much from undue centralisation—from the domination of courts and capitals over large regions and the consequent disrepute of what is called provincial life. We see the effect in countries like England and France, each of which consists of two parts—the capital and the provinces—the capital draining the provinces of all that is best in them, so that they are held and hold themselves in low esteem. I have often hoped that the Ireland of the future will not be unduly centralised, and that full scope will be given to the highest possible development of social life and art and education in every part of the country.
The Normans so-called, when they came to Ireland, had ceased to be Northmen. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Irish chronicles call them by the same name, Franks. Franks they were in language, customs and institutions. If they sometimes called themselves Angli, this meant no more than that they were subjects of the rex Anglorum, the king of the English, and not of the king of the French. Their ordinary language was French. When Giraldus Cambrensis expresses the wish that his works should be translated into the vulgar tongue, he makes it clear that he means French. In another part of his writings, he shows himself an enthusiastic adherent of the Welsh language, and voices a prophecy that his countrymen of Wales will speak Welsh till the day of Judgment. The rank and file of the invaders were Welshmen and Flemings. There was a large Flemish colony settled under the Normans in Pembrokeshire, and when the first invaders reached Ireland in 1169, an Irish chronicler recorded the arrival of the fleet of the Flemings. A Flemish colony was established after that in South Leinster, and their dialect continued in use there until well on in the nineteenth century. Many of the so-called Norman settlers in other parts of Ireland were Flemish and Welsh. Norman French continued to be used in Ireland for many generations. It was the language in which the colonists petitioned the lord Edward, as they called the king of England, for aid against Edward Bruce in 1315. I notice in Father Dinneen’s Irish dictionary many of the words marked with the letter A, signifying of English origin, which I am sure came directly from the French of these invaders. Mr. Orpen’s history is largely a laboured attempt to prove that the backward state of Ireland was the cause and justification of the invasion. This search after causes and justifications does not conduce to sound historical writing. One wonders how the method would be applied to the history of the Norman invasion and conquest of Sicily and southern Italy, possessing at the time the most highly developed political civilisation west of Constantinople. Among the French, the Normans shared with the Gascons a reputation for extreme craftiness. They were also great fortress-builders. Giraldus recognises that in the open field the Irish were their superiors in fighting. They especially feared the Irish use of the battle-axe, learned from the old Norsemen. He recommends them to keep to the plan of conquest by what he calls incastellation—the building of strong castles at frequent strategic points. Against this method, well organised permanent forces could alone be effective, and the Irish in that age had no such military organisation. If the testimony of Giraldus is not biassed on the point, the only effective field forces which the invaders commanded consisted of Welshmen. Withal, it is to be said that the chiefs of the invasion were in general men of great valour, enterprise, and coolness. They brought with them a tradition of conquest and adventure.
Mr. Orpen says again and again that the Irish were turbulent. The Normans, he would have us believe, were all for law and order. It is again strange that this contrast did not occur at all to Giraldus, their comrade and kinsman and partisan. No one need wonder if a band of hardy adventurers should hold solidly together in their common interest for at least a generation. Yet the first generation of feudalism in Ireland witnessed a series of wars among the invaders themselves, quite as much warfare, in fact, as you will find on an average in an equal space of time among an equal number of chiefs of the turbulent Irish. But it was not in Ireland only that the Normans were turbulent. Henry himself spent much of his great power in quelling the rebellions of his own sons and their partisans. If Giraldus Cambrensis says nothing about the particular turbulency and anarchy of Ireland in the twelfth century, it was probably because he and his readers did not know where in western Europe to look for anything else. Let me quote here from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a picture of England under the Normans in the generation preceding the invasion of Ireland:
“A.D. 1137. When King Stephen came to England … when the traitors [i.e. the nobles of England] perceived that he was a mild man, and a soft, and a good, and that he did not enforce justice, they did all wonder. They had done homage to him, and sworn oaths, but they no faith kept; all became forsworn and broke their allegiance; for every rich man built his castles and defended them against him, and they filled the land full of castles. They greatly oppressed the wretched people by making them work at these castles, and when the castles were finished they filled them with devils and evil men. Then they took those whom they suspected to have any goods, by night and by day, seizing both men and women, and they put them in prison for their gold and silver and tortured them with pains unspeakable; for never were any martyrs tortured as these were. They hung some up by their feet and smoked them with foul smoke; some by their thumbs or by the head, and they hung burning things on their feet. They put a knotted string about their heads and twisted it till it went into the brain. They put them into dungeons wherein were adders and snakes and toads, and thus wore them out. Some they put into a crucet-house, that is, into a chest that was short and narrow and not deep, and they put sharp stones in it and crushed the man therein so that they broke all his limbs. There were hateful and grim things called Sachenteges in many of the castles, which two or three men had enough to do to carry. The Sachentege was made thus: it was fastened to a beam, having a sharp iron to go around a man’s throat and neck, so that he might nowise sit nor lie nor sleep but that he must bear all the iron. Many thousands they exhausted with hunger. I cannot and I may not tell of all the wounds and all the tortures that they inflicted upon the wretched men of this land. And this state of things lasted the nineteen years that Stephen was king [1135-1154] and ever grew worse and worse. They were continually levying an exaction from the towns, which they called Tenserie, and when the miserable inhabitants had no more to give, then plundered they and burnt all the towns, so that well mightest thou walk a whole day’s journey, or ever shouldest thou find a man seated in a town or its lands tilled. Then was corn dear, and flesh and cheese and butter, for there was none in the land. Wretched men starved with hunger. Some lived on alms who had been erewhile rich. Some fled the country. Never was there more misery, and never acted heathen worse than these. At length they spared neither church nor churchyard, but they took all that was valuable therein and then burned the church and all together. Neither did they spare the lands of bishops, of abbots, or of priests, but they robbed the monks and the clergy; and every man plundered his neighbour as much as he could. If two or three men came riding to a town, all the township fled before them and thought that they were robbers. The bishops and clergy were ever cursing them, but this to them was nothing, for they were all accurst and forsworn and reprobate. The earth bare no corn, you might as well have tilled the sea; for the land was all ruined by such deeds, and it was said openly that Christ and his saints slept. These things, and more than we can say, did we suffer during nineteen years because of our sins.”
It was in the very year that followed these nineteen years that Henry, in his council of barons at Winchester, first announced his intention of invading Ireland. The barons who formed the council were the castle-builders of the foregoing account written by their contemporary. From them and their sons were drawn the men who, we are to believe, came to establish law and order in the place of anarchy in Ireland; who were “to enter that island and execute whatsoever may tend to the honour of God and the welfare of the land”; who were “to restrain the downward course of vice, to correct evil customs, to implant virtue and extend the Christian religion”—these being the pious and laudable designs which Henry Plantagenet, who could not rule his own household or his own person, proposed at that time to his friend Pope Adrian.
I have already adverted to Mr. Orpen’s doctrine that the Irishman had no nation but his tribe. In all these things, a comparison and a contrast is studiously suggested. To what nation did the leaders of the invasion belong? Mr. Orpen calls them Normans, but they themselves knew nothing of Norman nationality. They knew that their lord was duke of Normandy and as such a vassal of France. Among themselves they knew no distinction of Norman, Angevin, Poitevin, or Aquitanian. The most English of them came of three generations of residence in England as a foreign element—as Franks. These were only a few. The majority had lived in Wales or the Welsh marches. At a very early stage in the invasion, one leader, Maurice de Prendergast, went right over to the Irish. Another, De Courci, set himself up as an independent prince in that region of intractable folk, eastern Ulster. The chief feature of Henry’s Irish policy, continued by his son John, was not the subjugation of the Irish but the keeping of the Feudal lords of Ireland from becoming independent. Mr. Orpen does not like this policy. He calls it interference with the colony, and draws the moral of all his history by severely remarking that the same objectionable interference with the colony has been continued down to an indefinitely modern time. The lesson is meant to be taken to heart by somebody. The fact remains, that the colonists had no nationality until in the course of time they became Irelandmen, and ultimately more Irish than the Irish.
There is another feature of the invasion policy to which Mr. Orpen does no justice. Pope Adrian’s successor had not the same personal interest in the invasion that Pope Adrian had. A papal legate was sent to Ireland. On his way through England, he was laid hold of and compelled to swear to do nothing in Ireland contrary to the king’s interest. Evidently there was something to be apprehended. From England he went to the Isle of Man, where the Norse king was father-in-law and ally of de Courci, Prince of Ulster. As a policeman would say, in consequence of information received, the legate on his landing on the Irish coast was arrested by de Courci’s men and carried captive to Downpatrick. De Courci, though a valiant knight, had done some things in Downpatrick, which a legate under arrest might be induced to regard more leniently than a legate at large. Downpatrick was a monastic and ecclesiastical centre. De Courci had made it into a fortress. He had made the bishop of Down a prisoner and put some of the inferior clergy to death. Apparently he had taken complete possession of all the Church property. The captive bishop appears as witness to de Courci’s grants of Irish Church possessions to foreign religious. The legate seems to have reached Dublin in a chastened temper. In Dublin, he granted formal authority to the invaders to make forcibly entry into Church property anywhere in Ireland. The plea is that the Irish stored their food in ecclesiastical places, and Mr. Orpen says it was a military necessity, and therefore justifiable, to get at these stores of food. All this was written before the conscience of so many had been awakened to the evils of militarism. However, the food pretext does not fit the fact. The fact was that before the legate came, as well as afterwards, it was the settled military policy of the invasion to occupy Irish churches and monasteries and turn them into fortresses. These places had something quite as useful as food, they had strong stone buildings, which could be held as they stood or pulled to pieces and used for the rapid erection of fortresses, of which process the following instance from the annals may be cited as an example:
A.D. 1214. The castle of Coleraine is built by Thomas son of Uhtred and by the Foreigners of East Ulster, and for that purpose were pulled to pieces the cemeteries and pavements and buildings of the whole town, save the church alone. (Coleraine until this time was a Columban monastery.)
From this we may see the full force of the extraordinary general permit extorted from the Pope’s legate. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, already quoted, shows how earlier experience in Britain had prepared the fate of the Irish monasteries and schools.
A long list could be drawn up of the churches and monasteries occupied by the invaders, some permanently, others until evacuation was compelled.
This method of warfare reached parts of Ireland far remote from effective occupation by the invaders, and one of its results was the complete reversal of all the efforts towards reconstruction and progress which, as I have shown in the foregoing lecture, the Irish themselves had undertaken in the grounds of religion and education. The unconquered parts of Ireland were thrown back into the condition of the Norse war period. In the conquered parts, the Irish were excluded from education and ecclesiastical preferment. There was much building and much writing of official documents, but no progress in learning or the arts, not one school of note, and in an age when universities were springing up all over Christendom, there arose in Ireland only one University, which was stillborn.
On the other hand, the feudal invasion reached Ireland on a wave of developing town life, and its regime was able to monopolise this development in Ireland.
That the particular pledges, on the faith of which Henry obtained from Adrian the grant of the feudal lordship of Ireland, were not at all fulfilled by Henry, we know from general evidence and from the particular testimony of Giraldus, who implores John to fulfil them for the sake of his father’s soul. John had other things to think about, and these pledges were not fulfilled by John or by any of his successors. A memorial on this subject was addressed, at the time of Edward Bruce’s invasion, to the contemporary Pope by Domhnall O’Neill, king of Tyrone, and the document still exists, charging the Plantagenet rule in Ireland with general injury to religion and civilisation.
Among the barbarities of Ireland in the twelfth century, we are told by Mr. Orpen that the Irish had no legislature and no proper judicature. One wonders what sort of legislature Mr. Orpen imagines to have existed in England at that time, and whether he is aware that the English judicature was then only beginning to exist.
There is one feature of the Feudal settlement—if we may so call it—which is hard to place in its proper category—that is, to say whether it comes from systematic bad faith or merely from incapacity to act according to ordered notions of law. The Irish kings in general outside of Ulster made formal submission to Henry as their liege lord, and were received, as Giraldus says, into the protection of the most merciful king. This submission and reception constituted a solemn contract—the submitting kings became Henry’s vassals and he became bound to defend and maintain them in their rights. In not a single instance was this contract observed for a moment longer than the opportunity to violate it was delayed. The rights and possessions of the Irish vassal kings were straightway granted afresh to one or another of the new adventurers—and the new grants were not preceded or accompanied by the pretence of any escheatment or invalidation of the existing contract—so little importance was attached by Henry and John and their filibustering captains even to the outward appearances of law and order.
Let me give here an illustration of Mr. Orpen’s historical temper. He admits his difficulty in ascertaining the name of the king of the Ulaidh at the time of de Courci’s seizure of Downpatrick. What does it matter? he suggests. The surname, at all events, was MacDunlevy, and—these are his actual words—”the kings of this family were always killing one another.” It seems a strange manner of existence, but then, you understand, they were Irish and could manage it. There is just one instance of it in the annals, where one of the MacDunlevy kings, a man of evil life, was deposed and put to death by his kinsman. Possibly Mr. Orpen has confused the MacDunlevys with the Plantagenets.
Mr. Orpen gives an extended account of Irish law, with footnotes, references, and all the apparatus of learned exposition, compelling the respect and acquiescence of the less learned reader. Irish law, he tells us, was merely consecrated custom; implying by contrast that England and Normandy were at that time in the enjoyment of codes and statute books. In Irish law, we are told, there were no crimes. No breach of the law was regarded as an offence against the common-wealth, to be punished by the executive power of the State. The State did not interfere to enforce the law among the subjects. There were, in fact, no penalties. Every offence, from homicide down to the smallest breach of the peace was, in Irish law, merely a tort, a matter for civil litigation between the offended and the offender, and capable of being settled by an assessment of damages. But what was worse still was this, that when judgment was given and the damages assessed, there was no machinery for enforcing obedience to the decree; in legal phraseology, the law had no sanction. Unpopularity, the pressure of public opinion, some sort of boycotting, furnished the only resource of making men amenable to the law and the decrees of the courts. Credo quia impossibile!
It was not merely in twelfth-century Ireland that this wildly absurd legal system might be discovered by Alice from Wonderland, even though Giraldus Cambrensis completely failed to make a note of it. The thing was an essential vice of Celtic barbarism, and could be found in full bloom among the Gauls of Cæsar’s time. Celts are impossible people, and therefore quite capable of keeping an impossible and utterly negative system of law in full operation for twelve centuries and upwards. The child’s game of playing at law-courts which Irish brehons enjoyed in the twelfth century and afterwards had amused the druids of Gaul before the Christian era; and Cæsar himself is called into the witness-box. Certain forms of mental aberration are known to be infectious, and this may explain why all the great feudal lords of Ireland were fain in time to adopt this preposterous system of Celtic law with all its apparatus. Here is what Cæsar says about the druids and their judicature:
“Whosoever, be it a private individual or a people, does not obey their decree, is excluded from the sacred rites. This among them is a penalty of extreme severity. Those who are under this ban are classed among the impious and the criminal. All men abandon their society and shun their approach and conversation, lest they may suffer harm from contagion with them. When such men seek their legal right it is not rendered to them. When they seek any public office, it is not conferred on them.” Mr. Orpen’s comment on this passage is concise. “It was,” he says, “the primitive boycott.” The analogy which he thus brings down to date appears incomplete. If a man having a credit balance at the bank draws a cheque within the amount, he seeks a legal right. If that right is not rendered to him, there is something more than a boycott. Complete divestment of legal rights is not boycotting, it is attainder. It goes a long way beyond the greatest excesses of social ostracism that have been charged against the Land League or the Primrose League.
Mr. Orpen is not satisfied with this exposure of Celtic law at long and at large in his first volume. He repeats it in somewhat varied phrases in the second. Now mark how plain a tale shall put him down. In his search for this particular plum of the Celtophobe, he has travelled to the sixth book and thirteenth chapter of Cæsar’s history. Mr. Orpen’s historical method is identical with one of which I have had later experience, when I have seen the file of a periodical presented to the tribunal with a sentence here and a paragraph there marked by the blue pencil of a Crown Prosecutor. There is a first book in Cæsar’s Gallic War. It comes before the sixth book. The first episode related in the first book is doubtless familiar to Mr. Orpen since his school days, if the exigencies of the historical indictment of a nation have not compelled him to forget it. Let us recall that first episode of the Gallic War, bearing in mind all the time the doctrine that under Celtic law there were no crimes against the State, no sanction or penalty for breaches of the law except payments in composition, and no machinery for enforcing obedience.
The first episode in the Gallic War is the migration of the Helvetii. Cæsar tells us that this enterprise was undertaken by the Helvetian state at the instance of a great noble named Orgetorix, and that Orgetorix was commissioned to take charge of the preparations. Before all was ready, an accusation was brought forward against him of aiming at the subversion of the republican constitution of the state and at the usurpation of supreme power. This was not a tort, a matter for private litigation. The Helvetii, says Cæsar, according to their custom (it was, therefore, no exceptional proceeding) sought to compel Orgetorix to stand his trial under arrest [ex vinculis]. If found guilty, Cæsar adds, the penalty which he must duly incur was death by burning. Here we have the crime, the State tribunal, the executive authority, and the penalty fore-ordained; not exactly features of “the primitive boycott.” Orgetorix, we are told, was by far the greatest and wealthiest noble of his people. He stood in no fear of a boycott. Cæsar continues: “On the day fixed for the trial, Orgetorix gathered from every side and brought with him to the place of judgment all his slaves to the number of ten thousand, and all his dependents and rent-payers, of whom he had a great number. By this array, he extricated himself from being placed on trial.” Here was a crucial test of the question, whether there was or was not what Mr. Orpen calls “machinery” for enforcing the law. The State, says Cæsar, (civitas is his word) was provoked by this conduct and set about the enforcement of its law by force of arms. The magistrates, meaning in the Roman sense the principal officers of State, collected from the land a large body of men. But while this was going on, Orgetorix died; and it was suspected, so the Helvetii believe, that he committed suicide.
All this is related in the first four chapters of the first book of Cæsar’s Gallic War. It is not to the purpose, and so we are invited to judge the case from a blue-pencilled extract from book vi., chapter 13.
The notion of a system of Celtic law from which all cognisance of crimes as crimes, all State authority, all power of enforcement was absent, which had no sanction except public opinion exercised through boycotting, is borrowed from Sir Henry Maine’s “Early History of Institutions.” Sir Henry Maine, however eminent his authority, acquired this notion from an inspection of a portion of the Ancient Laws of Ireland. The sort of judicature which he happened to find there was that which was administered by the Irish brehons in courts of arbitration. Mr. Orpen shows familiarity with a much wider range of Irish literature in English translations. When he wrote his history, in which he claims expressly for himself the title of historian, he knew certain things, but the necessities of the case compelled him to forget he knew them. He knew quite well that the ancient literature in general ascribes the judicial function to every Irish king, the head of every Irish state, great or small. He knew that a hundred and a hundred times the good king is said to be a just judge, and the unjust judge is said to be a bad king. But when he assumes the rôle of historian, he puts the microscope to the blind eye, and, though he knows the facts are before it, he is unable to see and describe them. In the very chapter which contains his indictment of Irish law, he quotes Standish Hayes O’Grady’s fine collection of pieces of Irish medieval literature, the Silva Gadelica. I observe that his footnote refers the reader to the Irish text, not to the English translation, and the reader may conclude, if it please him, that Mr. Orpen is most at his ease among Irish originals. Since most of those for whom Mr. Orpen’s work is intended are not familiar readers of Middle Irish, I would refer them to the volume of the English translations, where they will be able to understand and verify. On page 288 we find how Cormac, a stripling, came to Tara, where in his father’s house the usurper MacCon held rule. When he arrived in the royal house, a lawsuit was in progress. The story proceeds thus:
“There was in Tara a she-hospitaller, Bennaid, whose roaming sheep came and ate up the queen’s crop of woad. The case was referred to Lughaidh [MacCon the king] for judgment, and his award was: the queen to have the sheep in lieu of the woad. ‘Nay,’ Cormac said, ‘the shearing of the sheep is a sufficient offset to the cropping of the woad; for both the one and the other will grow again.’ ‘That is the true judgment,’ all exclaimed: ‘a very prince’s son it is that has pronounced it!’ … MacCon’s rule in sooth was not good: the men of Ireland warned him off therefore and bestowed it on Cormac.”
Here, quite as a matter of course, we find a king sitting in judgment, without even a brehon for assessor, on a civil case of no great importance, a case of damage done by straying sheep. The king judged unfairly, not indeed because it was in his wife’s lawsuit, but because he made an award of excessive damages. His people deposed him and gave the kingship to the youth who proposed the fair award. And so intimately was the judicial office combined with the kingly office in the medieval Irish mind, that the capacity of judging rightly was thought to be hereditary in the royal blood: “A true judgment, he who pronounced it is in truth the son of a king!”
From this same work, cited by Mr. Orpen, I could quote example after example of the same fact, quite well known to Mr. Orpen, but “in the heat of hatching, the hen does not know an egg from a stone.” I could also cite a bookful of instances from the annals, the historical poems, the ancient stories, and other sources, showing that the ancient and medieval Irish were quite as familiar as were the magistrates of the Helvetian State with criminal jurisdiction and with penalties in every degree, including the death penalty, as the sanction of their laws.
The normal court of law in ancient Ireland was the king’s court, as the normal court in a Gaulish republic was the court of the magistrates of the republic. The druids’ tribunal in Gaul and the brehons’, also originally the druids’ tribunal, in Ireland, was a subsidiary institution. It did not carry with it the plenary powers of the regular tribunal, and therefore relied in part on the reverence of the people for justice—with regard to which we have the most remarkable testimony borne by Englishmen in Ireland at the time when Irish law was on the verge of total abolition. And one of these writers aptly says that nothing that the Irishman does, however praiseworthy, finds favour with a set of men who are his professional traducers.
The brehons were primarily jurists, and in their hands Irish law was elaborated and refined, its development in this respect being similar to the development of Roman law. They acted also as legal advisers to litigants, safeguarding the proper legal form of their proceedings. They acted also as assessors and advisers to the kings in court. When they sat as judges by themselves, their courts were at least theoretically tribunals of arbitration, but differed from the casual arbitrations of our time in having more of the character of institutions. It is probably true that after the Feudal invasion, and especially when Irish law was adopted by Feudal lords, the brehon’s court tended to supersede the court of king or lord as the normal instrument of judicature.
The story of Cormac introduces us to a king’s court held at the king’s place of abode and in his house. A higher and more ceremonial court was held by the king in the periodical assembly. This court of assembly was called by the name airecht, oireacht; the word is used to translate the Latin curia. “Suit of court” was an Irish no less than a Feudal institution. The kings or lords subject to a presiding king were expected to attend his airecht; and from this it comes that these subject lords are collectively called the king’s airecht, and by a further extension the name is given occasionally to their lands collectively. The whole of O’Catháin’s territory is called Airecht Ui Chatháin, and the territory of O’Connor Kerry still bears the name of Oireacht Ui Chonchobhuir, the barony of Iraghticonnor in Kerry.
The assembly was the focus of the people’s life. Kuno Meyer has published and translated into English an ancient tract called Tecosc Cormaic, “King Cormac’s Instruction to his Son.” Every student of early Irish institutions ought to read it. Many who read it will be surprised to find how modern was the mind of antiquity. One of the maxims which the king gives to his son is this: Vested interests are shameless. There is a truth in that for all peoples of all times, that has never elsewhere been so pithily expressed. The tract consists of a collection of maxims and counsels for a prince in his private and public conduct, and is cast in the form of a colloquy between the king and his son. Reading it, one comes to realise the importance held by the assembly and particularly the court of assembly, the airecht, in the minds of our ancestors. Those who wish to study the art of public speaking will find excellent canons of oratory and advocacy in Tecosc Cormaic; but they may be forewarned that the ancient standard has no mercy for rhetorical bombast, bounce, or any other device to obscure and mislead the exercise of right judgment by the audience.
The last effort of the people to maintain its assemblies can be seen in those “parles upon hills” which were so obnoxious to the Dublin government under Elizabeth. In place-names and other traditions we can still trace the old assembly places in most parts of the country. Not long ago, in the southern part of County Armagh, a man pointed out to me a smooth green rising ground, and said “The old people say there used to be a parliament there.” The old people are not far wrong. In these assemblies, laws were enacted, modified or confirmed, taxes and tributes were regulated. The men of lore came there with their poems in praise of the living and their stories of the olden times and their genealogies. Musicians came, and clowns with their antics, and sleight-of-hand men. The men of military age came with their arms for weapon-show and then laid their arms aside till the assembly ended. Traders from distant countries came to sell and buy. Horse races and other games were held. The general public, at least in the larger assemblies, were ranged and classed in divisions, and wooden galleries were set up to seat them. Streets of booths were set up for sleeping and eating, giving the place of assembly the temporary aspect of a town, and such towns were, I think, the cities named and placed in Ptolemy’s description of Ireland. The detailed account that is extant of the Leinster assembly at Carman, and the rare references in the annals to disturbance of assemblies show that order and peace were in general characteristic of these occasions.