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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 14533

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Getting out of this earliest and foggiest period, whose only memorials are the stones which still cumber the ground, or those subtler traces of occupation of which philology keeps the key, and pushing aside a long and uncounted crowd of kings, with names as uncertain as their deeds, pushing aside, too, the legends and coming to hard fact, we must picture Ireland still covered for the most part with pathless forests, but here and there cleared and settled after a rude fashion by rough cattle-owning tribes, who herded their own cattle and "lifted" their neighbour's quite in the approved fashion of the Scotch Highlanders up to a century and a half ago.

Upon the whole, we may fairly conclude that matters were ameliorating more or less; that the wolves were being killed, the woods cleared--not as yet in the ferocious wholesale fashion of later days--that a little rudimentary agriculture showed perhaps here and there in sheltered places. Sheep and goats grazed then as now over the hills, and herds of cattle began to cover the Lowlands. The men, too, were possibly beginning to grow a trifle less like two-legged beasts of prey, though still rough as the very wolves they hunted; bare-legged, wild-eyed hunter-herdsmen with--who can doubt it?--flocks of children trooping vociferously at their heels.

Of the daily life, habits, dress, religion of these people--the direct ancestors of four-fifths of the present inhabitants of Ireland--we know unfortunately exceedingly little. It is not even certain, whether human sacrifices did or did not form--as they certainly did in Celtic Britain--part of that religion, though there is some evidence that it did, in which case prisoners taken in battle, or slaves, were probably the victims.

That a considerable amount of slavery existed in early Celtic Ireland is certain, though as to the rules by which it was regulated, as of almost every other detail of the life, we know little or nothing. At the time of the Anglo-Norman conquest Ireland was said to be full of English slaves carried off in raids along the coast, and these filibustering expeditions undoubtedly began in very early times. St. Patrick himself was thus carried off, and the annalists tell us that in the third century Cormac Mac Art ravaged the whole western coast of Britain, and brought away "great stores of slaves and treasures." To how late a period, too, the earlier conquered races of Ireland, such as the Formorians, continued as a distinct race from their Milesian conquerors, and whether they existed as a slave class, or, as seems more probable, as mere outcasts and vagabonds out of the pale of humanity, liable like the "Tory" of many centuries later, to be killed whenever caught; all these are matters on which we have unfortunately only the vaguest hints to guide us.

The whole texture of society must have been loose and irregular to a degree that it is difficult for us now to conceive, without central organization or social cement of any kind. In one respect--that of the treatment of his women--the Irish Celt seems to have always stood in favourable contrast to most of the other rude races which then covered the north of Europe, but as regards the rest there was probably little difference. Fighting was the one aim of life. Not to have washed his spear in an adversary's gore, was a reproach which would have been felt by a full-grown tribesman to have carried with it the deepest and most lasting ignominy. The very women were not in early times exempt from war service, nay, probably would have scorned to be so. They fought beside their husbands, and slew or got slain with as reckless a courage as the men, and it was not until the time of St. Columba, late in the sixth century, that a law was passed ordering them to remain in their homes--a fact which alone speaks volumes both for the vigour and the undying pugnacity of the race.

While, on the one hand, we can hardly thus exaggerate the rudeness of this life, we must be careful, on the other, of concluding that these people were simple barbarians, incapable of discriminating right from wrong. Men, even the wildest, rarely indeed live entirely without some law to guide them, and certainly it was so in Ireland. A rule was growing up and becoming theoretically at any rate, established, many of the provisions of which startle us by the curious modernness of their tone, so oddly do they contrast with what we know of the condition of civilization or non-civilization then existing.

Although this ancient Irish law was not drawn up until long after the introduction of Christianity, it seems best to speak of it here, as, though modified by the stricter Christian rule, it in the main depended for such authority as it possessed upon traditions existing long before; traditions regarded indeed by Celtic scholars as tracing their origin beyond the arrival of the first Celt in Ireland, outcomes and survivals, that is to say, of yet earlier Aryan rule, showing points of resemblance with the equally Aryan laws of India, a matter of great interest, carrying our thoughts back along the history of humanity to a time when those differences which seem now the most inherent and vital were as yet undreamt of, and not one of the great nations of the modern world were as much as born.

The two chief books in which this law is contained, the "Book of Aicill" and the "Senchus-Mor," have only comparatively recently been translated and made available for English readers. The law as there laid down was drawn up and administered by the Brehons, who were the judges and the law-makers of the people, and whose decision was appealed to in all matters of dispute. The most serious flaw of the system--a very serious one it will be seen--was that, owing to the scattered and tribal existence prevailing, there was no strong central rule behind the Brehon, as there is behind the modern judge, ready and able to enforce his decrees. At bottom, force, it must not be forgotten, is the sanction of all law, and there was no available force of any kind then, nor for many a long day afterwards, in Ireland.

It was, no doubt, owing chiefly to this defective weakness that a system of fines rather than punishments grew up, one which in later times caused much scandal to English legal writers. In such a society crime in fact was hardly recognizable except in the form of an injury inflicted upon some person or persons. An offence against the State there could not be, simply because there was no State to be offended. Everything, from murder down to the smallest and most accidental injury, was compensated for by "erics" or fines. The amount of these fines was decided upon by the Brehon, who kept an extraordinary number of imaginary rulings, descending into the most minute particulars, such as what fine was to be paid in the case of one person's cat stealing milk from another person's house, what fine in the case of one woman's bees stinging another woman, a careful distinction being preserved in this case between the case in which the sting did or did not draw blood! Even in the matter of fines it does not seem clear how the penalty was to be enforced where the person on whom it was inflicted refused to submit and where there was

no one at hand to coerce him successfully.

As regards ownership of land early Irish law is very peculiar, and requires to be carefully studied. Primogeniture, regarded by all English lawyers trained under the feudal system as the very basis of inheritance, was simply unknown. Even in the case of the chieftain his rights belonged only to himself, and before his death a re-election took place, when some other of the same blood, not necessarily his eldest son, or even his son at all, but a brother, first cousin, uncle, or whoever stood highest in the estimation of the clan, was nominated as "Tanist" or successor, and received promises of support from the rest.

Elizabethan writers mention a stone which was placed upon a hill or mound having the shape of a foot cut on it, supposed to be that of the first chief or ancestor of the race, "upon which stone the Tanist placing his foot, took oath to maintain all ancient customs inviolably, and to give up the succession peaceably to his Tanist in due time."

The object of securing a Tanist during the lifetime of the chief was to hinder its falling to a minor, or some one unfit to take up the chieftainship, and this continued to prevail for centuries after the Anglo-Norman invasion, and was even adopted by many owners of English descent who had become "meere Irish," as the phrase ran, or "degenerate English."

"The childe being oftentimes left in nonage," says Campion, "could never defend his patrimony, but by the time he grow to a competent age and have buried an uncle or two, he also taketh his turn," a custom which, as he adds, "breedeth among them continual warres."

The entire land belonged to the clan, and was held theoretically in common, and a redistribution made on the death of each owner, though it seems doubtful whether so very inconvenient an arrangement could practically have been adhered to. All sons, illegitimate as well as legitimate, shared and shared alike, holding the property between them in undivided ownership. It was less the actual land than the amount of grazing it afforded which constituted its value. Even to this day a man, especially in the West of Ireland, will tell you that he has "the grass of three cows," or "the grass of six cows," as the case may be.

It is curious that the most distinct ancient rules concerning the excessive extortion of rent are, as has been shown by Sir Henry Maine, to be found in the "Senchus Mor." Under its regulations three rents are enumerated--namely, the rack rent to be extorted from one of a strange tribe; the fair rent from one of the same tribe; and the stipulated rent to be paid equally to either. The Irish clan or sept was a very loose, and in many cases irregular, structure, embracing even those who were practically undistinguishable from slaves, yet from none of these could any but fair or customary rent be demanded. It was only when those who by no fiction could be supposed to belong to the clan sought for land that the best price attainable might be extorted and insisted upon.

In so primitive a state of society such persons were almost sure to be outcasts, thrown upon the world either by the breaking up of other clans or by their own misdoings. A man of this class was generally what was known as a "Fuidhar" or "broken man," and answered in some respects to the slave or the serf of the early English village community. Like him he seems to have been his lord's or chief's chattel, and if killed or injured the fine or "eric" was paid not to his own family, but to his master. Such men were usually settled by the chief upon the unappropriated tribal lands over which his own authority tended to increase. This Fuidhar class from the first seem to have been very numerous, and depending as they did absolutely upon the chief, there grew up by degrees that class of armed retainers--kerns and galloglasses, they were called in later times--who surrounded every important chief, whether of English or Irish descent, and were by them quartered forcibly in war time upon others, and so there grew up that system of "coyne and livery," or forced entertainment for horse and men, which is to be met with again and again throughout Irish history, and which undoubtedly was one of the greatest curses of the country, tending more perhaps than any other single cause to keep its people at the lowest possible condition of starvation and misery.

No system of representation seems ever to have prevailed in Ireland. That idea is, in fact, almost purely Teutonic, and seems never to have sprung up spontaneously amongst any Celtic people. The family was the real root. Every head of a family ruled his own household, and submitted in his turn to the rule of his chief. Blood-relationship, including fosterage, was the only real and binding union; that larger connection known as the clan or sept, having the smaller one of the family for its basis, as was the case also amongst the clans of the Scotch highlands. Theoretically, all members of a clan, high and low alike, were held to be the descendants of a common ancestor, and in this way to have a real and direct claim upon one another. If a man was not in some degree akin to another he was no better than a beast, and might be killed like one without compunction whenever occasion arose.

Everything thus began and centred around the tribe or sept. The whole theory of life was purely local. The bare right of existence extended only a few miles from your own door, to the men who bore the same name as yourself. Beyond that nothing was sacred; neither age nor sex, neither life nor goods, not even in later times the churches themselves. Like his cousin of the Scotch Highlands, the Irish tribesman's life was one perpetual carnival of fighting, burning, raiding, plundering, and he who plundered oftenest was the finest hero.

All this must be steadily borne in mind as it enables us to understand, as nothing else will, that almost insane joy in and lust for fighting, that marked inability to settle down to orderly life which runs through all Irish history from the beginning almost to the very end.

Patriotism, too, it must be remembered, is in the first instance only an idea, and the narrowest of local jealousies may be, and often are, forms merely of the same impulse. To men living in one of these small isolated communities, each under the rule of its own petty chieftain, it was natural and perhaps inevitable that the sense of connection with those outside their own community should have been remarkably slight, and of nationality, as we understand the word, quite non-existent. Their own little circle of hills and valleys, their own forests and pasturage was their world, the only one practically of which they had any cognizance. To its scattered inhabitants of that day little Ireland must have seemed a region of incalculable extent, filled with enemies to kill or to be killed by; a region in which a man might wander from sunrise to sunset yet never reach the end, nay, for days together without coming to a second sea. As Greece to a Greek of one of its smaller states it seemed vast simply because he had never in his own person explored its limits.


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