Unfree Clans in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


DURING those fifteen hundred years preceding the Christian era, the other great nations of Europe, the Romans and the Greeks, were passing, by violent changes and bloody convulsions, through nearly every conceivable form of government—republics, confederations, empires, kingdoms, limited monarchies, despotisms, consulates, etc. During the like period (fifteen centuries) the one form of government, a limited monarchy, and the one dynasty, the Milesian, ruled in Ireland. The monarchy was elective, but elective out of the eligible members of the established or legitimate dynasty.

Indeed the principle of "legitimacy," as it is sometimes called in our times—the hereditary right of a ruling family or dynasty—seems from the earliest ages to have been devotedly, I might almost say superstitiously, held by the Irish. Wars for the crown, and violent changes of rulers, were always frequent enough; but the wars and the changes were always between members of the ruling family or "blood royal;" and the two or three instances to the contrary that. occur are so singularly strong in their illustration of the fact to which I have adverted, that I will cite one of them here.

The Milesians and the earlier settlers never completely fused. Fifteen hundred years after the Milesian landing, the Firbolgs, the Tuatha de Danaans, and the Milesians were still substantially distinct races or classes, the first being agriculturists or tillers of the soil, the second manufacturers and merchants, the third soldiers. and rulers. The exactions and oppressions of" the ruling classes at one time became so grievous that in the reign succeeding that of Creivan the Second, who was the ninety-ninth Milesian monarch of Ireland, a widespread conspiracy was organized for the overthrow and extirpation of the Milesian princes and aristocracy. After three years of secret preparation, everything being ready, the royal and noble Milesian families, one and all, were invited to a "monster meeting" for games, exhibitions, feastings, etc., on the plain of Knock Ma, in the county of Galway. The great spectacle had lasted nine days, when suddenly the Milesians were set upon by the Attacotti (as the Latin chroniclers called the conspirators), and massacred to a man. Of the royal line there escaped, however, three princes, children yet unborn. Their mothers, wives of" Irish princes, were the daughters respectively of the kings of Scotland, Saxony, and Brittany. They succeeded in escaping into Albion, where, the three young princes were born and educated. The successful conspirators raised to the throne Carbry the First, who reigned five years, during which time, say the chronicles, the country was. a prey to every misfortune; the earth refused to yield, the cattle gave no milk, the trees bore no fruit, the waters had no fish, and "the oak [1] had but one acorn." Carbry was succeeded by his son, Moran, whose name deservedly lives in Irish history as "Moran the Just." He refused to wear the crown, which belonged, he said, to the royal line that had been so miraculously preserved; and he urged that the rightful princes, who by this time had grown to man's estate, should be recalled. Moran's powerful pleading commended itself readily to the popular conscience, already disquieted by the misfortunes and evil omens which, as the people read them, had fallen upon the land since the legitimate line had been so dreadfully cut down. The young princes were recalled from exile, and one of them, Faradah the Righteous, was, amid great rejoicing, elected king of Ireland. Moran was appointed chief judge of Erinn, and under his administration of justice the land long presented a scene of peace, happiness, and contentment. To the gold chain of office which Moran wore on the judgment seat, the Irish for centuries subsequently attached supernatural powers. It was said that it would tighten around the neck of the judge if he was unjustly judging a cause! The dawn of Christianity found the Romans masters of nearly the whole of the known world. Britain, after a short struggle, succumbed, and eventually learned to love the yoke. Gaul, after a gallant effort, was also overpowered and held as a conquered province. But upon Irish soil the Roman eagles were never planted. Of Ireland, or Ierne, as they called it, of its great wealth and amazing beauty of scenery and richness of soil, the all-conquering Romans heard much. But they had heard also that the fruitful and beautiful island was peopled by a soldier race, and, judging them by the few who occasionally crossed to Alba to help their British neighbors, and whose prowess and skill the imperial legions had betimes to prove, the conquest of Ierne was wisely judged by the Romans to be a work better not attempted.

The early centuries of the Christian era may be considered the period pre-eminently of pagan bardic or legendary fame in Ireland. In this, which we may call the "Ossianic" period, lived Cuhal or Cumhal, father of the celebrated Fin Mac Cumhal, and commander of the great Irish legion called the Fiana Erion, or Irish militia. The Ossianic poems [2] recount the most marvelous stories of Fin and Fiana Erion, which stories are compounds of undoubted facts and manifest fictions, the prowess of the heroes being in the course of time magnified into the supernatural, and the figures and poetic allegories of the earlier bards gradually coming to be read as realities. Some of these poems are gross, extravagant, and absurd. Others of them are of rare beauty, and are, moreover, valuable for the insight they give, though obliquely, into the manners and customs, thoughts, feelings, guiding principles, and moving passions of the ancient Irish.


[1] Such was the deep faith the Irish had in the principle of legitimacy in a dynasty! This characteristic of nearly all the Celtic nations survives in all its force in the Jacobite Relics of Ireland, the outbursts of Irish national feeling seventeen hundred years subsequently. Ex. gr. Compare the above taken from an old chronicle of the period, with the well-known Jacobite song translated from the Irish by Callanan:

"No more the cuckoo hails the spring;
No more the woods with stanch hounds ring;
The sun scarce lights the sorrowing day,
Since the rightful prince is far away

[2] So called from their author, Oisin, or Ossian, the warrior poet, son of Fin, and grandson of Cuhal.