Irish Customs

Patrick Weston Joyce

82. Arms and Armour. The Irish employed two kinds of foot-soldiers: Galloglachs or Galloglasses and Kern. The galloglasses were heavy-armed infantry. They wore a coat of mail and an iron helmet; a long sword hung by the side, and in the hand was carried a broad heavy keen-edged axe. The Irish never took to armour very generally, but preferred to fight in saffron linen tunics, which lost them many a battle. The Kern were light-armed foot-soldiers: they wore head pieces, and fought with a skean, i. e. a dagger or short sword, and with a javelin attached to a thong.

83. "It is curious that bows and arrows are very seldom mentioned in our old writings: and the passages that are supposed to refer to them are so indistinct, that if we had no other evidence it might be difficult to prove that the use of the bow was known at all to the ancient Irish. However the matter is placed beyond dispute by the fact that flint arrow-heads are found in the ground in various parts of the country." *

In prehistoric ages, hammers, axes, spear-heads and arrow-heads were made of flint or other stone. Next came bronze axes, spear-heads, and swords. Lastly, swords, daggers, and spears of iron and steel. Shields were made of wicker-work covered with hides; also of yew and bronze.

84. Chariots and Roads. Our literature affords unquestionable evidence that chariots were used in Ireland from the most remote ages. The war chariots had spikes and scythe-blades like those of the ancient Britons.

That the country was well provided with roads we know, partly from our ancient literature, and partly from the general use of chariots. There were five main roads leading from Tara through the country in different directions; and numerous minor roads—all with distinct names—are mentioned in the annals.

85. Boats. The ancient Irish used three kinds of boats:—small sailing vessels; canoes hollowed out from the trunks of trees; and currachs. The currach was made of wicker-work covered with hides. These boats are constantly mentioned in lay as well as in ecclesiastical literature; and they are used still round the coasts, but tarred canvas is employed instead of skins.

86. Mills. Water-mills were known from very remote ages, and were more common in ancient than in modern times. In most houses there was a quern or hand-mill, and the use of it was part of the education of every woman of the working class. The quern continued in use until very recently both in Ireland and Scotland.

87. Burial. Three modes of disposing of the dead were practised in ancient Ireland. First mode: the body was buried as at present. Second: sometimes the body of a king or warrior was placed standing up in the grave, fully accoutred and armed. Third: the body was burned and the ashes were deposited in the grave in an ornamental urn of baked clay.

88. Often that sort of stone monument now known as a cromlech was constructed, formed of one great flat stone lying on the tops of several large standing stones, thus enclosing a rude chamber in which one or more bodies or urns were placed. These cromlechs—which are sometimes wrongly called druids' altars—remain in every part of Ireland; and skeletons, and urns containing burnt bones, have been found under many of them.

A mound of stones raised over a grave is called a cairn. In old times people had a fancy to bury on the tops of hills; and the summits of very many hills in Ireland are crowned with cairns, under every one of which—in a stone coffin—reposes some chief renowned in the olden time. Sometimes these mounds were of clay. All contain chambers. The greatest mounds in Ireland are those of Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth, on the Boyne, five miles above Drogheda.

At the burial of important persons funeral games were celebrated: these gave origin to many of the Aenachs or fairs.

89. Fosterage. One of the leading features of Irish social life was fosterage, which prevailed from the remotest period. It was practised by persons of all classes, but more especially by those in the higher ranks. A man sent his child to be reared and educated in the home and with the family of another member of the tribe, who then became foster father, and his children the foster brothers and foster sisters of the child. Fosterage, which was the closest tie between families, was subject to stringent regulations, which were carefully set forth in the Brehon Law.

90. Gossipred. When a man stood sponsor for a child at baptism he became the child's godfather and gossip to the parents. Gossipred was regarded as a sort of religious relationship between families, and created mutual obligations of regard and friendship.

91. Public assemblies. In early times when means of intercommunication were very limited, it was important that the people should hold meetings to discuss divers affairs affecting the public weal, and for other business of importance. In Ireland popular assemblies and meetings of representatives were very common, and were called by various names—Fes, Dal, Mordal, Aenach, etc. They were continued to a late period.

The Aenach or Fair was an assembly of the people of every class belonging to a district or province. Some fairs were annual; some triennial. According to the most ancient traditions, many of these Aenachs—perhaps all —had their origin in funeral games; and we know as a fact that the most important of them were held at ancient cemeteries, where kings or renowned heroes or other noted personages of history or legend were buried. Fairs were held at Tlachtga, now the hill of Ward near Athboy in Meath; Tailltenn, now Teltown midway between Navan and Kells; and at many other places. At all these meetings national games were celebrated.

92. The most celebrated of all the ancient meetings was the Fes or Convention of Tara. The old tradition states, that it was instituted by Ollamh Fodla [Ollav Fola]. It was originally held, or intended to be held, every third year; but since the fourth or fifth century, it was generally convened only once by each king, namely at the beginning of his reign.

This Fes was a convention of the leading people, not an aenach for the masses; and it represented all Ireland. The provincial kings, the minor kings and chiefs, and the most distinguished representatives of the learned professions—the ollaves of history, law, poetry, etc.—attended. It lasted for seven days, from the third day before Samin (1st November) to the third day after it. The delegates met to consider the Government of the country. The king of Ireland feasted the company every day: there was a separate compartment for the representatives of each province with their numerous attendants; and each guest had his special place assigned according to rank. The last convention was held here by king Dermot the son of Fergus, A. D. 560.

At the Fes of Tara, as well indeed as at all other important meetings, elaborate precautions were taken to prevent quarrels or unpleasantness of any kind. Any one who struck or wounded another, used insulting words, or stole anything, was punished with death; and all persons who attended were free for the time from prosecution and from legal proceedings of every kind.

* See my Irish Names of Places, Vol. II., Chap. XI.