Grades and Groups of Society

Patrick Weston Joyce

43. The people were divided into classes, from the king down to the slave, and the Brehon law took cognisance of all—setting forth their rights, duties and privileges. These classes were not castes; for under certain conditions persons could pass from one to the next above. There were five main classes:— (1) Kings of various grades from the king of the tuath or cantred up to the king of Ireland; (2) Nobles; (3) Freemen with property: (4) Freemen without property (or with very little); (5) The non-free classes. The first three were the privileged classes: a person belonging to these was an aire [arra] or chief.

44. The nobles were those who had land as their own property, for which they did not pay rent. Part of this land they held in their own hands and tilled by the labour of the non-free classes: part they let to tenants. An aire of this class was called a flaith [flah], i.e. a noble, a chief, a prince.

A person belonging to the third class of Aire, a non-noble rent-paying freeman with property, had no land of his own; his property consisting of cattle and other movable goods; hence he was called a bo-aire, i.e. a cow-aire. A bo-aire rented land from a flaith; thus taking rank as a free tenant; and he grazed his cattle partly on this and partly on the "commons" grazing land. The bo-aires had certain allowances and privileges according to rank. Among their allowances were a share in the mill and in the kiln of the district, and fees for witnessing contracts and for other legal functions.

45. The Brugh-fer or Brugaid [broo-fer: broo-ey] was an interesting official of the bo-aire class. He was a public hospitaller, bound to keep an open house for the reception of strangers. There should be a number of open roads leading to his house; and he had to keep a light burning on the lawn at night to guide travellers. He had free land and large allowances for the support of the expenses of his house; and he was much honoured.

46. The next class, the fourth, the freemen without property, were free tenants; they differed from the bo-aires only in not possessing property in herds—for the bo-aires were themselves rent-payers; and accordingly, a man of the fourth class became a bo-aire if he accumulated property enough. These freemen without property and the non-free classes will be treated of in next Chapter.

47. The people were formed into groups of various sizes from the family upwards. The family was the group consisting of the living parents and all their descendants. The Sept was a larger group descended from common parents long since dead. All the members of a sept were nearly related, and in later times bore the same surname. The Clan or house was still larger. Clann means children, and the word therefore implied descent from one ancestor. The Tribe was made up of several septs or clans, and usually claimed, like the subordinate groups, to be descended from a common ancestor. But as strangers were often adopted into all the groups, there was much admixture; and the theory of common descent became in great measure a fiction.

48. Septs, clans, and tribes were governed by chiefs: the chief of a tribe had jurisdiction over the chiefs of the several clans or septs composing the tribe, and received tribute from them. If the territory occupied by the tribe was sufficiently extensive, the ruling flaith was a Ri [ree] or king: the tuath or cantred was the smallest territory whose ruler was called a Ri. There were 184 tuaths in all Ireland, but probably all had not kings.

There was a regular gradation of sub-kingdoms from the tuath upwards. Some were very large, such as Tyrone, Tirconnell, Thomond, Desmond, Ossory, &c., each of which comprised several tribes.

49. Each of the five provinces—Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Meath—had a king; this is commonly known as the Pentarchy. These five provincial kings had sovereignty over the sub-kings of their several provinces, all of whom owed them tribute and war service.

Lastly there was the Ard-ri or supreme monarch of all Ireland. He had sovereignty over the provincial kings, who were bound to pay him tribute and attend him in war.

50. The following are the main features of the ancient territorial divisions of the country. It was parcelled out into five provinces from the earliest times of which we have any record:— Leinster, Ulster, Connaught, and the two Munsters. Laighin [Layen] or Leinster extended from the Suir to Inver Colpa (the mouth of the Boyne); Ulaid [Ulla] or Ulster from the Boyne round northwards to the little river Drowes between Donegal and Leitrim; Olnegmacht or Connaught from the Drowes to Limerick and the Shannon; The two Munsters, viz., the province of Curoi Mac Dara from Limerick to Cork and westward to the coasts of Cork and Kerry, and the province of Achy Avraroe from Cork to the mouth of the Suir. It is stated that these provinces met at the hill of Ushnagh in Westmeath.

51. This division became modified in course of time. A new province—that of Mide or Meath—was created in the second century by Tuathal the Legitimate king of Ireland, who formed it by cutting off a portion of each of the other provinces round the hill of Ushnagh (101). Murthemne, now the county Louth, was transferred from Ulster to Leinster; the present county Cavan, which originally belonged to Connaught, was given to Ulster; and the territory now known as the county Clare was wrested from Connaught and annexed to Munster. The two Munsters ceased to be distinguished, and the whole province was known by the name of Muman or Munster. A better known subdivision of Munster was into Thomond or North Munster, which broadly speaking included Tipperary, Clare, and North Limerick; and Desmond or South Munster, comprising Kerry, Cork, Waterford, and South Limerick. In recent times Meath has disappeared as a province; and the original provinces remain:— Leinster, Ulster, Connaught, and Munster.

52. With the object of avoiding the evils of a disputed sucession, the person to succeed a king or chief was often elected by the tribe during the lifetime of the king or chief himself; when elected he was called the Tanist. The person who was generally looked upon as the king's successor, whether actually elected tanist or not—the heir apparent—was commonly called the Roydamna.

The king or chief was always elected from members of one family, bearing the same surname: but the succession was not hereditary in our sense of the word; it was elective with the above limitation of being confined to one . family. Any freeborn member of the family was eligible: the tanist might be brother, son, nephew, cousin, &c., of the chief. That member was chosen who was considered best able to lead in war, and govern in peace and he should be free from all personal deformities or blemishes.