Irish Tribal System

We shall first define the words sept, clan, tribe. The term “sept” applied to a number of families nearly related. The word “clan” embraced a number of septs, and referred to people descended from a common ancestor, but who in course of time became distant relatives. A “tribe” comprised many clans. The tribal unit was not the individual, or the family, but a number of families closely related to one another.

There were five grades of society: (1) kings, (2) nobles, (3) tribesmen possessing property, (4) freemen with little or no property, (5) the non-free classes.

1. There were four and at one time five provincial kings. One of these was ard-righ or high king, who exercised sovereignty over the others. The provincial kings were bound to pay tribute to, and aid in time of war, the ard-righ by supplying men and armaments. (This they often refused to do). Besides the tribute levied on the provincial kings a quantity of mensal land was set apart for the maintenance of the ard-righ. This land always belonged to the reigning sovereign. The County of Meath was the mensal land until five provincial kings were created. Each provincial king and also each chieftain was endowed with mensal land, which, after his death, became the property of his successor. The quantity of land owned by a king or chief varied in proportion to the extent of territory under his dominion. Sir John Davis gives a full account of Maguire’s possessions in the County of Fermanagh. “Maguire’s mensal lands,” he says, “lay in several baronies, and did not exceed four ballybetaghs. They were free from charges of the country, because they yielded a large proportion of butter and meal and other provisions for Maguire’s table. Besides these food rents (from the mensal lands) Maguire had about 240 beeves yearly paid unto him out of the seven baronies, and about his Castle at Enniskillen he had about a half ballybetagh which he tilled with his own churls.” A ballybetagh contained 3,500 statute acres.

2. Nobles, or Flaiths, held their lands as private property. There were various degrees of this class, to which may be added judges, poets, historians, physicians, etc., who got the land as stipends for their professional services, and the succession in these cases was hereditary.

3. Every tribesman was a freeman, and the land belonged to the tribe, not to the chief or king. Each sept had a certain quantity of land assigned to it—as much as it needed. There was plenty of land for the population of the country at that time. The pasture and waste land was held in common, each family having the right to graze a certain number of cattle upon it. The Gael did not apply themselves much to tillage, and tillage operations seem to have been carried out in this way: The heads of each sept met every year and marked a plot to be tilled for each family. We cannot say whether the plot was tilled a second year, but when it ceased to be tilled it reverted to common use. The former owner returned to his plot, when, by rotation, it was laid down again under tillage. This ensured careful cultivation. At the break down of the tribal system, each family claimed the plots they were accustomed to till, and at the present time in remote parts of the country we see the farms not all of one piece, but fields here and there, in the midst of their neighbour’s land. This is a relic of the old tribal system.

Every tribesman paid a yearly subsidy, or rent, to his chief, which was always in kind, and was about one animal for every seven.

4. The fourth class was composed of freemen, with no property, or very little. To this class belonged what were called saer ceiles, and daer ceiles. The saer ceile was a man of better position than a daer ceile. The former had generally some stock of his own, and became a dairyman to a chief or noble. The saer ceile was not oppressed or treated harshly or burdened with too heavy rent. Many laws were enacted for his protection, and these are contained in the Senchus Mor. The chiefs or nobles (Flaith) derived a large portion of their incomes from letting their lands to saer ceiles.

The daer ceile was not treated so well, as he had to bear a heavy rent, and was also bound to provide refection for the noble or chief and retinue during their excursions, or while they attended the chase in his neighbourhood. This was called coinmed. The Norman lords adopted the custom and even improved on it, and called it coyne and livery. They quartered their armed soldiers on the farmers, who were guilty of plunder and worse abuses.

5. The fifth class were simply slaves. Slavery continued in the country to a comparatively recent time. A slave traffic was carried on between England and Ireland for a long period, and Bristol was the principal port. The slaves were employed by the chiefs and nobles in cultivating their mensal lands and herding their cattle. Some of them, after faithful service, may have become daer ceiles, and eventually gained their freedom.

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