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A New History of Ireland
By Christine Kinealy
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Christine Kinealy
All rights reserved.
The Coming of Christianity
c. Fifth to Eighth Centuries
Before the arrival of Patrick and Christianity in the fifth century, Ireland had a vibrant culture and civilisation. Waves of settlers, most notably the Celts and Goidels, had contributed to the island's rich oral and artistic traditions. The emergence of Christianity coincided with a golden age of Irish scholarship, which was spread throughout Europe largely by the missionary activities of Irish monks.
This chapter examines the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland, in particular its role in shaping Irish culture and religious practices, and its contribution to the spread of learning within Europe. At the same time, the response of Irish kings to the spread of Christianity is considered.
Early Christian Society
An appropriate starting point for understanding modern Irish history is the fifth century, not merely because it coincides with the life of St Patrick, but also because it marks the appearance of written documents. Moreover, in varying degrees since the fifth century, Christianity has shaped Irish society. Although the coming of Christianity to Ireland was sometimes attributed to the endeavours of Patrick, Irish Christianity predated him. According to one chronicle, Pope Celestine ordained Palladius the first bishop in Ireland in 431. Patrick's contribution, however, was to consolidate and extend Christianity's hold.
When Patrick was taken into slavery in Ireland it was a Celtic country, with a population of about one million, but possibly less. It was criss-crossed with a network of roads, a disproportionate number of which led to Tara, the seat of the Irish high king. The poor usually lived in small huts, often made of clay. The homes of the rich were erected on raised mounds and were usually built of wood or stone, with straw roofs. Kings and other powerful members of society lived in protected dwellings, in ring-forts or on lake dwellings known as crannogs. Agriculture was the main occupation of the people, both livestock and tillage, including wheat, oats, barley and flax. The importance of livestock as an indicator of status and wealth was evident from the fact that a person's rank was measured in terms of the number of cows that he or she owned. Entertainment was varied, ranging from storytelling, singing and playing instruments to chariot racing, horse racing and hurling. Some external observers, however, described the favourite pastimes of the Irish as quarrelling and war.
Ireland in the fifth century possessed a vibrant culture and civilisation. The country's development had been shaped by waves of settlers, most notably the Celts (or Goídil), who had contributed to the island's rich oral and artistic traditions. According to some narratives, the Celts had come to Ireland in four main waves, that is, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Goídil or Milesians. They first arrived in Ireland from central Europe in the sixth century BC and the last colonisation occurred about 150 BC. At this stage the Celts already controlled much of central and western Europe and Ireland marked the concluding phase of their westward expansion. The Goídil were the final wave of Celtic invaders to reach Ireland. They spoke a variety of Celtic known as Q-Celt (earlier settlers had spoken P-Celt). The Goídil also settled in the Isle of Man and Scotland. The exact origins of the word Goídil are uncertain; it is either derived from the Welsh word Gwyddel, meaning Irishman, or the Irish Gaedhilg, meaning 'Gaelic'. The Goídil were also referred to as Milesians after their leader, Mil Espaine. According to legend, Mil was fleeing from the Roman invasion of his territory in the Iberian peninsula. His successors became the dominant ruling family in Ireland, establishing two main settlements at Tara and at Cashel.
By the fifth century, when Christianity appeared in Ireland, the European Celts had been dispersed and pushed to the western fringes of their empire. The scattered Celtic groups, though, shared a common language, religious beliefs and a similar social organisation. In Ireland the descendants of the Goídil were the dominant group. Increasingly, the Irish people described their ethnicity as 'Gael' and this designation increased following the arrival of the Norsemen. An impression was thereby given of the unity and longevity of the Irish race. Just as significantly, the language of the Goidels, known as Celt, had become the common language of Ireland. Ireland, therefore, remained a stronghold of Celtic culture, its influence being only slowly replaced by the coming of Christianity. Despite being displaced by Christianity in Ireland, the Celts retained an important cultural influence. Their legacy was particularly evident in art and jewellery (such as torques and collars) and in the legends and heroic tales – all of which shared customs and traditions that linked Irish Celts with Celts elsewhere. Unfortunately, it was not until the seventh century that written records were made of the vibrant literature or laws of Ireland, which until that date had been preserved only in oral traditions and passed on by storytellers and poets.
Within Celtic society a high value was placed on scholarship, even though written records were not used. The respect for learning and learned men (and women) meant that kings were not absolute; Druids, poets (fili) and Brehons (see p. 16) all had special status. They were regarded as the possessors and protectors of the collective wisdom of the people, which was a gift to be given to each succeeding generation. Their wisdom was preserved and passed on in special Druidic schools. The scholars also played a role in guiding the kings, especially on issues to do with law, genealogy, succession and spiritual matters. A Druid, a poet or a Brehon often adjudicated on judgments made by a king. Usually, a Druid would sit on the right hand of the king and only after he had spoken could the king speak. In matters of law the Brehons would arbitrate and make a judgment based on a complex system known as the Brehon Laws. They would also teach the law to pupils and thus ensure it was passed on to the next generation. If a Brehon issued a wrong or careless judgment, there was a belief that he or she would be punished by nature, nature being both the giver and final arbitrator of all legal matters. Some of the laws were recorded as poems or chants, which made their oral transmission easier. After 550, however, some Irish law texts were committed to writing.
Life at this time was precarious. If internecine warfare or belligerent incursions did not prove to be lethal, then famine, generally caused by bad weather or the plague, frequently could be. Poor food harvests were commonplace in this period, which resulted in food shortages, sickness and mortality. A serious famine lasted for three years between 698 and 700, and was followed by a period of disease. Pestilence was also commonplace. There was a plague in 549, but it was overshadowed by the great plague of 664–6: also known as the 'Yellow Plague', it probably resulted from a virulent form of jaundice, and it had wiped out a good deal of Europe before it reached Ireland. It has been estimated that up to a third of the population perished at this time. Because so many rulers died, it changed the political face of the country. The death toll included Blathmac and Diarmait, the joint high kings of Tara, who both died of plague. Large-scale mortality also resulted from a smallpox epidemic in 742–3. In 773 a widespread drought resulted in famine. As proved to be the case so often, disease followed the famine, and in 774 there was a dysentery outbreak; it returned in 777 and 778. More disasters followed: in 778–9 hunger resulted from cattle disease; in 779 there was famine and smallpox; and in 783 and 786 an influenza epidemic appeared in Ireland. The demographic consequences of plague and famine were serious, as the recovery in population growth was often slow. A consequence of this period of catastrophes was that the population remained fairly static. Some commentators attributed the disasters to overpopulation, while others believed the deaths were caused by the hand of God. In such perilous conditions it is not surprising that the pagan Irish, in common with most societies, placed a great emphasis on pleasing the gods of the harvest and fertility. And, as Christianity spread, the taking on tour of relics, which were believed to have healing powers, became popular. Often the relics were the remains of the founders of a monastery, and this became a lucrative source of income for monasteries.
When Patrick arrived in Ireland, the country was divided into eight main kingdoms: the Midlands of Leinster, ruled by the Leinster Goídil, with their royal seat at Tara; Connacht, ruled by the Tara Goídil; South Leinster, ruled by the Laginians, renowned for their independence; the north-west triple kingdom of Tír Conaill, Tír Enda and Tír Eóghain, associated with Niall of the Nine Hostages; Airgialla in central Ulster, which had been ruled by the Fir Bolg; Munster, ruled by the Munster Goídil, whose royal seat was at Cashel; Dal nAraidi in east Ulster, ruled by the Cruthin; and finally, the small kingdom of Dal Ríanta on the northern coast, also ruled by the Fir Bolg. These kingdoms were all subdivided into smaller territories known as tuatha, each ruled over by a king or chief. They governed with the help of an assembly known as an aonach, which was open to freemen within the community. Joint assemblies were also held between the provincial kingdoms.
Like all early Indo-European societies, early Celtic society was highly stratified and based on a number of political and social hierarchies. Each group had different functions and rights. Kings were at the top and slaves at the bottom of the social structure. Below the level of kings there were distinct hierarchies, although each group contained multiple subdivisions. The highest levels comprised nobles and freemen, which included both landowners and craftsmen. Scholars, who included Druids, bards, Brehons and poets, were highly ranked in society. The 'non-free' classes, on the other hand, which included slaves, labourers and workmen, had neither status nor political power. Although there was some social mobility, it could take generations to move upwards. Inevitably, downward movement was far easier.
Society was organised around a number of small kingdoms, or tuatha, and they continued to be the basic political unit until around 600. A tuath was hard to define in terms of simply territory, but for people within a tuath the common bond was that the same king governed them and they saw themselves as being distinct from other groups. Within the tuath the basic social unit was the kin group, which was usually defined by having a grandfather (or older forebear) in common. Descent often gave status and sometimes genealogies were fabricated in order to prove a prestigious lineage. Kinship, like kingship, imposed certain expectations and responsibilities. Kinsmen were liable for each other's offences and therefore liable to pay compensation if the original offender failed to do so. Two responsibilities that cut across all social divisions were the concepts of honour and loyalty. The concept of honour was central in Celtic society. Breaches of honour had to be compensated in full 'body-price', that is, according to the rank, and therefore value, of the offender. If honour was offended, there was an 'honour-price' to be paid. Like many other aspects of society, the system was complex and hierarchical, with kings receiving the highest honour-price. From the seventh century the concept of enech, literally 'face' but in reality honour, was recognised by Irish law. Compensation was known as eneclann, that is, 'face-cleansing'. If the injured party was dead, compensation would be paid to his or her kinspeople, with the closest relatives receiving the highest amount. Children aged under fourteen had no legal responsibility.
Hostage taking was a means of allowing people to be used as sureties or human pledges to ensure the fulfilment of a contract. Following the inauguration of a new king, or the acquisition of land by one, high-ranking hostages would be given to guarantee loyalty and submission. They were often related to the people proffering submission, including daughters and even wives. Fostering was a commonplace way of rearing and educating children. It was also used to cement alliances between various groups. Fostering usually involved boys aged from seven to seventeen (when boys were believed to have reached maturity) and girls between seven and fourteen (when girls could marry). There were two main forms: altramm serce, that is, fostering for affection for which there was no fee, and fostering for a fee. In the latter cases, the fosterage fee, iarraith, provided revenue for the foster parents. As with so much in Celtic society, the fee reflected the wealth and status of the father of the child. The fosterage fee for girls was higher than for boys. The way in which the child was raised and educated also reflected the social status of the child's family. Fostering created filial obligations as strong as natural ones and they were lifelong. The foster child, for example, was expected to look after his or her adoptive parents in old age. It was therefore a further way of ensuring loyalty and cementing social responsibility.
Gender divisions in Celtic society were most evident among the poorest classes, where women had little overt power. Educated women, however, could enter any profession, and they were respected for their scholarship. Prominent female judges included Bríg Bríugaid and Áine ingine Iugairu. In the tenth century Ulluach was for a time the chief bard of Ireland. It was even acceptable for Irish women to lead their clan's people into war. This right was abolished at the Synod of Birr in 697, which forbade women to be military commanders. The Synod also passed the 'Law of the Innocents', protecting all non-combatants in a war. Under the Brehon Laws, wealthy women had more rights than was generally the case in European societies. They had a say in whom they wanted to marry, could divorce, could own property, and if they were badly treated they could sue for damages. After a divorce, a woman would return to her family, and both she and her former partner were free to remarry. She was also allowed to take her original dowry with her. The inheritance laws for men and women were the same. A woman could inherit property from her father and dispose of it as she saw fit. If she had no sons, her female children could inherit her property. Upper-class women who were of marriageable age were valued for their role in making dynastic alliances. A woman had to be of equal rank to her husband, and her main function was to supply heirs. Kings and nobles could be polygamous, and kings usually had more than one wife in order to ensure sons and heirs. Upon marriage, control of a woman's possessions passed to her husband for the length of the marriage; if left unmarried, she remained subject to her father, or, after his death, to her nearest and eldest kinsman. Thus widows were subject to their sons, and wives to their husbands. But women could inherit land where there was no male heir, and continue to hold it independently of their husbands. But even in such cases, when the woman died, property would revert to men. More commonly, women could not pass on land upon death, as it reverted to her kin group. The early Christian Church disapproved of both polygamy and divorce, although it had provided opportunities for women to be educated or to pursue a vocation. The Reformation, however, undermined the position of women and ended many of the rights provided under the Gaelic legal system.
Kings and Kingship
The social structure was intricate. While a king (rí) was at the top of the structure and was the ruler of his own kingdom, the status, authority and influence of kings differed. There was a hierarchy of kings: at the lowest level was the rí tuaithe (king of one tuath); rí tuatha, king of several tuatha; and rí ruirech or rí cóicid, king of a province. A sub-king was known as a uirrí. A king who only governed a single tuath would give allegiance to an over-king – who was usually king of a province. Subordination was often guaranteed by giving hostages to the over-king and, in return, the supplier could receive 'posts of honour'. The most powerful king was known as the high king and, in theory, he had kingship over the whole of the island. The high king was also referred to in some later texts as the king of Tara. Although little is known about the hill of Tara in County Meath, its ancient and important origins are clear from its Neolithic passage tomb, hill forts and stone pillar, which was traditionally believed to have been used in inauguration ceremonies. Some pre-Christian Celts believed that Tara contained the entrance to the 'otherworld'. The first Goidelic high king of Tara was Eochu, whose son achieved notoriety as Niall of the Nine Hostages, largely because of his successful raids on Britain. Niall was killed on one of these forays, but he in turn was the eponymous ancestor of the Uí Néill family, who rose to prominence in the fifth century, extending their kingdom into parts of Ulster. By the end of the fifth century, there were only five main kingdoms in Ireland and the Uí Neill over-king described himself as king of Tara.
Excerpted from A New History of Ireland by Christine Kinealy. Copyright © 2013 Christine Kinealy. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Coming of Christianity c. Fifth to Eighth Centuries,
2. Viking Raids and their Aftermath c. Ninth to Eleventh Centuries,
3. The Norman Invasion c. 1169–1490,
4. Repression, Confiscation and Conquest c. 1490–1603,
5. Making Ireland Protestant c. 1603–1685,
6. The War of Two Kings c. 1685–1780,
7. Rebellion to Repeal c. 1780–1845,
8. Famine to Home Rule c. 1845–1900,
9. Rebellion and Partition c. 1900–1921,
10. Two States c. 1921–1969,
11. Changing the Question c. 1969 to the Twenty-First Century,
12. A Divided Past ... A Shared Future? c. 2004–2008,