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of Cumhal, of King Cormac and his son-in-law Fionn, when it
it attained its fullest development. Garaidh Mac Morna was at this
time chief of the Fiann of Connacht.

A fair sized volume could readily be compiled on each of those
two periods, the heroic or golden, and the Fenian period, properly
so-called. Another volume to explain the events fully, should
present the Scoti and the neighbouring nations, with the kings
and their followers who invaded Alba and Britain and the kingdoms
of Western Europe in the fourth century of the Christian era.




Q. I. A certain writer on Irish History styles a
continuous line of monarchs u the spinal column of a
Nation ;" using this metaphor, he boldly states " the
History of Ireland is invertebrate," i.e., it has no such
regal backbone be good enough to say is there any
truth in that statement.

A. The detailed record already presented in the preceding pages
supplies the answer that there is no truth in the statement ; nor
even the shadow of a foundation for such an expression of opinion .

It is enough for one to go back to the second race of immigrants
who had landed in this country before the coming of the Milesians
from the south of Europe. These were the Belgse or Firbolgs, as
they are called in our national annals. They ruled in this land
before the arrival of another Keltic shoal of immigrants known as
Tuatha De Danann. Each people spoke a tongue known as Keltic ;
each were ruled by primitive laws, kindred to those known amongst
the early Latin and Greek races. These people had a government
directed by kingly power and authority ; they had rulers and an
Ardrigh, or supreme king who was monarch of all.

Dr. Petrie, in his history of Tara Hill, tells us that the " Firbolg
was the first who erected a palace at Tara, and divided the island into
five provinces, that each province had its own king, and that the
Ardrigh or supreme monarch ruled the whole island."



Reckoning a regal succession in Pagan or Christian Ireland, it is
the Ardrigh or monarch \vho alone, is taken into account, and not
the kings of subordinate power or position. Now those two Keltic
races just named had laws and a civilized state of society and a regular
established policy carried out with efficiency and success, considering
the early period in which those dynasties flourished. They had a
parliament too ; they recognised religious rites : they had military
orders even then, or early model combinations that subsequently
produced the military systems so famous in Ireland in later Pagan
times ; they had Ollamhs, that is doctors learned in science and art ;
they had Druids, and at a later time Brehons or Judges and Bards,
Chroniclers and professional story writers, or Seanachaidhs.

Next the Milesian immigrants succeeded the Belgse and the
Danann races ; and of the Milesian line alone, there flourished, ac-
cording to O'Flaherty, one hundred and thirty-six (136) monarchs
in Ireland before the people came under the influence of Christianity.

One dynasty possessed regal power in Ireland for three thousand
years, up to the time when Henry II. landed in this country. That
was rather a large backbone ! The last elected Ardrigh of Ireland
was Monarch Roderick O'Conor who finally retired from the
turmoil of a troubled life, and found place in the seclusion of
religious retirement at Cong in Connacht.

Taking the Belgian and the Danann lines of chief monarchs along
with those of the Milesian race, from Heremon to Roderick O'Conor
what a lengthy array of monarchs presents itself, forming " a spinal
column " and a " royal backbone " such as no other nation can boast
of. In fact no country west of China, has had another such spinal
column extending through three dynasties along a period of years
calculated by thousands. If the history of a nation is, as some state ?
the biography of her kings, Ireland even in pagan periods has had a
sufficiently full history in the record if nothing else of those famous
monarchs, who hold an honoured name in the ancient annals of our

The statement, therefore, that Ireland had no royal backbone ; and
that she was not a nation before the conquest, is a gratuitous
assertion, devoid of even a shadow of truth, and quite opposed to
the facts of history.

Q. 2. Give some idea of what the Brehon laws
are that body of laws under which in ages past,


the natives of Christian as well as Pagan Ireland were

A. The name Brehon in Irish-Gaelic means a judge one who
decides or pronounces on a case according to an established code of
customs or of law. It is formed from the Keltic term &et>, to bear,
to carry, to bring forth, like the Latin and Greek fero. The mind
grasps as it were the bearings of the question to be adjudicated and
efformates the correct decision and pronounces it, or puts it forth-
Hence the name " Brehon " phonetic form of Breitheamhan, genitive
case of Breitheamh, a judge : genitives ending in an come to us
from the time when the Belgse were a power in Eire.

" There are " says Maine (Lecture II. p. 32) " some strong and even
startling points of correspondence between the functions of the
Druids in the pagan time as described by Caesar, and the office of the
' Brehon ' as suggested by the law tracts (of ancient Ireland). The
extensive literature of law just disinterred testifies to the authority
of the Brehons in all legal matters, and raises a strong presumption
that they were universal referees in disputes." What then were the
functions of the Druids ? Csesar says that the Druids were supreme
judges in all public and private disputes ; and that all questions of
homicide, of inheritance and of boundary were referred to them for
decision. The Druids presided over schools of learning to which
the Keltic Irish flocked eagerly for instruction, remaining in them,
sometimes for twenty years at a time. The pupils in these schools
learned an enormous quantity of verses which were never committed
to writing. By this means the memory was strengthened. At
their head there was a chief Druid, whose place at his death was filled
by election, and the succession occasionally gave rise to violent
contests of arms. CDe Bello Gallico, VI. 13. 1 4).

The schools of literature and law were numerous in ancient Ireland,
and Professor O'Curry states that the course was over twelve years.
All literature, including law seems to have been then identified
with poetry. All the instructions given, all records and events,
precepts of law, counsel imparted, like King Cormack's advice to a
Prince, were all delivered in verse and committed in rhyme to memory.
The Brehon was the teacher and director in those schools. He was
to the Irish at a later date, what the Druid was to the Keltic Gauls
in CaBsar's time.

As to the origin of the Brehon Laws : they were in the earliest form


a collection of the primary principles of moral right and wrong, ex-
isting amongst a number of families or a community. They were
like the laws of the Twelve Tables ; or like the Hindu laws of the
present time.

The law of England has come in part from the Roman law and
from the law of the Catholic Church and from Statute law. The
Koman law was founded on the laws of the Twelve Tables. These
Roman archaic laws came from Eastern lands. The Brehon law,
and the Roman law, and therefore the law of England, were in their
earliest forms the same in the far past. They were the outcome, so
to speak, of the law of nature. From the same early germs have
grown each assuming a different form and shape the corpus of
Roman Law, and of English Law, The Brehon Law is to day just
what it was fourteen hundred years ago. The books of law present
the primitive texts, with the comments of Irish Brehons and sages.
We quote the following from the pages of The Aryan Ongin, strength-
ened by the views of Sir Henry Sumner Maine, and the view of the
writer of the preface to Vol. III. of the Brehon Laws, now published.

The Brehon Law, like the rich vases and works of art that lay
buried in the tombs of Etruria, had not only been sealed up in the
Irish language, unseen by the eye of any scholar outside Ireland,
but had been for a period lost. Now, at length, they have been dis-
covered, and are open to the view of the whole literary world.

Thus, the present generation \ of inquirers are brought back, at a
bound, to the time^hen they can behold the social and civil state of
Ireland in the fifth century, and even at a period much more remote.

" Up to the early dawn of civilisation, the very causes," says Sir
H. Sumner Maine " which have denied a modern history to the Brehon
law, have given it a special interest of its own, in our day, through
the arrest of its development." It is this arrest of the development
of the Brehon laws in the past, that causes the translation and publi-
cation to be so much prized at present. Like the Round Towers, like
the family features of the Japhetic race, like the laws of linguistic
science, the Brehon Law comes in and forms an arc, in the circle of
newly-discovered truths, that point up to the primitive Aryan period,
full of knowledge, of action, of cyclopean power and grandeur.

It is in no way surprising that the Brehon code should appear
archaic to moderns. The text now presented to the public with
translations by O'Donovan and O'Curry has been a literary fossil
for over a thousand years.


This fossil condition of Ireland's ancient law, morally speaking, is
owing to four causes the insular position of Ireland, its freedom from
Imperial Eome, the antagonism of Britain and of British Law, the
love of the Keltic race to preserve traditional usages.


" The value which the ancient laws of Ireland the Brehon Laws
will possess when they are completely published and interpreted, may,"
says Maine, " be illustrated in this way. Let it be remembered that
the Roman Law which, next to the Christian religion, is the most
plentiful source of the rules governing actual conduct throughout
Western Europe, is descended from a small body of Aryan customs,
reduced to writing in the fifth century, before Christ and known as
the Twelve Tables of Rome.

" Let it be further recollected that the Roman Law was at first ex-
panded and developed, not at all, or very slightly by legislation, but
by a process which wej may perceive still in operation in various
communities the juridical interpretation of authoritative texts by
successive generations of learned men. Now the largest collection
of Irish legal rules which has come down ,to us, professes to be an
ancient code, with an appendage of later glosses and commentaries.
This ancient Irish code corresponds historically to the Twelve Tables,
and to many similar bodies of written rules which appear in the early
history of Aryan societies."

That a kernel, or some kernels of written law existed is highly
probable ; and it is also probable that the whole of the Brehon Laws
consists of them, and of accumulations formed upon them. The
Brehon Laws are in no sense a legislative construction ; and thus
they are not only an authentic monument of a very ancient group of
Aryan institutions : they are also a collection of rules which have
been gradually developed in a way highly favorable to the preserva-
tion of archaic peculiarities.

The Brehon Law had been expanded by the juridical interpretation
of authoritative texts, just like the laws of the Hebrew race, or like the
code of the Spartan State. The Roman'Law became transformed and
modified by legislation, to suit the altered times, the varied new
forms of society, the changes connected with growing States and
with diverse races.

" Two causes (says Maine) have done most to obscure the oldest
institutions of the portion of the human race to which we belong.


One, the formation throughout the west of strong centralised
governments ; the other has been the influence, direct and indirect,
of the Roman Empire, drawing with it an activity in legislation un-
known to the parts of the world which were never subjected to itt
Ireland had never been exposed to these influences she never formed
a part of the Roman empire ; she had a central government, but
never a strong one, capable of exercising like Rome of old, or
England at present a special centralising, legislative power."

" Under these circumstances, it is not wonderful that the Brehon
Law, growing together without legislation upon an original body of
Aryan customs, and formed beyond the limit of that cloud of Roman,
juridical ideas which for many centuries overspread the whole
continent, and even at its extremity, extended to England, should
present some very strong analogies to another set of derivative
Aryan usages, the Hindu law, which was similarly developed " (Maine).

The laws of Europe, divested of their legislative and judicial
accessory forms, and reduced to first principles, are found to be
identical one with the primitive Aryan. " Wherever (says Maine)
we have a body of Aryan customs, either anterior to, or slightly
affected by, the Roman empire, it will be found to exhibit some
strong points of resemblance to the institutions which are the basis
of the Brehon law."

To conclude, the Brehon Law is not what the Parliament of Kilkenny
or Edmund Spenser, or Sir John Davies pronounced it to be either
" wicked " or " damnable " " repugnant to God's laws and man's," or
"lewd" or "unreasonable." On the contrary, it has been shown to
be, and scholars versed in law declare that it is, just, and in accord with
the natural law, and with the written law, which is from God. It comes
to us from the Aryan period. It is twin sister, in legal parentage,
of the code known as the " Laws of the Twelve Tables." It is there-
fore kindred in its institution to European law, and especially to the
laws of England. The Eastern or Hindu law and itself flow from
the same source, and have been in time enlarged and extended quite
in the same fashion.

Irishmen governed, in days that are gone, by such a code, must
have, like other nations grown up, children of honour and truth, with a
strong aptitude for religion. The men must have been, as they were,
truthful, brave, chivalrous and noble ; the women, free, honored,
devoted ; learning was fostered and respected ; the arts and sciences
cultivated ; works of civilisation and material progress patronised.


The good resulting from such a code, was manifold, not alone in
social life, and in the political, but in the religious and the literary.

It was admirably suited to the times and the people.

The best way to become acquainted intimately with the social life
and manners of the early Milesian races is to read, or rather study
the volumes of the Brehon law now published.

Q. 3. Explain the " Clan" System amongst the
Gaels ; and the customs known as Tanistry and
Gavel Kind.

A. The " Clan " System which existed in Ireland up to a late period
and flourished in the Highlands of Scotland, presents nothing more
than the idea of the family system, enlarging its bounds as widely as
one chooses, or grouping different families together, all under one
Keann or head, i.e., King. The term Clan means children in
the Gaelic tongue, and Keann signifies head or chief. It is the
patriarchal system, which is fully illustrated in the life of Abraham ;
or it is like the family system kept up to this day by the Slavs in the
Eastern confines of the empire of Austria say in Croatia or Servia.

In a small tract known as A Plea for the Evicted Tenants of Mayo,
written by the present writer, and published by Browne and Nolan,
Nassau-street, Dublin, 1888 the following view of the clan system
is presented :


" The peasants of Ireland still cling to the idea that every Govern-
ment ought to be paternal in regard to its subjects. It is now some
two hundred and seventy years since the Brehon laws ceased to have
any legal directive force in Ireland. The " clan " system, as it was
called, had prevailed up to the " flight of the Earls." These laws
or the first principles of them have come down from the very
infancy of human society. The family, it is well known, was the
earliest standard of social government. Those who lived under one
fatherly guide and governor were known as a " clan," which in Irish
Gaelic signifies children or family. The members of the tribe were
to the chief what the children of a household are to the head of the
house. To all the members, no matter how numerous, the chief was
a " father " or " pater," and his apxn government " patriarchal." It
is worth keeping in memory that wherever the " clan " system
prevailed, as it did invariably amongst the Kelts the clan Chief, in
times past, could no more entertain the idea of dissociating the land


from the people who lived on it, than a iather could entertain the
notion of dispossessing his children. The chieftain in past times
was regarded by the Gaels as head of the clan that is chief father
Such was the .form of government amongst the Gaels in Ireland.
To this hour the traditionary notion abides in the minds of the masse?,
that the ruling administration ought to be fatherly.

" The Keltic race is not singular in its views of early primitive
sovereign authority. In the East, throughout Hindustan, from
Pekin to Stamboul, the inhabitants look up to the " King" as to a
great father, and the Queen, or Empress, as a great mother. King-
doms have been altered, and the forms of government changed, but
the essentials of good government have never changed, and cannot
change. The patriarchal spirit influenced the Emperors Augustus and
Trajan, as well as it did Romulus or the early kings of Alba-Longa,
We find that Assuerus, who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one
hundred and twenty-seven provinces, was as fatherly as ever had
been Astyages, the grandfather of Cyrus the Elder the founder of
the Persian Empire."

How exceeding like the " clan " system amongst the Gaels is the
system of " house-communions " amongst the Slavs, the following
quotation from a note in vol. III. of the Brehon Law plainly shows :

" The system of house-communion stated succinctly is as follows :
The land in the countries and among the classes in which it prevailed
did not belong to individuals, but was held as a sort of trust in perpetual
entail for the benefit of house-communions. A house-communion
consisted of a number of individuals united by an actual, or occasion-
ally a fictitious tie of consanguinity. All the children of members
of the house-communion were ipso facto co-partners in the property
of what we may call the family corporation. Membership in a
house-communion descended only through the male line. Unmarried
women belonged to the house-communions of their fathers, and
widows to those of their late husbands. An adopted member took
the surname of the house-communion (in Ireland the name of the
clan) into which he was adopted." Quoted from the Fortnightly
Review. No. LXIV. pp. 372. 373.

The head of each house-communion had no right to sell or do away
with, or give up any part of the property of the house-communion,
without consulting the members of the communion. In like manner


no chieftain amongst the Gaels had any right to resign or appropriate
the property of the clan of which he was head. He held the lands
for the whole tribe and not for himself.


The chief of a clan, was at first in ruling, patriarchal. The interests
of the community demanded that the head of the clan should be a
man of sound sense and of a healthy frame, capable to guide and to
defend those under his charge. When the days of patriarchal
government amongst the Hebrews had passed away, and when God's
chosen leaders, were, as in the case of the prophet Samuel set aside,
then the people were allowed to elect leaders, such as Saul and David.
So it was amongst the Gaels. After a time the " Leadership " became
elective. No one with any corporal or mental blemish was eligible
to the position of chief of a " clan." Tanistry then means simply
the election by the voice, or the votes of the people composing the
clan, of one worthy to rule and lead the family community. The
term tan signifies land, wealth, and tain booty, power, wealth;
tainte in the plural has that meaning as " is fearr an slainte na an
tainte " an Irish adage, meaning that " health (slainte) is better than
wealth (tainte.)" Tain, then is applied to one having wealth and
dignity; and tanaiste is the name given to one elected to the
position of lord or dynast, or ruler of a clan ; it is also applied to
the presumptive or apparent heir to a chieftain or prince.


What does it mean ? The term Gdbh in Gaelic means, to hold,
to seize, to get possession of, the infinitive form is GdbJiail or
Gavel. Hence Gabnaltas is the term in use to this hour
amongst the people to express a hold-ing " of land." Kinn, a clan
under the same head, was written in former times Kind, nd for
nn. The compound term " Gavel-kind," means then, the possession
of the " clan," as opposed to individual rights. The land belonged
to the whole community and not to any special family. Hence on the
death of any particular householder, his portion of the common
property did not descend by entail to his eldest son, or to any of his
children, but became the property of the entire clan. It was the
Gabhaltas of the Kinne,* and not of a special family. When a land-

* Kinne is gen/ case of Kinn a Sept Kinn is a Sept, under one Keann t
or head.


owning member of an Irish Sept died, its chief made a re-distribution
of all the lands of the Sept. He did not divide the estate of the dead
man among the children, but used it to increase the allotments of the
various house-holders of which the Sept was made up.

Q, 4. There is one other question, a very practical
one : first, what are the moral and physical characteris-
tics of the Irish as a people, comparing the three
different races, the Firbolg, the Tuatha De Danann
and the Milesians with one another, and next contrast-
ing Irishmen as a body, those descended from early
and later settlers, with Englishmen, Scotchmen,
Flemings and Frenchmen ?

A. The question consists of two parts, the first refers to the three
great races of which Irishmen, in the pre-Christian period were
composed, namely, the Firbolg race, the Tuatha De Danann, and the
Milesian race. We must bear in mind that the first people were
brought into subjection by the second, and the latter in turn were
conquered by the Milesians. It is clear that all along the Belgian-
Irish were more or less held down as a conquered race, not alone by
their conquerors, the Tuatha De Danann, but by the Milesians who
conquered both. It is true that the Belgian body of Irish in the
time of Heremon arose to the social rank of having a ruler of their
own race appointed King of Leinster, and that they were the recipients
of favours from the Milesian dynasty, still the spirit of subjection
special to a subdued people grew up within them, and shaped their

In the far past the Grecian heroic poet sang that

" Jove decreed that whatever day
Makes man a slave takes half his worth away."

In this manner the Firbolg clans became when contrasted with
the Danann tribes, less noble in their bearing, less enlightened in
their training, and like the Hebrews amongst the Egyptians, they
were in the eyes of their conquerors, mere hewers of wood, and
drawers of water ; they were consequently amongst their Keltic
brethren held in disesteem, at least in those days anterior to the
Christian religion in Ireland.

On the other hand the Tuatha De Danann in Eire, who had them-
selves been conquered by their Milesian superiors, arose to a certain
extent, above the waters of slavery ; they kept together more, held
councils amongst themselves, assisted each other ; and like the Jews
in the dispersion, they followed some calling or business which made
their neighbours look up to them as a clever people ; for, they were
either merchants, or music masters, or medicine-men, or mediums of
occult science the black art, and in some way they made a show of

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Online LibraryUlick Joseph BourkePre-Christian Ireland → online text (page 19 of 25)