Irish Story

City and rural scenes in Ireland

 Celtic cross, Wexford. Click to view larger photo



Celtic Life


The integration of Christianity and Celtic cultures in Ireland produced an enduring society. Some of its features remained unchanged until the overthrow of Gaelic Ireland in the early seventeenth century.


It was basically a rural society with no cities or towns. Some of the more important monasteries grew into centres with a large population, but it was not until the Vikings arriived that towns were developed as commercial centres.

The ordinary homestead of the farming classes was the ráth, often erected on a hilltop and surrounded by a circular rampart and fence. These are the ring forts still seen around Ireland.

The normal family group was the derbhfhine, made up of all those who were descended from one great-grandfather. Each member of the king's derbhfhine was eligible to succeed to the throne as long as he was physically and mentally whole. He was elected by the freemen of the tuath as a group. The system had the advantage of ensuring that only a man who was fit for the task could become king, but often caused conflict amongst eligible candidates.

The ownership of land was vested in the family group rather than the individual. When a landholder died or when a son married, the group's land was redistributed to provide land for each adult. This meant that a populous group could easily run out of viable farming plots and probably explains the frequency of local wars and cattle raids between neighbouring derbhfhine.

Each provincial kingdom consisted of multiple petty kingdoms or tuatha, so that the whole country had ultimately between 100 and 150 of them with a few thousand people in each. Local wars were called by the chief, to whom members of the clan owed loyalty and on whom they depended for their land. These were usually short, with few killed. The unity of the country was cultural, social and legal rather than political.

The king's inauguration was originally looked upon as his symbolic marriage with his kingdom. The feast held to celebrate the inauguration of a new king of Tara was therefore called the Feis of Tara, the word feis meaning 'to sleep with' someone. The ritual making of a king was to hand him a white rod as a token of his sovereignty. Each kingdom had its own proper inauguration site.


In the north the inauguration site of the O'Neill was at Tullyhogue near Stewartstown. For centuries the inauguration flagstone built into a chair (Leac na Rí) stood on the side of this high hill until it was broken up by Mountjoy in the summer of 1602. The famous Stone at Tara is still visible and was believed to have special powers, screaming when the true king came to it.

The Gaelic king was ruler of his people in peace and military commander in war. He presided over the annual Aonach, which was often held at an ancient burial site and included the promulgation of laws and athletic competitions as well as buying and selling. The king of each Tuath was bound by personal loyalty to a superior king who in turn was subject to a provincial king. The concept of a High King of all Ireland is absent from the early literature and only emerged during the Viking period. The lower king showed loyalty to his overlord by giving him hostages and accepting a stipend from him.


Every three years there was a gathering at Tara, at which the provisions of the Brehon Laws were confirmed and updated. The Brehon Law system is the oldest known to the world and lasted until the seventeenth century when the English finally succeeded in overthrowing the Irish Gaels and abolished it in favour of English law.

The learned class or Aos Dána formed a special group of freemen. They included judges and lawyers, medical men, craftsmen and most important of all the fili [often translated as "bards"]. These were more than poets, they were regarded as seers and visionaries as well. After the conversion of Ireland to Christianity they inherited much of the prestige of the earlier druids. They wrote praise poems for the king, preserved his genealogy and were richly rewarded for their services. They sometimes had recourse to satire, and were feared not only for their sharpness of tongue but for the magical powers which had been associated with the druids. The bards were the main vehicle for preserving the history of the people as well as spreading news.

An attempt to revive the high kingship was made in the 1250s and led to the death of Brian O'Neill at the battle of Downpatrick in 1260, after Gaelic Ireland once more failed to unite around a single leader. Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert of Scotland, was invited to be the Irish High King, but he too failed against the English at the battle of Faughart in 1318. In an effort to prevent cultural assimilation of the English who had made their homes in Ireland, the Statutes of Kilkenny sought to enforce a policy of apartheid on the Anglo-Irish from 1366 on. This policy was only effective in the area around Dublin, which became known as "the Pale". In the rural areas Celtic practices continued quietly.

There was another series of Celtic revivals beginning in the late eighteenth century. Over the next hundred years restrictions on Irish culture were gradually removed, leading to the spectacular literary revival in which W B Yeats and Douglas Hyde were the key figures.






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