Uraicecht Becc – Old Irish for ‘Small Primer’

Uraicecht Becc is an Old Irish legal tract on status. Of all status tracts, it has the greatest breadth in coverage, including not only commoners, kings, churchmen and poets, but also a variety of other professional groups, including judges. However, it does not go into as much detail for each group and level as do other status tracts.

The Small Primer goes into detail regarding the poets’ place in Irish society. It lists the seven grades of poets, including their honor price, and the pay earned for the various meters they could perform.

This poetic manuscript declares the King of Munster to be supreme and makes reference to monasteries in Emly and Cork; both counties of that province. For this reason it is believed to be of Munster origin. It has been argued by D.A. Binchy to have been an extension of the Bretha Nemed (the Judgements of the Privileged Classes) due to the similar subject matter and style of writing used.

Though it is called the ‘Short Primer’ the text stands out among other texts on status due to its wider scope. Where other status texts tend to narrow their focus on certain professions or sectors of society, such as the Bretha Nemed’s focus on the upper privileged classes, the Uraicecht Becc covered most lay professions from Kings to Smiths.

It first divides society into the ‘free-privileged’ and ‘free-base’ classes. Of the former it lists scholars, clergy, nobles, and poets. Of the latter it lists smiths, braziers, chariot-makers, furniture-makers, weapon-makers, artisans, and other skilled professions.

It further lists the corresponding honour prices which were varied according to the importance given to the profession and the level of skill possessed by the worker in their craft. In fact, by looking at the amounts of compensation and remuneration paid to the varying grades we get an obvious indicator of the importance society had for each of the varying positions.

The Uraicececht Becc goes into detail regarding the poets’/bards’ place in Irish society. It lists the seven grades of poets, including their honour price, according to the level of skill, training, and ancestry of the individual filíd. If an individual was more skilled, or if they were more highly qualified, they became naturally more valuable to society and vice-versa, for, as one line of the tract reads:

Nadbi cainfoltach nibi cainfuillmech,
He who is not well qualified is not well remunerated.

Another Maxim states:

Bes Ildánach bid Ildírech
Whoever is highly skilled is highly valued.

D.A. Binchy, Corpus Iuris Hibernici

Photo: The Gallarus Oratory, Co Kerry © Stair na hÉireann

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