Early Irish law was often, although not universally, referred to within the law texts as Fenechas, the law of the Feni or free men of Gaelic Ireland mixed with Christian influence and juristic innovation. These secular laws existed in parallel, and occasionally in conflict, with canon law throughout the early Christian period. They show Ireland in the early medieval period to have been a hierarchical society, taking great care to define social status, and the rights and duties that went with it, according to property, and the relationships between lords and their clients and serfs.
Society is always much more complex than written law, but the laws do give us an idea of how society was supposed to work, and in that respect understanding early Irish law can help us when we are looking at and interpreting the mythology and cultural values of a now remote past.
Early Irish society has been famously described as being ‘tribal, rural, hierarchical, and familiar.’ It was tribal in the sense that everyone belonged to a túath, a people (a nation); rural in the sense that urban centres only really developed out of the establishment of the monasteries; hierarchical in that everyone had their place within a firmly established social order; and familiar in the sense that at its core, society – and a person’s place within it – heavily depended on your family and kindred.
The manuscripts of Ireland – mostly dating to around the 14th-16th centuries – contain a huge amount of law tracts, and from these we can get an idea of how people were organised, socially, and what rights people would have had – men, women, children, poets, druids, clergy, kings, and so on. While the manuscripts are relatively late in date, the tracts themselves often contain elements that date from as early as the 7th-8th centuries, and so relate to a time when the myths and legends were first being written down.
Written around 700 AD the Críth Gablach, which means ‘branched purchase’, set out the principle guidelines that should be aspired to in an ideal society.
Ancient Ireland could be described as a renter economy with a carefully defined social hierarchy. Status was determined by one’s ancestry, their personal merit or skill, and the wealth they had acquired. In this way a man who was born into a lower social position as a Céile, for example, could potentially raise their social position to that of a Bó Aire by acquiring enough property that he could now rent out to others with less. However, the process of officially changing social grade required three generations.
This meant that one could only claim the same status as his grandfather, or, to consider someone starting out on the process of climbing the social ladder, his son and grandson would need to maintain the same level of wealth that position required. It should be noted that it gives guidelines for an ‘ideal society’ and is not necessarily an image of how Irish society actually was but rather what should be aspired to.
Like the Uraicecht Becc, the Críth Gablach details varying lay-grades along with their corresponding honour prices; ranging from a rí ruirech or ‘king of great kings’ at the top whose honour price is listed as fourteen female slaves (cumala), to a fer midboth or ‘man between huts’ whose honour price was listed at one female calf (dairt) or one two-year-old heifer depending on the age of the fer midboth.
Críth gablach by D. A. Binchy, Corpus Iuris Hibernici
Photo: The Tara brooch. Brooches such as this were worn according to status by the early Gaels; only those of the highest status in society would have been entitled to wear a brooch as ornate and finely crafted.