Status and Society

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 such as this

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 such as this

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.’1 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.

Legally there were varying levels of kinship as well, expressed by close family or your immediate kin – the fine, and then the kin of your paternal grandfather – your gelfine, and then everyone you were related to traced back to a common paternal great-grandfather – the derbfine. In most cases, the derbfine was the most important unit of kinship according to the Críth Gablach and other law texts (although the gelfine was important too).2

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.3

One such manuscript is Críth Gablach which, in its earliest form, dates to around 700CE. It is one of three surviving texts4 which details the nature of status, property and kinship in early medieval Ireland through the laws outlined, and case law that has been added to demonstrate how the law would work in practice. Its detailed outlining of the the ideals of early Irish (secular) society has made it one of the best known law tracts of early medieval Ireland, and has helped shed light on how society was supposed to work,5 but here is a key point: The complexities of social status outlined in the Críth Gablach are ideals, not necessarily cut and dried, hard and fast realities. With this in mind, however, we can go on to look at how society was supposed to work, and in some respects this is very convenient since the myths found in the medieval manuscripts in Ireland could be said to be demonstrations of how these ideals were supposed to play out.

Críth Gablach translates as “branched purchase”, which doesn’t seem to make any sense in relation to its purpose at all.6 The text is formed of fairly short sentences stating the law, and forms the oldest layer since it is written in Old Irish. The later additions form embellishments of the law, demonstrating case law – much of which is clearly made up, but it still makes the point. The fact that the original layer of text has been largely added to, rather than completely revised, shows just how important the laws, and status, were to Irish society, and how much staying power they had.

The law tract focuses mainly on secular society – the king and the people, rather than the clergy and people of skill.7 According to the law, any legal slight – such as murder, assault, theft, satire, refusal of hospitality, breach of contract and so on – committed against a person demanded compensation to the injured party. The level of compensation was determined by a person’s honour-price, or lóg n-enech (‘the price of his face’)8 which was in turn determined by one’s social status. One’s status in society therefore determined how much protection and compensation would be due to a person, and naturally, in general terms, the higher your status, the more compensation could be expected.

In general terms, society was split into those who were nemed ‘priveleged’ and those who were not, and those who were soer ‘free’ and those who were doer ‘unfree’.9 By and large, social status was hereditary as you would expect, but there was some room for manoeuvre and also some risk of losing your status. If a person left their túath (people), for example, they became a deorad, ‘outsider’, as opposed to the aurrad, ‘person of legal standing’, and as such held no legal status whatsoever until they returned to their túath.10 Under some circumstances, the cú glas, ‘grey dog’ – a term often used to refer to such an outsider – might gain some legal standing in a túath not his own through marriage. In this case, he would gain only half the honour-price of his wife, and would have limited ability to act in certain circumstances, like making contracts.11

Only the filid – the rank of poets – retained their status if they left their túath, and they were commonly used as negotiators or messengers between tribes during war.12 It was the filid who were also traditionally the keepers of the Fénechas, the customary laws of Ireland.13

Within the nemed were the ranks of kings, lords, clerics and poets. The non-nemed included:

• Commoners (fodlai boairech) – freemen
• Half-free (fuidir – “subordinately attached”, and bothach – a “cottar”)
• Unfree (senchleithe – meaning literally, “ancient house”)14

Within these ranks there were subtle grades that would also determine your status (and therefore honour price), which were mainly based on material concerns. The rí ruirech (”king of great kings”) was the highest level of kingship, implying that they were rulers of everyone – the high king of all Ireland. This was never a reality in Ireland, but is something that appears frequently in mythology.15 In practice, the title was usually bestowed on the rí coicid, or provincial king. Below the high king was the rí buiden, or rí túath (”king of hosts”, or “king of peoples”), followed by the rí benn or rí túaithe (”king of peaks” or “king of a people”).16

Each type of king was defined by how many people or túatha he was lord over. The rí túath, for example, was expected to be lord of three or four túatha; his honour-price was set at eight cumals (female slaves), whereas a provincial king had an honour-price of fourteen cumals.17 His honour-price would be reduced to that of a commoner, as the Críth Gablach describes:

“There are four findings which give the honour-price of a commoner to a king. What are they? Finding him at the three handles of a commoner: the handle of a mallet, the handle of an axe, the handle of a spade – for while he is at them he is a commoner – finding him alone, for it is not proper for a king to go off by himself; that is the day that a woman alone swears her son onto a king, the day that no-one [else] need give testimony for her. But nonetheless there is a month when a king only goes about in a group of four. What four? King and judge and two in attendance. What month does he go about in that manner? The month of sowing.

“An injury to the back of his head while he flees from the battlefield gives the honour-price of a commoner to him, unless he has gone through them (the enemy), for in that case a wound in the back of the king’s head entails the same fine as a wound in his face.”18

Then there were the noblemen – the heir apparent, or tánaise ríg, the aire forgaill “freeman of superior testimony,” aire tuísea “freeman of leadership,” aire ardd “high freeman,” and aire désa “freeman of vassalry”.19

The Críth Gablach defines four factors that ennoble a man:

  • The long standing submission of his túath, and high office within it
  • Doercheili – base clients
  • Soercheili – free clients
  • Hereditary serfs (senchléithe)20

The serfs (senchléithe) were the lowest grade of freeman (or, technically, “semi-free”), only one rank above a slave, and were the poorest and most dependent on their lord in many respects. As hereditary serfs, the senchléithe were part and parcel of the property they lived on, and so if the lord sold it, the family and the property would be transferred into the control of the new owner.21

A soercheile is a free man in economic and social terms (i.e. they aren’t slaves and are financially independent of the lord); a doercheile is also a free man, but not financially independent and so the lord advances a fief to his client, which usually consists of livestock and sometimes also land and equipment. The lord also advances goods to his client to a value that is equal to the base clients’ honour price, effectively buying his client’s honour-price as a sign of their bond and entitling the lord to a share in any compensation due to his client.22 The relationship was reciprocal; the lord looked after his clients, legally, militarily and socially, and in return both the base clients and free clients pay rent (the amount of which depended on their status) and have other obligations placed on them, but the free client may terminate the agreement at will, whereas the base client is fixed into the arrangement until the lord’s death.23

The amount of clients affects the king’s status and therefore legal standing. The rí túaithe – king of a people, for example, must therefore have the minimum of 30 doercheili (base clients) in order to claim the status of king. This entitles him to a minimum honour-price of 35 séts (a standard unit of value), the honour price being set at the number of base clients plus 5 séts.24

Of course, obtaining the right amount of clients or vassals did not automatically entitle one to claim the title of “king”, or mean that one could claim the title of a higher-status king; this was something that was claimed by right of conquest or formal recognition from his people, and conferred through the appropriate rites. A commoner who attains the wealth to support clients cannot become a lord, but can claim the status of fer fothlai, ‘a man of withdrawal’, which is some way between that of a commoner and a lord. It is only his grandson who can lay claim to the lowest rank of a noble – that of the aire déso25 (a process probably referring back to the idea that longstanding recognition of high status, through the clients submission, is one of the key elements to ennoble a man).

The lower classes of nobility would also have clients, which provided an income for them and the same kind of obligations as for a king. The difference between an aire ardd and an aire désa was basically that the aire ardd had five more doercheili than the aire désa; and therefore had an honour price of 15 instead of 10.26

In order to be considered for clientship, the person in question needed to be of a certain social status – in the commoner class. Like the king had to maintain his relationships with his clients in order to maintain his status, certain things were expected of the client in order to maintain their own status: The highest form of commoner was the bóaire, a “prosperous farmer”, and he was expected, amongst many other things, to own two casks at all times – one of milk, and one of ale. Together with his wife, the bóaire was also expected to own a minimum of four costumes; this was because hospitality in Irish society was of key importance, and those of a certain status were expected to be able to provide a certain level of sustenance to guests who could demand hospitality at any time.27

Failure to comply with the laws of hospitality was a grave offence, and could result in legal action, no matter how rich or poor or low in status you were; everyone had certain rights and compensation befitting a person’s honour price could be sought.28

It was a particular burden on the king to provide the appropriate hospitality to his guests, since generosity was one of the traditional signs of rightful kingship. If the king was not shown to be generous, then he was shown to be an unlawful king. In mythology, this had dire consequences, and the satire against Bres in Cath Maige Tuired is an example:

“Without food quickly on a dish,
Without cow’s milk on which a calf grows,
Without a man’s habitation after darkness remains,
Without paying a company of storytellers – let that be Bres’s condition.”29

“Bres’s prosperity no longer exists,” he said, and that was true. There was only blight on him from that hour; and that is the first satire that was made in Ireland.

Satire was the poets weapon of choice, since it was believed that to be satirised could prove fatal for the subject of the satire.30

As well as hospitality and generosity, the king had to display other qualities as well – honour, rank, wisdom and valour, for instance. These qualities meant that the king effectively embodied all levels of society, from a hospitaller, to the valiant warrior and the wise priest (or druid, one would imagine), or learned professional. The king also had to display good judgement and dispense proper justice – the fir flathemon, ‘king’s justice’31 – and failure to fulfil any of the requirements would traditionally result in disaster. Mythologically, the Battle of Mag Mucrama shows the disaster that can happen when a king displays false judgement.

There are more factors than wealth that make a person’s status according to the Críth Gablach, then; for the king, recognition is key, and legally it should involve recognition by his people, and mythologically it should involve recognition by supernatural agents as well – something that will be looked at in more detail later.



1 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, p28.
2 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p12-14.
3 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p1.
4 The other two being Uraicecht Becc and Míadslechta – see Kelly, Early Irish Law, p9.
5 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p53.
6 See Críth Gablach.
7 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p54.
8 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p8.
9 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p9.
10 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p5.
11 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p6.
12 Kelly, Early Irish Law, see pp43-p49.
13 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, p14.
14 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p56-57.
15 Byrne’s Irish Kings and High-Kings, and Bart Jaski’s Early Irish Kingship and Succession are well worth a read on the subject of kingship.
16 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p56-57.
17 Ibid.
18 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p353.
19 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p56.
20 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p56.
21 Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, p143.
22 Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, p142.
23 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p58; Kelly, Early Irish Law, p31-33.
24 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p57.
25 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p12.
26 Charles-Edwards, ‘Críth Gablach and the Law of Status’, p57.
27 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p10.
28 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p139-140.
29 See Cath Maige Tuired.
30 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p44.
31 Kelly, Early Irish Law, p18.