Ancient Ireland land

Ancient Ireland

Administrative Units in Ancient Ireland

From very ancient times, the country was divided into approximately 300 kingdoms, called “Tuath” (singular) and “Tuatha” (plural), to which theBaronies of today closely correspond, (a rural parcel of land now being identified on the official maps by County, Barony and Townland[2]). There are 331 Baronies today, but some of these are additional units related to urban areas that did not exist in ancient times.


The political structure became stabilised into about five provinces, (Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Meath, with some subdivision of these), each headed by a provincial king, to whom the local kings paid tribute, (basically protection-money).

There was a nominal national leader called a High King[3], based at Tara in the province of Meath. Medieval accounts list high kings going back to about 2,000 BC, but modern scholarship suspects that this list was compiled in the 7th century AD and is only valid from around 400 AD. On the other hand, archaeological finds at Tara suggest that the site had religious and political significance from about 3,000 BC.

Besides regional assemblies held by the kings of tuatha and provinces, there was a triennial national gathering, or “Feis,” at Tara, consisting of sporting and cultural events and a legal conference attended by Brehons (i.e., judges) from all around the island, but this custom came to an end in the 6th century, when Christianity demystified the pagan magic of the place and kings stopped living on the site.

Ownership of Land

The tribal rules set aside some lands for use by an incumbent king; otherwise land could be owned either by a Kinship Group or by an individual; and could be bought and sold, (cattle, gems, silver, “white meats,” i.e.,  cheese, and female slaves being the currencies used before coinage became common).

As the centuries elapsed, land-ownership became concentrated in the hands of the wealthy families, the bulk of the population becoming tenants, (either free tenants who owned their own cattle, or bonded tenants whose cattle belonged to the landlord). The selection of a king moved out of the hands of the general population and druids into the hands of the king’s own kinship group.

The Brehon Laws

We refer to the judges of ancient Ireland as “Brehons.” To become a Brehon, besides being born to a judicial family, or otherwise acceptable, one had to memorise, and be able to recall, the entire corpus of the Brehon Law, called “An Seanchas Mór,” or “The Great Tradition.” This was feasible by several years of study, the rules of law rarely changing and being encoded in verse or cryptic sayings, which made the text not only memorable, but capable of recall without error.

(To appreciate the power of verse and cryptic phrases in memorisation, see if you can complete the following sayings: Hey diddle diddle ... Hickory Dickory Dock ... Jack and Jill .... Mary had a little lamb .... A stitch in time ... Yes, and there could be hundreds more bits of "wisdom" that you can recall from memory, even though you live in a literate world where wisdom is contained in books. If your livelihood depended on it, you could easily extend your store of wise-sayings to tens of thousands).

Oral Record of Ownership

The population of a Tuath was between  3,000 (the basic Triocha Cead, or administrative unit of a hundred kinship units of thirty each) and 9,000 (up to 3 Triocha Ceads joined together under one king) , and varied little from decade to decade, (except when decimated by war or plague). Ownership of every inch of land in a Tuath was common knowledge, but the Brehon was particularly obliged to have, in his head, exact knowledge of the titles.

Christians introduce Writing

The Christians, in the 5th century AD, introduced writing on parchment, (to replace wood[4]), and the Roman alphabet to replace Ogham, a script of unknown antiquity but limited usage. They often saw to it that grants of land to the Church or to monasteries were recorded in writing (on parchment), to consolidate their claim to the land. However, the bulk of land-titles continued to depend on public knowledge and on the memory of the Brehons. The Brehon Laws themselves were not written down until the 8th century).

Ireland became a prosperous and literate country and a hub of learning. This was “the Great[5] Golden Age of Ireland.” Settlements grew up around monasteries, some, such as at Clonmacnoise, by the Shannon river, being virtual cities.

The impact of the Vikings

The relative political and economic stability of the Great Golden Age was shattered by the incursions of the Vikings in the 9th century. The country fell into turmoil and a culture of violence spread throughout the land. Local kings became war-lords, vying with each other for power and wealth (only Brian Boru establishing clear supremacy, and that only for little more than a decade, from 1002 to 1014).

Land held on trust for incumbent kings became fused with the personal property of the king. The election of a successor to a deceased king (by the outgoing king’s kinship group) was in some cases superseded by the custom of Tanistry, imported from Scotland, in which a king nominated his own successor. This custom became the norm in Norman times.

The Viking coastal settlements became the towns and cities of Wexford, Cork, Limerick and Dublin. These eventually paid tribute to the provincial kings of Ireland, like any other local kingdom.

The Normans

The Normans, largely illiterate when they arrived, early in the 12th century, also relied on public knowledge as the basis of ownership. Ownership was transferred by public ceremony on the land, known as “feoffment with livery of seisin,” i.e., “grant of a fee (meaning freehold) with delivery of possession.”

Since only the English King could be called “king,” the Irish kings changed their title to “Taoiseach,” meaning “leader.” Under the English Law, however, they were known as Barons or Earls, and held the land under grant from the English crown. The Tuath became known as a Barony.

The Normans soon became “as Irish as the Irish themselves,” and their ownership rituals became fused with the Brehon tradition. Irish Taoisigh emulated their English counterparts, using their wealth and power to reduce most of the populace to the level of unfree tenants (See Keenan:Ireland 1170-1509, Society and History) .

Grants of land by the English king were made in writing, copies of the writings being stored in the archives of the courts. The original land-grab by Norman warriors was replaced by grants in writing by the king. These grants or charts are often the root of today’s current titles.

The Brehon and Norman-English systems vied for dominance for centuries. The Flight of the Earls in 1607 marks the final demise of the Brehon Laws and the universal application of English Law across the whole island.  


[1] Main source: Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law.
[2] A townland is an area originally occupied by a single family, which expanded to become a community. This community area was, in ancient times, comprised of a mix of different categories of land, such as “baile fearann” or “home land,” baile bó,” or “cow-land,” as well as crop-land, meadow-land, woodland, bog-land, waste-land, and so on. The Ordnance Survey (established 1824) amalgamated all these different classes of land under the one name “townland,” so that all land outside towns and cities is now categorised as belonging to a townland.
[3] Medieval accounts listed High Kings as existing since about 2000 BC. Modern scholarship suggests that these lists were compiled in the 9th century and only valid from about the 4th century. Brian Boru wrested the High Kingship by force from Malachy in 1002 and enforced real political control over the provinces for, perhaps, the first time. After his death, various regional kings vied violently for the title, the position never again being held without opposition.
[4] Today we often refer to a written document as a “paper.” In ancient Ireland “feadha,” meaning “wood,” or “beach tree,” was often used to refer to writing. From this we gather that Ogham was normally written on wood, though the only remnants of Ogham found is that engraved on stone.
[5] The First Golden Age was the late Bronze Age. Many hordes of golden objects belonging to that time have been found and are displayed in the National Museum of Ireland, at Kildare Street in Dublin. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the Ruling Class caused the collapse of the First Golden Age, the downtrodden public rising up in rebellion. Archaeological remains dating from the late Bronze Age evidence the emergence of a violent society, with defensive structures, ring forts, appearing for the first time.

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