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Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland
II. Gaelic Society


was nonetheless united in culture and language. The bearers of religion, law, literature, history, medicine, music and poetry, as hereditary tradesmen in their fields, enjoyed a special status, and freely practiced their arts among and between such tribal groups. Indeed, far from being merely tolerated by the tribes, these professional classes actually performed the essential functions of the society, maintaining its tribal character of independence and partition. For these professionals, the spoken word held a special and ancient power. Gaelic bards and historians prided themselves in the cultivation of memory for the oral transmission of information and records, a task which they accomplished with the aid of poetic conventions, thematic paraphrase and aphoristic formulas of stock idiomatic cultural meaning (the phrase "be literal" had no meaning prior to the coming of the literate Christians). The spoken ire of a poet would maim a king through sympathetic magic, while his blessing could bring prosperity.

Gaelic tribalism tended to foster a natural aristocracy based on talent. A tribesman’s individual talent, and the talent of his immediate ancestors played the major role in determining where one stood within the internal tribal hierarchy. In another sense, the same hierarchy tended to run horizontally rather than vertically, which meant that all members of the tribe, being equally descended from the founding chief or king, shared equally in his royal blood, and therefore counted themselves equal in blood to the king of the tribe. In this way, differences between tribesmen tended to emphasize talent rather than blood, though the tribal king or clan chief himself was "a breed apart."

A chief’s personal and family talent played its role in securing him that dignity in the first place, but once inaugurated, a new chief took on a new aspect. As chief, he symbolized the manifestation of the spirit of the tribe, ritualistically reincarnated in each succeeding chief, presumably since the beginning of time. Any man whose father, grandfather or great-grandfather had been chief was generally eligible to be a chief himself as long as he acknowledged the male line and reckoned himself a member of the tribe. However, this system often led to strife between rival nominees and their supporters, especially when the succession was not prearranged by the chief himself (contrast this with the Norman-English custom of primogeniture, wherein the eldest son is automatically the heir).

A chief could appoint his successor by a process known as tanistry, but otherwise the office was filled through election by the tribal council, made up of the heads and elders of the kindred branches of the tribe, though their decision could be influenced greatly by personal combats among the candidates. Indeed, the succession itself was originally carried out by means of a ritual combat between the chief and his successor (or at least challenger) within the kingroup, or "dynastic family." Such ancient practices continued well into the Middle Ages, and among some families (such as the MacCarthys and O’Flahertys) even later. It arose in part from the prudent need to settle such questions


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