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Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland
II. Gaelic Society


quickly and decisively, for the good of the tribe. The kingship was originally a sacral (sacred and official), and in a sense, sacrificial position. The king performed a priestly function for the tribe, eliciting due awe from the tribesmen, and living under religious restrictions ("gessa," or taboos).

There were three pillars of Gaelic polity within the tribal structure; the Chief, the elders of the kindreds, and the leaders of the church. Where matters of succession were concerned, there was a rule of thumb in the Brehon law (the law of the Gael) which specified the criteria for choosing precedence in each category; "Elder for kin, worth for rulership, wisdom for the church" (Byrne 35). Worth here refers to the eligible candidate with the most kindreds in his camp. This system helped foster good leadership and keep it closely bound to the mass of tribesmen, and attuned to their needs and desires. The chief acted in conjunction with the tribal council of elders, and with the advice of the church. Although a strictly tribal ruler or dynast could be high-handed with "alien tuatha" (subservient tribal groups), in keeping with the Indo-European aristocratic tradition of their earliest ancestors, yet they could also treat them as respected allies, and raise them to high position. In fact, even in the larger, more centralized Kingdom of Scots in the late thirteenth century, Alexander Ill was known as a highly accessible and personable king. He acted in the Gaelic tradition of contact with his people, the local constituents of his kingdom, which was typical of the nobility of the time (this was, of course, long before the urban population sprawl, and the anonymity and social evils attributable thereto). In this way the Gaelic system came to resemble a sort of tribal feudalism, in which accountability ran both ways.

Certain kindreds supported such hereditary functions as law, religion, and the teaching of history and genealogy. Members of these kindreds served as advisors when matters requiring their expertise were in question. In the Celtic church, for example, certain kindreds maintained church lands, often as a branch of the local tribe, and the heads of such kindreds were the bishops and abbots of the Celtic church. They enjoyed princely status, and often descended from the founding saint of the abbacy as well. They did not observe celibacy, for this was originally an ascetic rule for certain monastic orders until its institution (twelfth century) in the Roman church by the Pope as a means of controlling secular appointments generation by generation. The Celtic church’s lack of celibacy should not be interpreted (as it has been) as an indication that the church was decadent or degenerative, for it judged itself by its own standards, and never duplicated Latin attitudes on this question. As Gaelic society was different, so the church organization that emerged within this tribal infrastructure was also different. Communities of Gaelic ascetics and hermits continued to seek God in peaceful areas away from men, but their basic monastic system was from the beginning adapted to the tribal society, and thus we have the abbey system of the Celtic church. It is worth pointing out that the Celtic church was the first in Northern Europe, and thus


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