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The History of Ulster
Religion and Law in Early Ireland

The Kingdoms or Provinces of Ireland - The King of Ulster undisputed Over-King - The Country never a United Ireland - The O'Neills of the Royal Family of Ulster - St. Patrick's Predilection for Ulster - Mode of Government in Fifth Century - The Brehon Laws - Revised by St. Patrick at Request of the King of Ulster - The Book of Acaill - Lawless State of the Country.

Even before the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, the island was divided into sections somewhat similar to those which form the four provinces at the present time. These kingdoms, as they were called in St. Patrick's day, each acknowledged a royal family of its own. For convenience' sake the present names of the provinces are used, but it is well to remember that the termination "ster" in Ulster, Munster, and Leinster is of Norse origin, and therefore could not be in use earlier than the ninth century. In the middle of the fifth century the royal family of Ulster were the O'Neills or Hy-Nials, who were also for nearly five hundred years the Over-Kings of Ireland, their supremacy being recognized by the provincial Kings of Leinster, the McMurroughs; of Connaught, the O'Conors; and of Munster, the O'Briens. In a rude age it is not strange that this over-kingship had occasionally to be enforced, and the position of Ardri maintained whenever disputed, as it was more than once by the kingdom of Munster. A fifth kingdom, Meath, is sometimes referred to; but it was really an appanage of the royal house of Ulster and consisted of Westmeath, Longford, and a portion of King's County. Munster was divided into two districts, Desmond and Thomond, but they gradually ceased to be distinguished and Munster was regarded as a single province.

In order to make clear the position of affairs at this period, some account of the system of government of the country is necessary. This must not be taken as applying to the entire island in the aggregate; for, in the words of that most impartial historian and great authority, W. E. H. Lecky: "the Irish clans have never been fused into a single nation". And it may be added that Lord Dunraven, in his admirable study of Irish history The Legacy of Past Years, in writing on this subject, says that even at a much later period in her history Ireland had not emerged from the tribal state. "No man had arisen of sufficient strength to found and perpetuate a lasting dynasty, and weld the people into a nation acting under one head." Each of the four kingdoms referred to governed itself, with a king as its recognized ruler; but they never combined on any occasion, even to keep from the shores of Ireland a common enemy. This is sufficient reason why the country suffered from successive invasions. It also explains to a certain extent why the inhabitants of the several provinces are unlike in temperament and other characteristics. There are, of course, other reasons, which will be given later, but it can easily be seen when there are frequent internecine" wars waged by those who are supposed to have a common origin and a common heritage, why the elements that go to make up a nation are lacking. Ulster to-day is a striking example of the fact that the various kingdoms in Ireland were never united. There never has been a United Ireland.

One of the causes which may have led to this strange contrast between a native of Munster or of Connaught and a native of Ulster, is the possibility (and we have good geological evidence for the surmise) that the land connection between Ireland and the south-west of Scotland continued for some centuries later than the land connection between Ireland and England. The evidence in favour of this conjecture lies in the similarity of the geological formation of the coast line of Antrim and that of the adjacent coast line of Scotland, and the fact that the fauna of the two countries exhibit a striking resemblance, in strange contrast to the characteristics of the fauna of England. The north of Ireland, by means of a natural causeway existing between it and Scotland, would, in the remote time under consideration, be peopled by a hardy race whose descendants, even after the lapse of centuries, would possess the leading characteristics of their ancestors.

To carry this conjecture farther, may not these very characteristics, or traits of nationality, have been the chief factors which aroused the great interest in Ulster displayed by St. Patrick? He was, as nearly all authorities agree with Professor Bury in stating, born in Dumbarton. He repaired, as we have seen, first to Ulster. His first convert was an Ulster chief. His first church was built within the borders of Ulster, at Saul. He made Armagh the principal See of Ireland, and he spent the closing years of his life near Downpatrick, where he is buried. All this points to St. Patrick's finding characteristics in the people of Ulster which he did not discover in the people of the other provinces. This may be merely a flight of fancy, but no other reasonable explanation has ever been given for St. Patrick's striking predilection for Ulster.

Seeing, then, that a description of the mode of government in Ireland must be confined to a single "kingdom" at a time, and having devoted our attention to Ulster, it is interesting to note the leading part taken by that province in all great movements whether physical or intellectual. For over five hundred years the King of Ulster was Supreme King of Ireland, and that supremacy had to be maintained by force of arms. The over-king (or Ardri) till the close of the fifth century resided at Tara, in the province of Meath. This province had been formed by cutting off a portion from each of the surrounding territories, so as to make a kind of personal estate for the head of the royal house of Ulster. It was composed, as already stated, of Westmeath, Longford, and a part of King's County, and was therefore about half the size of Ulster.

Under the Ardri the provincial kings held sway, having under them chiefs governing districts called tuaths, which each contained about 180 English square miles. It will be seen, therefore, that the clan system existed in Ireland as well as in Scotland; but the clans in Ireland were called "septs". These septs consisted of a number of families bearing the same name. The head of each family was in his own circle supreme, but he owed allegiance to the head of the sept. The head of the sept in his turn acknowledged the supremacy of the chief or sub-king of the territory, and paid him tribute. By having so many divisions and sub-divisions of territory much mischief was wrought in the country, but among all primitive peoples society was based on the tribal system. The chiefship of the sept was elective, his successor being chosen in his lifetime. This successor, called the "Tanist", was not necessarily his son, but some member of his family and he was always elected as being the most serviceable member that could at the moment be found.

The law was administered by judges called Brehons. The Brehons were the general professional arbitrators in all disputes. They had absolutely in their hands the interpretation of the laws and the application of them to individual cases. Submission to their jurisdiction could not be compelled by the suitor, but in practice, owing to the weight of public opinion, it was never questioned. The Brehons had collections of laws in volumes. Of these volumes some have been preserved, notably the great Irish code, the Senchus Mor, which claims attention as exhibiting an elaborate system of jurisprudence. This great code was compiled in the fifth century. Another important volume of laws is the Book of Acaill or Ackill. These books of law were translated by O'Donovan and O'Curry, and we learn from the introduction to the Senchus Mor the story of its compilation. From this it would appear that King Laeghaire, whom St. Patrick converted to Christianity, in his zeal for his new faith requested that a code of pagan laws compiled at the desire of the saint himself should be revised. Accordingly he appointed a committee of nine eminent and learned men, including himself and St. Patrick, to revise them, and exclude from them everything that clashed with the doctrines of Christianity. This was done, and a passage from the introduction to the work informs us: "How the judgment of true nature which the Holy Ghost had spoken through the mouths of the Brehons and just poets of the men of Erin, from the first occupation of the island down to the reception of the faith, were all exhibited by Dubhtach [the Chief Brehon or Poet of the time] to Patrick. What did not clash with the Word of God in the written law and in the New Testament, and with the consciences of the believers, was confirmed in the law of the Brehons by Patrick, and by the ecclesiastics and the chieftains of Erin. For the law of nature had been quite right, except the faith and its obligations, and the harmony of the Church and the people."

The Book of Acaill, which is believed to have been put together in the third century, gives some idea of the criminal branch of the Brehon law. Every crime, from murder down to the smallest offence or accidental injury, could be compensated for by erics, or fines. These fines were payable by the forfeiture of so many cows; but as there was no force at the back of the Brehon who had delivered judgment, the fines sometimes remained unpaid. The remuneration of a Brehon in each case upon which he was called to decide was by payment of dues consisting of fifteen cows and ten days' entertainment. If he delivered a false or unjust judgment he was branded on the cheek.

The Married Woman's Property Act was anticipated in Brehon law. Where the husband and the wife alike possessed property, the wife was called "the wife of equal dignity". She was recognized as in every respect her husband's equal; neither could contract without the other, nor could one of them jeopardize the property of the other.

The Brehon laws, while they form a huge collection of primitive customs, and have little in common with modern ideas on the subject of law and justice, contain not a little that is just and wise. Judge O'Connor Morris wrote of them that "They are full of conceits and extremely complex, never simple or striking in their ideas; they contrast strangely with the English Common Law", and he adds: "In one respect, however, the Brehon lawyers seem to have had just and enlightened conceptions; they systematically discouraged collective rights in land, and did much to encourage separate ownership, one of the first great steps in social advancement".

The well-known hospitality of the Irish people even at this early stage is proved by references in the Brehon code to the Public Hospitaller, an individual whose function it was to keep open house on the part of his sept, and receive distinguished personages passing through his district. With the view of enabling the hospitaller to worthily perform his duties he was allowed five hundred acres of land. He was thus rendered independent, and was not permitted to accept presents from persons who partook of his hospitality. The house he occupied belonged to the sept and was used for public meetings. The hospitaller had to keep a light burning throughout the night, in order to guide those who were in need of shelter to the protection afforded by its hospitable roof.

With regard to the tenure of land, it may be noted that the entire land belonged to the sept. Part was used for grazing purposes, and part was allotted in tracts, for the purpose of cultivation, to the various heads of households. It was less the actual land than the amount of grazing it afforded which constituted its value. As Miss Lawless points out: "Even to this day a man, especially in the West of Ireland, will tell you that he has 'the grass of three cows', or 'the grass of six cows', as the case may be".

Rent has always been a sore subject in Ireland, and it is therefore strange that Sir Henry Maine should have pointed out that the most distinct ancient rules concerning the excessive extortion of rent are to be found in the Senchus Mor. Three rents are enumerated, viz.: rack rent to be extorted from one of a strange sept; fair rent from one of the same tribe; and stipulated rent to be paid equally to either.

When a tenant died, his farm did not go to his children. A redistribution of the entire land held by the sept was made, and the land was divided or gavelled among the male adult members. This custom did much to prevent tenants making permanent improvements.

But it is comparatively easy to make laws. It is difficult to have those laws enforced. It must not be thought because an imposing code of laws was in existence that the people for whose benefit they were made were law-abiding. Far from it. It was a wild stormy time, when fighting was the aim and object of existence. The only rule of life was that given in the couplet:

He may take who has the power,
And he may keep who can.

It was a time given over to never-ending raiding, burning, plundering, and fighting, a time in which even women went to the wars and fought beside their husbands with reckless courage, slaying or being slain with astonishing indifference to fate.

Courage, indeed, was needed in woman as well as in man, for dangers lurked on every side, not alone in the shape of human enemies, but in the fact that the woods had not yet been cleared, nor the wolf as yet exterminated.

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