Text: Críth Gablach

This is one of the early law texts written from Ireland, probably composed in the early eighth century, dealing with the hierarchies of society and the implications of status. There are several terms that remain in Gaelic in this next which need to be defined in English:

  • tuath (pl. tuatha) “a kingdom” (the smallest independent political unit in Gaelic society)
  • cumal an economic unit, generally of three milch (milk-producing) cows
  • nemeth (pl. nemith) “sacred; the noble class of society”
  • Féni Although this term changed in meaning over time, in Irish law such as this tract it referred to the (non-élite) free people “enfranchised” (or entitled) of the tuath with the right to vote. It thus excluded the non-free, enslaved class.
  • Fénechas is the secular law which applies to the Féni.

The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from the edition in MacNeill, “Ancient Irish Law.” Note that “franchise” in the MacNeill text has been changed to “entitlement.” Some of the text has been regularized, such as the question and answer pairs, for more consistency.

§ 1. Question: In what is the philosophy of the law of the Gael founded? Answer: In proof and right and nature.
§ 2. Proof is founded on rules and maxims and true testimonies. Right is founded on verbal contracts and acknowledgment. The law of nature is founded on cancellation of penalties and joint arrangement.
§ 3. Both proof and right are founded on the nemeth [“sacred class”].
§ 4. Any judgment that is not based on any of these is null and void.
§ 5. The judgments of the Church are based on proof and right of Scriptures. The decisions of a file [“learned man”] are based on rules of law. The decisions of a ruler are based on all of these: rules of law, maxims, and testimonies.
§ 6. There are two kinds of nemeth: the dependent and the independent. The independent nemeth are churchmen, rulers, files and men of the Féni. The dependent nemeth include the people of arts and crafts. The dependent nemeth are given this title because they are employed by the independent nemeth, although anyone can purchase independent status with his artistic skill. Hence there is a proverb, “The independent in the seat of the dependent and the dependent in the seat of the independent.” Anyone can become independent through his wealth; anyone can become dependent through his lips [i.e., his words].
§ 7. “The independent in the seat of the dependent” refers to a man who sells his land or his authority, or who gives his body in service [as a client]. “The dependent in the seat of the independent” refers to a man who buys land or rights or authority through his artistic skills, or through his husbandry [skill in domestic finances] or through the talents that God gave him. Hence there is a proverb, “a man is better than his birth.”
§ 28. Half of the status of every man applies to his wife, his dutiful son, his administrator, or his prior.
§ 37. These are the dependent nemith: wrights, blacksmiths, brasiers, whitesmiths, physicians, jurists, druids, and the people of all the arts and crafts. The entitlement of jurists and wrights increases until it reaches food-renders for twelve men and fifteen chattels for honour-price.
§ 39. Blacksmiths, brasiers, whitesmiths, and physicians, even chief masters of these classes, are only entitled to food-renders for four men, the honour-price of eight chattels, and three days protection.
§ 40. Question: What gives honour-price to a person? Answer: merit, integrity, and purity.
§ 42. The good arts are both dependent and independent, because they serve and are served. Their distraints are free and their judgments are free over their rightful customs and over their apprentices.
§ 50. The entitlement of a second-tier bóaire is due to a chariot-wright, house-carpenter, cloth-tailor, relief-carver [on stone], and shield-maker. If a man practices two of these crafts, he is due the entitlement of a first-tier bóaire.
§ 51. Turners, fetter-makers, leather-workers, wool-combers and fishermen are due the entitlement of a fer midboth.
§ 52. The lyre is the only musical craft that deserves entitlement, as long as it accompanies the nobility. The lyre-player is due the entitlement of a first-tier bóaire.
§ 53. As we have said, every art that deserves entitlement is not diminished by being practiced elsewhere, namely amongst a foreign tuath or in a church. Hence the proverb, “the nemith do not diminish each other.”
§ 55. Vocal and (other) instrumental musicians, jockeys, charioteers, steersmen, followers in feasts, mummers, jugglers, buffoon, clowns and the lesser craftsmen: it is only on account of those nobles who keep them that they have honour-price. They do not have entitlement independent of them.
§ 58. A master of filidheacht [“professional poetry”], a master of wisdom and a master hostel-keeper: each of these is equal in entitlement to the king of one tuath. Their honour-price is worth 30 chattels and they deserve once month’s protection, and 80 cakes, for each one.
§ 61. Question: Why is the Críth Gablach [“Branched Purchase”] called this? Answer: Because a member of the tuath in good standing expects to be assigned his “purchase” [degree of advantage] in the tuath. Or because of the number of branches of status into which the tuath is subdivided. Question: How many subdivisions are there? Answer: Seven.
§ 62. Where do the divisions of the tuath come from? Answer: From a comparison with the orders of the church, for every order of the church is paralleled by one in the tuath, for the purposes of declaration or denial of oath, evidence, or judgment.
§ 63. Question: What are the social ranks of the tuath? Answer: Fer midboth, bóaire, aire désa, aire ardd, aire túisc, aire forgill, and king – if it be according to the right of Fénechas; and if it be not by that law, these seven ranks are distinguished: áire désa, aire ardd, aire túsc, aire forgill, tánaise ríg, and ríg [king].
§ 76. Ócaire has a higher position [than fer midboth] as an aire [“noble”]. Why is he called ócaire [“young noble”]? For the juniority of his noble grade.
§ 77. What is his property? He has seven means: seven cows with their bull; seven pigs with a brood sow; seven sheep; a horse for both working and riding. He has seven cumals worth of land. That is a “cow’s land” according to the tradition of the Féni because it sustains seven cows for a year. that is, when it is made use of for grazing, seven cows are put into it and the grazier leaves one of the seven cows in it at the end of the year as payment for the rent of that land.
§ 78. So that he is equipped to be a partner in farming, the ócaire has a fourth share of a plough, an ox, a plough-share, a goad, and a halter. He has a share in a kiln, in a mill, and in a barn. He owns a cooking pot.
§ 79. This is the size of his house: it is larger than a rented house, which is only 17 feet. [The rented house] is made of wickerwork up to the lintel (of the door). There is a dit [beam?] between every other weaving from the lintel to the roof-tree. It has two doorways. One of them is an open doorway, the other has a wattle door, and this door does not have sticks poking outwards. There is a smooth wall of boards around it. There is an oaken plank [wall] between every two beds.
§ 100. The honour-price of every grade of these is complete unless their wealth fails them, that is to say, provided that they do not fail in the seven respects in which the honour of all people fail. Question: What are these? Answer: His defamation, having an accusation brought against him but not giving a pledge for his honour, false witness (in court), evasion of bond, default of suretyship, forfeiting his hostage in a matter for which the hostage was given, defilement of his honour.
§ 101. Question: What cleanses one’s honour of these seven things? Answer: There are three things that wash away any pollution from a person’s honour: soap, water, and towel. First, the soap is the confession of the misdeed before men and the promise not to commit it again. Second, the water is the payment to compensate for his misdeed. Third, the towel is penance for his misdeed according to the judgment of books.
§ 105. Question: What are the obligations of a lord? Answer: The obligation of protecting the arts. There are four kinds of obligations for lords: the ancient protection of the tuath is his function within the tuath, including the function of military commander, or second commander; his clients of vassalage, his free clients, his old retainers; the punishment of every defective vassalage; the retention of landless peasants [fuidir] that he brings on his hand, for wealth is greater than worthy individuals. They remain landless peasants for up to nine years if they owe service to their lords. They become old retainers thereafter.
§ 119. Question: Which of these has greater dignity, king or tuath? Answer: The king is higher. Question: What dignifies him (above the tuath)? It is the tuath that raises the king to honour, not the king that raises the tuath.
Question: What does a king do for the tuath on a sustained basis that raises his honour? Answer: He makes oaths to another king on their behalf on the border between them; he denies to undergo an oath on their behalf; he makes superior oaths over them to the maximum value of seven cumals; he makes joint judgments or joint evidence (with another king) on behalf of his tuath. It is their right that he be their faithful judge. It is their right that he make pledges on their behalf. It is their right that he give sick-maintenance as he is maintained. It is their right that he does not pledge them to hold an assembly unless all members of the tuath appear (rather than just the élite).
§ 120. There are three obligations that are proper for a king to impose upon his tuath: an assembly, a convention for enforcing authority, and a military hosting to the border. The joint holding of an assembly, however, belongs to the tuath. A king may decide what he will pledge for an assembly, but it must be a proper one.
§ 121. Question: How many things is it proper for a king to bind by pledge on his tuath? Answer: Three. Question: What are they? Answer: A pledge for a military hosting, a pledge for governance, and a pledge for a treaty, for all of these are beneficial for the tuath.
§ 123. A king may bind his tuatha by pledge to four kinds of governance. Question: What are they? Answer: First is the governance of the common Irish law [Fénechas]. The king arranges it and the tuatha adopt it. The king enforces three other kinds of governance: governance after their defeat in battle, so that the king can unite the tuatha afterwards so that they will not destroy each other; governance after a plague; a king’s governance over other kings, such as the governance of the king of Cashel of Munster.
A king has three kinds of governance for which it is proper for him to bind his tuatha by pledge: governance for the expulsion of an alien kin-group, governance for the raising of produce [?], and a church law that kindles, such as the Law of Adamnán.
§ 129. A king’s duties are specific to the day of the week: Sunday for drinking ale, for he is not a rightful ruler unless he provides ale every Sunday; Monday for judgment [between tuatha] and the reconciliations of the tuatha; Tuesday for playing board-games; Wednesday for watching deer-hounds hunting; Thursday for keeping company with his wife; Friday for horse-racing; Saturday for judging cases [within his tuath].
§ 134. How is a king’s house arranged? The king’s guards on the south. […]
§ 135. A frontman and a henchman and two men at his side. It is these who should be on the south side of the king’s house, to accompany him from inside to outside, and vice-versa. A man of pledge for vassals should be next to them. What is this man’s status? A man who has seven cumals of land, who presides over his king’s goods […]. Next to him inwards, envoys. Next to them, groups of guests. Next to them, poets. Next to them, lyre-players. Flute-players, horn-players, and jugglers in the south-east.
On the other side, in the north, a man at arms and a man of action to guard the door, each of them holding his spear in front of him to protect against the commotion of the banquet-house [outside]. Next to them, the free clients of the king – those who keep the king company.
Hostages come after them. The king’s advisor next to them. The king’s wife next to him. Then the king himself. Forfeited hostages are in fetters in the north-east.

About Michael Newton

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