Gaelic Ireland

For centuries, English-aligned historians like Edmund Spenser and Thomas Leland were eager to portray Ireland either as a barbarian backwater or an annex of Great Britain. "Lying bards" like Geoffrey Keating and Margaret Anna Cusack gave wings to a different vision of Irish civilisation, a classical utopia of sages and scholars on the level of Egypt or Greece. The flame-war between these two gangs raged for centuries, becoming a front of the political war for control of Ireland, ending in victory when the Irish gang conclusively proved Gaelic Ireland was a Land Of Milk and Honey by citing extensive historical references to cows and bees.

The great James Connolly wanted each Irishman and Irishwoman to have a picture in their mind of –

a country in which the people of the island were owners of the land upon which they lived, masters of their own lives and liberties, freely electing their rulers, and shaping their castes and conventions to permit of the closest approximation to their ideals of justice as between man and man. It is a picture of a system of society in which all were knit together as in a family, in which all were members having their definite place, and in which the highest could not infringe upon the rights of the lowest—those rights being as firmly fixed and assured as the powers of the highest, and fixed and assured by the same legal code and social convention.

Pádraig Pearse had such a picture in mind when he said that the social problems with which we struggle have already been solved, and it's just that we've stopped practicing the solutions. Pearse, Connolly, Michael Collins, and their friends believed that Gaelic civilisation held lessons for us, some romantic or artistic, but some social, political, economic, legal. Let's explore whether they were altogether naïve.

Real wealth

Transactions without money

Money was not used in Gaelic Ireland and the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Gaelic Ireland points this out. This is very surprising. As a social "technology", money has been widespread throughout the world since the Bronze Age. Yet Ireland had no Money at all until 1000 A.D., and generally got by without it for centuries more after that (, O'Sullivan). Wealth was real resources, with a limited amount of abstraction on top (McLeod).

There is a story about Cormac mac Airt, who would go on to become "absolutely the best king that ever reigned in Ireland", but is just a boy at the time of the story and the story goes like this: one day he was present at a trial. The offender had committed the crime of letting her sheep eat some woad (a plant used for blue dye) belonging to someone else. The Brehon ruled that she must compensate the owner of the woad-patch by giving her some sheep. The boy Cormac mac Airt spoke up, saying that no, woad is a perennial vegetable that comes back when cut, and she should pay not with sheep but with wool from the sheep. She took something that will grow back, and she should forfeit something that grows back. The crowd recognised the fairness of the judgement, recognised the wisdom and fairness of the child, and chose his judgement over the Brehon's.

In a modern justice system, the woman would have had to pay compensation in cash money; the Gaels had to have a whole trial to discuss the in-kind compensation she should pay. (This principle of paying in-kind compensation for crimes is the core of the story of the Sons of Tuireann.) The story shows that a key task of judges and kings is to evaluate goods, and this is confirmed by the wisdom-text Audaċt Morainn. Our national epic may be the only one in the world where all the action is set in motion by an accountant.

The most familiar function of money is to buy and sell life's necessities, but Gaelic Ireland didn't need that: "a means of indirect exchange appears to have been unnecessary because there was little exchange of goods for goods; transfers of goods were determined by an individual's social obligations, not by the need to exchange an undesired good for a desired good. The need for money was independent of the need for market exchange." (Gerriets).

Ireland under her indigenous system was a gift economy (Doherty) with strong community ties. Marketless as well as stateless. The farmers, carpenters, smiths, doctors, and beekeepers of the agro-artisanal economy functioned something like the Russian blacksmith described in Mutual Aid Among The Barbarians, "who, like the blacksmith of the Indian communities, being a member of the community, is never paid for his work within the community. He must make it for nothing... Selling and buying cannot take place within the community."

Day-to-day transactions proceeded according to social station and what David Graeber would call "the communism of everyday life". This is Connolly's "picture of a system of society in which all were knit together as in a family, in which all were members having their definite place". But money is not just for day-to-day transactions. The Gaels did make payments for major contracts and fines, but they paid in real goods – especially moocows – their value estimated by the local king or breiṫiúna.

Free Public Hostels are a feature of the stories, most notably Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, and are confirmed by historical sources (Kelly, page 36). I must stress how strange & extraordinary these were: hundreds of inns around the country provided food and ale, for free, to anyone, at any time, in any quantity, no questions asked.

That makes no sense to an economist: why would the hostel-keeper (brugaid) give it away for free? The answer's that Gaelic society was not about trading; it was about fulfilling your duties to your kinsmen and clansmen. If you want the status of brugaid and the perks that come with it, you've got to perform the duties of one. In conclusion: Gaelic Ireland was not a Utopia, just a place where you could go to any feasting-hall and party for free as often as you liked.

A society without finance

Where wealth is solid, you own the house you live in, the food in your cupboards, the tools you use. But sometimes possession is an abstract concept; a landlord might own a house he never visits, and in July 2020, some millionaire bought Horse Island in Cork for €5.5 million without ever visiting it.

This abstract ownership allows rentseeking: making money by owning rather than by doing. (Thomas Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century showed that you generally make more money by owning than by doing.)

Financialisation – sublimating wealth from something solid into abstract credit – has advantages. But at least since the 2008/9 crash, nobody can say that it's an unmixed blessing:

By that logic, the Gaelic economy, working with solid, tangible wealth (and minimal financing in the form of clientship contracts, which we'll explore below), would be expected to have little financial risk, to proportionately favour human-scale or non-high-tech development, and discourage economic growth. If you think it's important to grow GDP and technology, that's one advantage and two disadvantages. Or if you believe in degrowth (PDF), it's three advantages.

Gaelic Ireland was an unequal society, but the inequality was moderate. Physical evidence suggests kings lived in the same sorts of homes as everyone else (Ó Cróinín, page 71, Mac Niocaill, page 59). This is totally different to the opulent monarchies living among peasants in other civilisations from China to Egypt.

This equality didn't come from the legal system, which was inegalitarian by design (Kelly, page 7). I propose that it came largely from the monetary sytem, which discouraged abstract ownership of large swathes of land and capital that could be squeezed for rent. (By the way, my professional work for years was adjacent to monetary theory.) Or as Nerys Patterson puts it, "the undeveloped economy of early medieval Ireland offered only limited possibilities for the economic subordination of social classes" (Patterson, page 63).

Freedom / Saoirse

It's curious that most Irish people don't know that Ireland was anarchist for thousands of years. Now I've gone and used a controversial word, a word whose vagueness always sparks a dispute. Sometimes someone then attempts to smooth the dispute with the clarifying phrase: "Anarchy means no rulers, not no rules". And that certainly seems a good description of pre-conquest Ireland.

Yes, they tell us in school that means 'king', and Ireland did have its , but if you hear it and think of the monarchical kings of medieval England and France, you'll misunderstand the most important things about the system. Absolute monarchy is the furthest possible thing from Irish tradition (P.W. Joyce). Gaelic were much more like the modern-day King of The Travellers, or the King of Tory Island.

Absolute monarchy: the ruler is above the law. Enlightenment republics: the law is above the rulers. What about Gaelic Ireland? Fergus Kelly writes, "In general, the authors of the law-texts seem to expect the king to observe the law like other members of the túath." (Kelly, page 25)

Gaelic kings did not make the laws (Kelly, page 21, Mac Niocaill, page 47), nor rule on them (Kelly, page 23, Mac Niocaill, page 47) (the breiṫiúna did that), and had a moderate role in enforcing them (Patterson, page 343).

"Political power was decentralized in Ireland... [the king] was not sovereign in the modern sense of the term, since his ability to legislate and enforce law was limited" (Gerriets)

Is this anarchy? Modern language isn't always the best tool for describing non-modern realities (and sure look nobody knows what that word means anyway) but the political power couldn't make or alter laws, pass judgement, or draw taxes, so you'd see why people call it an anarchist society. Stateless as well as marketless.

(To add a little contradiction, because excessive certainty is rather poor taste, Donnchadh Ó Corráin writes, "It has frequently been stressed that the lrish king had no power to make laws, but this is not quite true even of the earlier period. The king could enforce a rechtge proclaimed by him at a public assembly, but most of these were special ordinances designed to meet emergencies.")

Big Mick Collins said that Gaelic Ireland was politically decentralised, but unified "by willing obedience to the same law, the law which was their own law and reverenced by them", and he was right (Ó Cróinín, page 110). The féineaċas, the law of the free, held sway over all of Ireland from the mists of time (some centuries B.C.) until the 12th century, and over parts of Ireland from the 12th to the 17th centuries. In the 20th century, the Dáil courts still heard Brehon law. Does anything of it survive? Did living free for thousands of years create "the Celt, a natural anarchist"?


In the story about Cormac mac Airt and the wool, we see a few things about the Irish justice system:

Fairness is an emotion. We recognise it much in the way we recognise Beauty. Sarah Brosnan's research has shown that even animals have this sense of Justice, and can distinguish Fair from Unfair. Children certainly can. On the other hand, the Justice System is not the Fairness System. Yet Irish law seems to have been based on that felt experience of fairness.

Customary and canon law / féineaċas & cáin

-- After all, I should think you are able to free yourself. You are your own master, it seems to me.
-- I am the servant of two masters, Stephen said, an English and an Italian.
-- Italian? Haines said.
A crazy queen, old and jealous. Kneel down before me.
-- And a third, Stephen said, there is who wants me for odd jobs.
-- Italian? Haines said again. What do you mean?
-- The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.

The historical period of this essay ("Gaelic Ireland") spans a fair aul' stretch, in which different traditions and influences swirled and struggled for primacy. And although it was an especially stable system, about which we can generalise a great deal, our discussion of law and governance has reached the point where we need to make some finer distinctions.

The earliest texts that survive are from the 6th century, and by that time, Irish customary law (féineaċas) was significantly mingled with Christian canon law (cáin). There was a pagan character to "the traditional law, the customs of the tribes" (Binchy 1961, page 13), whereas cáin came from authorities (Kelly, page 22). The only texts we have inherited are a cocktail of these two.

It's hard to unmix a cocktail, but common sense allows us to match some legal principles to their traditions. The easy example that Binchy points out: the marriage laws don't reflect Christian sexual mores, so that's one thing we can assign to pagan influence (Binchy 1961, page 13).

As we've seen, the pagan-flavoured féineaċas was law without kings, supplemented by rechtge, royal decrees in times of emergency. But this becomes less and less true as the centuries roll by. Charles Doherty writes that "the church exhorted kings to take an interest in this area of government" and centralised authority eclipsed the decentralised féineaċas until "By the eleventh century cáin & rechtge [canon law and decree] is the formula used to describe the promulgation of law by the major kings" (Doherty, page 79). The pagan kings had let people govern themselves by self-chosen customary law, but the Christian church "required greater 'state' participation (which usually meant capital punishment) to ensure peace and stability." (Doherty, page 84).

Like customary law systems elsewhere in the world, Brehon Law didn't fade away peacefully. Joyce writes: "The Brehon Law was vehemently condemned by English writers; and in several acts of parliament it was made treason for the English settlers to use it." It was in 1612 that John Davies bemoaned the lack of the death penalty in Irish law. Of course eventually "the just and honourable law of England" – gallows and all – gained influence over Ireland. But before that, Stephen's Italian master pushed for the same reform –

Donnchadh Ó Corráin writes: "The christian king is to have power of judgment over those who disobey the royal or divine law and condemn them to death or exile, fine or prison, and though there is much pious exhortation to kings, the canonists quote statements attributed to St Jerome that indicate a clear perception of royal authority: ‘the word of a king is a sword for beheading, a rope for hanging, it casts into prison, it condemns to exile’", and: "The church apparently had strong views on capital punishment and it is frequently urged on kings. This heady mixture of exhortation to rule rather than reign, to act as supreme judge, to extend royal powers and income, and the constant reference to Old-Testament kingship must have made a powerful impact on the power-hungry kings of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, who were consolidating those greater lordships that dominated Irish political history until the coming of the Normans"

This is exactly what the word of a king surely isn't in the indigenous democratic system of féineaċas laws "which the túatha choose and the king confirms" (Kelly, page 22-23).

Decentralised economy

Distributed ownership

An obsession with private property dominates Brehon law texts (Kelly, page 105). A famous Brehon text, the Beċbreṫa, says that if bees trespass on my land, their owner owes me for the pollen and nectar they took.

Not even Western civilisation is so ridiculously capitalistic that it gets stingy about pollen. Yet, as we've seen, Gaelic Ireland was simultæneously communistic enough to offer free ale and bacon to all comers. This goes to show how useless labels for political systems are. So anyway, let's look at one called Distributism –

Wikipedia says the features of Distributism are widespread ownership, economic coöperatives, guilds, and credit unions. (Credit unions are their answer to that threat of a bloated financial sector; probably a more realistic one than abolishing money.) Australian politician Race Mathews introduces distributism this way: "a just social order can only be achieved through a much more widespread distribution of property. Distributism favours a 'society of owners' where property belongs to the many rather than the few, and correspondingly opposes the concentration of property in the hands either of the rich, as under capitalism, or of the state, as advocated by some socialists." (Mathews, page 2).

"Economically we must be democratic, as in the past. The right of all the people must be secure. The people must become again ‘the guardians of their law and of their land’. Each must be free to reap the full reward of his labour. Monopoly must not be allowed to deprive anyone of that right."

Is that quote from some distributist economist advocating for workplace democracy, land tenure, and anti-trust regulation? Is it a 'tierra y libertad' Zapatista? No, it's Big Mick Collins voicing his hope for a free, fair, Gaelic future.

Pre-conquest Ireland is a society of owners. The mass of men are of a class known as ócaire or bóaire, meaning each owns his or her land and livestock, and (sounding now like democracy more than anarchy) "attends the assembly, and thereby plays a part – however small – in decisions affecting the tuath" (Kelly, page 10).

There are two exceptions to the Gaelic obsession with private property: dírann and booley.

From Bealtaine to Samhain (in other words, during the summer) livestock were moved from the home farm to a more extensive, wilder pasture known in Ireland as a booley. These booleys were common land, rather than private property (Patterson, page 91), and are evidenced in surviving placenames like Knocknabooly and Boolyglass.

What an interesting solution to the tension between private and public property! Capitalism six months of the year, communism six months.

The motif of private property comes up again and again in history texts, law texts, stories, and archæological evidence, but always balanced with a communal spirit. Patterson writes: "Cooperation in the arable sector of the economy also strikes one as lacking the sort of intense, inflexible communalism of English manorial villages. Despite the various checks on individual economic opportunism that have been described previously, social mobility among the ranks of the farmers was an important aspect... There was a general sentiment that men ought to cooperate with their kinsmen" (Patterson, page 230-1)

We can get a picture of the class structure and wealth-inequality of the indigenous "society of owners" from Brehon law manuscripts, together with excavations of small, medium, and large houses. (Stout's paper makes this textual-archæological comparison in wonderful detail.)

Gaelic Ireland was a society "where even the greatest lords might live in thatched houses of wattle-and-daub" (Simms). So top and bottom social classes had similar houses – how else can we measure their comparative wealth? Another way is by their land-holdings, and the Críṫ Gablaċ details the land-holdings of each social class –

The lowest class of owner, the ócaire, has one unit of land called a tír cumaile, and the petty king (rí túaiṫe) had 7× that.

Source: Stout

Mark that: a rí túaiṫe is the top dog of about 9,000 people, and is one of the 200 highest-status people in Ireland, yet his or her possessions are only 7× those of a low-ranking peasant. We can be unusually certain on this point, because textual and archæological evidence back each other up (Patterson, page 5). I cannot resist pointing out that 21st century coöperatives also opt to pay the bosses about 7× what the workers get (and, in coöperatives, workers play a part – however small – in decisions affecting the company). In the United States of America in 2018, CEOs of companies with 2,500 to 10,000 members (tuaṫ-sized companies) earned 139.1× what the median employee (not the lowest) earned.

Apart from house-size and land-holdings, a third way of comparing wealth is ownership of moocows. This was the main way of reckoning wealth in Gaelic Ireland, as you remember from the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Patterson argues for the position that the wealthy Gaels did maintain large herds (Patterson, page 96). But 'large' here is not thousands; it's about a hundred. We nowadays use the word "millionaire" because possession of one million dollars constitutes wealth; in the myths, the word 'bóiċeadaċ' is used. It means 'having a hundred cows', and Patterson argues that we should take it literally. For comparison, an ócaire (the lowest category of owner) owns seven moocows (Kelly, page 10), implying about a 14-fold difference between rich and poor.

Stout's chart above implies a 17½-fold difference, larger but similar. (Says you: show your workings. Says I: An aire forgill has five bóaire clients and six ócaire clients. Each ócaire client is secured with a loan worth 16 sét, and each bóaire with a loan of 30 sét (Kelly, page 29), meaning that an aire forgill has attained his or her status by extending loans of a total value of 244 séts, equal to 122 moocows. This is about 17½× the seven-cow herd of the ócaire.)

Texts about cow-ownership, texts about land-ownership, and archæological evidence of houses all tell the same story: Gaelic Ireland was a society of owners, with strong private property rights, in which the rich were about one order of magnitude wealthier than the poor. The causes of this are interdisciplinary. Some of it's monetary: wealth is material rather than abstract. Some of it's technology: wealth was based on artisanal production and on agricultural goods, which are intrinsically productive. Some of it's anarchist: there is no centralised political power centralising resources.

The indigenous order had decentralised law, a cityless decentralised population in homesteads, locally self-sufficient decentralised production, and lacked a centralised state and abstract money. Decentralisation is the theme. Doherty puts it: "Between 900 and 1200 it is possible to distinguish the growth of trade, the beginning of urbanism, the use of coinage, the intensification of lordship, and the growth of the machinery of state. None of these factors is independent" (Doherty).

There is a basis for The Big Fellah saying, "Economically we must be democratic, as in the past." Nerys Patterson writes that in the economy of Gaelic Ireland, "farm and domestic craft production had to be adequate for subsistence, if not at the household level, at least within a rather small local community. CG [Críṫ Gablaċ] depicts all the ranks of the farmers as maintaining balanced and diversified resources [polyculture]... Farmers are also depicted as sharing in the collective ownership of the major agrarian fixtures – plows, mills, and kilns." (Patterson, page 63)

Appropriate technology & self-sufficient homesteads

Like indigenous people in other parts of the world, the Gaels' daily livingry was so simple and so appropriate it barely leaves room for improvement (Patterson, page 70). Irish peasants, even when poor, had good food and clothing (Patterson, page 79-80).

Take woollen cloaks for instance. Cloaks are good. They are made from a low-impact local organic material ✔, keep you warm ✔, but only when you have them over your shoulders; the moment you throw them behind your shoulders, they stop trapping heat ✔. They can also keep the rain off you if you pull them up over your head ✔. (Says you: but wearing wool in the rain you'd get soaked like? Says I: no you wouldn't. My heavy woolly Aran defeats all but the worst rains.)

Thinking bigger, look at the thatched wattle-and-daub roundhouses wherein all social classes laid their sweet heads. Again, they're made from local, organic material ✔. There is archæological evidence that they were built with a hollow between two walls, which was filled with straw insulation (Ó Cróinín, page 73, Mallory, page 147). You can read about the pros and cons of straw insulation here; it insulates more cosily than mineral wool ✔, while also being low-impact ✔. For roofing, thatch is an excellent insulator ✔, withstands high winds better than slate ✔, and is cheap and sustainable too ✔. A circle gives stronger resistance to high winds than any other shape ✔, resulting in a strong, cosy house, built out of local mud, wood, and agricultural waste, that will last for years without maintenance.

Epictetus in the Enchiridion writes:

The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.

Gaelic homes followed this principle: they were a normal, appropriate size for a person, never palatial. Stout writes: "the laws tell us that the houses of the bóaire had diameters of 8.21m (or 52.92m²), while the highest lords (the aire forgill) dwelt in houses only 0.91m wider (or 12.41m² larger)" (Stout). The Tiny House FAQ would class these houses as small (but not tiny).

In their roundhouses and líosanna, the Gaels lived essentially self-sufficient lives. Doherty writes, "Throughout the early middle ages self-sufficiency was the ideal. Trade and market activity was peripheral and subsidiary to this" (Doherty), and Proudfoot agrees, saying, "Although raths were essentially self-sufficient farmsteads, trading played a small but significant part in their economy" (Proudfoot).

Political power is, of course, tied up with systems of material production and distribution. A decentralised, self-reliant population has fewer dependencies to exploit. Stephen's third master who he does odd jobs for wouldn't have much to tempt him with. Precolonial Ireland must have been a bit like precolonial KwaZulu-Natal, where, "independent homesteads resulted in a relatively decentralised structure of political authority, with every unit having access to abundant resources allowing for a self-sufficient existence" (PDF).

Ireland's decentralised structure influenced military affairs as well as political and economic ones. Jean Froissart wrote that "It is hard to find a way of making warfare on the Irish effectively, for, unless they choose, there is no one there to fight and there are no towns to be found." Irish told Edward Bruce, "It is our custom to pursue and fight, and fight when retreating, and not stand in open hand-to-hand conflict until the other side is defeated." (Simms). (Of course, Ireland is famous for guerrilla tactics well beyond the Gaelic period, through the rapparees of the 17th century, Michael Dwyer's campaign, and into the flying columns of the War of Independence.)

Gaelic Ireland was a cityless land of rural homesteads (Kelly, page 6-7) but it's a mistake to think of it as agricultural. Instead, think of it as agro-artisanal: a cake of agriculture with a topping of spinning, weaving, woodworking, ironworking, and other crafts. Think of "The scattering of industries over the country – so as to bring the factory amidst the fields". The Economy of The Irish Rath (Proudfoot) describes archæological evidence that industrial activites were carried out at "normal rath sites" – self-sufficient homesteads – like Carraig Aille 2 and Castle Skreen 2, where crucibles for working bronze were found. About two-thirds of the raths Proudfoot surveys show evidence of manufacturing, of "the factory amidst the fields". The raths were workshops for iron smelting & smithing, woodworking, spinning & weaving, leadworking & bronzeworking, and for making things out of bone and pottery. W. G. Wood-Martin's charming book The lake dwellings of Ireland lovingly categorises the household sundries the dwellers in crannóga saw and touched every day: bone combs, clay pots, wickerwork baskets, and the like. Wickerwork is lovely stuff because it means that a teenager can, in some hours, turn bits of plant into a bed, a boat, a basket or anything. It's the plastic of our ancestors, so it is.

Patterson, page 68: "In addition to producing foodstuffs, Irish farming families grew and prepared flax to make linen, gathered wool and manufactured woollen cloth and several dyes and colorants for fabric and leather, prepared leather and other meat by-products such as tallow for candles, and made a variety of implements and building materials from wood, reeds and grass."

The lore has it that each of these crafts is powered by one of the Túaṫa De Danann – Luchtaine for carpentry, Crédine for copperworking, and so forth (Kelly, page 269).

We have reached another point where we must narrow our focus from Gaelic Ireland as a whole to more specific units of time and place. As the Christian era progressed, the southern Uí Néill established a Christian order in and around Meath that "depended on coercive power" and was more focused on control of land, while Munster had a rather different system, "less aggressive, less materialistic, but nevertheless probably more productive", in which the economics were agro-artisanal, and the associated social order was druidical (Patterson, page 42-53). As we've seen, Christianisation and coercive state power went hand-in-hand.

Munster's druidical, agro-artisanal society was a society of guilds and grades. (Guilds, remember, are another thing advocated by the distributists.) Among the characteristics of Munster's system, Patterson lists "Technological specialization, magic" (Patterson, page 45-46)

Further reading