6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society
Updated: May 12, 2020
I‘ve long felt that our ancient Irish ancestors were far more advanced and civilised than we give them credit for. Not simply because of the amazing engineering which went onto the construction of the stone structures they left behind in the landscape, but through all that I have learned about their beliefs and way of life from reading their stories in the ancient texts. Topped off by the extraordinary Brehon Laws which governed their society.
During my research, I came across the work of Alexei Kondratiev. He was an author, linguist, and teacher of Celtic languages, folklore and culture in America until his death in 2010. He considered himself to be both a Neo-pagan and a Christian, could speak all six Celtic languages, and several native American languages too. He was a very accomplished scholar and teacher, with qualifications in anthropology, linguistics, Celtic philology, archaeology, and music.
But what drew me to him was a short piece of writing on Celtic values. These struck a chord with me; they explained much that I had wondered about the culture of ancient Ireland.
Alexei claimed that the Celts abided by six core values; honour, loyalty, hospitality, honesty, justice, and courage. These formed the basic principles upon which Celtic society was founded. Although they defined an acceptable set of behaviours, they were not an individual code of conduct but rather a collective one, which applied to the whole community.
This was everything. It wasn’t just a chivalric code to be followed by warriors. In fact, the following five qualities all come back to this one. The Old Irish word for honour is enech, meaning ‘face’. To be an honourable person in one’s community meant ‘saving face’; good things must also be heard about you in your community. The word clú means ‘reputation’ and comes from the Indo-European root ‘to hear’, thus referring to what is being said about you.
A curious practice which demonstrates the importance of honour was called Troscud, which features in the Brehon Law. It involved sitting outside the home of someone who had done you an injustice and fasting from dawn to dusk. During this time, the misdemeanour became common knowledge, and shame was brought upon the wrongdoer if he allowed the injured party to fast while he continued to eat. It usually resulted in the matter being settled privately between the two parties.
The Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall’s war band had a strict code of honour. This was the motto which they lived by:
Glaine ár gcroí, neart ár ngéag agus beart de réir ár mbriathar
Meaning: “the purity of our hearts, the strength of our limbs and our commitment to our promise”
These are the values Fionn expected all his warriors to live up to:
“If you have a mind to be a good champion, be quiet in a great man’s house; be surly in the narrow pass.
Do not beat your hound without a cause; do not bring a charge against your wife without having knowledge of her guilt; do not hurt a fool in fighting, for he is without his wits.
Do not find fault with high-up persons; do not stand up to take part in a quarrel; have no dealings with a bad man or a foolish man. Let two-thirds of your gentleness be showed to women and to little children that are creeping on the floor, and to men of learning that make the poems, and do not be rough with the common people.
Do not give your reverence to all; do not be ready to have one bed with your companions.
Do not threaten or speak big words, for it is a shameful thing to speak stiffly unless you can carry it out afterwards. Do not forsake your lord so long as you live; do not give up any man that puts himself under your protection for all the treasures of the world.
Do not speak against others to their lord, that is not work for a good man.
Do not be a bearer of lying stories, or a tale-bearer that is always chattering.
Do not be talking too much; do not find fault hastily; however brave you may be, do not raise factions against you.
Do not be going to drinking-houses, or finding fault with old men; do not meddle with low people; this is right conduct I am telling you.
Do not refuse to share your meat; do not have a niggard for your friend; do not force yourself on a great man or give him occasion to speak against you. Hold fast to your arms till the hard fight is well ended.
Do not give up your opportunity, but with that follow after gentleness.”
-from the Tales of Ossian
Comes from the Old Irish word tairisiu, which means ‘steadfast’. It refers to always being consistent in one’s relationships with others. In Brehon Law, the term dilis is used to represent loyalty when two things are interdependent, ie one cannot be without the other, thus indicating consistency, permanence, immovable.
In the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Fergus goes to extreme lengths out of loyalty to Cuchulain. Fergus is Cuchulain’s foster-father, and when Medb sends him out against the young warrior, he begs Cuchulain to yield rather than fight him. Cuchulain agrees on the condition that if they ever meet in battle again, it will be Fergus’s turn to yield.
Of course, they come face to face when Fergus leads Medb’s army into the final battle. Rather than kill his foster-father, Cuchulain reminds him of their agreement, and Fergus duly orders the retreat of Medb’s warriors, risking both defeat and his temperamental Queen’s wrath.
Loyalty appears in other forms in the old stories too, most notably in tragic love stories, when lovers would rather die than be without each other. Some examples would be Graine killing herself after Diarmuid’s death rather than be with Fionn; Baile and Ailin, who both drop down dead in shock when they are told lies about each others deaths, and Deirdre, who, rather than be given to the man who murdered her beloved Naoise, throws herself to her death from a speeding chariot.
The Old Irish word for hospitality is oígidecht, derived from oígi, meaning ‘stranger/ newcomer’, ie someone not of one’s home or kin. In ancient times, this was vitally important, as travel was long slow and laborious; there were no maps or hotels, restaurants or toilet facilities like there are now.
We laugh at Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, insisting visitors take a cup of tea with her insistent”Go on Go on Go on Go on…”, but hospitality is still as important to the Irish today, if not quite so necessary.
Interestingly, the giving of hospitality was regarded so highly, that to refuse it was seen as very bad form indeed. Many stories highlight this by putting a geis (taboo) on someone, effectively banning him from refusing hospitality. Inevitably, this usually leads to disaster.
When Deirdre eloped with her lover, Naoise, and his two brothers, Conchobar sent Fergus and his son, Fiachu, to track them down. The escapees were duly rounded up and escorted homeward, but along the way Conchobar sent a message ordering Fergus to a feast, knowing he were bound by geis never to refuse hospitality.
Fiachu continued alone with the prisoners, but on arrival at the royal castle, they were all killed by the jealous king’s command. In revenge, Fergus burned the castle and fled to Connacht, taking service with Queen Medb against Conchobar and the Ulstermen.
After killing Cullan’s hound, Cuchulain was under a geis never to eat the flesh of a dog. One day, an old woman camping on the roadside offers him refreshment of a meal containing dog meat.
The Ulster hero was also under geis never to refuse hospitality, and so was put in a quandary; which geis to break? His decision would inevitably violate one of them.
To refuse hospitality would damage his public reputation, so he chose to break the private taboo, and accepted the dish. This decision was ultimately to lead to his death.
Indraic in Old Irish means ‘honest/ flawless’, but two other words were also used; cneasta meaning ‘healed/ restored’ and macánta, which means ‘to behave as a child’, ie to be open, friendly and straightforward with others.
Fionn mac Cumhall displays this quality of absolute honesty as a young boy, when he catches the Salmon of Knowledge for his guide and mentor, the Druid Finegas. He could easily have betrayed Finegas’s trust and eaten the salmon himself, but chose not to, even if it meant passing up on the chance to acquire all that knowledge and wisdom.
Coair which comes from Old Celtic ko-uéro, and means ‘in accordance with the truth’. Later, the word cert (modern ceart), was used, borrowed from the Latin certus, meaning ‘certain/ sure’.
The Brehon Laws defended justice and were based on a system of honour and fines rather than corporal punishment, and governed everything in minute detail from family law, healthcare, commerce, and the practice of medicine to bee-keeping and the protection of trees. They were said to have been implemented by Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland, who was renowned for his knowledge and wisdom.
At the age of thirty, Cormac set off for Tara, where he came across a woman weeping; her sheep had strayed into the Queen’s garden and grazed her herbs. The King had duly confiscated the poor woman’s flock as compensation and left her destitute.
But Cormac said, “More fitting would be one shearing for another,” because both the herbs and the sheep’s fleeces would grow again. The King accepted Cormac’s greater wisdom, and it wasn’t long before Cormac became High King himself, and was much respected for his fair judgement.
The Old Irish word meisnech meant ‘to keep one’s head’ as in to stay cool in a situation and not panic. Sometimes, another word was used, cródacht, which meant bloodthirsty or brave in battle, but not in a crazed, uncontrollable way; it meant being tough enough not to be swayed by pity, a quality which must have been vital to the warrior.
The ancient Irish respected life, be it animal, vegetable or human, therefore to destroy a life must have been seen as a difficult if necessary thing to have to do.
The old legends are full of stories of great bravery and courage. You might call him foolhardy rather than brave, but the greatest example of courage has to be when Cuchulain single-handedly takes on the whole of Medb‘s army. At the time, he was only seventeen years of age.
The men of Ulster had been cursed by Macha, who had been forced to run a race against the King’s horses whilst pregnant. She won, but collapsed and gave birth, cursing the Ulstermen with her dying breath, so that they would be rendered incapable of fighting, by labour pains like hers.
As Medb advances with her army, Cuchulain manages to hold them off with ambushes and a series of single combats over a period of several months, until the warriors of Ulster are free from their debilitating sickness.
I’d just like to point out here that Macha ran a race whilst heavily pregnant against horses and won; when experiencing the same pains that she felt, the men were unable to move, even to defend their own country. Sounds a bit like some type of man-flu, poor things!