A Brief Overview of the Social Landscape of Pre-Christian Ireland

Iron Age Roundhouse Phil Champion, via Wikimedia Commons
 It seems to me that the creation of a a persona  in any ancient culture must be grounded in an understanding of the social landscape in which the persona worked and lived, but in my situation I chose to first understand the lives of my Irish parents,because I was raised in their culture.

Gaining this understanding about Gaelic cultures can be challenging. Reconstructing the beliefs of a culture in which the learned elite didn’t believe in writing down their knowledge requires research and the willingness to hypothesize in an educated manner, just a bit. In Ireland, especially, this is compounded by the fact that the acidity of the soil and the practice of cremation burials, left very little in the way of organic archeological relics. (Harbison, p. 18)

It is important to acknowledge that accessing historical documents only provides part of the story. One must keep in mind that they are reading the history as relayed by the group that was literate at the time the stories were put down in writing, most of whom lived in monastic communities (Bitel, p. 14). Most of the written documentation we have of Gaelic society was written by either Romans or Christian monks. The history is fraught with confusion. 

Pagan Religious Beliefs

The Gaels believed strongly that human beings co-habitate the Earth with many beings. There is no denying that there was a strong belief in Celtic countries in a mythological pantheon similar to other Bronze age pantheons. The Irish mythological cycle was told in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland). This book penned in the 11th century in a monastic community details the arrival of subsequent groups of godlike beings to the shores of Ireland. (MacKilliop, 1998, p. 366)
The most well-known of these groups is the  Tuatha Dé Danann who descended on Ireland “from a dark cloud on a mountain in the west” (MacKilliop, 1998, p. 261) to conquer the Fir Bolg.
According to mythology, when defeated by the incoming Milesians, a treaty split the whole of Ireland in which Tuatha Dé Danann were allotted the islands out to the sea shrouded in the féth fiada, the bottoms of lakes, and the fairy rath, which we know now to be ancient ancestral burial grounds where ceremonies were likely held by indigenous people.(Monaghan, 2004, p. 457)

The name given to one of these islands is Tir-na-nog (The Land of Youth). It is sometimes described as an island in the ocean to the west ruled by Manannan Mac Lir who was a son of the sea and a member of the Tuatha. Here one could find “neither death nor pain, nor scandal, nought save immortal and unfading youth, and endless joy and feasting.” (Evans-Wentz, 1911, p. 334)

This was a typical Bronze Age pantheon. Like the Greek and Roman gods, these beings were portrayed as flesh-and-blood creatures with supernatural powers, but interestingly they were more frequently claimed by many familial clans, as ancestors.  This may speak to the importance of ancestor worship to the indigenous culture.  In the Book of Leinster  the poem of Eochaid records that  Tuatha Dé Danann, were" hosts" of siabra- an Old Irish word meaning "spirits".  This has led to a spirited academic discussion as to the distinctions between the Tuatha and ancestral spirits.  From the viewpoint of this anthropologist, it seems likely that this is simply another example of a patriarchal Bronze Age culture assimilating the ancestor worship aspects of an indigenous belief system.

Healers of the Tuatha Dé Danann 

Diancecht and his children: Miach, Airmid and Octruil, and were regarded as the members of the  Tuatha Dé Danann who presided over healing. They are given credit for turning the tide in one battle due to their ability to make “a bath of healing, with every sort of healing plant or herb in it.” (Gregory, 1905, p. 6) Airmed is supposed to have gained her knowledge of the use of the herbs by observing as they grew from the joints and sinews of her brother Miach’s body. (Gregory, 1905, p. 13)

Brighid was the name given to three daughters of the Dagda, one whom was the goddess of medicine and medical doctors. (Joyce, 1906, p. 109) Referred to as Bride in Scotland, she figures strongly in Gaelic healing charms.

 Áine was another goddess said to preside over healing. In the first mythological cycle it is said that “those that did cures by herbs said she had power over the whole body.” (Gregory, 1905, p. 86) This has led to her being considered the protector of the ‘spark of life which has been contrasted with the vital force that functions in many traditional healing paradigms"(Matthews, 1994, p. 283), but it must be acknowledged that this is poetic conjecture and not a proven point.

Female and male physicians (liagh) also appear in the early mythological cycles.  In the Tain bo Cuailgne a group of healers were said to accompany each army, each wearing a bag known as les which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle.

Christian Era

The era  during which Christianity finally subverted the older pagan faiths in Gaelic countries is highly debatable.  Historical documents penned by the monastic literati would have you think that whole of Ireland was converted by St. Padraig in the fifth century and that paganism was wiped out by the seventh century. Scholars question this type of propaganda due to many historical discrepancies.

For example, a description of an 11th Century king’s inaugural ceremony involved ritual sacrifice of a white mare as was the heathen tradition. (Raftery, p. 81)  Christian literature was still denigrating “lucht pisreóg” (enchanters) and fios sigheog (knowledge of fairies) well into the late seventeenth century. (Correll, p. 2) Documentation of the Scottish witchcraft trials bear witness to this fact, as well. (Hall, p. 20) Obviously the fairy faith had a stronghold in Gaelic society for much longer than the hagiographers would have one think.

The variant of Gaelic spoken in Ireland is Q-Gaelic (Geodelic). In a manner similar to the English language, Goedelic language has progressed through the following stages: Old Irish, Middle Irish and Modern Irish (Gaeilge). Middle Irish spread to Manx and Scotland and took on native characteristics in each of those locales which is explains why Scottish Gaelic is referred to modernly as Gàidhlig. (Laing, p. 142)

Words also took on new meaning over the years according to customs. For example, the word for marriage in Old Irish was banais, the root words of which were ban (woman) and feis (a sleeping with). In Middle Irish was the word feis was used to refer to a feast which Bitel feels implies some sort of celebration in conjunction with marriages. (Bitel, p. 43)

Old Irish predated the P-Gaelic languages spoken in Britain (Brythonic), and is one of the older archaic languages along with Hittite and Sanskrit. There are many philogistic theories which attempt to explain the similarities between Ancient Irish, Vedic Sanskrit and Hittite which extend beyond the scope of this work, many attributed to sharing common Indo-European ancestor. (Ellis, 1996) The significance of that theory to this my anthropological research is that this possibility may explain similarities in practice between Āyurvedic practitioners and Celtic healers.

Kin Groups

The family unit known as the fine consisted of five generations of a family and this kin group would settle in close proximity with one another sharing a tenuous joint ownership of the family land, known as the fintiu. Ireland was broken into many different areas known as tuaths (too-eh). Each tuath had a minor king. When this king died, any male member of his geilfine, which is the kin group consisting of all of the descendants of a common great-grandfather, was eligible to be appointed to replace him. This allowed for a bit more social mobility than other models of royal succession but it also accounts for bitter blood feuds in this history of Ireland and Scotland.

Class Structure

One of the identifying components of ancient Gaelic societies is some sort of 3-tiered class structure which generally ascribed to the following organizational structure. (Nicholson, 2003) The first class was the noble class. These were the warriors whose duty it was to protect the society; kings were always of this class. The second class were the Aois-dàna (Scottish Gaelic), or Áes Dána (Old Irish). This was the learned elite. They kept the oral (and later written) histories and led religious ceremonies and were the more skilled artisans. This role was first served by Druids, and then later by monks and priests. (Laing, p. 190)

The final class were the producers, those farmers and laborers who produced consumable goods. Although technically free, they were generally involved in some sort of clientage contract with a superior which might have involved among other things, the fostering of the children of noble class. Fosterage was commonplace in Ireland. Children were routinely sent to other homes to be raised by a secondary family around the age of seven. Until that time they were the responsibility of the birth mother to raise and both parents were responsible for paying for their children to be fostered.

Men and women had specific gender related tasks, regardless of class. Even wealthy women had the task of managing the female laborers and textile production tasks, such as weaving and sewing. Commoners were more likely to engage in hard physical labor such as working with their family’s dairy herd or caring for pigs. (Bitel, p. 125) There was in Gaelic societies a virtually classless group of slaves and landless laborers who were not attached to a kin group.


Irish families appeared to settle in smaller kin groups consisting of a grandfather and all his descendants. Towards the end of the Iron Age, these family group had started to build ringforts. This practice persisted until the medieval period. (Raftery, p. 38) A ringfort was a small circular homestead anywhere from 20-50 meters in diameter surrounded by a bank and ditch enclosure or small stone walls. The typical home was a roundhouse, built within the confines of the larger circular structure. Women typically spent much of their time closely tied to these settlements while men were more mobile having to leave the settlement in times of war.

Marriage  and Women's Social Status

A woman’s socials status was determined first by that of her father’s and subsequently by her husband’s status. (Nicholson, 2003) Marriages came to be called lanamnasa cumtusa comperta which translated to “unions of partnership for the purpose of reproduction.” (Bitel, p. 39) A woman retained her own property when she entered marriage, which she was entitled to continue to manage in conjunction with her husband. Comthinchor was the term used to refer to the “common capital of the marriage “ (Bitel, p. 113)

In noble families, marriages were more likely to be Lánamnas comthingchuir. In these unions both brought equal amounts of property, household goods, livestock, and other wealth to the marriage to be managed in a way that produced more domestic wealth. Commoners were more likely to form Lánamnas mná for fertinchur. These were unions in which the woman contributed household goods while the men procured land to farm on.

Polygamy was acceptable in this society and in fact many men had a primary wife, a secondary wife and those who could afford it had concubines. Commoners were less likely to have more than one wife.  All of these relationships could result in legitimate heirs who were accepted into the father’s kin group. The most socially valuable type of marriage, on the part of any woman was that of the first wife, the cetmuinter, which was a position that allowed the woman to wield the most economic power. The many laws governing the placement of babies born of illicit unions shows that despite the many freedoms allowed men in producing an heir, problems still arose.

The role of the typical woman was to reproduce, tend to the dairy herds and produce fabric and clothing. The wealth some women procured was through these pursuits. (Bitel, p. 127) At other times women were granted a postmortem inheritance called a coibche. There was a law providing for a women to pass on “orb cruib ocus slíasta” on to her daughter. Bitel believes that this phrase which translates roughly to ‘land of hand and thigh’ is likely to have referred to land a woman acquired through some labor of her own or land that she was given as part of a coibche. (Bitel, p. 114)  Women did not routinely retain ownership of the land, however, it normally passed back to her kin group of birth at death, but this was also true of the land owned by  men.

Regardless of the various wild assertions of the rights of women in Irish societies, scholars disagree on the level of power women were able to attain.  Scholars complain “for every law circumscribing women, there was another that allowed them considerable liberty.” (Bitel, p. 10) At least some scholars explain this by establishing existence of a more egalitarian Neolithic society with perhaps a more “matrifocal ideology” which was acculturated by an incoming Celtic speaking Indo-European settlers with a more patriarchal authority pattern. (Crualaoich, 2003, p. 25). The example he uses to demonstrate this concept is that of the kingship of the land being based on a hierogamous relationship with the sovereignty queen or goddess of the land. Inauguration ceremonies often involved some sort of symbolic ritual marriage to the goddess which he proposed assimilated the beliefs of both cultures. (Crualaoich, 2003, p. 39)

Females of a certain class were undoubtedly schooled as there are references to female scholars in many ancient texts. (Ellis, p. 115)   Women were only allowed to access many of their rights through the males of the society. Women were not allowed in certain courts. A male, either a woman’s husband or another male in her kin group, had to be willing to advocate for her in the court system (Nicholson, 2003). Women could also lose their social who status and be sent back to their kin group if they did not produce heirs.

Still it seems that Gaelic women had more rights than women of other cultures. a particular law tract called the Bretha Crólige which refers to females practicing notably in many professions including; bansáer (artisans or wrights) judges, physicians and poets. (Binchy, 1938) Women were allowed to initiate divorce proceedings in cases of violence, adultery, slander and sexual failings. (Ellis, 1995, p. 124) As mentioned earlier, the profits that a woman made during a marriage seemed to be hers to keep. (Binchy, 1938).   There were many customs which implied women had a choice in who they married.  One offered an unmarried woman who had been raped the option of hanging, decapitating, or marrying her attacker. (Ellis, 1995, p. 109)


Obviously this is but a brief  look at the social structures within which ancient Gaels moved and lived. The goal of this research was to gain better understanding of their societal structure and to try to arrive at a middle of the road interpretation of what is, at times, wildly conflicting information. It is my conclusion that more research needs to come to light, to be able to accomplish the later task with any certainty.


Binchy, D. A. (1938). Bretha Crólige. Ériu, 12, 1–77.
Binchy, D. A. (1938). Sick-maintenance in Irish law. Ériu, 12, 78–134.
Bitel, L. M. (1996). Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Correll, T. (2005). Believers, Sceptics and Charlatans: Evidential Rhetoric, the Fairies and Fairy Healers in Irish Oral Narrative and Belief. Folklore, 1-18.

Ellis, P. B. (1995). Celtic Women. London: Constable and Company Ltd.
 --(1996). Early Irish Astrology: An Historical Argument. Realta. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://cura.free.fr/xv/11ellis1.html

Gregory, L. (1905). Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan . London: John Murray.

Hall, A. (2005). Getting Shot of Elves: Healing, Witchcraft, and Fairies in the Scottish Witchcraft Trials. Folklore, 19-36.
Lloyd Laing, J. L. (1990). Celtic Britain and Ireland. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Crualaoich, G. Ó. (2003). The Book of the Caillaeach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer. Dublin: Cork University Press.
Nicholson, F. (2003)." Power, Class and Gender: Ancient Celtic Society." Retrieved September , 2013, from Land, Sea, Sky: http://homepage.eircom.net/~shae/chapter6.htm
 Mackenzie., W. (1895). Gaelic incantations, charms, and blessings of the Hebrides : with translations, and parallel illustrations from Irish, Manx, Norse, and other superstitions. Inverness: Nrothing Counties Newspaper and Pringing and Pub. Co. .
MacKilliop, J. (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Monaghan, P. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York : FOF Library of Religion and Mythology.
Raftery, B. (1994). Pagan Celtic Ireland. London : Thames and Hudson.