Gaelic Society in the Late Middle Ages

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Gaelic Society in the Late Middle Ages

In the last hundred years before Henry VIII asserted Tudor control (c. 1430–1534), Ireland was English only from Dublin to Dundalk—thirty miles south to north, twenty east to west—and even there, in "the Pale," Gaelic speech and dress were conspicuous. "Beyond the Pale" were the increasingly gaelicized magnates: FitzGerald (Kildare, Cork, north Kerry); Butler (Kilkenny, Tipperary); Burke, also known as Mac Liaim Íochtar (Mayo); and Mac Liaim Uachtar (Galway). Various families of O'Neill held central Ulster, O'Donnell western Ulster, and with MacCarthy (southwest Cork, south Kerry) and O'Brien (Clare, west Limerick), they were the greatest of the Gaelic magnates.

Norman impact from earlier centuries survived fitfully, the north and west having remained heavily forested and most vigorously Gaelic, the south and southeast mixing and varying between English and Irish land, inheritance, and legal systems. Control of church appointments was divided similarly but was more polarized. In Ulster the English controlled the east coast dioceses and lands, whereas the rest was firmly in Gaelic hands. The O'Neills largely determined whether revenue would be collected, episcopal visitation would take place, and ecclesiastical punishment would be enforced west of the river Bann. Parish development dated only from the twelfth century, and Gaelic Ireland left the parish coterminous with family lands. Family control of dioceses and religious houses had dwindled from such reform efforts as followed the Norman invasions, but re-gaelicization meant its revival. English government rule sought to prevent "anyone of Irish blood, name, or nation" from holding major ecclesiastical office, but when William O'Reilly was chosen as minister-provincial of the Franciscan friars in 1445—the first native appointment to the two-hundred-year-old office—Henry VI (1421–1471) was persuaded to veto him, despite O'Reilly's Oxford doctorate in theology. Pope Eugenius IV (1383–1447) then overruled the king, and O'Reilly proved to be a much-needed reformer. In the church hierarchy Gaelic dynasties increased, as did widespread indifference to clerical celibacy. The bishopric and archdeaconate of Clogher went from father to son time and again in the fifteenth century, shared between the intermarrying families of MacCawell (or Campbell) and Maguire. As to monasteries, the great Gaelic families widely treated them as personal property. Lay hereditary control of bishoprics and parishes continued as in pre-Norman times. The papal anger at this situation in the twelfth century was past; Gaelic abuses were in line with the spirit of the Borgia and comparable popes of the late fifteenth century. Yet some piety remained, as in the delicate fervent poetry of Pilib Bocht Ó hUiginn.

Gaelic landholding was nonfeudal. The overlord held "mensal" land—needed to maintain food, heat, style, and hunting-grounds for himself, servants, and dependants—while he lived. Another such area went to the ruling family from whom he was elected in the system called tanistry: the tánaiste, or heir apparent, would be chosen from the family, but the one elected was not by any means necessarily the eldest or even any son, legitimate or otherwise, of the existing king or chieftain. (The modern parliamentary term for deputy prime minister is tánaiste, which has definitely lost its connotation of right of succession.) The remaining land went to other branches of the family, excluded, where possible, from the succession. By the fifteenth century the results varied. In Munster, for example, MacCarthy of Muskerry held half of the available land himself, as mensal, while the ruling O'Neills of Ulster were challenged by their cousins descended from Aodh Buidhe (Yellow or Fair-Haired Hugh), who kept their lands almost independent of the rulers (the Clandeboy O'Neills). Neighboring chieftains and even Dublin viceroys entered into such disputes between kinsmen to win over what protégés and weaken what aspirants they could. The tenantry on the mensal land was of its nature short-term; a new chieftain might want new tenants. Freeholders beyond the limits of mensal land paid cows or a penny per acre to the overlord. Cow ownership was the symbol of wealth. Chargeable lands were about half the total area, and while rentable, they might also be used to billet mercenaries during the fighting season. The mass of the population had little land, constantly subdivided under a principle of gavelkind, providing for all sons. Hopes for economic success depended on livestock ownership. A churl occupying insignificant land and owning no cattle had poorer economic prospects than a landless tenant from a landless family under the immediate protection of a landowning chieftain as his follower.

The norm of secular marriage meant a succession of spouses with easy divorce. The preference was for marriage to kinsfolk, often in defiance of church law forbidding marriage to third or closer cousins, or to relations acquired by a former marriage. Clerics were frequent products or partners in such cases, to the obvious detriment of church reform. The fosterage system, by which children were reared in another household, made fathers less hostile to rape or intercourse with their little-known adult daughters. Fosterage often resulted in closer political alliances outside family limits.

Local poets and historians were deeply attached to chieftains, with fine poetic results, sometimes perhaps prompted by homosexual sentiment (as James Carney and others suggest for Eochaidh Ó hEódhasa's ode to the Maguire [i.e., Hugh Maguire]). Harpers and musicians were court pets, readily adopted by Normans in the process of gaelicization. Poets were greatly feared for their cursing powers, usually mistranslated as "satires" and doubtless of social consequence in their ridicule, but many instances were given of curses causing death within a short time. The brevity of normal life spans no doubt exacerbated the number of coincidences, but some are likely to have had serious psychological and even physical results.

SEE ALSO Bruce Invasion; Gaelic Recovery; Magnates, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish; Richard II in Ireland; Primary Documents: The Statutes of Kilkenny (1366)


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Owen Dudley Edwards