Family And Law in Early Irish Society

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World — Celtic Women, Families, and Social Structure

By: Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Early Irish society was described by the great historian Daniel Binchy as ‘familiar’, in the sense that the family group was the building block of Irish society. Not only was family a social institution, but it was also required for processes of the law and of property. So what roles did the family units play in the societal set-up?

Statue of God of Justice with flag of Ireland in the background.
Early Irish society was defined as ‘familiar’ because the family was at its foundation—so much so that even legal proceedings depended on family groups, not individuals.
(Image: J_UK/Shutterstock)

For legal purposes, the family was defined as the fine, or kin-group, which extended to fewer or more members depending on the situation at hand. The definition of family is flexible today as well, depending on the social context, but for early Irish society, it was not simply a social issue, but a matter of law and property. The membership of a fine not only gave one rights, such as that to inherit land, but it also came with responsibilities, such as consultation during distribution or sale of property, and legal disputes. 

Land Within the Fine

The fine was often given the specific name derbfine, which literally translated to ‘certain kin’. This referred to all relatives who went back to a common great-grandfather, that is, back to four generations. This group would usually be of those who were involved in the inheritance of land and property. Therefore, possessions were almost entirely determined by one’s family ties. The group was male-centered, as a married woman would belong to the derbfine of her husband. All men in the group of the derbfine had some potential share in the land of the kindred, and it was the members of this group who could compete for the rulership of the túath.
In the early Irish society, inheritance was not determined by the marital status of one’s parents, and there was no rigid line that determined the legitimacy of an offspring, as long as the father acknowledged paternity. At the same time, the family still had to approve all major property transfers. 

It would not be wrong to say that at least to a certain extent, everything owned by an individual was family property, and the consent of the family was necessary for any sale to be fulfilled. This created serious pressures to reach satisfactory arrangements for any sale.,This was also an element of Irish property law that English colonizers had a hard time with later, given how it complicated questions of ownership and clear title. 

The family was also an important part of the legal system in early Ireland. 

Learn more about Celtic social structure.

Family And Law in Early Ireland

The Irish legal system was completely based on what can be compared to civil law rather than criminal law—something which is not very surprising considering the highly fragmented society of medieval Ireland, with very rudimentary government institutions. 

Within this system, people sued each other for things that would be considered criminal offenses today, such as murder or assault. Such matters of the law were handled as private transactions between the parties. However, the two kin groups were the parties that settled the dispute, not just the two individuals. 

This was because it was not just the losing party, but their entire kin group who had to pay the damages owed to the winner of the suit.
One’s contribution was prorated based on the closeness of their relationship to the offender. This served as a great incentive system to keep one’s relatives in line, as any transgressions would result in them paying out of their own pocket. 

On the other hand, if a relative was killed, one would get compensated for that. A person got a full share of the compensation for the death of a parent, a half for a paternal uncle or maternal aunt, and a third for a cousin. There was, at the same time, no compensation for murders within the fine

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

While the basic principle of family and its legal implications are sound, there is practically no understanding of how these issues would have played out in practice. Moreover, a family could be artificially extended through fosterage.

Foster Families in Irish Society

A family could be extended by an institution of fosterage, in which children were raised by another family, sometimes from quite early ages. This often resulted in the creation of lifelong ties of kinship which proved to be very useful in economic and political situations later on in life.

As a matter of fact, fosterage was pervasive in almost all Celtic-speaking lands. It could take place from within or outside of the kin group, and there is plenty of literature that movingly depicts situations when obligations of fosterage come into conflict with other important obligations. For instance, in the Táin, the famous hero from the Ulster cycle, Cú Chulainn is forced, for reasons of honor, to fight against his foster brother, Ferdia. While the combat goes on for three whole days, the two warriors break into very moving verses as they speak of their love for each other and how they loathe harming each other. Cú Chulainn does end up killing his foster brother, to his great sorrow. 

Painting showing Cu Chulainn carrying his injured foster brother Ferdia across a river.
The relation of foster brothers Cú Chulainn and Ferdia forms a tragic storyline in Táin, when despite their love, Cú Chulainn ends up having to kill his brother.
(Image: Ernest Wallcousins/Public domain)

Another plot that concerns the issue of fosterage is the tale from the king cycle, “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel”. It tells about King Conaire’s reluctant decision to give special preference to his criminal foster brothers, a failure that is construed as his choosing his strong personal ties over the good of his kingdom, and which causes his destruction. 

Fosterage could be between families of equal status, or between those of unequal social status; it was seen as a sign of favor for a lord to ask his follower to foster his child, and it was also a huge benefit to a lower status person to be raised in a wealthier household. 

The perception of wealth and status in Irish society is what was concisely termed as ‘hierarchical’ by Daniel Binchy. 

Learn more about medieval Irish literature.

Hierarchy in Irish Society

In Irish society, families varied greatly in status, as in many other medieval societies, and one’s daily existence was determined by where he stood in this hierarchy. The hierarchical status of someone was based on two main criteria: wealth and occupation. 

In fact, when kin groups paid compensation for injuries inflicted by their members, the price of the compensation was determined by the social status of the victim. The price was expressed in a unit known as cumal, which was worth either one slave girl or three cows—proving the integral part that slavery paid in this society. This price was a compensation for the victim’s honor, as this was a society that took honor very seriously. Society was, therefore, also classified into a few major divisions, based on one’s social status. Kings, for instance, were at the top of the pyramid, while slaves were at the bottom, attracting no honor price; their compensation was simply a matter of property.

The family, regardless of which part of the hierarchical pyramid one fell in, was the fundamental unit of Irish society, and not the individual. A lot of functions, social, legal, and political, relied on the family, and familial ties held far more importance than they do today.

Commonly Asked Questions About Families in Medieval Irish Society

Q: What was the fine in early Ireland?

The fine, or derbfine, literally meant certain kin, and referred to all relatives in the family back to a common great-grandfather. The fine was involved in all matters of property and inheritance related to an individual.

Q: What was the basic functioning of the law in early Ireland?

Law in early Ireland was much like civil law today, where any crime against someone was settled in the court as a simple settlement between two parties. The settlement was, in fact, not between two individuals, but usually between the family groups of the individuals, as kin groups were deeply involved in individual legal matters.

Q: What was the importance of fosterages in early Irish society?

Fosterage was an essential part of Irish society, and one of the few institutions which allowed one to extend their social circle outside of the family group. Fosterage often created long term relationships that were helpful in political and legal situations later on in life.

Keep Reading
Pre-Christian Ireland: The Scholarly Views
The Book of Invasions: How Ireland Was Inhabited
Who Are the Celts? Unpacking a Tricky Identity