Hierarchy and Status 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 defined by the famous historian Daniel Binchy as ‘hierarchical’. Status was of great importance in the society, not only for individuals, but for family groups as well. Read on to know how this hierarchy affected the legal, political, and social life of the time.

Image of the hall at Powerscourt House, the estate of one of the oldest noble families of Ireland.
The early Irish society was extremely hierarchical, divided into a number of classes. This hierarchy, to a huge extent, shaped the way the law, politics, and society functioned.
(Image: National Library of Ireland on The Commons/Public domain)

A lot of the daily experiences of an individual were determined by where he stood in the social hierarchy. This status was fixed according to two main criteria: wealth and occupation.

Compensation by Status

In early Ireland, kin groups had to pay compensations for the injuries inflicted by their members. The total price of the compensation was determined by the social status of the victim, which was measured in a unit called the cumal, worth either one slave girl or three cows. 

This price was the compensation for the loss of the victim’s honor, or enech, which literally meant ‘face’. This gave rise to the phrase ‘loss of face’, commonly used by people today. Loss of face could occur not just over physical injury, but also over being insulted, which would also attract a lawsuit and thereby, compensation. 

The compensation given to a person was affected by the hierarchical division. Kings were at the highest level, but after Christianity took root, bishops lay in the same category. The highest poets belonged to this category as well. Underneath this cream layer, society was divided into three main groups: nobles, the learned classes, and farmers. Slaves lay at the bottom, attracting no honor price; their compensation was simply a matter of property. 

Learn more about Celtic social structure.

Hierarchical Nobility in Ireland

Even amongst the nobles, there were classes in early Irish society. Nobles varied in importance based on how wealthy they were. Wealth was also measured with the number of clients a noble had. The word in Irish was céile, or Kelly.

While clients themselves could be important people (nobles themselves at times), clientship was a relationship that distinguished nobles from commoners. While nobles could be clients without losing their nobility, it was not possible to be a noble without having clients. 

Clients were dependent on their nobles, usually receiving some land and cattle, and at times, legal help and protection from violence, if needed. In turn, a noble was entitled to various things from the client, based on the status of the client: labor service, cattle, dairy products, grain, malt, and meat. 

As another testimony to the hierarchical nature of this society, clientship again was divided. There were mainly two kinds of clientship: free clientship and base clientship.

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

Free Clientship in Irish Society

Free clients had a higher status than base clients, and they usually received a larger piece of land. Free clientship did not imply social subordination and could be ended mutually. This clientship, however, came at a higher rent than base clientship. 

Relatively light duties were demanded of free clients, who had to show respect to their lord by attending him and rising when he entered a room. They were basically a part of his entourage when he wished to impress. They had to provide some labor service, but they often had their own dependents to take care of that. A key purpose of free clientship was to create and extend the social network beyond the kin group.

On the other hand, base clientship was a much more skewed arrangement. 

Base Clientship in Irish Society

Base clientship created ties of economic dependency between the client and the noble. The noble would give the base client cattle and tools, essentially purchasing the honor price of the client. The client was then legally dependent on his lord, and he had to pay to get out of the agreement if he wanted to end it early.

The lord, in exchange, was paid rent in food, farm products, and labor, which was quite more demanding than in the case of free clients.  

Base clients also had some military obligations, including patrolling the borders of their lord’s land and going on an expedition called a garmsluaigh or hosting, which was when one went into the territory of a subordinate, or even an enemy. 

Painting of medieval Irish soldiers holding various weapons, such as bows, arrows and swords.
Base clients were the most servile clients of the nobles, and had many obligations that were much more grueling than those for free clients. They also had many military obligations.
(Image: Albrecht Dürer/Public domain)

In turn, base clients were able to rely on a strong man for protection, and they did pay lower rents than free clients. 

Given the familial nature of Irish society, institutions such as fosterage and clientship were imperative in creating ties outside the family, which bound different social classes together. 

The social class lying between the nobles and farmers were the learned class, the filí, mainly the poets and the lawyers. 

Hierarchy in society was not always flat, however. Women were another, and a very controversial part of the Irish society hierarchy. 

The Hierarchy of Women in Irish Society 

There are many references to the idea that the Celtic lands were a kind of paradise for women, where they had greater rights than in other ancient societies. There are also references to women practitioners of poetry, satire, and medicine. And while the rules of Irish property precluded ownership of family property by women, there were clearly many instances when women did own property. 

Women were very powerful in Irish literature and folklore, such as Queen Medb of Connacht, the antagonist in the Táin, who was portrayed in a manner which hints to a society that regarded women as powerful and equal as men. 

There is also, however, a lot of evidence towards the subordinate status of women, polygamy, and sexual exploitation of women, especially of slave-girls. While women could at times dissolve unsatisfactory unions, they had to return to the legal care of male relatives. 

Statue of a woman at Rock of Cashel, Ireland.
While medieval Ireland is often thought of as a haven for women of the time, and there are many records of better women’s rights in Ireland than in other societies at that time, there is also ample evidence of subordination, polygamy, and sexual exploitation of women.
(Image: Iphotostock/Shutterstock)

Irish society, therefore, while in no manner a utopia for women or lower classes, was a highly nuanced society with a lot of hierarchical classifications, both vertical and horizontal.

Learn more about Celtic women.

Legal institutions had also become a part of this hierarchy, leading to a complex system that regulated most aspects of social and economic life.

Law in the Society

Law was very important part of early Irish history. Many legal texts exist to show that the legal system was uniform throughout the country. Irish law was referred to by the English as ‘brehon’ law, from brithem, meaning ‘judge’ or ‘jurist’. Brehon law was a distinctively Irish institution that the English later tried hard to eradicate. Irish law was distinct because it listed legal rules, not records of cases, and stories were the only way to understand what had happened in a case.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon kings, Irish kings were not lawgivers, but they were supposed to act justly for the well-being of the society. For this, they usually enlisted the aid of judges.

Another distinctly Irish institution, which later caused culture clashes with English conquerors, was distraint: a recognized legal method of coercing one into complying with the law. Usually, it was by depriving one the use of their assets, mainly cattle, by going and taking payment in cattle if one refused to pay what was owed. 

Another way of obtaining redress was to shame the offender into compliance by publicly fasting on his doorstep. This made a very public show of refusing the person’s hospitality, a rebuke to his honor.

The Irish society as a whole, however, remained culturally unified even when faced with political instability. But it was this instability that was noticed by the English conquerors who determined that only the complete Anglicization of the Celtic countries could integrate them fully into civilized society.

Commonly Asked Questions About Hierarchy and Status in Irish Society

Q: How was social status measured in Irish society?

Social status and hierarchy were extremely important in early Irish society, and they were measured in a unit called the cumal, which was worth either one slave girl or three cows.

Q: How was the society divided in early Ireland?

The hierarchy of society in medieval Ireland was as follows: kings were at the top of the pyramid, along with bishops and the highest poets. They were followed by the nobles, the learned classes, and farmers, and at the very bottom, slaves.

Q: What was clientship in Irish society?

In order to be called a noble in Irish society, one had to have clients, that is, members dependent on the nobles. Nobles extracted services and rent from their clients in exchange for providing protection and land. Clientship itself had to follow hierarchical divisions though; nobles could have either free clients, who were relatively better off, or base clients, who were at the bottom of the pyramid.

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