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Laws and Customs


Gaelic society was highly organised and codified, having evolved in more or less isolation over thousands of years. At the apex of society was the King. But, confusingly there was more than one type of King. The most minor Ri, or King controlled a "tuath", a minor Kingdom or Lordship, such as Aidhne. Above him was the King of a Province, such as the King of Connacht, and above these came the High-King or "Ard Ri", which, with the exception of Brian Boru, was a largely symbolic position, without any real power over the provincial Kings. Succession was decided not by primogeniture (succession by eldest male), but by brehon law, which stated than any male descendant of a King within four generations, in other words including great-grandsons, and without physical defect, could become King. This, of course gave rise to the constant internecine feuding typical of Gaelic Culture.Below the Kings in the social pecking order were the learned classes, such as ollamhs, brehon lawyers and physician, the ollamhs being of the first rank. Next came the freeholders, or freemen of the clan, and finaly the unfree, or bondsmen who were tied to their lord and the land and were not allowed to bear arms or fight in the wars of their lords.

Gaelic Fostering

Fostering was a popular form of child rearing in medieval Ireland, whereby a child was sent from the natural home to be reared in another. The age of commencement was a parental decision, for example 5, 7, 10 though wet-nursing was a common initial phrase in the process of fostering. The period of fosterage was completed when the boy reached maturity at 14. The fosterage fee 'iarrai' was reflective of the status of the father of the child and consisted of land or movable wealth possibly cattle, although with 'fosterage of affection' no fee was levied. The education of a child received was strictly regulated by customary law and was governed by the social status and needs of the child which ranged from manual skills to aristocratic pastimes. The foster-father 'oide' and foster-mother 'buime' were liable if the fosterage was found wanting. The placement of the child could indicate familial links, the maternal kin being particular popular, or could reflect a political alliance or submission between families. Bonds created through fosterage were a lifelong commitment, with foster-children being obliged to provide maintenance for their foster-parents in later life. Fostering played an important part in the O'Cahan relationship with other clans, with famous fostered children such as Sir John Cahanagh MacDonnell.

Customs of coinnmheadh (or 'coign')

The practice of billeting troops on the populace was first introduced in Ireland by the Vikings, but was soon adopted by Irish lords, and had become universal by the 15th Century.(11)  It was derived from the Gaelic customs of coinnmheadh (or 'coign') that obliged the well-to-do classes to provide hospitality for travelers, and periodic feasts for their lord's household. These customs were gradually perverted by both Irish and Anglo-Norman lords, until, by the mid-15th century, a new body of custom had emerged that was known as 'bonnacht' or 'coign and livery'. These customs (or taxes), which were applied universally to all of a lord's vassals and tenants, required the provision of food and lodging for his mercenaries (coign), and stabling and fodder for his horses (livery).  In some cases, these obligations were fulfilled through agreements that the lord negotiated with his chief vassals requiring each to maintain a specified number of mercenaries. However, another common arrangement involved the lord authorizing his mercenaries ".to levy both their food and drink and their wages 'as well within his lordship as outside it.' Such casual patronage was an invitation to highway robbery, and ensured that not only were the lord's own tenants subjected to unlimited extortion, but other neighboring territories suffered in the same way, even church lands, which were normally entitled to immunity."
The practice of "Creaghting" moving cattle from pasture to pasture in different districts was practiced by the O'Cahans. Also the practice of "Commyns" where chiefs and important members of the clan, whose riches consisted largely in cattle, sent these to be grazed on the lands of humbler folk who had not sufficient stock. The Plantation of Ulster was to see the disruption of the whole way of Native life for the Gaelic O'Cahan natives.

Gaelic lords had their own corn mills, small horizontal water mills without gears, as a way of raising revenue, but much gain was still ground on querns by women who stripped to prevent their clothes being ruined. Flax must have been grown extensively for the making of linen tunics, and frieze was woven from wool pulled from the sheep's back rather than sheared to make falaing, or mantle which found a ready export market.

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