Celtic society was organised around the tuath being born the first
son of the Ri 'King' did not necessarly entitle you to succession
to the kingship
Ireland's unlike many other countries in
early times did not have automatic succession of a son to kingship,
the unit of political organisation was the tuath which meant 'tribal
or petty king', the tuath was ruled by the Ri 'King'
The basic unit of political organisation
provided for was the tuath (tribal or petty kingdom), headed by
a rí (king). Kingship of a tuath was not inherited by primogeniture:
a new king would be elected by the aristocracy of the tribe (the
derb-fine or close kinship group up to and including second cousins)
from a number of eligible candidates.
Any adult male who was the son, grandson
or great-grandson of a previous king, in direct male line, was eligible,
although a man with a physical "blemish" (e.g. a missing
limb) was not eligible. This led to many contenders intentionally
blinding their rivals for the succession. Often, a king would choose
a tánaiste (heir apparent, literally "second")
who would be best placed to succeed at his death. Kings were themselves
subject to the law and had little power to create laws or issue
edicts except in emergencies.
These tuatha were, by convention, grouped into four over-kingdoms
or provinces: Laighin (present day Leinster), Ulaidh (Ulster), Mumhan
(Munster), and Connachta (Connacht). Each province had a king, normally
chosen from among the kings of the tuatha, who exercised some power
over the other kings in the province. The provincial kings were
supposedly subject to a High King, who ruled from Tara in the "fifth
royal province" of Mide (present day Meath).
A member of the property-owning classes could advance himself by becoming
a "free client" of a more powerful lord. The lord would make
his client a grant of property (sometimes land, but more usually livestock)
for a fixed period of time. The client would owe service to his lord,
and at the end of the grant period would return the grant with interest.
Any increase beyond the agreed interest was his to keep. This allowed
for a certain degree of social mobility as an astute free client could
increase his wealth until he could afford to have clients of his own,
thus becoming a lord in his own right.
A poorer man could become a "base client" by selling a share
in his honour-price, making his lord entitled to part of any compensation
due him. The lord would make him a smaller grant of land or livestock,
for which the client would pay rent in produce and manual labour. A man
could be a base client to several lords simultaneously.
Main article: Gavelkind in Ireland
Gavelkind was a species of tribal succession, by which the land was divided
at the death of the holder amongst his sons. Illegitimate sons, but not
daughters, were included in the division. The Normans gave this Irish
inheritance law the name Gavelkind due to it's apparent similarity to
Saxon inhertance in Kent.
Often the father prescribed the division before his death. A variant
occurred wherby the youngest son divided the land into equal parts. The
eldest chose first, followed by the second and so on until the youngest
received the remaining land.
Decline of the Brehon Laws
Following the Norman invasion, areas under Anglo-Norman control were subject
to Engish law. However, in the centuries that followed a "Gaelic
re-conquest" eventually came to cover the larger portion of the island.
The majority of Norman barons eventually adopted Irish culture and language,
married in with the native Irish, and adopted Irish legal custom. By the
15th century, in the areas outside of the England-controlled Pale) around
Dublin and some notable areas of joint tradition in northern and eastern
Munster, Brehon law became the de facto legal writ.
However, the Brehon Laws would never be readopted on an official basis
by the English-controlled government of the Lorship of Ireland, although
some modernized concepts survive in the laws of the Republic of Ireland.
The imposition of the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 effectively outlawed
the Brehon Law. In one exceptional case, vestigial rights have been recognised
in recent Irish case law in reference to the survival of Brehon law-governed
fishery rights in Tyrconnell, once the last bastion of Gaelic sovereignty
until 1601. The rights survived the end of Tyrconnell's independence,
and also survived the Elizabethen conquest.
The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the mid-16th century and the Flight
of the Earls in 1607, brought the end to the rule of Brehon law and
the extention of English law across the entire island.