6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society

6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

I’ve long felt that our ancient Irish ancestors were far more advanced and civilised than we give them credit for. Not simply because of the amazing engineering which went onto the construction of the stone structures they left behind in the landscape, but through all that I have learned about their beliefs and way of life from reading their stories in the ancient texts. Topped off by the extraordinary Brehon Laws which governed their society.

During my research, I came across the work of Alexei Kondratiev. He was an  author, linguist, and teacher of Celtic languages, folklore and culture in America until his death in 2010. He considered himself to be both a Neo-pagan and a Christian, could speak all six Celtic languages, and several native American languages too. He was a very accomplished scholar and teacher, with qualifications in anthropology, linguistics, Celtic philology, archaeology, and music.

But what drew me to him was a short piece of writing on Celtic values. These struck a chord with me; they explained much that I had wondered about the culture of ancient Ireland.

Alexei claimed that the Celts abided by six core values; honour, loyalty, hospitality, honesty, justice, and courage. These formed the basic principles upon which Celtic society was founded. Although they defined an acceptable set of behaviours, they were not an individual code of conduct but rather a collective one, which applied to the whole community.

  • Honour. This was everything. It wasn’t just a chivalric code to be followed by warriors. In fact, the following five qualities all come back to this one. The Old Irish word for honour is enech, meaning ‘face’. To be an honourable person in one’s community meant ‘saving face’; good things must also be heard about you in your community. The word clú means ‘reputation’ and comes from the Indo-European root ‘to hear’, thus referring to what is being said about you.

A curious practice which demonstrates the importance of honour was called Troscud, which features in the Brehon Law. It involved sitting outside the home of someone who had done you an injustice and fasting from dawn to dusk. During this time, the misdemeanour became common knowledge, and shame was brought upon the wrongdoer if he allowed the injured party to fast while he continued to eat. It usually resulted in the matter being settled privately between the two parties.

The Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall’s war band had a strict code of honour. This was the motto which they lived by;

Glaine ár gcroí, neart ár ngéag agus beart de réir ár mbriathar “The purity of our hearts, the strength of our limbs and our commitment to our promise”

These are the values Fionn expected all his warriors to live up to;

“If you have a mind to be a good champion, be quiet in a great man’s house; be surly in the narrow pass.

Do not beat your hound without a cause; do not bring a charge against your wife without having knowledge of her guilt; do not hurt a fool in fighting, for he is without his wits.

Do not find fault with high-up persons; do not stand up to take part in a quarrel; have no dealings with a bad man or a foolish man. Let two-thirds of your gentleness be showed to women and to little children that are creeping on the floor, and to men of learning that make the poems, and do not be rough with the common people.

Do not give your reverence to all; do not be ready to have one bed with your companions.

Do not threaten or speak big words, for it is a shameful thing to speak stiffly unless you can carry it out afterwards. Do not forsake your lord so long as you live; do not give up any man that puts himself under your protection for all the treasures of the world.

Do not speak against others to their lord, that is not work for a good man.

Do not be a bearer of lying stories, or a tale-bearer that is always chattering.

Do not be talking too much; do not find fault hastily; however brave you may be, do not raise factions against you.

Do not be going to drinking-houses, or finding fault with old men; do not meddle with low people; this is right conduct I am telling you.

Do not refuse to share your meat; do not have a niggard for your friend; do not force yourself on a great man or give him occasion to speak against you. Hold fast to your arms till the hard fight is well ended.

Do not give up your opportunity, but with that follow after gentleness.”

-from the Tales of Ossian

  • Loyalty. Comes from the Old Irish word tairisiu, which means ‘steadfast’. It refers to always being consistent in one’s relationships with others. In Brehon Law, the term dilis is used to represent loyalty when two things are interdependent, ie one cannot be without the other, thus indicating consistency, permanence, immoveable.

In the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Fergus goes to extreme lengths out of loyalty to Cuchulain. Fergus is Cuchulain’s foster-father, and when Medb sends him out against the young warrior, he begs Cuchulain to yield rather than fight him. Cuchulain agrees on the condition that if they ever meet in battle again, it will be Fergus’s turn to yield.

Of course, they come face to face when Fergus leads Medb’s army into the final battle. Rather than kill his foster-father, Cuchulain reminds him of their agreement, and Fergus duly orders the retreat of Medb’s warriors, risking both defeat and his temperamental Queen’s wrath.

Loyalty appears in other forms in the old stories too, most notably in tragic love stories, when lovers would rather die than be without each other. Some examples would be Graine killing herself after Diarmuid’s death rather than be with Fionn; Baile and Ailin, who both drop down dead in shock when they are told lies about each others deaths, and Deirdre, who, rather than be given to the man who murdered her beloved Naoise, throws herself to her death from a speeding chariot.

  • Hospitality. The Old Irish word for hospitality is oígidecht, derived from oígi, meaning ‘stranger/ newcomer’, ie someone not of one’s home or kin. In ancient times, this was vitally important, as travel was long slow and laborious; there were no maps or hotels, restaurants or toilet facilities like there are now. We laugh at Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, insisting visitors take a cup of tea with her insistent”Go on Go on Go on Go on…”, but hospitality is still as important to the Irish today, if not quite so necessary.

Interestingly, the giving of hospitality was regarded so highly, that to refuse it was seen as very bad form indeed. Many stories highlight this by putting a geis (taboo) on someone, effectively banning him from refusing hospitality. Inevitably, this usually leads to disaster.

When Deirdre eloped with her lover, Naoise, and his two brothers, Conchobar sent Fergus and his son, Fiachu, to track them down. The escapees were duly rounded up and escorted homeward, but along the way Conchobar sent a message ordering Fergus to a feast, knowing he were bound by geis never to refuse hospitality. Fiachu continued alone with the prisoners, but on arrival at the royal castle, they were all killed by the jealous king’s command. In revenge, Fergus burned the castle and fled to Connacht, taking service with Queen Medb against Conchobar and the Ulstermen.

After killing Cullan’s hound, Cuchulain was under a geis never to eat the flesh of a dog. One day, an old woman camping on the roadside offers him refreshment of a meal containing dog meat. The Ulster hero was also under geis never to refuse hospitality, and so was put in a quandary; which geis to break? His decision would inevitably violate one of them. To refuse  hospitality would damage his public reputation, so he chose to break the private taboo, and accepted the dish. This decision was ultimately to lead to his death.

HonestyIndraic in Old Irish means ‘honest/ flawless’, but two other words were also used; cneasta meaning ‘healed/ restored’ and macánta, which means ‘to behave as a child’, ie to be open, friendly and straightforward with others.

Fionn mac Cumhall displays this quality of absolute honesty as a young boy, when he catches the Salmon of Knowledge for his guide and mentor, the Druid Finegas. He could easily have betrayed Finegas’s trust and eaten the salmon himself, but chose not to, even if it meant passing up on the chance to acquire all that knowledge and wisdom.

  • Justice. Coair which comes from Old Celtic ko-uéro, and means ‘in accordance with the truth’. Later,  the word cert (modern ceart), was used, borrowed from the Latin certus, meaning ‘certain/ sure’.

The Brehon Laws defended justice and were based on a system of honour and fines rather than corporal punishment, and governed everything in minute detail from family law, healthcare, commerce, and the practice of medicine to bee-keeping and the protection of trees. They were said to have been implemented by Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland, who was renowned for his knowledge and wisdom.

At the age of thirty, Cormac set off for Tara, where he came across a woman weeping; her sheep had strayed into the Queen’s garden and cropped her herbs. The King had duly confiscated the poor woman’s flock as compensation and left her destitute. But Cormac said, “More fitting would be one shearing for another,” because both the herbs and the sheep’s fleeces would grow again. The King accepted Cormac’s greater wisdom, and it wasn’t long before Cormac became High King himself, and was much respected for his fair judgement.

  • Courage. The Old Irish word meisnech meant ‘to keep one’s head’ as in to stay cool in a situation and not panic. Sometimes, another word was used, cródacht, which meant bloodthirsty or brave in battle, but not in a crazed, uncontrollable way; it meant being tough enough not to be swayed by pity, a quality which must have been vital to the warrior. The ancient Irish respected life, be it animal, vegetable or human, therefore to destroy a life must have been seen as a difficult if necessary thing to have to do.

The old legends are full of stories of great bravery and courage. You might call him foolhardy rather than brave, but the greatest example of courage has to be when Cuchulain single-handedly takes on the whole of Medb‘s army. At the time, he was only 17. The men of Ulster had been cursed by Macha, who had been forced to run a race against the King’s horses whilst pregnant. She won, but collapsed and gave birth, cursing the Ulstermen with her dying breath, so that they would be rendered incapable of fighting, by labour pains like hers. As Medb advances with her army, Cuchulain manages to hold them off with ambushes and a series of single combats over a period of several months, until the warriors of Ulster are free from their debilitating sickness.

I’d just like to point out here that Macha ran a race whilst heavily pregnant against horses and won; when experiencing the same pains that she felt, the men were unable to move, even to defend their own country. Typical!


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43 thoughts on “6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society

  1. The six founding principles of ancient Irish society are very interestingly narrated here by a very well informed and a dear Hibernian that you are Ali. Such great store was set by the values of honour, hospitality, courage, honesty, loyalty and justice. As I have mentioned before, these cherished values went into
    the constitution of generations of great men and women inhabiting a perennially beautiful country that is the envy of other nations. Long live Ireland and Irish culture…

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on The Sound of What Happens and commented:
    An incredibly researched post on the values of our ancient Irish ancestors, from Ali. Our society would be far better if we lived by the same principles. There are some of us who, however imperfectly, do strive to live this way in our day to day lives. Our world is still incredibly violent and stuck in the fear of separation, the pain of turning away from each other, refusing people who look and think differently, standing by the wrong things, deceiving ourselves, trading respect for whatever seems more important. It can’t go on that way. I hope for a braver, wiser, interdependent world, and aim to live accordingly. Our ancestors struggled with these same things, but their laws and values shed light on a way of being human that we collectively seem to have forgotten.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Rachele, yeah apparently not. It had to do with saving face as Ali said, and reputation, and carving out a definition of wild. Many people in the fianna didn’t have land of their own, and were not quite part of society, not quite outside it either. It was essential to maintaining a respected i
      in between status to very clearly mark themselves out from potential situations for social irresponsibility. That said, they had beer, and mead, all the time, while out with their cohorts. If they lived in our modern era, the rule against going to pubs wouldn’t apply. I’m certain of it. 🙂

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  3. I love all of these laws – they seem eminently sensible and should still be the foundations for society today. They remind me a little of the martial arts code, which is very similar in that how we conduct ourselves outside the dojo is as important as how we do inside and part of being a true martial artist. Even the children have a simplified version which is as follows:
    To strive for perfection of character
    To be honest and sincere
    To foster the spirit of perseverance
    To be humble, kind and polite
    To refrain from violent behaviour

    I also very much enjoyed your last point! Ha!

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  4. We could indeed be doing with these laws again being upheld today. It would certainly stop the politicians in their tracks. There was a case not so long ago about someone going on hunger strike, sitting outside the person who had wronged him`s house.

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  5. Very interesting. These principles reminded me of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. I loved your closing statement. I am tired of hearing how women are the weaker and men are really macho. In my experience, men whine to no end if they catch a cold.

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  6. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Ali Isaac’s fascinating post on the founding principles of ancient Irish society – evokes the principles that ancient Indian society lived by too…and she ends with this: “I’d just like to point out here that Macha ran a race whilst heavily pregnant against horses and won; when experiencing the same pains that she felt, the men were unable to move, even to defend their own country. Typical!” Now read on….

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  7. Fascinating! This was a really interesting and in-depth post; makes me realize how little I know of Irish folklore and myths.

    Sidenote – Terry Jones’s ‘Barbarians’ series does a great job exploding the notion of Celts as barbarians, and touches on many of these principles. It’s definitely a TV show and goes for laughs now and then, but still very informative. One thing that stuck with me was the Celts’ care and treatment of their weakest members, such as the elderly or widows with children. It was basically an early form of health care. So neat!

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    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! I haven’t seen that program, but the Brehon law has sections which cover health care and children’s rights, and even care of the disabled. They were a people well ahead of their time, not the savages people tend to presume.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely consider checking it out! Jones goes into the rules about health care, etc. that you mentioned, and shows some wooden trackways built over bogs and reconstructed Celtic architecture.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The six core values Alexei Kondratiev identified in Celtic society all sound like good ones. The next time my boss I’m scolded because I haven’t managed to meet an impossible target, I’m tempted to sit on the floor in front of my boss’s desk and ostentatiously refuse to eat my lunch.

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  9. Reblogged this on Jean Reinhardt and commented:
    “The Brehon Laws defended justice and were based on a system of honour and fines rather than corporal punishment, and governed everything in minute detail from family law, healthcare, commerce, and the practice of medicine to bee-keeping and the protection of trees. They were said to have been implemented by Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland, who was renowned for his knowledge and wisdom.”
    Would these ancient Irish laws work in today’s society? Judge for yourself.

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  10. The ancient laws of Hywel Dda (Howell the Good) were obviously very similar with the system of fines and a moral code. Supposedly a basis for the English Laws of later years .
    I agree with coldhandboyack that we should have a moral code taught in schools.Those laid down in knighthood would be fine hat there is always the defence of women and children and the care of the less fortunate.
    xxx Gigantic Hugs Ali xxx

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  11. Macha is always guna be my fave! That’s my kinda gal!! What a hero.

    Love these principles so full of truth too – this IS how we should live our lives – ok maybe not death for refusing dog meat but you know what I mean! I think society is so wayward and actually a few simple principles ought to be enough to ensure that people are kind to each other. Sigh.

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  12. The Six Founding Principles to Ancient Irish People is like Confucianism to the Chinese Folks of old.
    I am sad to say that many modern Chinese people have left or forgotten about Confucian teachings.

    Anyway, It is amazing that you can equip each principle with an example/ deed of a historical character. It really helps understanding the depiction of each point in Irish culture. 😀

    I am blown away by Fionn mac Cumhall’s honesty! It was such a temptation! I wonder if I’d be able to pass such a test. All the knowledge in the world!!! Oh la la!

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  13. There is a goddess Danu in Indian myth like in Celtic myth. Goddess Danu is the mother of Danavas in indian myth. Danavas are a branch of Asura. Asura are like Aesir and Devas are like Vanir.
    One-eyed Odin father of Aesir. Son of Burr and grandson of Buri. Buri is the first god. Odin can raise the dead. One-eyed Shukra, teacher of Asura. Son of Bhrigu and grandson of Brahma. Brahma is the creator. Shukra can raise the dead.
    Vanir suspected Aesir at the well of knowledge and cut off Mimir’s head. Odin preserved the head and Mirmir became advisor of Aesir
    Devas suspected Asura at the ocean of milk and cut off Rahu’s head. Rahu’s head became immortal due to drinking Amrita and became assistant and advisor of Shukra.
    The generous Balder, greatest Aesir king. Balder will return after Raganark. Generous Bali greatest Asura king. Bali will return as Indra after this Manavantara war. 🙂

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    1. Hobbyie, I’ve really been fascinated by the similarities between ancient Celtic and Indian cultures. I know there’s some scholarship on that as well but have never gotten around to it. I’ve always felt that ancient people at one time or another had greater contact with each other than we might think.

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  14. The world would be a better place if these 6 principles were practiced in modern society. I love your last paragraph. Funny. Thanks for a wonderful post, Ali. I also agree that everyone should have one zombie apocalypse skill. 😀

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  15. My uncle worked all his life for Moral Re-Armament and that organisation lived by the absolute principals of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. I don’t know how much good it does nowadays because there’s precious little of those things in the area of Perth where i live! Ali, have you ever thought about writing a blog using the colourful expressions found in this website, but it may only appeal to my Aussie sense of humour – http://www.badassoftheweek.com/mccool.html

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  16. I really like this one. The world could use a moral code these days too. It ought to be taught in schools. That and everyone should have one zombie apocalypse skill. I don’t care if it’s how to make fire, or a bar of soap, but one skill that a person could contribute in event of an emergency. Morals, ethics, a code, plus a survival shop class. We’re good to go.

    Liked by 3 people

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