In a previous blog (Irish Domestics—Household of an Irish Chief), we looked at the immediate household of an Irish lord or chieftain (tierna). Today we look at the larger network of service kindreds with hereditary functions whose roles supported a typical Gaelic lordship, or oireacht. The Gaelic courts of the regional lords were served by hereditary service kindreds of long standing, who occupied well-defined lands, and were known collectively as lucht tighe (people of the house).
Gaelic Social Structure
For context, we’ll first take a brief look at Gaelic social structure in the 16th century, what some English referred to as the government of the the “rude and barbarous nation of the Wild Irish.” The system as a whole was often called ‘Tanistry,’ from the title of the heir apparent to the chieftainship.
The lordship, or oireacht, was held by a hereditary ruling family. The lord and his successor were elected from among the derbfine, the legal family in Brehon Law, consisting of a four-generation group of the ruling family comprising the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of previous chiefs. This was contrary to the English system of primogeniture. The succession could become a struggle, even resulting in the splitting of a lordship, but it also resulted in the emergence of some very strong leaders. The schematic below is based on G. A. Hayes-McCoy’s analysis (updated with emendations from Kenneth Nicholls and Gerard Farrell). The example here features a regional lord (O’Neill) at the top of the hierarchy, with sub-lordships arrayed below. It does not include church (termon) lands, which were not subject to chiefly exactions.
Contiguous lordships formed larger composites, which were in turn subsidiary to the great regional lords; e.g. O’Neill and MacCarthy More. Hayes-McCoy identifies three levels of lordship;
1.) Regional overlord (O’Neill, MacCarthy More, etc.)
2.) Sub-king or ur-rí (urraight)
3.) Lord of a tuath, owned by a sept or sleachta.
The lordship system revolved around the ownership and rental of cattle, and land holding was somewhat fluid. Cattle were dispensed by the lord, and remained his property. The English claimed that there was “utterly no coin stirring” in Gaelic Ireland. Thus rents were in kind, consisting of “vessels of butter, measures of meal, porks and other such gross duties,” and only occasionally included manufactured items like a given number shoes or coats for the lord’s retainers and soldiery. The overall oireacht, or lordship, was divided into many smaller estates, called baile biataigh, or ‘ballybetagh’. Bailte beataigh comprised the four categories of inheritable land;
1.) Personal demesne lands pertaining to the office of the chief.
2.) Lucht Tighe or mensal land also attached to the office of the chief, peopled with service families.
3.) Sept lands of vassals, i.e. sleachta, or kin groups, who owned their lands.
4.) Termon, or church lands.
There were demesne lands set aside for the support of the chief, as well as his designated successor or tanist. Additionally, a regional overlord would have demesne lands in the territories of his ur-rioghta (sub-kings) as well. The name baile biataigh derives from a biatach, which was a hospitalier, or freeman bound to provide hospitality. The territory of the various sleachta (or kindred groups), was pretty well defined, but while the English called them ‘landowners,’ landholder is a better term as the holding status was subject to change as the kin group expanded or contracted. Such constant re-division of the bailte beataigh might have resulted in excessive fragmentation over time, with landholdings devolving into many unviable lots. However, in the 16th century, overall population was maintained at about replacement level, so this was generally not a problem.
But if the country was relatively underpopulated, this can’t be blamed on the chiefs! A chieftain might have 10 or 15 sons by various wives and concubines. Thus, a recurring feature of Gaelic society was the constant expansion of the leading families of a territory, gradually squeezing out lesser families and driving them down into the unfree class. As such, a substantial part of Gaelic society could trace descent from noble progenitors, regardless of their present status. With many of the incoming ‘New English’ planters being of decidedly dodgy backgrounds (landless tradesmen and mechanics, etc.), the lineage-conscious natives of all classes were prone to refer to them contemptuously as ‘bodach sassenach’—Saxon churls, who couldn't name their own grandfathers.
At the conclusion of the Nine Year’s War and the outset of the Plantation of Ulster, the leading aristocratic Gaelic families were considered ‘deserving Irish’ and often secured lands for themselves under the new dispensation. Also, the lowest Gaelic orders—the unfree—initially viewed the Plantation as an opportunity to better themselves, with a theoretical opportunity to acquire land. It was the middle segment of Gaelic society, the land holders of the baile biataigh, who suffered complete displacement. These included the Gaelic professional elements—lawyers, physicians, poets, musicians, as well as the members of the lucht tighe. This middle segment found themselves pushed down among the unfree churls, forced to sell their labour.
Lucht Tighe of Tyrone
In the 16th century, only the mensal and demesne lands associated with the office of tierna served for the direct upkeep of the chieftain. The bailte beataigh of the various sleachta, or kin-groups, whose territories he also ruled over provided periodic tribute (‘cuttings’), hospitality, quartering of mercenaries (bonnaught), and service. This service was usually of a military nature, though it includes the services of poets, brehon lawyers, musicians, and physicians.
The mensal lands of the chieftain’s were occupied by what was called the lucht tighe (people of the house), sometimes anglicized ‘Lotie’. The service providers who occupied these lands included stewards, spencers (in charge of food distribution), the lord’s marshall, horsemen, huntsmen, keepers of hounds, horn-blowers, cup bearers, keepers of toilets. These functionaries tended to be of more longstanding than the learned septs of poets, musicians, lawyers, and doctors. The lucht tighe territory was free from bonnaught, or the quartering of mercenary troops. It often occupied the border lands of the lordship, often as configured in earlier centuries, though changes might have occurred in the lordship boundaries in the meantime.
In the Lordship of Tyrone, four principal lucht tighe families had traditional functions described in Ceart Uí Néill (The Rights of O'Neill). Collectively they were known as ‘Tyrone’s horsemen’, since next to the O’Niells themselves, they provided the bulk of the territory’s cavalry. Individually, these four families (O’Hagan, O’Quinn, O’Devlin and O’Donnelly) performed the following functions:
O’Hagan and O’Quinn were Tyrone’s high stewards and chief administrators. Not surprisingly, they were great rivals and ‘a mortal hatred’ existed between them. O’Hagan was the senior, and served as Tyrone’s seneschal, keeping 1/3 of his office’s profits. He collected rent and food dues and also maintained Tullyhogue, the inauguration site for O’Neill. O’Quinn served as Tyrone’s quartermaster and kept 2/3 of his office’s profits (In the late 16th century, O’Quinn seems also to have served a police function. He maintained Tyrone’s fortified island crannóga and kept his prisoners.) O’Devlin was one of three families of fircheithearn or ‘true kern’, (the others being MacCawell and MacMurrough). In the 15th century the fircheithearn took and guarded hostages, and collected fines. The O’Donnellys were hereditary marshalls to Tyrone, and organized his forces.
Lucht Tighe of Machaire Connacht
Using her method of landscape analysis, Elizabeth Fitzpatrick has identified the lucht tighe of the O’Connor lordship of Machaire Connacht (i.e. the ‘Plain of Connacht,’ in Roscommon). In the 16th century Machaire Connacht was split by the division of the O’Connors into the septs of O’Connor Rua and O’Connor Donn, but this does not seem to have affected the holdings of the long-term lucht tighe families, who still held the old mensal lands of the pre-split O’Connor lordship of Síol Muireadhaigh. She notes that Ó Conchobhair was served by Ó Taidgh as marshall of his house, Ó Floinn as steward of horses, and Ó Dochraidh as keeper of privy and bed in Ó Conchobhair’s house. Ó Beirn was spencer (food distribution), and occupied Cloonybierne (Cluain Uí Bheirn), seen on the map below.
Two key O’Connor sites seen on the map above are the pailís of Cluain Fraoch, or Fraoch’s water-meadow (pailís = timber feasting hall/hunting lodge in a boundary spot), and Carn Fraoch, or Fraoch’s (hunting) mound, from which boar and deer would be sighted during the hunt. The Elizabethan Fiants (Books of Pardons) reveal a wide range of O’Connor service families (many to do with hunting, such as kern, dog-keepers and horn-blowers), centered around the old ‘Palishclonfrey’ (Pailís Cluain Fraoich) and Carn Fraoich, the old hunting mound also used as an inauguration site, on the holdings of Cloonfinlough, Cloonearagh, Clonconny.
There is an abundance of kern, horn-blowers and dog-keepers in the Fiant, and their individual holdings located within a landscape featuring place names such as Bunnamucka (pig bottom, or low place), Carrownagullagh (quarter of boars), and Dumha Selga (mound of the hunt), indicate this was the lucht tighe territory, located as it is on the old lordship borders and involved with such activities as inauguration, hunting and feasting.
Above: Bullock horn from Torr Head, Co. Antrim, used for signalling on the farm, and the Holy Cross Abbey mural (Co. Tipp.), an early 17th century hunt scene with a hooded horn blower and dog. He wears hide brogues with the hair on, and short trews like those on the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice. These were called “Irish Dimmie-Trouses” by Elizabethan English (i.e., half, or demi, trews).