Social Classes in Ancient, Celtic Ireland
In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at social classes in early, medieval Celtic Ireland—of bards, druids, nobles, kings, and slaves.
Social Classes in Ancient Celtic Ireland
In our modern age, especially in the U.S., we take it for granted that all should have equal opportunities. There are classes, to be sure. But we assume that no one is assigned permanently to their station in life. We have the ability to rise. Or to fall.
Surprisingly, in mid-fifth century Ireland, there was also some class mobility. This was somewhat different from the class system of peasants and nobility that arose on the continent later.
Every Celt lived within a fine, or extended family unit. And all the members of a fine might live together in one or two roundhouses. Many fines comprised a tuath, or clan. It is within the context of the clan that we look at early Celtic social classes.
At the bottom of the social scale were slaves. Slavery was very much a part of life in the ancient world. In fact the basic unit of currency in ancient Ireland was the cumal, or woman slave. You could end up a slave if you had overwhelming debts and sold yourself into slavery, or if you were taken in battle. The Irish often raided the coast of Britain, stealing slaves in the night from the rich Roman villas. Indeed, this was how St. Patrick made his first journey to the Emerald Isle—in chains.
Bothach, the Lowest Class
Barely above slaves in status were the bothach, those with no property rights. Here fell criminals, indebted farmers, and unskilled laborers. The bothach were unfortunates who were stripped of all rights.
Feines, the Freemen
The feines, or freemen, were far better off. They owned their own huts, fields, and cattle. They managed their own affairs. They were one step away from being nobility.
Flaith, the Nobles
The nobility of the Celtic social structure were the flaith. These were men and women who attained their positions by skill, wealth, the strength of their character, or leadership. They did not necessarily rise through kinship. The nobles owned property, fields, tenants, cattle, sheep, and pigs. Noble women could also own property, choose their own husbands, and some even fought in battle. But usually they ran their households and raised children.
Artisans and Craftsmen
Can you make clothing, jewelry, pottery, or a fashion a bodhrán, one of those small Irish drums, or a bone whistle, or a harp with gut strings? Then you sat high on the social ladder. If could take a tree and turn it into a wagon, wagon wheel, or barrel, you were also well situated. And the blacksmith who forged swords and ploughs? Such a man was also highly regarded. Anyone with a skill in high demand sat high on the social ladder.
Bards were a class of poets and singers, and in a world without books or TV, were highly respected. Bards were the Celtic entertainers and recorders of history. A ruler would take a bard into his court to immortalize his reign in song and verse. Each night the bard would play and sing for him, singing long tales, both ancient and new, and traditional ballads, while the court sipped mugs of mead or ale. Bards either played their own harp or bone pipe, or were accompanied by one who could.
Druids, the Priestly Class
Higher still on the social scale were the druids. These men, rarely women, were the mediators between the Celtic people and the spirits of forest, stream, and bog, and the gods of the sun, sea, and moon. They worshiped the ancient Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann, Danu, Crom Cruach, Lugh, Cernunos, and a host of other fearsome gods. They organized sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans. They divined the future by observing birds, the stars, animal entrails, and other means. They were sorcerers who could cast spells to turn people into animals or stones. Or so the people believed. The druids taught that people had an eternal soul which went to the Otherworld. And when St. Patrick brought Christianity, they opposed him.
They were also the clan’s healers, for they knew medicinal lore and healing spells. They were the clan’s judges, mediators in disputes, and advisors to kings. They held great power and the people feared them. The druids are so interesting, we may devote a later post exclusively to them.
Kings: The Rí Tuath and the Rí Cóicid
Highest of all, of course, were the clans’ rulers. An advisory council, comprised of the leaders of fines would advise the clan’s king, or Rí Tuath. Above each of the five main regions of Ireland sat a Rí Cóicid, or regional king. He held loose power over the collection of a region’s tuatha and their kings. The palaces of legend where some of these men ruled were in Tara, Emain Macha, and Cruachain.
So that was the world of ancient, Celtic Ireland. Imagine yourself plucked from your bed and plopped into the middle of it. Where would you fit in?
Next week, I’ll interview Christian author Michelle Griep. She’s graciously offered a giveaway of her latest book, Brentwood’s Ward, for all who sign up for my newsletter next week. So check back.