Early Irish Society: Daniel Binchy’s Definition

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World — Celtic Women, Families, and Social Structure

By: Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Early Ireland was a society that was marked by certain characteristics that decidedly made it distinct. The defining characteristics of this civilization were very well articulated by the famous historian Daniel Binchy, who described early Ireland as “tribal, rural, hierarchical, and familiar”. Read on to know more about how the early Irish society was structured.

Ancient Celtic cross in Ireland.
Medieval Irish society had certain features that distinguished it from other Celtic-speaking societies.
(Image: Arcady/Shutterstock)

The Definition of Early Ireland

In 1954, Daniel Binchy had described early Ireland as “tribal, rural, hierarchical, and familiar”. His definition of early Ireland was one that was applicable, to a large extent, to Wales as well, a society that was very characteristically similar to the Irish society in the Celtic world. In fact, a significant amount of information on early Irish society comes from Wales. 

Both societies displayed a notable unity in culture, but a fragmentation in politics, a huge contrast from societies of early Anglo-Saxon England. As a result, it is far easier to say something about general society in early Ireland and Wales than it is to say about the individual rulers. 

Binchy’s statement has been refined and criticized since it was made, but it still stands as an essential framework in which to organize the information on early Irish society. 

Learn more about the Celtic world.

The Tribal Irish Society

The first term in Binchy’s definition was ‘tribal’. The word ‘tribal’, when used by Binchy, was not in an anthropological sense. Instead, what was meant here was that Ireland was composed of many small units or kingdoms, perhaps at least 100 at one time. 

Kings, or ríge, ruled over their túatha, or the people of their kingdom. They were small kin groups who owed their allegiance to the ruler. 

Painting titled "Riders of the Sidhe", by John Duncan.
A king’s túatha comprised of all the people who had pledged their allegiance to him.
(Image: John Duncan/Public domain)

Succession in the Irish kingdoms was hotly disputed amongst the relatives of the previous ruler. This meant that the politics of these ‘tribes’ was very convoluted, and kings often had origin stories based on the idea of a goddess of sovereignty on whose approval the king was throned. 

The Provinces of Ireland

Ireland was also loosely divided into bigger units, called provinces, which did not have fixed borders, and were not concrete political entities, but rather, just geographical divisions. At a time, there were four or five such provinces—a fact which gave rise to the Irish word coiced, which means ‘a fifth’, and which is still the Irish word for province. There are only four provinces in Ireland today: Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, Leinster in the southeast, and Munster in the southwest.

Earlier, the province in the middle was called ‘Meath’, which means ‘middle’, but it has now been absorbed by the other four provinces. 

The fact that these provinces were not political entities meant that political loyalties were very localized and were determined by one’s relationship to the king or of one’s own túath, a group that may be made up of only a few thousand people.

Given that it was such a fragmented society, there were no cities at all in early Ireland—a fact that was elucidated in the second part of Binchy’s definition, ‘rural’. 

Photograph of Daniel Binchy when he served as an ambassador in Berlin.
Daniel Binchy was a world renowned scholar who described certain characteristics of Irish society that made it distinct from other Celtic-speaking societies.
(Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-08594/Georg Pahl/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Rural Nature of Irish Society

The rural status given to Ireland was not as true for most of the other Celtic-speaking areas as it was for Ireland. Here, people lived in widely scattered settlements. The wealthy lived in homesteads where there was an enclosure, while the less well off lived in isolated farms.

There is a significant amount of existing information about these enclosures, usually called ringforts in Ireland. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Ringforts of Ireland

Ringforts, despite the name, were not really forts, as they were not placed on the highest ground to be defensible. 

The most common type of ringfort was the ráth, surrounded by a bank and a huge outer ditch. Often it was encircled with two, or even more, walls that were usually made of earth. Despite these impressive features, the enclosures were not too huge, typically being about 100 feet in diameter.

Another type of ringfort was the caiseal, built with stone and generally found in the west, where the land was rockier. It was mostly found on higher grounds, though the reason for this is not exactly known. They were built with dry stone walls and generally did not have ditches. 

Yet another kind of enclosure was the dún, which was a very elaborate stone structure, often built with separate concentric stone rings. It is quite likely that these were intended to be used for defense. For instance, Dún Aengus on Inishmore, situated in the Aran Islands, is on the edge of a high cliff, with the probable motive of rendering a seaborne invasion useless, or extremely difficult. Outside its concentric walls, Dún Aengus has an intricate system of stone slabs, perhaps created as a formidable barrier from any attacks from land.

There are some scholars, however, who believe that sites such as Dún Aengus may have been used for ritual purposes, perhaps like an auditorium. 

Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence available to come to a conclusion on this matter, and there is the possibility that the site was used for both defense and rituals. Such sites, however, are comparatively rare. They would take up a lot of resources, and there were very few people in early Ireland that commanded that much labor.

Houses, whether inside or outside these enclosures, were usually round, and made of wicker or wood. In fact, for tourists, a reconstruction of one of these houses has been done at the Irish National Heritage Park in County Wexford, where one can stay overnight in a ringfort. 

There was also another type of dwelling, called the crannog, which, by definition, was found on an island in a lake. This was an age-old Irish tradition that went back to the late Bronze age and continued well into the Christian period. One can visit a modern reconstruction of a crannog in County Clare. 

The island on which a crannog was could have been natural or artificial. Crannogs must have been at least partly intended for defense, as the creation of an artificial island was a very labor-intensive process. The island would have a causeway connecting it to the mainland, that could be removed if needed to defend against attack. Building a crannog could have been, therefore, a way to assert status. 

The people who lived in these dwellings were the subjects of the third term Binchy used to describe Irish society: ‘familiar’, as in family-centered. A family group, not an individual, was the basic unit of Irish society. The family was precisely defined, for legal purposes, as the fine, or kin-group, which extended to fewer or more members depending on the situation at hand. While the definition of family is flexible, depending on the social context today as well, for early Irish society, it was not simply a social issue, but a matter of law and property. 

Learn more about medieval Ireland.

Commonly Asked Questions About Features of Irish Society

Q: Why was early Irish society known as ‘rural’?

In early Irish society, people lived in scattered settlements. While the wealthier sections of society lived in homesteads, which often had enclosures, the less wealthier ones lived in isolated farms. There were no cities at all in early Ireland, and so the early Irish society was called ‘rural’.

Q: What did Daniel Binchy mean when he called early Ireland a ‘tribal’ society?

According to Daniel Binchy, early Irish society was tribal, in the sense that it was made up of a number of small units or kingdoms, where kings, or ríge, ruled over their túatha, their people who had pledged in their allegiance.

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