The Importance of Genealogy in Gaelic Society

Importance of Genealogy in Gaelic Society
Importance of Genealogy in Gaelic Society
Importance of Genealogy in Gaelic Societ[...]
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Tuath - People or ‘Tribe’

No doubt you have friends who descend from the Laighin, or the Dál Riata, the Eoghanachta, the Corcu Laoidhe, the Seven Laois (part of the Cruithne), etc., etc., etc.  Maybe you’ve heard of “Guinness”, a drink made by the Mag Aonghusa family who descend from the Uí Eachach Cobha, who descend from the Dál nAraide, another part of the Cruithne.

Each one of these tribes had rights and privileges which they earned during the early history of the Gaeil in Ireland, Scotland, or Man.  I descend from the Cinéal Chonaill on my father’s side and from the Cinéal nAeda on my mother’s side.  Here are examples of my ancestors’ rights and privileges according to Féineachas, called ‘Brehon Law’ in English.

On my father’s side:

Twenty rings, twenty sets of chess, and twenty horses to the king of Cenél Conaill (from the King of Tara) and one month's refection from the king of Cenél Conaill to him (to the King of Tara), as he escorts him into Tír nEógain. (1)

On my mother’s side:

Ua Briúin and Síl Muiredaig and Uí Fiachrach and Cenél nAeda are free tuatha and of equal status with the king (i.e., the King of the Kingdom of Connacht), and they go not on an expedition or a muster save for a payment of cattle, and they go not into battle with the king save for pay; and if any such are brought and they happen to be killed, their king is entitled to their eric from the king (of the Kingdom of Connacht). (2)

In other words, each one of you had sets of rights and privileges under Féineachas in Ireland, Scotland, or Man, and those different sets of rights and privileges depended upon your membership in a tribe.  Genealogy was the way to demonstrate and claim your tribe’s rights and privileges for yourself, your family, and your descendants.

Lóg n-Enech – ‘Price of Face’ or ‘Honor-Price’

Let’s imagine that my ‘honor-price’ (i.e., my status in society) is measured as six cows, and your honor-price is eight cows.  If you should go to a court of law against me, you would win because under Féineachas your sworn word is better (i.e., more believable) than my sworn word because your honor-price is greater than my honor-price. (3)

Now imagine that you kill me.  You have to pay six cows to my extended family “in éiric” (i.e., in compensation) or my extended family would have the right to kill you. (4)

My honor-price depended in large part upon my personal genealogy.  For example, if I were a bó-aire or free husbandman (these were typically engaged in raising cattle), and if I assembled enough wealth to support clients, I wouldn’t have the right to claim the title of ‘lord’, and my son wouldn’t have the right to claim that title even if he also had clients, but my grandson would be a lord if he also had clients as I had and my son had. (5)

In other words, the Gaeil could step up (or down) in society every three generations.

Now imagine I don’t have an honor-price because I don’t know my genealogy.  If you kill me, you don’t have to pay an éiric because I don’t have an honor-price, and my family can’t kill you because I don’t have any family.  Without genealogy, I wouldn’t have the normal protections of Gaelic society. (6)


As we see, our rights and privileges depended upon the deeds of our tribes in the early history of Ireland, Scotland, or Man.  Our honor-prices also depended upon our personal genealogies.  The combined, interwoven, traditions of history, genealogy, and Brehon Law were called “Seanchas”, and Seanchas provided the entire framework of Gaelic society.

Those are some of the primary reasons why genealogy was so important.  And like any tradition of such importance, it’s been difficult to break the habit.


1., p. 4, líne 35:
2., p. 48, líne 686
3.  Kelly, Fergus.  A Guide to Early Irish Law.  Dublin:  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998,  p. 199
4.  Ibid.,  pps. 125-157
5.  Ibid.,  p. 12
6.  Ibid., pps. 5-6



Copyright © 2014 by Gerald A. John Kelly

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