A (much) Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland

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The old Irish writers commonly prefixed to their books or treatises a brief statement of "Place, Time, Person and Cause".

The Place, Time, Person and Cause of Writing of these web pages are:- Their place is Cuskinny, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland; their time is the year of our lord one thousand nine hundred and ninety seven; the author is Brian Walsh; and the cause of writing is to give knowledge to those who desire to learn about the Old Irish People.

These pages are based around information in an old book that I came across. Why is an old book more interesting than a modern study? Could it be that learning about our history has more to do with trying to understand a slightly alien culture rather than simply reading a set of facts/opinions. Everything about an old book - the style of presentation and prose, the texture of the pages and the binding, and the smell - is an aid to making that mental leap which can aid understanding.

These pages are not a verbatim republication of the original. They take their structure and core data from the contents of the book. Entire pages may be summarised as a set of comments or omitted altogether. Material will be added gradually as links from the table of contents below.

Material from other sources may be added by way of illustration, explanation or expansion. The book dates from 1908, and other information is available. The pages will therefore be added to in a way that parallels the way in which the ancient books were annotated.
There is a difference in that the ancient manuscripts were annoted between the lines and in the margins (see the illustration in the Brehon Laws section). The Web allows hyperlinked annotations, which method is potentially as confusing as the methods allowed to the old scribes. Thankfully, the Web also allows foe 'elastic' pages.

The book:






The Government, Military System, and Law ;

Religion, Learning, and Art ; Trades, Industries, and Commerce ;

Manners, Customs, and Domestic Life,

of the Ancient Irish People


P.W. JOYCE, M.A., LL.D., T.C.D.; M.R.I.A.

One of the Commissioners for the Publication of the Ancient Laws of Ireland

President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Ireland

with 213 illustrations



London, New York, and Bombay

Dublin : M.H. Gill & Son, Ltd.


The book is an abridgement of a larger work, "A Social History of Ancient Ireland", which contains the supporting references, etc.

The book (and therefore this set of web pages) "goes back only so far as there is light from living record - history or tradition". "An attempt is made to picture society, in all its phases, as it existed in Ireland before the Anglo-Norman Invasion".

"The society depicted here - as the reader will soon discover for himself - was of slow and methodical growth and development; duly subordinated from the highest grades of people to the lowest; with clearly-defined ranks, professions, trades, and industries; and in general with those various pursuits and institutions found in every well-ordered community: a society compacted and held together by an all-embracing system of laws and customs, long established and universally recognised."

Go to Tír na nÓg


The content will build gradually as links from the full table further below. The sequence in which topics fill out will depend on my whim (mostly), your feedback, and the direction of the wind.

To aid those revisiting these pages, a reverse chronological list of developments is given here:


Chapter I - A Preliminary Bird's-eye View

Chapter II - Government by Kings

  1. Territorial Subdivision
  2. Classes of Kings
  3. Election and Inauguration
  4. Revenue and Authority
  5. Priviliges
  6. Limitations and Restrictions
  7. Household, Retinue, and Court Officers
  8. The Over-Kings

Chapter III - Warfare

  1. Foreign Conquests and Colonisations
  2. Military Ranks, Orders, and Services
  3. Arms, Offensive and Defensive
  4. Strategy, Tactics, and Modes of Fighting

Chapter IV - The Brehon Laws

  1. The Brehons
  2. The Senchus Mór and Other Books of Law
  3. Suitability of the Brehon Laws
  4. Structure of Society
  5. The Laws Relating to Land
  6. The Administration of Justice


Chapter V - Paganism

  1. Druids - Their Functions and Powers
  2. Points of Agreement and Difference between Irish and Gaulish Druids
  3. Sorcerers and Sorcery
  1. Mythology - Gods, Goblins and Phantoms
  1. Worship of Idols
  2. Worship of the Elements
  3. The Pagan Heaven and a Future State
  4. Turning Deisol or Sunwise
  5. The Ordeal
  6. The Evil Eye
  7. Geasa, or Prohibitions

Chapter VI - Christianity

  1. Christianity before St. Patrick's Arrival
  2. The Three Orders of Irish Saints
  3. The First Order - Patrician Secular Clergy
  4. The Second Order - Monastic Clergy
  5. The Third Order - Authorities or Hermits, and Hermit Communities
  6. Buildings, and other Material Requisites

Chapter VII - Learning and Education

  1. Learning in Pagan Times : Ogham
  2. Monastic Schools
  3. Lay Schools
  4. Some General Features of Both Classes of Schools
  5. The Men of Learning
  6. Honours and Rewards for Learning
  7. The Knowledge of Science

Chapter VIII - Irish Language and Literature

  1. Divisions and Dialects of Celtic
  2. Writing, and Writing Materials
  3. Ancient Libraries
  4. Existing Books
  5. Irish Poetry and Prosody

Chapter IX - Ecclesiastical and Religious Writings

Chapter X - Annals, Histories, and Genealogies

  1. How the Annals were Compiled
  2. Tests of Accuracy
  3. Principal Books of Annals
  4. Histories - Genealogies - Dinnsenchus

Chapter XI - Historical and Romantic Tales

  1. Classes , Lists, and Numbers
  2. Chronological Cycles of the Tales
  3. General Character of the Tales
  4. Story-Telling and Recitation

Chapter XII - Art

  1. Penwork and Illumination
  2. Gold, Silver, and Enamel, as Working Materials
  3. Artistic Metal Work
  4. Stone Carving

Chapter XIII - Music

  1. History
  2. Musical Instruments
  3. Characteristics, Classes, Styles
  4. Modern Collections of Ancient Irish Music

Chapter XIV - Medicine and Medical Doctors

  1. Medical Doctors
  2. Medical Manuscripts
  3. Diseases
  4. Treatment


CHAPTER XV - The Family

  1. Marraige
  2. Position of Women and Children
  3. Fosterage
  4. Family Names

Chapter XVI - The House

  1. Construction, Shape, and Size
  2. Interior Arrangements and Sleeping Accomodation
  3. Outer Premises and Defense
  4. Domestic Vessels
  5. Royal Residences

Chapter XVII - Food, Fuel, and Light : Public Hostels

  1. Meals in General
  2. Drink
  3. Cooking
  4. Flesh Meat and Its Accompaniments
  5. Milk and Its Products
  6. Corn and Its Preparation
  7. Honey
  8. Vegatables and Fruit
  9. Fuel ans Light
  10. Free Public Hostels

Chapter XVIII - Dress and Personal Adornment

  1. The Person and the Toilet
  2. Dress
  3. Personal Adornments
  4. Rough Classified List of the Gold Objects in the National Museum, Dublin

Chapter XIX - Agriculture and Pasturage

  1. Fences
  2. Land, Crops, and Tillage
  3. Some Farm Animals
  4. Herding, Grazing, Milking

Chapter XX - Workers in Wood, Metal, and Stone

  1. Chief Materials
  2. Builders
  3. Brasiers and Founders
  4. The Blacksmith and his Forge
  5. Carpenters, Masons, and Other Craftsmen
  6. Protection of Crafts and Social Position of Craftsmen

Chapter XXI - Corn Mills and Querns

Chapter XXII - Trades and Industries connected with Clothing

  1. Wool and Woolen Fabrics
  2. Flax and its Preparation
  3. Dyeing
  4. Sewing and Embroidery
  5. Tanning and Tanned Leather
  6. Chapter XXIII - Measures, Weights, and Mediums of Exchange

    1. Length and Area
    2. Capacity
    3. Weight
    4. Standards of Value and Mediums of Exchange
    5. Time

    Chapter XXIV - Locomotion and Commerce

    1. Roads, Bridges, and Causways
    2. Chariots and Cars
    3. Horse-Riding
    4. Communication by Water
    5. Foreign Commerce

    Chapter XXV - Public Assemblies, Sports, and Pastimes

    1. The Great Conventions and Fairs
    2. The Fair of Carman
    3. General regulations for Meetings
    4. Some Animals Connected with Hunting and Sport
    5. Races
    6. Chase and the Capture of Animals
    7. Camán or Hurling, and Other Athletic Games
    8. Chess
    9. Jesters, Jugglers, and Gleemen

    Chapter XXVI - Various Social Customs and Observances

    1. Salutation
    2. Pledging, Lending , and Borrowing
    3. Provision for Old Age and Destitution
    4. Love of Nature and Natural Beauty
    5. Something Further about Animals
    6. Animals as Pets
    7. The Cardinal Points
    8. The Wind
    9. The Sea
    10. Bishop Ultan and the Orphans

    Chapter XXVII - Death and Burial

    1. Wills
    2. Funeral Obsequies
    3. Modes of Burial
    4. Cemeteries
    5. Sepulchral Monuments

    Go to Tír na nÓg