By Tomás Ó Dubhda
This article is a selective overview of the various types of community gatherings that occurred over a period of c. 6,000-6,500 years with personal recollections of some more recent events also included.
No historical record exists of pre-Christian Ireland. What we know today of the older events is based mostly on archaeological interpretation and folklore. As the early monks struggled to convert the people to their faith, the Christian teachings, writings and culture were subtly promoted as the only ones worth knowing. As it took hundreds of years for Christianity to gain widespread acceptance, it was not until after this that we see any attempt to retrospectively record the stories of the old Celtic way of life.
Most of these ‘annals’ written from 800-1500 AD can be said to have had a particular agenda, perhaps in favour of kings and chieftains of the later period. Indeed, the most famous of all these annals, translated as Tales of the Elders of Ireland, points out that a certain king is said to have been in the presence of Patrick, although the king had died nearly 200 years previously.
In these later versions of the past we see Christian values, such as all the protagonists being depicted as being monogamous, thereby distorting the stories further. Given the huge time lapse, the religious and political bias at play, we must accept that much of the narrative is unreliable. This does not, however, mean that these tales are worthless.
Although there is obvious exaggeration along with the above bias and distortion, archaeological evidence points clearly to royal seats of power with adjacent ceremonial gathering places. Some of the events associated with these places survived until the late 20th century, but as Ireland has modernised, only a few still exist today. These earlier events, which were integral to Irish society, left only limited physical evidence and have sometimes been overlooked, or dismissed as worthless mythology. I hope this article may shed a little light on this often forgotten element of our social history.
It has been suggested by anthropologists Wengrow and Graeber that, just as Australian Aborigines held mid-Winter gatherings known as Corroborees before dispersing again for the hunting season, the Mesolithic, 8,000-4,500 BC, hunter-gatherers in Ireland may have done something similar.
Whereas we have evidence of temporary settlement from this period at Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, Co. Derry and at Ferriter’s Cove, West Kerry, we cannot say with any certainty what form of gathering, if any took place here. Although we have evidence of other settlement sites, and a more recent discovery of human presence dating back c.23,000 BC, again we have no evidence of community gatherings until the Neolithic period, 6,500-2,500 BC. This is partly due to the lack of stone houses, which survived much better, along with some contents, as well as the nomadic nature of the hunter-gatherers not leaving much evidence behind.
Most of those born in Ireland probably have some awareness of the tales of High Kings and legendary battles from Ancient Ireland. One of the greatest sagas we learned of was Táin Bó Cuailgne, The Cattle Raid of Cooley featuring Conchubhar Mac Neasa, King of Ulster and Queen Méadhbh, Meave, of Connacht. This saga, and many other less famous ones, are known today because of the filí, bards, a professional class attached to old Celtic royal courts and lordships. As Ireland was not part of the Roman Empire, and did not have the Roman system of writing, these stories did not become part of the written, historical narrative for quite some time and, so, stories of such events were carried by these bards, in the oral tradition, from generation to generation. One ancient manuscript, Cath Bóinde based on folklore, says ‘It was in Cruachán with Méadhbh the fairs were wont to be held and the sons of the kings of Ireland used to be in Cruachán with Méadhbh….’
The bards also composed poems in celebration of the gatherings, extolling the generosity of their kings, the quality of the food, music, socialising and entertainment provided at the feasts. To this day, we have a saying in Irish ‘Bhí togha gacha bí agus rogha gacha dí le fail ann’, The finest of every food and the choice(st) of every drink was to be had there. This is believed to originally date from bards of one to two thousand years ago. As a chieftain or king, one’s reputation had to be maintained, or enhanced and these ‘songs of praise’, so to speak, were pivotal in this regard. The position of bard, like that of the rí/king was hereditary, passing from father to son, thus ensuring all the poetic works remained substantially intact. As the younger poet grew in reputation, he might ‘improve’ his elder’s work with additions of his own, enhancing his reputation, and position, within the royal court.
These compositions are cumulatively referred to as seanchas, folklore, which is generally accepted to be a more mythical than factual account of such prehistoric events, continually embellished in the telling. The places referred to, however, have been shown to be very real indeed and were often the sites of many of the events described here. Meave’s principal royal residence was at Rathcroghan in present day Co Roscommon and was similar to the principal royal centres in the other four kingdoms; at Cashel in Munster, Tara in Meath, Navan Fort in Ulster and The Hill of Allen in Leinster. We also have evidence of some of the seats of lesser lordships with their inauguration and gathering sites sometimes at a remove of a few miles.
Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, NUI, Galway, tells us: ‘The practice of assembly among medieval Gaelic peoples of Ireland involved returning to particular sites, usually expansive and of prehistoric origin, on occasions of dynastic and political meetings and for seasonal rituals’. Entitlement to land and position in Celtic society was always established by reference to the past, similarly, the importance of the locations of gatherings was enhanced by returning to the same place each year. The link to ancestors was sacrosanct to these ancient societies, so continuity was vital. This is probably why many of these gathering places were close to ancient burial grounds. Similarly, the ability of the bards to recite the lineage of the person aspiring to be king was vital.
Some of these continued to be royal seats until at least 1400 AD while others, like the Hill of Uisneach, Ishnaugh, in Co Westmeath, Keash Hill in Co Sligo have a Celtic ceremonial function to the present day even if many of them, like Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo, are now linked to Christian festivals such as the Feast of St John on June 23 and Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July, formerly the feast of the Celtic god Lugh, now Garland Sunday, also Reek Sunday in the West, the day people climb Croagh Patrick, otherwise known as The Reek.
We have historic references to the royal gatherings from about 900-1600 AD, after which the role of Irish lordships was greatly diminished, following defeats at Kinsale in 1601 and, especially after the end of the Williamite War in 1691. For the next 100-plus years, the ceremonial and political elements were absent until the early 19th century when we saw mass rallies first used as part of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement and, later, the Land League’s campaign for land ownership reform.
In earliest times most of these gatherings were linked to pagan festivals, such as Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, which largely concur with the first of February, May, August and November and, of course included Mid-Summer, as well as the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. We have known for a long time that seasonal events such as the Summer Solstice were marked as particularly special events at the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, seat of the High King of Ireland, as well as at Carrowmore, Co Sligo. Similarly we know of the event to mark the Winter Solstice at Newgrange, Co Meath. These would doubtless have had the associated feasting and games, although perhaps for a shorter time at the Winter event. These bigger ones were presided over by kings who were deemed to be semi-gods, the rock or pop stars of their day. As such, they were major events in the lives of the ordinary people, when they feasted and sported in proximity to the sacred royalty.
These events could truthfully be said to have had a major role in the formation of communities beyond the people with whom they interacted on a more regular basis. From 8,000 BC onwards a family or kinship system is said to have started to develop. At its core was the fine, the blood relations extending to four generations. In time, a secondary, less intimate tie, to the broader clann, extended family evolved, later extending further to the tuath tribe.
An elder would represent each fine at these gatherings when it came to choosing leaders and making social and political decisions. Some might find it hard to believe that some form of this same familial social structure could survive right up to the mid-19th century but survive it did. A custom of community leasing of land, under the Rundale system applied to about 40% of the land in the West of Ireland up to the Great Hunger 1846-52. Under this system, one or more elders negotiated with the landlord on behalf of the fine-group or house cluster, referred to in English as a ‘village’, The same elder(s) allocated the various land holdings on an equitable, fine-agreed rotational basis, ensuring each household got enough land to support their needs.
Community Identity old and new
Boundaries were liable to change over time, as there were usually areas of dispute between each tuath and groups might have switched allegiance in the past. Such considerations gave an urgency to the need for all units of a tuath to feel a sense of identity with, as well as loyalty to the greater entity. That their elder had a say in all decisions was one way of ensuring the loyalty of each fine, the social interaction and merrymaking of the gathering was considered equally important. Although not part of their everyday lives, a tenuous link was established with those from outside the immediate fine and clann. This sense of being part of a greater unit meant that people from smaller groups had a sense of community if they came to fight together for their chieftain later. The same was even somewhat true in 1970s rural Ireland when, in the days when cars were far, far fewer than today, we only got to meet with people from outside our school and church catchments on fair days or at sporting occasions.
In later articles, we will look in the following sections at some of these ceremonial gatherings and how present day place-names continue to reflect such events. Recent advances in archaeological survey methods mean it has been possible to locate, with a high degree of certainty, more such sites recently with the expanding motorway network. Perhaps less real to some outsiders and to most current observers, but very much part of the lives of the ordinary people until quite recently, were the gathering places of the sí, those of the ‘otherworld’, commonly referred to as the fairies, or the ‘good people’. We will look briefly at their place in the seanchas but also in more recent folklore and how they are often associated with these royal sites.
This article appeared in The Journal, published by the Australian Irish Heritage Society in September 2022.
Tomás Ó Dubhda grew up on the Mayo/Galway border in the 1960s. He studied Archaeology, History and Irish at the University of Galway and has maintained an active interest in each of these areas throughout his life, including the derivation of placenames, the Great Famine period, and the Land Ownership question. He has been involved with a number of heritage and historical groups, attending seminars and field trips in counties Clare, Galway, Longford, Mayo, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath.