Irish Historical Sources.

The Brehons

The start of Irish History is usually considered by historians to have happened the 5th century CE with the arrival of St. Patrick because with him came the first written documentation. The language spoken was Celtic and we know this because when St. Patrick arrived he could communicate with the natives. This documented history is our primary source of information in relation to early Irish society.

Our Main Sources For Documented History Are begin with Brehon Law which was a form of law brought about by tradition within the tribes. A sort of natural law that was similar from tribe to tribe. The law was enforced by local Judges known as Brehon. This law is best defined as Early Irish Law. These laws were, more or less, agreed upon by the people and are therefor based on customs, traditions and practises. The Bretons memorised the laws and the information was passed from father to son which made the Bretons a privileged class in early Irish society.

The Bretons were guardians of the law but it was the people, through custom and practise, which created it. It is also worth remembering that while the laws were not imposed they were practised. In the 5th Century AD Ireland was a Celtic country and the language spoken here was of Celtic origin. It is not yet finally established as to how the Celtic language arrived here but there are numerous theories but these are only theories. One of the best sources for exploration of Irish history is Early Irish Law. Also known as Brehon Law but scholars don‘t like this title because it suggests the laws were created by the Brehons and, in fact, this is not the case at all. The Brehons were the nobles of Early Irish society and were more guardians of the law then creators of it. Law was created through customs and traditions within a society and over time the Brehons committed these laws to memory and were practitioners of it. This skill was passed from father to son as time passed and thus the laws were carried from generation to generation prior to the arrival of literacy to the country.

When we think of Law today we think of it as being imposed. This was not the case in medieval times. The laws were brought about in the interests of the maintenance of the group that operated within it. The law came from the bottom up. It was the customs and practises of the ordinary people of the community. These were agreed upon by all as the best way to live their lives.
There is a whole range of laws that covered every aspect of society and these laws give us an excellent insight to medieval society. It is not a perfect source because there are no case histories as is the case today. Nothing was documented as to what happened in each case.
The study of Brehon law is actually relatively new. The first major steps were taken with the production of the six volume Ancient Laws of Ireland from 1865 to 1901.

The translations in these volumes are no longer considered to be wholly reliable. But they do represent a goodly part of the available Brehon law texts and they stimulated the slow, patient production of further scientific editions during the 20th century. The major breakthrough came in 1978 with the production of DA Binchy’s transcription of almost the entire corpus of vellum manuscript materials for Brehon law. These also fill six volumes. But they extend way beyond the selective coverage offered by the Ancient Laws of Ireland. Binchy’s Corpus Iuris Hibernici runs to 2343 pages (or around 1.5 million words of text).

It contains numerous ancient tracts and digests that are mostly in the Old Irish language of the 7th to 10th centuries. These are supplemented by glosses and commentaries in Middle Irish (dating to the end of the 12th century) and Early Modern Irish. (There are also occasional snippets of Latin.) Binchy’s Corpus Iuris Hibernici contains no translations. It is a scholarly transcription of the medieval manuscripts. However, the publication of Binchy’s work in 1978 came only two years after the completion of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language, which concentrates on the ancient and medieval forms of the language. And one year earlier, in 1975, an English translation of Thurneysen’s masterful Grammar of Old Irish was also published. Suddenly, scholars had ready access not only to the ancient legal materials themselves, but to the chief linguistic tools for their translation.

Since then, the acceleration in published research on Brehon law has been quite remarkable. By 1988 Professor Fergus Kelly of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies was able to publish his remarkably wide-ranging Guide to Early Irish Law. The first edition of Nery‘s Patterson’s Cattle Lords and Clansmen followed in 1991. More recent volumes include Robin Chapman Stacey’s The Road to Judgement: from Custom to Court in medieval Ireland and Wales (1994). In addition, numerous journal articles have appeared in the Irish journals Peritia, Ériu and The Irish Jurist (the leading Irish academic law journal, published by University College Dublin). What all this research has revealed is a legal system of extraordinary sophistication. The English common law only emerged with the development of a professional judiciary, and the emergence of a professional bar, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. But both had been part and parcel of Brehon law from at least the time of its earliest texts (composed in the 7th century). The development of degrees of intent in the English common law was a slow process. The concepts of accident and self-defence did not emerge until the 13th century; those of mistake and negligence finally took root in the 16th century. At that time the common law finally reached the level of development displayed in the Brehon law texts of almost a thousand years earlier. For example, the treatment of women under the ancient laws speaks to their sophistication: “The care which is evident for the individual personality of the woman in Irish marriage law is a widely shining landmark in this period of history as compared with the unrespected position of women in earlier times and in other societies.

The Annals Of The Four Masters

Our next source for Irish history are The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland are a chronicle of medieval Irish history. Compiled in the 17th Century in Co. Donegal. The task was to compile all the existing known history for future generations. They were put to writing in final form by the Four Masters in the Franciscan Monastery in Donegal, starting in 1632. The work was completed in 1636.

Many of the sources they drew from are no longer available. It tracks history from c.2000 BCE to c.1600 CE ―The Chronicle of Ireland is the modern name for a hypothesized collection of ecclesiastical annals recording events in Ireland from 432 to 911 AD. Several surviving annals share events in the same sequence and wording, until 911 when they continue separate narratives.

They include the Annals of Inisfallen, the Annals of Ulster, the Chronicon Scotorum, the Annals of Clonmacnoise, the Annals of Tigernach, the Annals of Roscrea, the Annals of Boyle, and the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. “The Chronicle of Ireland” represents the scholarly consensus solution to this Gaelic synoptic problem.

Events are listed in separate entries under the heading of a single year. Most entries consist of only one or two sentences, and some years contain only one or two entries. The Viking raid on Iona Abbey in 806, in which the entire population of the abbey was massacred, is recorded with typical brevity: “The community of Iona was killed by the gentiles, that is sixty-eight (referring to the number of dead) There is no direct evidence for the identity of the Chronicle’s authors at any given point in time, but scholars are confident that it was produced by annalists working in churches and monasteries and was intended for an ecclesiastical audience.

The Chronicle was written in different places at different times; the earliest evidence for one of its authors places it in Iona sometime after 563, continuing until about 642. Around 639, another chronicle of uncertain origin was begun elsewhere and merged in with the Iona chronicle in the second half of the 7th century.

The chronicle was then continued until about 740. From about 740 to 911, the Chronicle’s annalist was working in the Irish midlands, probably in the midland province of Brega (sometimes Breagh) but possibly in the monastery at Clonard. Some scholars believe that work may have moved to Armagh by the beginning of the 9th century, and debate continues on this point. After 911, the Chronicle’s descendants break into two main branches: one in Armagh, which was integrated into the Annals of Ulster; and a “Clonmacnoise group” including the Annals of Clonmacnoise (an English translation), the Annals of Tigernach (fragmentary), the Chronicum Scotorum (an abbreviation of Tigernach), and the Annals of the Four Masters.

Most surviving witnesses to the Chronicle’s original content are descended from the Clonmacnoise chronicle. A large number of the Chronicle’s entries are obituaries. The cause of death was significant to the annalists as an indicator of the death’s “spiritual quality”; they felt it indicated whether the deceased would go to Heaven or Hell. After 800, records of Viking raids (as in the example above) also make up a large number of entries. Other entries include observations of astronomical events, such as a solar eclipse that took place on June 29, 512. Some events outside Ireland also appear in the Chronicle; during some parts of the eighth and ninth centuries, its chronology for certain events in England is more accurate than that of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As of the middle 7th century, the Chronicle’s dating scheme “consisted of a kalend (Kl) followed, until at least the mid-seventh century, by the ferial of 1 January”. This scheme, and much of the Chronicle’s witness to world history prior to 400, was based on the chronicle of Rufinus of Aquileia who wrote in the early 5th century.*

(*Source: ‘The Chronology and Sources of the Early Irish Annals’ by D. Mc Carthy, Early Medieval Europe 10:3(2001)323-41.‖27

St. Patrick is rightly styled the Apostle of Ireland. The Faith, no doubt, was preached and known by many before he began his mission. It is recorded that an Irishman, a Roman soldier, was present at the Crucifixion, who, after the completion of his military service, returned home, preached the faith and converted many.

Christianity was solidly established in Britain and Gaul long before the coming of our Apostle; and it is quite certain that there was considerable intercourse between these countries and Ireland during the first centuries of our era, so the faith must have been made known and embraced by many. Paladius came some short time before St. Patrick, but, while he must have converted some, his mission was not a success. Patrick made his studies at Lerins, now St. Honorat, South of France, and next under St. Germanus.

Lerins was the alma mater of many bishops and saints. Being a relative of St. Martin of Tours, he must have spent some time at Marmoutier, a famous monastery founded by that saint. In those institutions he learned the discipline and constitution of the Church, and organised the Irish Church accordingly. The Church of France was even then divided into dioceses, and the dioceses sub-divided into parishes. Each diocese was territorial and governed by its own bishop.

This was the mode of Church government St. Patrick introduced into Ireland—an episcopal Church governed by successors of the Apostles. St. Patrick could not introduce all at once perfect church government. His principal work at first was to convert and baptise. As the tribal system then prevailed he adopted the policy of addressing himself first to the chiefs or heads of the tribes.

The conversion of a chief soon brought about the conversion of the whole tribe. When the chief and tribe were converted the next step was to appoint a bishop over the territory occupied by the tribe. Thus in the early Irish Church bishoprics in Ireland were conterminous with tribal lands. Our Saint did the best he could, but the plan was a bad one. In course of time bishops multiplied unduly. Some assert that there were one hundred bishops in Ireland at the time of St. Patrick, and long after; there were without any doubt at least fifty. This at the time was a necessary evil, for every tribe of any importance should have their own bishop, as they would not submit to the jurisdiction of a bishop belonging to another tribe. Thus the nation was kept divided.

The multiplicity of bishops gave offence to the rest of Christendom, and at the Synod of Rathbrasael, held 1115 A.D., they were reduced to 26, besides Dublin and Waterford, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury—28 in all. There are 26 dioceses at present. The system of tribal dioceses produced another evil effect: members of the families of the chiefs were raised to the episcopate without the necessary qualifications. The abuse was carried so far that many of the occupants had received no orders at all and enjoyed the benefices without performing the duties attached to them. All this produced nepotism, corruption, and disorders in the Irish Church. At the time of St. Patrick, however, it would seem that many of the bishops wereforeigners—Britons, Franks, and Romans. This would appear from that important document known as a Catalogue of the Orders of the Sts. in Hibernia. After giving the number of the first Order of Sts. the text adds: “And these were for the most part Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth.

Here begins the Catalogue of the Orders of the Saints in Hibernia according to different periods:


The first Order of the Saints was in the time of Patrick, and then all the bishops, 350 in number, were famous and holy and full of the Holy Spirit. They were founders of churches, worshipped one head, Christ, and followed one leader, Patrick. They had one tonsure, one celebration of Mass, and celebrated one Easter, namely, after the vernal equinox. And what was excommunicated by one church, all excommunicated. They did not object to having women as housekeepers and companions, because founded on the rock, Christ, they did not fear the wind of temptation. This Order of Saints lasted during four reigns: to wit, from the time of Laoghaire, the son of Niall, who reigned thirty-seven years; and Olioll, styled Moll, who reigned thirty years; and Lughaidh, who reigned seven years; and this Order of Saints lasted to the very end of Tuathal Maelgarbh, and all remained throughout holy bishops, and these were for the most part, Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth.


The Second Order of the Saints was like this. In this second Order now there were few bishops and many priests, 300 in number. They worshipped one head, God, and had different rituals or rites of celebration, and different rules of living, and celebrated one Easter: to wit the 14th of the moon. And they made a uniform tonsure from ear to ear. They shunned having women as companions and housekeepers, and excluded them from the monasteries. This lasted for four reigns also …. Those (saints) received the ritual of celebrating Mass from holy men of Britain; to wit, from St. David and St. Gildas and St. Cadoc. And their names are these: to wit, Finian, Endeus, Colman, Congal, Aedh, Kieran, Columba, Brendan, Brechen, Caineoh, Caemgin, Laidrean, Laisre, Lugeus, Barrideus, and many others who were in the second grade of the Saints.
The third Order of the Saints was like this. Now they were holy priests and few bishops, 100 in number, who used to dwell in desert places. They lived on vegetables and water and on the alms of the faithful, and held earthly things of no account, and wholly shunned back-biting and slander. These had different rules (of living), and different rituals of celebration, and also different tonsures, for some had the coronal tonsure and some the hair. And they had a different Paschal Solemnization, for some celebrated on the 14th and others on the 13th moon. This Order lasted through four reigns…..And their names are—Petran, bishop; Ultan, bishop; Colman, bishop; Edan, bishop; Lomnan, bishop; Senach, bishop. These were all bishops and many more. And these now were the priests—Fechan, priest; Airendan, Failan, Commian, Ernan, Cronan, and many other priests.

Note that the first Order was holiest, the second very holy, the third holy. The first glows like the sun, with the heat of charity; the second like the moon sheds a pallid light; the third shines with the bright hues of the dawn. When a bishop was appointed over the new diocese his first and most important work was the construction of a church. The churches of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries were very small and rudely built. The first churches were of wood and circular in shape, and there are 110 remains of these, but we have the remains of stone churches of the period, and we find they were built without cement, and the stones used were very large, from 6 to 17 feet long, which would take four men to lift.

The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick furnishes us with the dimensions of the churches he used to build:—”In this wise then St. Patrick measured the ferta, namely, seven score feet in the enclosure, and seven and twenty in the great house (tig mor), and seventeen feet in the chule (kitchen), and seven feet in the aregal, and in that wise it was he used to found the congabala always.” The ” great house ” was the church, which at the time was circular, and the diameter used to be 27 feet. The roof was formed by overlapping. The doorway was placed at the west-end and covered by a lintel and was broader at the bottom.
Churches with arches and semi-circular window heads were erected in the early part of the 9th century. Recessed semi-circular arches belong to the 10th century. The walls built in this period lose much of massive stone work, and are higher, and cement was used. The windows exhibit a slight recess upon the exterior, and were of greater size. As style advances the sides of the doorways become cut into a series of recesses, chevron and other decorations are commonly found, and various mouldings of doors and windows become rich and striking. The term Irish Romanesque has been applied to this style of architecture. The transition can be traced to the beginning of the nth century, but was not fully developed till a century later. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, decorated art reached a high state of perfection in this country. Cormac MacCuillenen’s chapel on the Rock of Cashel, which was consecrated in the year 1134, presents a specimen of Irish architecture which has not been excelled. Donough O’Brien, King of Thomond, founded the cathedral, 1152. It consists of nave and chancel, with a square tower at each side, 55 and 50 feet high. The walls of nave and chancel are ornamented with a row of semi-circular arches slightly recessed, and enriched with chevron, billet, and mouldings. We have remains of many churches scattered through the country which exhibit the highest degree of art. These and the beautifully sculptured crosses and metal work which still remain afford ample evidence of the skill the Irish attained in various departments of art prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion.
The training of the clergy was an important matter for the consideration of St. Patrick and his successors. Colleges or seminaries had to be established for the education and training of young levites to fit them for their future mission. St. Patrick again followed the practices that prevailed in France, where monasticism was the established system. The monks founded in that country schools and colleges in which the future clergy were trained in the practices of discipline and piety. Monasticism was thus introduced into Ireland by St. Patrick, and became an important factor in the Irish Church. Monasteries sprang up in different parts of the country. Clerics and others not only from Ireland but from Great Britain and the Continent flocked into them, and received gratis their education. Some of those institutions contained as many as 3,000 pupils. This may be the place to describe the origin of monasticism.

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of political warfare. While the term propaganda has acquired a strongly negative connotation by association with its most manipulative and jingoistic examples, propaganda in its original sense is neutral, and may also be construed to refer to uses which are generally held to be relatively benign or innocuous. In the study of Irish history propaganda sources are, for example, the words of the pagan Bards as transcribed by the Monastic Monks, such words may not have been without Bias and, as such, contain some propaganda.

One of the areas we will be looking at is archaeology where we can find physical examples such as Temples, ritual objects, and statues, and other types of artefacts and burial places, which can tell us a little bit about the religious beliefs of the people of the time. It must be said from the outset that there is not a lot of archaeological clues but the few we have available to us are worthy of close analysis. The application of Genetics as a reliable source of stabling history is not a reliable one for many reasons.

In the case of the Celts it proves very little. As stated earlier Archaeologists contend that there are too few objects found in Ireland to prove any invasion of Celts actually occurred. Interesting, Geneticists support the Archaeologists theory. Geneticists say the Celts share D.N.A. and had a pre disposition to Cystic Fibrosis and were usually of the ‘O’  type Blood Group. In the 1960‘s there were Blood Group studies and the distribution of Blood types and the results may indicate where Celts located. Munster has the strongest distribution of Blood Type O and this may indicate where the Celts had located. In the 1990‘s Studies In DNA And Chromosomes showed that ‘Y’ Chromosomes are Inherited from the father while Mitochondrial DNA is Inherited from the Mother.

However, this can not be deemed a totally reliable source for accurate information and most Scientists are dubious, to say the least, about the results of DNA research because samples have been contaminated both inside and outside of the laboratory. In short, Genetics is far too young a discipline to draw any firm conclusions. Geneticists contend that there is little or no evidence to conclude that there was, in fact, a prehistoric Celtic invasion which leads us to the problem of why then do we speak a form of Celtic language. In point of fact we do know that C.400 CE when St. Patrick arrived on Irish soil he could communicate with the natives in some form of Celtic. From the point of his arrival history started to be documented.


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 5, 2012, in Celtic History, Ireland History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Bretons – is that where Cape Breton, Nova Scotia got it’s name? My father’s mother was born in Cape Breton.
    More interesting history Gerry.


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