Land Tenure in the Gaelic times

By Michael-Patrick Crowley, Crowley Clan Newsletter, November 2011

Land tenure in the Gaelic times, until the collapse of the Gaelic order and laws by the mid 17th century, is both the essence of the clan system and one of the major factors which lead to constant warfare with the waves of newcomers in Ireland. Putting aside some very romantic thoughts of the Gaelic past, let’s look at the reality of our ancestors’ way of life.

Under the Brehon law system, that is the Gaelic laws, lands were the family or clan commune. All families and individuals related to the same eponymous ancestor could claim land usage while the ownership of land was held in common. This was an entirely different legal framework from feudal Europe where the landlord held the land on behalf of his suzerain or overlord, and ultimately at the top of the hierarchy from the King. The Gaelic system resulted in a level of independence of the clans unknown to other areas in Europe, a real clash of civilization.

J.B. Falconner in 1867 states: “The sept (clan) at large possessed the indefeasible property in all the lands occupied by it….. Celtic law declared that not the individual, but the nation (the clan or sept), so to say, had the proprietary right to the land. ….The main distinctive feature of the Brehon Laws was the fact that the land was held to be possessed by the tribe in- common and not by separate individual proprietors”.

Dr. O’Donovan in 1849 goes further:  “Those of lowest rank among a great tribe traced and retained the whole of their descent with the same care which in other nations was peculiar to the rich and great; for it was from his own genealogy that each man of the tribe, poor as well as rich, held the charter of his civil state, his right of property in the cantred in which he was born, the soil of which was occupied by one family or clan, and in which no one lawfully possessed any portion of the soil if was not of the same race of the chief”.

So if the clan lands were held in common, how was it allocated to families? The practice over the whole of Ireland was to provide a large proportion to the elected Chief and his immediate relatives. That proportion varied between 20% to 40%, however, in West Cork it appears that the practice was set at about a quarter of the land. Diarmuid O’Murchadha, 1993, conducted an analysis of land tenure of the O’Leary Clan in 1650, which would reflect quite well the end of Gaelic times. He found that the Chief, Domhnall held 23.4% of the land, the eldest son and tanist of the former Chief Donnchadh held 14.2, while his two brothers held 10.1% and 7.1% respectively.  The rest of the land was held by 11 individuals who each had two townlands (totaling 27.3%), while 17 held a single townland (totaling 11.6 %).

The analysis shows that land was redistributed among the clan members at each new Chief election. In the example above Donnchadh should have succeeded his father, however, Domhnall was elected and succeeded his brother Airt, occupying the allotted lands to the Chiefdom but providing a substantial share of the lands to his nephew and former tanist. With population change land tenure changed as well; for example under Brehon Laws a widow would find  upon the death of her husband their lands redistributed among other clan member leaving her only a quarter of the share. In the O’Leary example the 17 individuals holding just a single townland will find some of their next generation facing the prospect of moving outside the clan commune or else becoming a tradesman providing services to the clan members.

What can we say about the O’Crowley lands? Can we find a similar pattern? It seems so. Looking at the townlands in O’Crowley ownership at about the same time we have a total of 13,014 acres covering areas of Fanllobus and Kinneigh parishes in Kilshallow. There is a pattern of townland occupation for the elected Chief since the documented period of the 1570s  providing 28.2 % of the land (Ahakeera, Behagullane, Lisheenleigh, Anaharlick, Kinneighbeg, Drimidiclogh, Dromfeagh).

It is worth noting that when Teige MacDermot becomes the Chief around 1601, Drimidiclogh and Dromfeagh are detached to the sons of the former Chiefs Cormac and Teige, a very similar scheme as found in the O’Leary case. The O’Crowley example is also of interest if we look at lands outside the clan commune of Kilshallow. In Skeaff (Kilmaloda), Ballinacloghie (Ross) or Phale (Ballymoney) in O’Crowley ownership it appears that the lands were transferred from one generation to the other; probably being outside of the clan commune these lands were exempted from the reallocation schemes following elections of the Chief.

Reference: Cork History and Society, Gaelic Land Tenure in County Cork: Uibh Laoghaire in the Seventeenth Century, Diarmuid O’Murchadha, Geography Publications, 1993

Peter CrowleyComment