Family history under ancient Irish law

Family history under ancient Irish law

Genealogy and Brehon Law

Family history under ancient Irish law

The Marriage of Eve MacMurrough (O'Toole) and Strongbow (Richard de Clare).

Brehon law survives until this day, particularly in the names we bear. All names of Gaelic or Irish origin are defined by Brehon law. Whether it be the prefix Mac, Mc, O, Ua, Ui, or the surname itself, every person of Irish descent owes their name to dozens of generations of ancestors whose role in Gaelic society was defined by law, and recorded by lawgivers, the Druids and then the Brehons, who were the same persons entrusted with keeping genealogical records.

These families have existed from the dark recesses of prehistory up until today. The surname itself, when translated, usually has a distinct meaning, perhaps related to a geographical location, a hereditary family profession, or a common ancestor.

The ancient Irish were among the earliest civilizations to value genealogy. "Those of the lowest rank among a great tribe traced and retained the whole line of their descent with the same care which in other nations was peculiar to the rich and great ", noted John O'Donovan in Miscellany of the Celtic Society, "for, it was from his own genealogy 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 he was not of the same race as the chief."

The basic family unit of Irish society. was called the derbhfine, literally "true kin". Members of the same derbhfine were connected through the male descendants of a common great grandfather. This extended family not only formed the basis of inheritance, it also possessed considerable legal authority over its members. The group was ultimately accountable for the well-being and behavior of its kin. So too, was each individual accountable to the derbhfine. It was the family connection which gave weight to the worth of the individual. As such, it was extremely important to know who "your people" were.

Social status and laws regulating hospitality and honor were at the core of Irish life. Through the centuries, genealogies had been recorded in great detail in the great law books, and before that memorized in long poems. Originally the druids spent years recording the lives of the great families of Ireland, then it fell to the Filid, the Brehon, the Ollamh and the rough succession. Many of today's surviving legal tracts and law books address the subject of 'status', and 'social connections' and contain genealogical works, often in fact commissioned. Part of the reason for this was the belief in the constancy of certain principles, that may be seen as well as the affirmation in the wisdom of the ancestors...and the collected knowledge of their stories. It was this collection of family histories that was to form the basic common law of the Irish people, and which the art of heraldry negates as much as it preserves.

Irish genealogy can be divided into two distinct periods, pre Norman and post Norman. From ancient pagan times, up until the Anglo- Norman invasion of Ireland, led by Strongbow in 1170, there had been an unbroken line of Irish genealogical history. Up until then society was headed by provincial chieftains, and a High King. Raudri O Connor, the king that fell to Strongbow, would be the last native to hold that title. Traditional Gaelic genealogical history, under the Brehon Laws, continued in an uneasy marriage with the English feudal system for another four hundred years, until England finally succeeded in colonizing all of Ireland.

Each of today's four provinces was already in place at the end of the twelfth century, each with a king. Above the provincial kings was a high king, below, chieftains and lesser warlords. The royal families of Ireland and ancient line of kings are sometimes traced back to the Milesians, a race of Invaders referred to in some old manuscripts. While there may be some truth to this, historical records begin in the fifth century, and what happened before that is difficult to ascertain. Genealogists cross-reference ancient law texts, genealogical tracts, annals, and recorded oral histories in an effort to find consistent accounts. Still, myth and legend are examined, as they often hold clues to genealogical truths.

Thus, the genealogist is faced with greater and greater uncertainty the further back he goes. Still, for the Irish genealogist, the task is difficult, not for the lack of material, but for the pure volume of material, compounded by the fact that many manuscripts today remain untranslated and scattered. Peter Berresford Ellis recently addressed this topic in a speech entitled Untilled Fields of Irish History, where he stated:

"I have, over the years, become horrified at the overwhelming number of uncatalogued Old and Middle Irish manuscripts contained in repositories throughout Europe. The great finds of Irish works have been made possible by only one thing - luck. An entire book written in Irish on cosmology, in 1694, by a Jesuit priest, Father Magnus O'Domhnaill of Donegal, studying at the Irish College of the University of Salamanca was discovered last century. Professor Heinrich Zimmer, a German Celtic scholar, suggested at that time that some method was needed to research and identify such Irish works. Nothing was done."

Modern genealogists owe a debt of gratitude to the Brehon laws. Still, whole genealogies are likely locked away, because the ancient manuscripts, like so many of the Irish themselves, have been scattered. Perhaps the secret to unlocking that elusive family line lies untouched, and therefore, unknown.

Project Goals

The Brehon Law Project hopes to make the links between modern and ancient genealogy, by supporting efforts to collect, index, translate and electronically publish these manuscripts.

It is not surprising, then, where the Brehon laws and genealogy are concerned, that there are many stories yet to be told. Among the questions and subjects this site hopes to address will be:

Family history under ancient Irish law Why did the ancient Irish care about genealogy?

Family history under ancient Irish lawHow did the Brehon laws make genealogy essential?

Family history under ancient Irish lawExploration of the "links to kings".

Family history under ancient Irish lawWhat are "laws of succession", what were they under the Brehon laws, and what does that mean to the modern family historian?

Family history under ancient Irish lawHow did surnames come to be used in Ireland?

Family history under ancient Irish lawSome modern obstacles to tracing ancestors in Ireland. Family history under ancient Irish lawDefinitions of some common terms related to the pursuit of Irish ancestors.

Family history under ancient Irish law


The following contain excerpts from Dáibhí Ó Cróinins', Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 London, (1995).

The first - and so far only - volume of the projected corpus of Irish genealogies (Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae, vol. 1. O'Brien) lists some 12,000 individual names, and that only covers some of the manuscripts for the period down to c. 1100. The other promised volumes should include as many names again and possibly more, and the total corpus - if we include all the personal and tribal names from all the sources up to c. 1600 - could amount to something in the region of 30,000 names. Compared to the few hundred names preserved in the Anglo-Saxon genealogies of the same period, and the still fewer names from the Germanic kingdoms of the continent. [62-3]

400AD marked a distinct turning point in Irish history. At this time, in language, there is a shift from Primitive Irish to Old Irish, which took place rather suddenly. Parallell changes in the physical landscape may have led to the emergence of the new political groupings and dynasties which appear to dominate dominate from this point on. By the time of our earliest historical sources, tribes like Ciarraige, Dartraige, Muscraige, and Semonraige were all subordinate to the newer, more vigorous dynastic kindreds, and others like them disappered altogether. [41-2]

The decline of these ultimately prehistoric population groups can be glimpsed in the subtle change in terminology that creeps into the sources, particularly in the way that the term 'moccu', denoting tribal affiliation, gradually disappears in the annals and genealogies, giving way to newer coinages like Ui (Latiin nepotes) lit. 'grandsons', Cenel 'kindred', Clann 'family', and Sil 'offspring', all of which denoted descent from a known historical ancestor. [42]

The Irish evidence is abundant, but difficult: there is no prosopography of early Ireland, and no systematic study of the thousands of names that have come down to us in the annals, genealogies, and other literary and funerary sources (Note. A beginning was made by O'Brien 1973. Se also O'Cuiv 1986) In the genealogies, for example, there are thousands of individuals who cannot be identified, other than by their familial connections; they do not appear in the annals and they cannot, therefore, be accurately dated. Nor can we claim to know what names were in most frequent use between the period of the ogam stones and the bulk of the earliest genealogical material which hails from the seventh and eighth centuries. But even with allowances made for the intensity of family loyalty in name-giving, (and it can hardly be claimed that the Irish were more attached to their traditional, pre-Christian names than were other peoples in Late Antiquity or the early middle ages), it is still remarkable that the patterns found in other parts of the Christian world to not occur in Ireland. The disappearance of pre-Christian names and their replacement by Christian ones, which in Roman Egypt can generally be taken as some indication of how the new religion was progressing, has no reflex in early Irish society, at least among the aristocracy.

Both Old and New Testament names are to be found in the genealogies, but almost always in the pseudo-historical portions which were concocted by monastic literati to fill the gap between the earliest native records and the biblical ancestors to which they were frequently traced back. Even in ecclesiastical circles names like Mael Poil ('devotee of Paul') and Mael Petair ('devotee of Peter') are extremely rare, and names with Gilla ('servant') almost equally so, in the earlier period at any rate. The names of early Christian saints are conspicuous by their absence from the Irish records as names for children, and if there were any native martyrs - which the later church denied - their names left no lasting impression on succeeding generations of Irish Christians. Though it can be assumed that persecution of the kind described by Patrick might have dissuaded the first Irish Christians from giving their offspring conspicuously Christian names, the same cannot hold true for subsequent generations; there is no evidence of a flood of Christian names coinciding with the supposed period when the church might have felt that it no longer need fear repercussions. If the progress of conversion was widespread and rapid, it did not find expression in names. [O Croinin 37}


Excerpt from The Flowering of Ireland, by Katherine Scherman:

Ever since Brian Boru had voided the never-strong convention of the hereditary succession of the Uí Neill to the high-kingship, the local kings of Connacht, and Leinster had considered they had as good a right to the succession as the descendants of the Dal Cais upstart. Consequently, for nearly a century and a half after Brian's death Ireland was lacerated by the Destructive bickering of the rival septs, and most of their kings ruled "with opposition" - that is, their supremacy was not universally accepted. The efficacy of the few strong kings who emerged above the disharmony was a function of their particular talents and the pro tem loyalty of their supporters, rather than any change in Ireland's fatal localism. The great families, having no tradition of national unity in their background, still deemed it more important to seize the kingship for their local dynasties than to pay allegiance, for the sake of a still-dim concept of nationality.

Yet, while there was a lack of political cohesiveness, there was a unique system of national law, that applied across the island to each and every family, and Tuath.

Raudari (Rory, Roderick) O'Connor, son of Turlough O'Connor, was the last king of independent Ireland. He was also her strongest king to that date. There was no-one in Ireland who could challenge him, and he made effectual progress toward the concentration of authority. But his authority was undermined by the continuing disaffection of the great clans, among whom the Leinstermen were the most vindictively active. In 1014 this determinedly independent group had called on the foreigners - the Dublin Norse and their overseas friends - to help them put down the parvenu. They had been badly beaten at Clontarf - but not decisively enough. The weakness of the succeeding kings gave them a chance to recoup, and when their time appeared to come again they did not hesitate once more to summon foreign aid.

The precedent for their action was so engrained in the Irish mores that no one regarded it as a serious national threat. The old Irish tradition of sloughing off dynastic segments in order to narrow the possible choices for the kingship had throughout her history been a source of potential disaster. The discarded princes had customarily sought aid from their neighbors; that this perilous expedient might bring dangerous acquisitive confederates did not occur to the disgruntled aspirants, single-mindedly intent on overthrowing a rival.

Diarmait (Dermot) Mac Murrough, who was king of Leinster when Rory O'Connor became high-king of Ireland, was a man of selfish ambition, small morals, and a large capacity for resentment. He was also contentious, cruel and savage to a degree extraordinary even for the far-from-gentle times in which he lived. Already execrated for his iniquities (among other misdeeds he had gained his throne by killing two princes and blinding a third; he had forced the abbess of Kildare to leave her convent and marry one of his people; he had carried off, with her temporary consent, a woman of the Uí Neill who was someone else's wife), he had incurred the enmity of Rory O'Connor by supporting his Connacht rival to the high-kingship. When O'Connor gained the throne, his Leinster adherents expelled Mac Murrough from his kingship. In the eyes of succeeding Irishmen, Diarmait's subsequent action has no redeeming features. But at that time it was the least of his crimes, and he had respectable precedents. Doing what many disappointed Irish chieftains had done before him, he called on another king for assistance.


>According to Mac Neill, Ireland, the oldest fact in Irish history was the existence of what he called the Pentarchy, the division of Ireland into five provinces (coiceda), a prehistoric arrangement which has left its mark even on our own times with the use of the Modern Irish word cuige to denote a province. This Pentarchy provides the backdrop for Tain Bo Cuilange and the Ulster Cycle of stories. Between the Pentarchy and the literary period there is about 500 years, which can only be glimpsed in surviving legends and archaeological discovery. While some of the tales may be true, these stories, even at the beginning of the literary period were "Old, unhappy, far-off things/And battles long ago." The arrival of the literary period found Ireland generally in the four provinces of today.


By the beginning of the seventh century the dominant power in Ulster were the Dal Fiatach, to the extent that the term Ri Ulad could mean equally 'king of Ulster' and 'king of the Dal Fiatach. Their emergence overshadowed their great political rivals, the Cruthin (Cruithni), represented principally by the Dal nAraidi of south County Antrim and the Ei Echach Cobo of west County Down. [O Croinin, p.48]

The earliest families of Ulster are represented in two great Irish sagas: the Tain Bo Cuailgne, and its related 'remscela' ('pre-tales') , collectively known as The Ulster Cycle already. They were well known in Ireland by the seventh century. Different versions of the Tain exist. The version of the story told by Luccreth differs markedly from the recension found in later manuscripts. The Tain relates the story of how the ancient Ulster kingdom was besieged by the combined armies of other provinces, led by Queen Medb of Connaught. Only the superhuman powers of the Ulster hero Cu Chulainn saved Ulster from defeat. The most curious feature of all in the Tain, however, is the fact that all the events in Emhainn Macha are related from outside the Ulster Kingdom, using the brilliant literary device of the exiled Ulster hero Fergus mac Roich as narrator. Fergus is represented as a king of the Ulaid who was ousted from his throne by Conchobar mac Nessa and driven by his followers into exile in Connaught. As a consequence several Munster tribes in later centuries traced their origins back to these Ulster exiles. Similar evidence for an early knowledge of Ulster historical traditions in Munster is found in the archaic and obscure law tract on the privileges and responsibilities of poets, part of the Brethna Nemed tract. [Gwynn 1942, pp. 1-60, 220-36].


By 800 AD the province of Leinster, arguably the most powerful early province, was dominated by two great dynasties, the Ui Dunlainge to the north and the Ui Cennselaig to the south. Early records however, show these were only the latest to emerge after the chaotic fifth and sixth centuries. The earliest references in the annals refer to a prior supremacy of the Dal Messin Corb, and their allies the Ui Garrchon. These gave way to the Ui Mail (giving name to Wicklow's Glen of Imaal) and then Ui Failgi (giving their name to Offaly) Aed mac Colggen was the last Ui Ceannselaig to rule Leinster until the revival of their power in the eleventh century. The Ui Dunlaing controlled the kingship from AD 738 to AD 1042. Four sons of Murchad Broen Mut produced lineages which alternated in the kingship.


Sources for Munster are not nearly as numerous or reliable as that of Leinster. Early Munster was dominated by a group of families known as Eoganachta. There were also the Muscraige. The collection known as the Annals of Inishfallen originate in Munster. "The 'synthetic historians' of later centuries present groups like the Muscraige, Ciarraige, Corcu Baiscind, Corcu Duibne, and Fir Maige Fene as vassal people of the Eoganachta, connecting them by genealogical fictions to the dominant dynasty of their own times. Lack of evidence makes it well nigh impossible to tease out the earlier position, even of the Eoganachta, for between the death-notice of Oengus mac Nad Fraich - ancestor of most of the Eoganachta - in AD490, and that of his grandson Coirpre in AD580, the Munster annals are a complete blank." [58] The eighth century saw the rise of the In Deis Tuaiscirt (later known as the Dal Cais).


The kingdom of Connaught gains its name from the Connachta, an early people, of whom the Ui Neill were ultimately descended. It is the only province that does not appear to have had a tradition of over-kingship. "There is an early law tract which states that 'he is no highest king (ollam) who does not magnify the Fifth of Ailill mac Mata'; comparison may be made with the Munster claim 'ollam uas rigaib ri Caisil.' Unfortunately, the genealogies make clear that Ailill was in fact a Leinsterman by birth, whose name mac Mata shows that he was named after his mother, a Connaught woman who married into Leinster. Hence Ailill's claim to the Connaught throne was from the distaff side (mathre). [59-60] Early annal entries talk of the king's efforts to ward off the encroachments of the Ui Neill.

Before AD600 there are only a few names and it is not until the eighth century that we see the emergence of the Ui Briuin as the most powerful political group. The rival Ui Fiachrach were of north Connaught and we see their names in some of the regnal liits. By the second half of the seventh century the Ui Briuin dominated. Cenn Faelad mac Colgen is called 'rex Connaught' by the annals, maybe the first serious claimant for overlord. Other kings include Guaire mac Colmain of the Ui Fiachrach Aidne. There were small tribes that retained some of their earlier power. Tirechan's account of the genealogies and annals indicates that norther County Leitrim, before the occupation of the Ui Briuin Breifne, was Calraige territory. The Book of Armagh has a tract on the hereditary succession to the monastery of Druim Leas (Drumlease) showing the Calraige to be rulers there in the seventh century. Also mentioned by Tirechnan are the Ui Maine, who had spread through all of east Galway, and Roscommon. Ui Maine kings were buried at the monastery at Clonmacnois. By the eigth century the Ui Briuin had complete control, making Connaught a strong national power.

Family history under ancient Irish law


Rawl.B 502 (Late 12th century)

The Book of Leinster (Late 12th century)

B.B (Late 10th century)

The Book of Lecan (Late 10th century)

Laud 610 (Late 10th century)

Ancient Laws of Ireland (6 vols, Dublin, 1865-1901)

The Annals of Ulster (to AC1131) (Dublin, 1983): Sean Mac Airt and Gearoid Mac Niocaill (eds).

  • Annals of the Four Masters, John O'Donovan (ed.) Annala Rioghachta Eireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (7 vols Dublin, 1856).
  • Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon law


    Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. Vol. I. Michael O' Brien. Dublin : Institute for Advanced Studies. Pp vii, 1-764. (1962) This masterwork contains all important Irish pedigrees and genealogical material from the earliest literary period down to c. 1500 A.D.

    Outline of Genealogiarum Hiberniae, from Kelleher, , p. 140 - 142


    The Laigin book (Book of Leinster)--chiefly genealogies of Laigin and Ui Ceinselaig, plus those of the Osraige, the Fothairt who were genealogically related to Dal Cuinn but reside in Leinster, the Loiches who were of Sil Ir, and some minor non-Laigin tribes.

    The Dal Cuinn book--genealogies of Ui Neill, Airgialla, Connachta, and Deisi Breg, plus non-Dal Cuinn or non-Sil Eremoin tribes living in Dal Cuinn territory : e.g. Conaille, Ciannachta, Delbna, Luigne, Gailenga. Also an acephalous tract, pp 117-28, on the kings of Ireland before and after Patrick (L.L. 14b-26b), which is the normal sequel to Lebor Gabala. It is significant that Ui Neill genealogies account for only 14 pages of the space taken up by the Dal Cuinn book.


    Eoganachta--pp 192--206, 208--34.

    >Dal Cais--pp 206--8 [De Raind Erenn, a tract on Dal Cais claims], 235-45.
    Clann Ebir I lLeith Cuind--pp 246--9. Ciannachta, Gailenga, etc.


    Corcu Loigde.

    Tract on na Fothaid ; Uaithne.

    SIL IR

    In this section the chief theme is that the tru Ulaid (fir Ulaid) are Dal nAraide and Ui Echach Coba, and this is particularly set forth in the tracts that begin the section, which recount the senchus of Sil Ir, the Ulaid kings of Ireland, the kings of Emain Macha, etc. Also of Sil Irthe Ciarraige, Corco mdruad, Conmaicne, and Ulaid. In the corpus the historical Ulaid are closely related to the Erainn and both are attached to the ancestral line of Dal Cuinn at Oengus Turbech Temrach, 19 generations before the Cetchathach. However, not much attention is paid to Dal Fiatach in Rawl. B 502. Pedigrees of the kings of Alba (Scottish Dal Riada). Na Fomuire.

    There follows material in the Book of Leinster that is either independent of Rawl. B 502 or offers a distinctly different reading:
    - Laigin
    - Another version of the tract on harmonizing the genealogies
    - Munster regnal list
    - Munster, general
    - Tract on the battle of Crinna
    - Dal Fiatach (Ulaid as belonging to Sil Eremoin
    - Airgialla
    - Mixed pedigrees


    The Pre-Norman Irish Genealogies. John V. Kelleher. Irish Historical Studies. Vol. XVI No. 62 September 1968.


    Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon law Families of the Filidh Links to information on the Irish families who carried out the traditional duties of the filidh in ancient Irish society.

    Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon lawUasal A collection of links on Irish Gaelic Nobility

    Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon lawAll the Irish Records Were Destroyed Reprint of the article in Volume 1, issue 2 of THE IRISH At Home and Abroad. This article discusses the myth and erroneous rumors concerning the state of Irish record sources. The article details major record types which were destroyed in the Public Record Office in 1922 and shows what was not deposited at the time of the fire.

    Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon law Eoghanacht Genealogies A written record of the genealogy of the Eoghanachts from The Book of Munster.

    Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon law The National Archives of Ireland-Research Guides The National Archives of Ireland holds many of the records which are relevant to Irish genealogy and family history. These pages are intended as a guide to the resources of the National Archives of Ireland for members of the public who are beginning a search on the history of their family.

    Genealogy of Ireland under Brehon law

    by Deb Christianson and Vincent Salafia

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