O'Connell Street, Dublin, Ireland

O'Connell Street, Dublin, Ireland

The Land of Ireland

Ownership of the Land of Ireland from the earliest times to the present day.

Lismore Castle is one  of many buildings that can be used to illustrate the whole history of land ownership in Ireland. 

  • The Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) people fished in the river and hunted in the forests between 8000 and 4000 BCE but did not take ownership of the land. 
  • Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers arrived in a time of global-warming, around 4000 BCE, which, like today, brought a flood of migration from the south and the east. DNA evidence now indicates that this population originated in the Middle East, though they may not have come directly from there.
  • The Neolithic farmers felled trees to make farmland, of which they took ownership. These were traders as well as farmers and, as the centuries passed, imported new technologies from Europe. DNA suggests a Bronze-age influx of people from the steppes of Eastern Europe.
  • The Irish Genome is a combination of the original Western Mesolithic, Middle Eastern Neolithic and East European Bronze-age, with subsequent foreign mix. The Mesolithic is most pronounced in the Irish Traveler ethnic group. 
  • The late Bronze Age (which Archaeologists call Ireland's "First Golden Age") saw a society emerging which had disparities of wealth, giving rise, perhaps, to  violence. This is evidenced in the hoards of golden objects found around the country and the building of defensive Ring-forts.  However, most of the ring-forts were built as impressive residences rather than defensive structures.
  • Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and, in the sixth century St Mocuda, also known as Carthage (Cartac), established a monastery here. (Remember that "h" as a mark of aspiration arose in later versions of Irish and that Old Irish words, as in Ogham, gave no indication as to whether a consonant was aspirated or natural. Most consonants in the middle or at the end of words were aspirated, so pronounce "Mocuda" as "Mo-hua" and "Cartac" as "Carr-hagh").
  • Lismore Abbey was a centre of prosperity, and Henry II stayed here on his visit to Ireland in 1171. All the Irish leaders submitted to Henry.  His son, John, (who later succeeded Henry as King of England) built a "Castellum" (a defensive tower) on the site to watch over the river. 
  • Lismore Abbey became the palace of the Bishops of Lismore, until the diocese was united with Waterford in 1365. 
  • Then it became the residence of the Earls of Desmond, Norman Fitzgeralds who had become as Irish as the Irish themselves. 
  • Henry VIII took a surrender of their lands from the Fitzgeralds and all the other Irish leaders and re-granted the land back as his Vassals. 
  • The 15th Earl had an altercation with Elizabeth I, and she forfeited his land. She granted the towns and lands of Youghal and Lismore to Walter Raleigh, who had given valiant service in suppressing the Desmond revolt, and also made him a knight. 
  • Sir Walter Raleigh converted the place into a proper English residence, with walled gardens and all, and then sold it to Richard Boyle, who had come to  Ireland with £27 in his pocket, but made good putting Irish rebels down, and became first Earl of Cork, and a very wealthy man.
  • Robert, son of Richard Boyle, was a famous scientist and the father of chemistry, and gives his name to "Boyle's  Law."
  • The Boyles' heiress  married into  the family of the Duke of Devonshire and the Castle became part of the estate of the Duke of Devonshire, and remains the Duke's Irish Residence.


A record of the Duke of Devonshire's English land  in the 1872 land list, the last such list.

A Summary of this talk

A picture on display in Lough Boora Forest Park visitors' centre. The Mesolithic people were black-haired, dark skinned, blue-eyed (from study of DNA fragments by Prof Dan Bradley). They were short of stature, and ate fish, duck, goose, deer, pig, small mammals, eggs, berries, plants, hazel-nuts. They built no permanent structures, so left very little trace. Mesolithic sites are found by chance, as when the Boora Bog was cut out and 6,000 year old traces found under the bog.

Beside Strand Hill in County Sligo, we find a number of Middens, collection of shells left by the Mesolithic people. These are mostly Oyster shells, but other shell-fish also occur. They harvested the shellfish and ate them on the shore nearby. Perhaps they went inland during the Winter and stayed by the sea in the Summer months.

The Mesolithic artifacts found at Lough Boora are stones shaped to be used as tools, blades, scrapers, arrow-heads, spear-heads and axe-heads. Any timber, bone or antler tools have decayed.

We get a better sense of the Mesolithic technology from countries where Stone Age cultures survived until the 20th century. In Australia, most of the weapons and tools were made of timber, a minority of them having the stone additions. Wooden implements could be sharpened, and edges serrated. The island people also used shark teeth to make swords and cutting knives. The head-hunters of the Torres Straits used knives made out of bamboo, with serrated edges, to cut off the heads of their victims.

Aboriginal and Mesolithic people rarely wore clothes, except when the weather was cold. Here we have an old photo of warriors in Queensland, Australia. You would not get such a photo now, as Native Australians have become accustomed to clothes. The second picture is a Roman representation of the Picts of Scotland. In the 6th century AD, they were still naked. It is likely that our Mesolithic predecessors also went naked in Summer, but used clothes in the cooler months.
There is a saying in North Australia (mentioned in the film Ten Canoes depicted in the film embedded here) that a man who hides his penis can't be trusted, a different sentiment than the current view.



Ten Canoes: an exposition of Paleolithic/ Mesolithic culture.


A Summary of what we know about the Mesolithic people. When the neolithic people arrived, there is not much sign of conflict between the two ethnic groups, but diseases brought in by the farmers decimated the numbers of the hunter-gatherers. In time, the numbers recuperated. Some of the hunters merged with the farmers, but others retained their "wild" culture, living  in the  woods and wild places, and becoming known as "Fianna" or Wild Ones.

Farmers in Céide, prodding the bog looking for bog-oak, found that there were walls under the bog. The area became an archaeological site and the first picture here shows white lines marking out the position of the walls under the bog. We find farms and homesteads (relics of rectangular clay and wattle buildings) as well as burial sites. There are no defensive structures like castles or ring-forts, so it looks like an egalitarian division of land. However, Knocknarea, not too far away, and probably developed in the same era, has remnants of a two-meter high clay fence around the top (2 kilometer long), and within this walled area, a great mound of stone, second only in size to Newgrange in County Meath, as well as multiple caves in which burials took place and a number of megalithic tombs within the enclosure. All this adds up to the fact that the Mesolithic people were organised and had leaders and craftspeople. As well as being farmers, they had traders among them and continued to trade with other lands.

A summary of the information about the Neolithic Settlors.

It was global warming that brought the wave of neolithic migrants. Two hundred years after the Céide Fields were developed, the climate became cooler and wetter. Agriculture failed on the Céide Fields, the people abandoned the area; sphagnum moss grew over the fields and the present bogs began to grow. The megalithic culture (building of large monuments) ended. There was probably an amount of emigration. There was a later resurgence, heralding in the Bronze Age and later the Iron Age.

In the view of some, human evolution reached its zenith with the Hunter-gatherers and their Paleolithic Diet. At any rate, their culture of spears and arrows made them more fitted for battle when the need arose, than the daily drudgery of the small farmers.

A summary of the likely attributes of the Fianna. 

Nomadic people fail to take ownership of the land, and are, consequently displaced and disenfranchised. This picture shows Masai of Kenya/ Tanzania dramatising a lion-kill. They are no longer allowed to kill lions, as they roam across the National Parks. If lions take their cattle or goats, they are not allowed to retaliate, nor are they compensated. The word "Nairobi" means "Clear Spring," and this was one a watering hole of the Masai. When a railway was built to Mombasa, a railway store was opened beside this spring. Soon houses and shops sprang up beside the store, followed by a school and a church. In 50 years the settlement had grown into a city, and the capital of Kenya. Since the Masai never claimed ownership of this land, now worth billions, they never got compensation, simply displaced. At present, their independence is being constantly eroded.



The Seminole Indians escaped defeat in the American Indian Wars by fleeing to Florida, where they lived in the swamps. In 1957, one branch of the  tribe signed a treaty with the American Government and were given Reservation Lands in Florida.  Natural traders, free from Federal tobacco and gambling laws, they made the most of this freedom. In 1979, under their half-Irish chief James Billie, they opened a casino, and never looked back. (Chief Jim Billie was also an entertainer, as can be seen in this embedded video, where he tells a bit of his life-story and sings a song he composed about Big Alligator).




James Billie retired as chief in 2016, and is now helping other tribes to make the most of opportunities of growing and trading legal marijuana. All members of the Seminole tribe (i.e., anybody who can show descent from one of the signatories of the 1957 treaty) are share-holders, and millionaires. The point is that this could be a template for other ethnic groups to take ownership of their destiny.

The late Bronze Age saw the burial of collections of gold objects, all over the country, and is called "The First Golden Age of Ireland." Why were these hoards buried? One explanation is for safe-keeping. Gold hoards and Ring-forts seem to indicate that there was now violence in society, probably due to accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few coupled with impoverishment of the many. A more recent explanation is the Weather  - Again! It looks like there was a disastrous period in which crops failed. What good was all your gold, if you had nothing to eat? You offered your hoard of gold to the gods and begged for sun-shine so that crops could grow again. When the weather improved, we headed towards the iron age, and a cattle and sheep economy.

Here is a ring-fort in County Kerry, but it was not built merely as a defensive structure. This site was a bronze smelter and factory. So ring-forts were used for many purposes.

A  ring-fort of the Iron Age in County Waterford. This one is nothing more than a stockade for animals. Actually, if you were developing a site, and you came across rocks and boulders that you needed to clear, what would you do? Well, you might build them into a wall around the site, or into a pile of rocks, or ... into a corral for your animals.
So: some ring-forts were built for defensive purposes, but most were built for other purposes. In general, a king, or man of wealth, would build as grand a residence as he could to impress society with his greatness. From the Bronze Age right up to Christian times, the Ring-fort was the structure of choice to hold the residences of the extended family.

So, who was the king? The king was chosen to be the leader of the group. Initially, (s)he would be the person with leadership skills, who could lead the people to their new land and take control of the clearing of the trees and the development of the site. In later generations, the druids had a powerful input into the selection of kings, using magical ceremonies to impress on the public the validity of their choice. When Christianity arrived, the druids lost their power. Henceforth, the king was chosen by vote of those who were the true-kin of the last king, i.e., all the male descendants of the grandfather of the king. A king had to be of sound mind and body, in order to be able to carry out his duties, and, if not, could be removed. To be able to focus on leadership, he should not engage in farming or menial tasks. He should have a retinue of legal and scholarly advisers (and a harpist to make music). Every kingdom, called "Tuath" had separate land set aside for the king and his retinue. The king could also have personal land. This land was let to tenants who did the actual farming, and paid rent to the king and his retinue. 

"Tuath" means "people" or "nation" and is a word found in other Indo-European languages, such as "toudo" in Gallicia in Spain. When the Tuatha Dé of the legend defeated the Fir Bolg, they had the distasteful task of dividing the whole country of Ireland into Tuatha, so that the country could be properly governed. Whatever the truth of the legend, we find the country divided, from Ancient Times, into about 300 such kingdoms.
Each Tuath was notionally a Triocha Céad (Thirty Hundred), i.e., a hundred households of thirty persons per household. Two or three Thirty Hundreds could  combine to form a single Tuath, so,  with 300 historical Tuatha, there must have been a population of between One Million and Two Million in the Country. New units, of course,  grew up with the development of the cities, and these became additional Tuatha.
When the Normans arrived, the English word "Barony," i.e., a unit of land owned by a Baron, replaced the word Tuath, but the divisions remained largely intact, especially in the West of the country.

Baronies (formerly Tuatha) of North Connacht.

The king of a Tuath would, for safety and protection, align with a regional king to whom he would pay an annual tribute. This was not a feudal system, and he might make a different alliance if it suited him to change (though this would not happen very often, except in volatile times). While differences and strife were always present between neighbouring kingdoms, for most of the millennia, the system was stable.

The provinces at the beginning of the Viking period.

People could buy and sell land. In the course of the centuries, the large land-owners increased their holdings and most of the population became tenants. There were two types of  tenant: a "free" tenant who rented the land, but owned his own cattle, and an "un-free" tenant, who rented both the land and the cattle.

So Here is the set-up. There was land set aside for the king. There were large land-owners, with tenants. If a man had more than ten tenants he was a "Flaith," which translates as "Prince." Land could be owned by individuals or by a group of people in common. Some land, particularly in the west of Ireland, was owned by a Kinship Group. The clan would live together at the centre of this land, where individuals would own their own fields for tillage, while sharing the grazing on the outlying land. The head of the clan ("Ceann Fine") had a power to re-distribute the tilled land, depending on the needs of the individuals (e.g., a single, aging man with no children would be considered to be in less need of land than a young married man with a family). How do we know who is the owner of any piece of land? Ownership was a matter of local knowledge, and the title history was committed to memory in the "Dinn Seanchas," or land-lore. The Brehon (or judge) of a Tuath would have a particular responsibility to record in his brain the owners of land.


The Christian scribes brought Latin writing to Ireland, but in the initial years they were only concerned with writing the religious texts. By the 8th Century they had started to record the oral tradition (influenced, however, by their new world view). The entire corpus of the Brehon Law was eventually recorded in writing. Comprised of verse and cryptic, memorable sayings for accuracy of recall, the language in which it was recorded was already archaic by the 8th century, but copious annotations in the current lingo were added.
In general, the ownership of land was still held in human memory, but the Church and the Monasteries took care to have their title deeds recorded in writing.




Henry divided England between ten or so great land-owners, or Earls, who subdivided between their own vassals. It was a case of ruling through land-ownership, and the people who actually worked the land were considered to be serfs with no  rights.





























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