Tribes (Then and Now)

One of the aspects I delve into a little deeper with the book Liath Luachra: The Seeking (and the entire series, in fact) is around the workings of ‘tribes’, at least in terms of how they related to ancient Ireland.

The concept of ‘tribe’ (tuathor treibh in Irish) is one that most westerners are familiar with on an intellectual level. Due to the individualised, ‘nation’-based societies in which the vast majority of us now live in however, we don’t really have a practical understanding of how tribal systems function or how they influence human interaction or behaviour.

If you look up a definition of ‘tribe’ from the usual sources, most English-based dictionaries will usually define it in the form of ‘a human population’ that has the basic elements of:

  • a common ancestry; and
  • a common/homogenous culture

Which is a bit simplistic, to be honest.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty fundamental for people to come together. And that’s not only for social interaction but for the purpose of survival in threatening or trying circumstances. When it comes to human beings, the established truth is that, over the longer term, groups of people tend to operate (and survive) far more effectively than individuals, particularly where there’s an established interdependency between their members. That’s summed up quite nicely by the old Gaelic saying:

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile’

It’s in the shadow of one another that people endure.

In ancient Ireland, where the population was substantially smaller than it is today, the most natural groupings would have been those based on familial bonds. Like all families however, those relationships were dynamic in that once groups reached a certain size (and the interdependency or internal bonds between people weakened), members would have ‘moved out’, splitting away from the larger group to form ‘sub-tribes’, some eventually growing large enough to be recognised by others as tribes in their own right. Certain tribes of course, would have gone the opposite way, combining with other tribes to form much larger tribal confederations.

One aspect of tribal life that many modern – particularly western – definitions tend to overlook, is the importance of a common geographical territory or ‘homeland’ in which tribes operate and over which they hold authority (even nomadic tribes have established routes they follow). This element is important as land ‘roots’ the society living on it. Basically, that means that over a long period of occupation, people establish very strong interactions with – and connections to – the land, connections that strengthen tribal identity. This is one of the reasons, tribal identity tends to be far stronger and encourages far greater loyalty than ‘national’ identity’.

Losing authority or control over a territory (as expressed through a tribe’s continued occupation or presence on it) – would have had a deleterious effect in that it separated tribal members from their established cultural history and stories – critical factors of identity (and probably linked to the reasons many westerners grapple with their own sense of ‘belonging’).

Unfortunately, even today, many western nations struggle to understand tribal models as they don’t fit neatly into their paradigm and/or governance systems. Some western governments, seeing them as something that doesn’t concur with their concept of ‘nationhood’, simply don’t want to.

And that’s a loss for everyone.

Irish Tribes and The Iron Age

Ireland’s Iron Age (600 BC to 400 AD) is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic periods of Irish history which is why – I guess –  it’s always appealed to me. In many ways the period is a blank canvas. We know very little about it and the limited snippets of information we do have are tantalizingly vague and easy to interpret in a multitude of different ways.

A key part of the problem is that there are no documents or records for this period that have been written by Irish hands (the skill of writing wasn’t introduced to Ireland until the fifth century with the arrival of Christianity). There’s also a dearth of archaeological evidence linked to that period. This latter is particularly striking when you consider the fact that millennia before, thriving communities existed who not only carried out extensive dairy and cereal farming but constructed complex and well-designed stone structures as well. The Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth for example, were built around 3200 BC. The extensive dairy farms at the amazing Céide Fields, are almost 6,000 years old.

For this reason, there’s always been a sense in some Irish historical circles that human activity subsided or stagnated over the Iron Age. To be fair, this is confirmed to a degree through pollen analysis which shows evidence of substantial forest regeneration (i.e. lands that had been cleared for farming purposes were simply left grow wild again) over this period. Some historians refer to the Iron Age as the ‘Irish Dark Ages’. One Irish archaeologist (Barry Raftery) described the population of this time period as ‘the Invisible People’ because of the scarcity of archaeological evidence of their existence.

Numerous theories have abounded for this decline in human activity and these range from climate change to natural catastrophes (e.g. Icelandic volcanos) to plague and warfare. This truth is that no-one really knows for certain. What we do know however, is that human activity picked up and recovered dramatically in the third and fourth centuries. In general, this recovery is usually attributed to the influence of the increasingly wealthy Roman Britain which provided a great source of trade, knowledge transfer (and booty and slaves for Irish raiders)

As you’ve probably guessed, given the above, very little is known about Irish tribes before the fifth century. Again, we do have some clues – the earliest source of tribal information is a map compiled by Ptolemy (a Graeco-Roman who lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century AD.). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to reconcile the tribes identified in Ptolemy’s map with those identified in later records. Some of the names are teasingly familiar; the Brigantes, for example, might be related to a tribe known to have been living in what is now northern/ midland Britain and another tribe mentioned – the Manapii – are potentially linked to the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul. Other tribes Ptolemy mentions however, have disappeared completely from history, fallen out of time never to be heard of again.

When writing a narrative set in Ireland’s Iron Age, such information – or rather such ambiguity – is absolute gold dust in terms of inspiration. It’s essentially the equivalent of being given an outline of a mysterious and fantastic world with specific detail for some elements and absolute free rein for others. When I write the Fionn mac Cumhal series, for example, I tend to use a lot of reference books (historical, archaeological, language mostly) to give parameters such as culture, topography, belief systems and so on, an authentic flavour but in terms of activity, characters and action, that world is my oyster.

As a writer/historian, it really doesn’t get better than that.