[from W Ralph Hall Caine Isle of Man]
THE inhabitants were divided into distinct groups, tribes, or clans, with a chief reigning over each group or clan.
We ire led to suppose that we had a King over all, about whose person there was a grade of nobles, whose business it was to put into execution the will of their sovereign master. Nobles, growing in influence, became something better than mere lackeys, and developed into counsellors, permitted to tender opinion and advice.
Next below was a grade of chiefs, formed in part, no doubt, out of the grade next above them. Every chief or elder had control of the vital affairs of all the people claiming allegiance to his clan.
A chief had immense powers, and all beneath his sway were held in a process more or less difficult to discriminate from actual servitude. Nominally, the arable land on which a clan was settled belonged to those of the higher status of freemen. It was not owned by them separately, but as a community, and at stated periods there was a redivision. Conditions were imposed that correspond to our ideas of a rental. Return was made in dues in some form, usually service in war, or a sharing of produce or cattle.
Pasture-land, however, whether in the lowlands, amidst the homes of the people, or on the mountainside, was held and farmed by the community as a whole; no tenant of arable land being entitled to graze more cattle than corresponded to the area of the land he held in tillage.
Servile dependents there were of lower grade, bond-servants without land. Neither did they escape the exactions of their chief or the levies of their King. The privilege to live was granted to these poor souls when they made humble obeisance to their ruler and protector, and accompanied their submission by such delectable contributions to his table as wild honey or milk, or such other gifts as lay within their slender means.
Dependents of every rank and station seem to have been subjected to a further pruning process, a kind of enforced hospitality called ' coshering.' By it they were required to feed and entertain, as occasion offered, their lord, with his wives, his sons, and his daughters. ' All the King's horses and all the King's men' came within the pale of privileged guests.
Life had a brighter side, and the Celtic people found delight and relief in tales of gods and men, stories of wonder-workers in other lands, legends of fairies and giants and mermaids. Clefts in the mountain-side, caves by the sea, and even the unfathomed depths of the sea itself, were all peopled by those jugglers with human fancy who made story-telling an occupation and a livelihood.
Men and women dressed very much alike. Those men who had attained some status wore the lenn, a loose-fitting kind of old-fashioned nightshirt. It was made of coarse woollen cloth, extended to the knees. Over the lenn was worn a tunic or bolero bound at the waist by a cryss, or richly-coloured girdle. The legs would be bare the feet covered with tanned hide.
The lady wore her lenn down nearly to her feet She had rings for her fingers, and necklets, some times of gold. Like her spouse, she took immense pains with her hair. While it was the man's vanity zealously to comb his hair and entice it to form long ringlets, to wear his beard long and twirl it into what we should regard as grotesque pleatings, it was his mistress's pleasure to give her rich tresses a brighter sheen by judicious applications of cream, scented with herbs.
She combed and plaited her hair; she heightened the colour and the arch of her eyebrows with chalks and charcoal; she tinted her finger-nails with crimson clays; and, if she had no mantilla to weave into graceful folds and hold admiration captive, she soon learned, from her spiritual advisers from Ireland, the coy uses to which a long flowing cloak could be turned, particularly the cochull, or cowlish hood, from which just so much of gleaming eye or saucy lips might be revealed as pleased her fancy or her whim.
On occasions of high festival the people repaired to some venerated mound or shrine to hear the pleasure of their Prince.
The time came, however, when the people murmured among themselves against wars of conquest or revenge, or dues they deemed oppressive. That murmur became a voice, the voice an opposition, the opposition a force that had to be recognized, and, in the hour of national peril, reconciled.
Thus was evolved on the lilliputian stage of Man a feature that practically belongs to all Celtic communities, our treasured rights of being heard in open Parliament in the open air, face to face with the King or lord over all in person.
That right is still a cherished piece of symbolism in our midst. In the passage of centuries it has bred into the bone and sinew of the race an eagerness no less than a capacity intelligently to weigh any question agitating the public mind. The critical spirit is carried to such lengths that now-adays it seems to lose itself almost in positive antagonism to every proposal open to the wit of man.
What the Scotsman has given through long generations to endless wrangling over the subtleties of dogma and creed, expanding the mind, but too often choking the heart, in the process, we, on our small, poor, bare, wind-swept island, when the battle for the harvest of the sea and the fruits of the earth was done, have given to practical considerations belonging to the life that now is.
In early Celtic days this gathering of the people was probably nothing better than a great fair, at which racing and music and story-telling were part of the amusements. And even at a later period it is doubtful if any serious effort was made to discriminate between judicial and legislative business. Both were features still far from definite classification.
The law was part of the province of the chief. But he grew big and lazy with rich living and absence from the wars, fat with the milk and honey tendered by his dependents, or the barley cakes and strong ale from his own store. He had almost all that this world could give-a snug corner in which to rest, a downy couch on which to sleep, wives to anticipate every want, maids to stand and wait, sons to guard zealously his prerogative. What a bewilderment it was to him, good soul, that people could not live and work in peace!
In this wise a newrace of beings arose, out of which the modern, lawyer or judge has been, in a sense, evolved. To such a one was committed the task of examining the merits of a dispute and arbitrating thereon. The office was hereditary, it being an apparent assumption that intelligence was a quality subject to a testamentary bestowal. He did not take sides. In his deliberations he acted for both parties and was judge and jury combined. We called him the Briw.
The judge under Brehonic law, following upon still more ancient Roman and Teutonic precedents, had no power to execute judgement. Authority stood aloof. Family or group inflicted punishment upon its neighbour according to its strength and standard of justice, pillage and murder being natural and integral parts of the procedure of exacting reparation.