The Fairs of Early Irish Society
The óenach, sometimes translated as “Fair”, was an important regular feature of early Irish society. There were several kinds of public gathering, including slógadh, “hosting”, where a lord would gather his able tennants for military activity, and airecht, “court”, which was a gathering of freemen for legal purposes. But the óenach is perhaps the most celebrated and comprehensive gathering, and an integral part of life in early Irish society.
Hogan, when discussing the óenach at Carman, describes it as “a Grand Council, of their Sub-Kings and Chiefs — an exhibition, a cattle-show, a fair and races”; and Kelly describes óenachs as “regular gatherings for political, social and perhaps commercial transactions”. It was at an óenach that a cáirde, “treaty”, was formalised between túaithe.
Túath has been translated most often as “tribe” by older scholars, and “petty kingdom” more recently. It was the smallest independent political unit in early Irish society, and it has been estimated that there were around 150 túaithe, averaging 3000 people each, on the island of Ireland between the 5th and 9th centuries. [In 2011, Carrick on Shannon, my home-town, had a population of nearly 4,000, and nearby Boyle had just under 3,000]. A túath had to have its own king, an éicne, “ecclesiastical scholar”, a churchman and a file, “poet”. The people of the túath only had legal rights and protection within their own túath, with only poets, clerics and kings having free movement between túaithe. Ordinary folk might get some protection in strange territories if their túath had made a cáirde, “treaty”, with another túath – and they would learn of such agreements at the óenach.
There are many óenachs mentioned in the sagas, annals and dindshenchas texts. The most important, or at least most mentioned, were those at Emain Macha, (Navan Fort, Co. Armagh), and at Tailteann, (Telltown, Co. Meath). The óenach at Tailteann was under the auspices of the king at Temair, (Tara), and hosted games to rival the ancient Olympics.
While Emain Macha was central to Ulster, and Tailteann was in the realm of Meath (the middle province of Ireland, now largely absorbed into Leinster), the great óenach for the Leinster túaithe was held at Lugnasad (beginning of August) every three years at Carman. There has been some dispute over the location of Carman, with 19th century scholars such as O’Curry equating it with Wexford (Loch Garmann). Hogan discusses this at length in his Onamasticon Goidelicum, putting forward his preference for placing Carman around Carlow town and Mullaghmast, bounded by the rivers Burren and Barrow.
The Metrical Dindshenchas (Vol 3) contains an 81-stanza (324-line) poem on the óenach at Carmun. In fact only stanzas 7 to 20 contain the dindshenchas; the story of how Carmun was named. Stanzas 21 to 25 recount the length of time since the óenach began, in terms of the reigns of kings. The rest of the poem deals in turn with:
- the status of the fair, expressed through the pledges or guarantors of the óenach;
- the frequency and total number of óenachs held;
- who is expected to attend the óenach;
- the 7-day programme of the óenach;
- the seating of the various regional kings at the óenach, expressing their relative status;
- the activities at the óenach;
- the prohibitions of the óenach – things not done;
- the privileges of the óenach – special events and activities;
- how the óenach is concluded.
The poem briefly returns to the dindshenchas element, before describing the penalties for neglect of the óenach, and a short prayer to end the poem.
The level of detail in describing the activities of this óenach gives an insight into the scope of business conducted at óenachs in general.
Carmun is said to have 7 distinct days, each reserved for a different group of people and activities:
Day 1 – na náeb, “holy people”
Day 2 – ardrg, “high kings”
Day 3 – Cluche ban Lagen, “games of the Leinster women”
Day 4 – the Laigin and the Fothairt, two powerful Leinster kin-groups
Day 5 – rígdam sruthi, “royal elders” [?]
Day 6 – slúaig hÉrend, “hosts of Ireland” i.e. the rest of the kin groups, besides the Laigin and Fothart groups.
Day 7 – Carmun games hosted by Clann Condla
So various groups had their own dedicated day at the óenach for conducting their business. Indeed, one of the prohibitions listed is that men will not go into the assembly of women (day 3) and vice versa (presumably every other day). But what was the business conducted? This is how the poem describes it:
Stanza 54 [line 213] ff
And luaitís fri bága bil
There they would speak in verbal battles
certa ocus cána in cóicid,
the rights and obligations of the province,
cech recht ríagla co rogor
every legal enactment hotly
cech tress blíadna a chórogod.
every third year it was put in order.
Ith, blicht, síth, sáma sona,
Corn, milk, peace, happy ease,
lína lána, lerthola,
full nets, ocean’s plenty,
fir ríglaich, co combáid cind
royal laymen, in alliance with chiefs,
dirmaig forráin for hÉrind.
[their] many troops victorious over [the rest of] Ireland.
From these stanzas, we get a glimpse of the main functions of an óenach: discussion and promulgation of laws and taxation, ennumeration of material wealth (i.e. corn, milk etc.) and the formation and deployment of political alliances and military activity. However, these are conducted in a proper manner; such things as sueing, quarrelling and satirising are forbidden within the óenach.
The óenach was also a great occasion for sport, entertainment, drunkenness and lechery; evidence for the last demonstrated by the strict prohibition of elopement and extra-marital affairs at Carmun. But there was probably no escaping a certain degree of debauchery: the festive atmosphere was powerful.
The section of this poem dealing with the ada oll, “great customs”, of Carmun is particularly interesting, as it contains lists, commonly cited throughout Irish literature, of the great story cycles and tale-types. For example, the poem mentions tána, “cattle-raids”, which is the category in which we find stories such as the Táin Bó Culainge, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, and Táin Bó Fraoch. So we can infer from these lists that many stories and sagas would have been told at the óenach. I have underlined the Irish terms which refer to these types or categories.
The customs (Gwynn translates this as “privileges”) of Carmun are described as follows:
Stanza 59 [line 232] ff:
Is iat a ada olla
These are the [óenach’s] great customs:
stuic, cruitti, cuirn chróes-tholla,
trumpets, harps [recte: lutes], hollow-throated horns,
cúisig, timpaig cen tríamna,
pipers, tireless timpanists,
filid, ocus fáen-chlíara.
poets and meek [?] musicians.
Fian-shruth Find, fáth cen dochta,
The Fenian cycle [stories of Find McUmaill], a matter inexhaustible,
togla, tána, tochmorca,
destructions, cattle-raids, wooings,
slisnige, is dúle feda,
riddles [?], and lists of [Ogam] letters,
áera, rúne romera.
satires, keen mysteries:
Ároisc roscada ríagail,
The proverbial “rosc”-verses of law
‘s tecusca fíra Fithail,
and truthful teachings of Fithal, ‘[i.e. the text known as “Findshruth Fithail”]
dubláidi dindshenchais dait,
dark poems of the Dindshenchas for you,
tecusca Cairpri is Chormaic.
teachings of Cairpre and Cormac; [again, cf. the text known as “Tecosca Cormaic”]
Na fessa im fheis truim Temra,
The feasts, including the mighty Feast of Tara,
óenaige im óenach Emna,
the fairs, including the Fair of Emain;
annálad and, is fír so,
annals there – this is true –
cach rand rorannad Héreo.
every division into which Ireland has been divided:
Scél tellaig Temra, nach timm,
The tale of the household of Tara – that is not scanty –
fis cech trichat in hÉrind,
the knowledge of every county [lit; thirtieth] in Erin,
banshenchas, buidne, bága,
the history of women, tales of armies, battles,
bruidne, gessi, gabála.
hostels, magical prohibitions, invasions:
Deich-thimna Catháir chétaig
The ten command[ment]s of hundreded Cathair
dia chlaind racháim ríg-métaig
to his greatly pleasant kingly descendants:
foirb cech duine mar as dlecht
gives to each person what they are entitled,
co mbet uile ‘ca éistecht. E.
so that all may listen to it. Listen!
Pípai, fidli, fir cengail,
Pipes, fiddles, petitioning poets, [Gwynn: gleemen]
cnámfhir ocus cuslennaig,
bones-players and bag-pipers,
sluag étig engach égair,
an unnatural crowd, a seething array;
béccaig ocus búridaig.
shriekers and shouters.
Turcbait a fedma uile
All raise up their efforts
do ríg Berba bruthmaire:
for the King of seething Berba:
conérne in rí rán fri mess
the noble and honoured king pays
ar cach dán a míad díles.
for each art its proper honour.
Aitte, oirgne, aidbse cheóil,
Death-tales, slaughters, chanting of music;
coimgne cinte cóem-cheneóil,
exact history of good peoples;
a réim ríg, rath dar Bregmag,
his royal succession, bestowed by Bregmag
a chath is a chrúad-engnam.
his battle and his harsh valour.
Is é sin scor ind óenaig
That is the breaking up [i.e. end] of the Fair
ón t-shlúag beóda bith-fóelid,
from the fortunate ever-joyous host:
co tabar dóib ón chomdid
may there be given to them, from the Creator,
talam cona cóem-thorthib.
the earth with her lovely fruits.
In many ways, the óenach acts as a microcosm of early Irish culture and society. It demonstrates the relative rank and status of Irish citizens, as well as that of each túath. There would be change in the status of individuals, families and túaithe over time: changes in wealth or professional rank, changes of political alliances, and changes of leadership. In a pre-telecommunications age, it makes sense for everyone to meet up at a regular time and place to assess these changes and put a new order in place. Not surprisingly, there must be a degree of chaos along the way, and it is clear that the Irish have long practised the art of celebrating such chaos!