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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Ireland before the Plantation

Gaelic social life

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Image of the Chief of the MacSweeneys

The Chief of the MacSweeneys at a banquet ©

Gaelic Ulster was the most rural part of Ireland. There was some trading at the port of Derry and the harbour at Donegal, at Armagh and at the small market town of Cavan, founded by O'Reilly in the 15th century, and later at Dungannon, where O'Neill had his chief castle. It was also the area with most emphasis on pastoral farming, with whole villages leaving their winter fields where the crops had been sown, to transfer their families and cattle to areas of rough summer grazing in the hills from May to November. There they lived in settlements of temporary huts called in Ireland booleys (Irish 'buaile', 'cattle-pound') in Scotland 'shielings', where they made butter and cheese and other dairy products such as 'bonnyclabber' or soured milk. The men temporarily travelled back to the winter village at harvest-time to save the crops.

Some people owing to their profession in life - for example a master-poet with his troupe of performers, or a captain of mercenary soldiers with his retinue - had no home base, and brought their herd of mixed livestock with them to graze the lands of each new employer. In the later middle ages such a group travelling from one grazing-land to another was known in the northern half of Ireland as a 'creaght' (Irish 'caoraigheacht'). In time of war or famine, the whole population in some areas might be uprooted to travel into neighbouring territories under their leaders as creaghts - welcome or unwelcome as the case might be.

Image of the O'Neill inauguration stone

The O'Neill inauguration stone at Tullahogue ©

For most people the periodic fairs and assemblies were the high spots of the year. These might take place on May Day, or Lammas (1st August) or Hallowe'en on a traditional hill-site - often marked by an ancient and venerated tree on the summit. Here cases were tried according to customary law by the Brehons (professional judges). Chieftains consulted their nobles and announced taxes, or decisions as to war or peace. Sporting and athletic contests took place, story-tellers, musicians, poets, jugglers, professional gamblers and clowns all plied their trades, marriages were arranged and commercial deals struck. Oral tradition points to Tullahogue - the inauguration hill of the O'Neills - as the site of annual meetings for sporting contests among the youth of the country. Women in particular are depicted in literature as looking forward to this break in their routine, dying their hair blonde in preparation, plucking their eyebrows and putting on all their jewellery. Aristocratic youths are said to win all women's hearts when they appear in these assemblies.

Since May-day and Hallowe'en were also rent-days for tenants, similar assemblies were sometimes held on the green outside the chief's castle. The lord spent part of the rents on feasting and public entertainment, and used the gathering to consult his nobles and settle outstanding disputes and law-cases. The amusing tale of 'O'Donnell's kerne' translated by Standish Hayes O'Grady in Silva Gadelica II describes such festive gatherings at a number of chieftains' castles in the 16th century.

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Image of Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin Ireland had a system of privatised learning.
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Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Lecturer in Medieval Irish History, University College Cork
Image of Dr. Bernadette Cunningham In Gaelic Ireland there was a redistribution of resources in May.
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Dr. Bernadette Cunningham, Deputy Librarian, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin
Image of Dr. Katharine Simms Girls dyed their hair blonde and plucked their eye brows.
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Dr. Katharine Simms, Lecturer in Medieval History, Trinity College Dublin
Image of Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle It was a lively society with references to dancing and music.
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Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Reader in Irish and Celtic Studies, Queens University Belfast
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