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The West Clann Chuiléin Lordship in 1586: Evidence from a Forgotten Inquisition
By Luke McInerney

Political Economy of Lordship: Origins & Structure

A general survey of the land arrangements and inheritance customs that prevailed in Thomond during the late sixteenth century shows a complex matrix of land tenure that shaped the way the dynastic clans and vassal-septs were organised. The hierarchy among the clans was related to the extent of territory they controlled and how many dependent farmers and herds of cattle they possessed. Important sept branches of the lordly O’Brien (Uí Bhriain) and McNamara (Mac Conmara) clans held a túath as their patrimony, with lesser septs typically holding a baile or leathbhaile.[7] On these lands the ruling clan lineage may grant immunities from tribute for septs that performed valuable services such as legal services or artisan crafts, but claimed at least a portion of their túath as mensal land for the direct support of the ruling household.[8] At the túath level the ruling lineage was headed by the ceannfine who was the principal representative of his sept and was normally in a state of permanent alliance – or dependence – with his overlord clan chieftain.

Gaelic lordships shared several similar characteristics to feudalism. The presence of a class of specialist ‘service’ clans that provided the ruling chieftain with administrative services in exchange for immunity from tribute suggests rulers were attempting to implement a primitive bureaucracy.[9] Regional kings (rí ruirech) and their large vassals (uirríthe) were concerned with sub-infeuding the farming class of the lesser septs to ensure foodstuffs were supplied to the ruling lineage. This similarity with feudalism was driven by the fact that kindred groups operated in a subsistence pastoral economy with labour shortages where it was in the interests of large clans to promote kinship ties to retain followers in clan structures in order to ‘bind’ them to the ruling lineage. The rationale underlying this was to provide ruling clans with food-rents and tribute. In Gaelic Ireland, clients were the backbone of a chieftain’s wealth and so the methods used by Irish chiefs echoed those of the Anglo-Norman feudal lords.[10] However, the reliance on kinship ties and hereditary transmission of offices were fundamentally Gaelic.

Generally, Gaelic lordships were divided into four categories that had implications for inheritance. These included the mensal land (or lucht tighe); demesne lands; land of the freeholding septs (or sept-lands); and church (termon) lands. An overview of the types of land categories was recorded by Sir John Davies in a tract written on the laws of Ireland in c.1609:

‘The chief lord had certain lands in demesne which were called his loughty [ie. lucht tighe], or mensal lands wherein he placed his principal officers, namely his Brehons, his marshal, his cupbearer, his Physician, his surgeon, his Chronicler, his Rhymer, and others, which offices and possessions were hereditary and peculiar to certain septs and families…The tantist had also a special portion of land and a certain chiefry proper to the tantist, and within the limits of his portion he had also cuttings [ie exactions] and cosheries [forced hospitality][11] …The rest of the lands were distributed amongst several septs, every sept had a chief or ceanfinny [ceannfine] as they call him with a tanist of that sept, both which were chosen by the chief lord or captain of the country and likewise their several portions and chiefries. These captainships or chiefries were not partible but were entirely enjoyed by such as were elected thereunto. All the rest of the lands except the portions of the chiefs and tanists descended in course of gavelkind and were partible among the males only, in which division the bastards had their portions as well as the legitimate.’[12] [spelling modernized]

The mensal land, or lucht tighe, were attached to the office of the chief lord (ie. McNamara Fionn) and the tenants on these lands provided food rents to support the lord’s household.[13] The luch tighe were noted by Sir John Davies in 1607 as being the private lands of the ‘landed nobility’ in Gaelic society and not subject to redistribution among the wider agnatic kin group, the deirbhfhine.[14]

The mensal lands were cultivated by landowning clans with the help of sharecropping labourers known to English sources as ‘churles’ dependent on the lord they followed.[15] Minor septs (including those formerly independent) and free tenants worked on these lands and provided food rents to the ruling lineage. This may explain the presence of small freeholders in Quin parish such as the McClunes, O’Hartigans and O’Gueranes who probably situated on the mensal lands of the McNamara Fionn in close proximity of the clan’s castle seats of Knappogue and Dangan-i-viggin.[16] A chieftain’s mensal lands were the ‘core’ land of the ruling lineage and was often where a clan’s principal followers and kindred were located. The mensal lands were inheritable property attached to the office of clan chieftain (tighearna) in the case of the overlord clans, or the property of the ceanfinne in the case of the vassal-septs.

The demesne lands represented groups of ‘ballybetaghs’[17] which were attached to the office of the chief lord but were occupied by freeholders. It would appear that the chief lord had rights over these demesne lands such as food-rents, hospitality (‘cuddie’ or cuid oidhche)[18] and other exactions, including the notorious ‘coyne and livery’ (viz. coinnmheadh, billeting of troops).[19] Sixteenth and seventeenth century inquisition records often declared that a person was ‘seized in fee’ or had ‘claimed’ certain lands, indicating that they held only the ‘rent and lordship’ of the lands.[20] This followed the idea of lordship in the Gaelic sense, which was based on the ability of one ruling lineage that held the chieftaincy to levy exactions and grant privileges over lands that it both directly owned and indirectly controlled.[21]

The freeholding sept-lands were not distributed evenly throughout the lordship of West Clann Chuiléin. The sept-lands tended to be on the margins of the lordship and concentrated in Tradraighe, rather than at the lordship centre of Quin. Examples include McEnerhiny and McClancy freeholders at Kilnasoolagh and Kilmaleery parishes, the O’Mulconrys at Feenagh parish, the O’Roddans at Kilfinaghta parish, the McBrodys at Kilraghtis parish, and the O’Mulqueenys at Templemaley.[22] Individual septs had parceled territory according to their importance and historical status in the lordship which, in turn, rested on genealogical distance from the ruling clan and their ability to resist expansionary pressure from junior branches of the ruling clan.

The morphology of landholding among freeholding septs was an important factor in the relationship between hereditary sept-lands, territorial hierarchies and ruling families. In east Clare, the freeholding septs yielded a tribute to the McNamara Fionn as their overlords, not as their landlords. The infiltration of McNamara kinsmen in every túatha led to a confusing situation where some kinsmen held their lands in virtue of their status as freeholders while others occupied the land as demesne freeholders and were subject to rents and other exactions by the McNamara Fionn. Many freeholders such as the McEnerhinys held their sept-lands in right of ‘owner in fee’[23] and would have had under-tenants and labourers to farm their estates; it was also not unusual that the septlands had a mix of economic activity such as cropping, pasture and, in the case of the McEnerhiny estate at Ballykilty, a water-mill.[24]

The main septs that fell under this category in the lordship of West Clann Chuiléin were the septs of McClancy (brehons), McEnerhiny (originally erenaghs), O’Mulconry (poets and chroniclers), O’Hickey (physicians), O’Moloney, Cusack,[25] McBrody (historians and poets), O’Rodan (stewards), and O’Mulqueeny.[26] The fact that after the introduction of English common law in the late sixteenth century the heads of these septs are sometimes recorded as selling their patrimonial lands and using them as collateral in deals with New-English tenants, supports the view that freeholders were outright owners of the lands. The ‘cesses, taxes, charges, exactions, cuttings’ were paid to their overlord as a chieftain and not as a landlord.[27]

The last category of land was that of church (termon) lands which were considered outside the secular landholding system. Ecclesiastical lands were farmed by erenaghs who, as the head-tenants of the land attached to the bishopric, were associated with families that were the social equivalents of the freeholdings septs.[28] Many church lands in West Clann Chuiléin were monastic lands such as the St Augustine monastery of Inisgad (Canon’s Island in the Fergus river),[29] the churches and monasteries at Dromcliffe, Quin, Clare Abbey, Tomfinlough and the island monasteries of Feenish and Inishloe.[30] Other lands included the ecclesiastical termon lands at Clonloghan that were recorded as ‘in ecclesiastical fee’ during the fifteenth century, and the glebes lands that existed at Kilnasoolagh and Kilmaleery.[31]

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Inquisition transcribed by Twigge
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Structure of the West Clann Chuiléin
Lordship in 1586