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Irish Genealogies



“The preservation of senchas, traditional historical lore, always remained a function of the poets.  In this capacity, they were the custodians of tribal myth, origin-legend, genealogy, king-lists and synchronisms of kings.  These they recorded, elaborated, and, on occasion, fabricated.  Their purpose was not historical in the modern sense.  These legends are aetiological myths, narratives in verse or prose which explained the origin of a tribe or dynasty, its location and distribution, its territories and why it occupies them, and its relation with other tribes or dynasties.  After a fashion, these myths functioned as charters of traditional rights.  Genealogy formed an important part of this type of literature.  In Ireland, a man enjoyed his status, rights and privileges in virtue of his descent, and a knowledge of his genealogy was no mere matter of idle curiosity or antiquarianism.   A jurist was bound to consult genealogical records, oral or written, in the discharge of his duties in regard to inheritance, and an Old Irish text urges: ‘Memories shall determine to whom inherited land belongs: Old antiquaries shall be questioned on their conscience truthfully in thy presence…let genealogical branches be extended when children are born.’  Genealogical material was also of high political consequence.  Dynasties ruled the kingdom in virtue of their descent from ancient royal lineages (and possibly in pagan times, from the tribal god or avatar) and, in this case, their genealogy was proof of their legitimacy and of their title to rule.  Again, the work of the poet-historian is not strictly speaking historical, for such genealogy reflect tribal and political associations as well as biological descent.  When new tribal or dynastic groups rose to power and overthrew a ruling dynasty, the genealogists often forged a link between them and their predecessors and in this way continuity and legitimacy were assured.  Vassal folk and conquered peoples living within the kingdom of a dominant dynasty are often link genealogically (and demonstrably unhistorically) to their overlords.  This is not an unabashed fiction or simple deception but rather the mode in which the genealogists, and, doubtless the families concerned, conceived the relationship.  When the relationship changes, the genealogical affiliations of the families concerned are altered accordingly.  The introduction of ecclesiastical learning and of writing had a profound effect on native historical learning.  The genealogies were extended backwards to Noah and to Adam and, by a slow process of accretion, assumption and speculation, Ireland was provided with a mythical prehistory.”


(Excerpt taken from “Ireland Before the Normans” by Donncha Ó Corráin page 75-77)

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