INTRODUCTION TO CELTIC CULTURE All culture developed originally from the people's relationship with the particular land they live on. Today, culture is as important as it ever was, for it gives us an expression of being which is in harmony with the land, other people of like mind and the forces of the natural world. Culture is a way of life; there is still a thriving cultural tradition within the Gaidhealtachd, although like other Celtic 'fringes' it has become rather marginalised in its forms of expression - musical, linguistic, and so on. The social structure of Bronze Age Celtic society was highly developed. It was, nevertheless, a tribal society, bonded together by an all-encompassing system of laws and social customs, known as the Brehon Laws, which lasted intact for centuries. FAMILY - the extended family ('fine' or 'clann') was the basic social unit, consisting of several generations of descendants from one ancestor. When several families settled in a particular territory they formed a 'tuath', ruled over by a chieftain or a petty king. There were about 150 tuatha, or kingdoms, in ancient Ireland. KINSHIP - The kinship group, and not the individual, was all important under Brehon law. The kinship group was responsible for the actions of all its members. 'Eric fine' had to be paid by the whole family on behalf of any transgressors of the law. Kinship also ensured a right to shares in any family inheritance (known as 'derbhfine'). HEARTH - The hearth was of central importance in Celtic society, and its foundation was the contract of handfasting. Within the hearth the woman's authority was absolute. The hearth was the centre of much activity, where many traditional crafts were carried out; it also provided warmth and nourishment, it was a gathering place for storytelling and music, and it had to be an open place of hospitality to all. HOSPITALITY - A very important aspect of Celtic life. Both the hosts and the guests were expected to observe certain social customs. THE HOSTS had to provide food, drink, a warm bed if possible, and entertainment. They had to give the very best they had; not to do so was a gross insult. Once the guests had partaken of the hearth's hospitality, the hosts were obliged to refrain from any violence or quarrelling with them, for the guests were under the protection of the dun from then on. THE GUESTS would be expected to make an offering to the hearth of cakes, bread, wine etc. according to their ability. They must show respect to the hosts and not cause quarrels, fights or disruptions during their stay. They would normally be expected to sing a song, play a tune, or tell a tale. BREHON LAWS - The Brehon laws were responsible for regulating a large part of social life even in ways that would fall outside the legal system of today. The laws set out codes of behaviour that all members of a blood family had to adhere to. Within Celtic society there existed a clearly defined system of rank or caste (which was transient) - serfs/ peasants; freemen/craftsmen; warriors; nobles; kings and priesthood. The Brehons, or judges, were of the Druid priesthood caste. If they made ill-judgements they were expected to forfeit their fee and pay damage costs. Codes of behaviour and levels of responsibility were laid down in the laws for each caste. The higher ranks had the most restrictions placed on them. STATUS - This was largely determined by the ownership of cattle (there was no concept of land ownership in early Celtic society). Leases of livestock were granted to the tribe by the nobility in return for loyalty. HONOUR PRICE - A strange mutual dependence existed between nobles and their clients. The status of a nobleman depended on the number of clients he leased cattle to. The client, however, gave up any status in law except through his creditor. Hence, creditors gave legal protection to their clients (known as their 'honour price'). Honour prices were central to the operation of the Brehon laws, and clients would seek out creditors with the highest status, to gain the highest honour price. TUATH - Beyond a family member's particular tuath, or tribal land, they could not normally be guaranteed legal protection, unless formerly agreed between tuatha. KINGSHIP - The king was the key element of the social structure. He was responsible for harmony between the tribe and the land, and also for the prosperity of the tribe. He had to be generous; if he was niggardly he would suffer the poet's satire (a formidable weapon in Celtic society) and have his kingship taken from him. The king was responsible for the redistribution of wealth in his kingdom, by means of banquets and donating gifts. FAIRS, FESTIVALS AND BANQUETS - These were important occasions which brought together all strata of society. Participation in the festivities was compulsory! (Not to enjoy the life you had been given was an insult). Guests were seated according to rank. The "champion's portion" was awarded to the warrior who showed the greatest courage. To hold a good banquet was to gain much prestige. It was important to invite the 'aes dana' (people of the arts - bards, musicians, etc. ) Songs were sung, legends retold, and clan genealogies recited. Also, at festivals, settlements and judgements of legal cases were made, and handfasting contracts signed. However, no enmity must exist, no debt must be collected and no weapon must be lifted. A way of life that survived for centuries in these isles is rapidly being lost before a torrent of mass consumerism, and an individualistic society, where 'dog eat dog' is the rule, and where the power of the State is so great that it shapes your very thoughts and life-style. We would like to think there is an alternative to all this, that the old values of clan and family can still be followed. We have much to learn from our Celtic ancestors, and keeping alive our culture and social customs is one very important aspect of this.