Monday, July 26, 2010

Was ancient Ireland socialist or anarchist?

A favourite of political radicals is the reinterpretation of historical events to make them fit modern political narratives. Let's look at what two rival political stances interpret from pre-Norman Ireland.

Exactly one century ago Irish socialist James Connolly's Labour in Irish History described native Irish society as pre-capitalist communalism, an egalitarian society with tribal ownership of the land:

The Irish chief, although recognised in the courts of France, Spain, and Rome, as the peer of the reigning princes of Europe, in reality held his position upon the sufferance of his people, and as an administrator of the tribal affairs of his people, while the land or territory of the clan was entirely removed from his private jurisdiction. In the parts of Ireland where for 400 years after the first conquest (so-called) the English governors could not penetrate except at the head of a powerful army, the social order which prevailed in England – feudalism – was unknown, and as this comprised the greater portion of the country, it gradually came to be understood that the war against the foreign oppressor was also a war against private property in land.

Here Connelly is uniting his own socialist beliefs with the anti-English nationalism that was popular at the time. For him, rejection of British rule was one with the rejection of capitalism and private ownership of the land. The egalitarian nature of pre-Norman Ireland was a justification for the creation of a modern socialist, nationalist Ireland.

Odd, then, than in 1973 Murray N. Rothbard's pro-capitalist, anti-state book For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto used pre-Norman Ireland for precisely the opposite reason, as a state-less anarchy of private property and a historical example to bolster support for modern capitalist anarchy:

And this was also a society where not only the courts and the law were largely libertarian, but where they operated within a purely state-less and libertarian society. This was ancient Ireland — an Ireland which persisted in this libertarian path for roughly a thousand years until its brutal conquest by England in the seventeenth century....

For a thousand years, then, ancient Celtic Ireland had no State or anything like it. As the leading authority on ancient Irish law has written: "There was no legislature, no bailiffs, no police, no public enforcement of justice . . . . There was no trace of State-administered justice...."

There were occasional "wars," to be sure, in the thousand years of Celtic Ireland, but they were minor brawls, negligible compared to the devastating wars that racked the rest of Europe. As Professor Peden points out, "without the coercive apparatus of the State which can through taxation and conscription mobilize large amounts of arms and manpower, the Irish were unable to sustain any large scale military force in the field for any length of time. Irish wars . . . were pitiful brawls and cattle raids by European standards."

So which was it: socialist paradise or anarchist Utopia? Either way pre-Norman Irish tribalism failed to defend itself from Norman and English conquest, making it a questionable example for a secure modern society. Advocates of political ideologies who back-fit modern narratives onto ancient historical societies and events might be tinkering with the truth just a bit. Be wary of that.


  1. A society can be both anarchical and socialist. You realize this, right?

  2. Hi icyarsonist, cheers for the comment.

    In the post I explain that Murray Rothbard's anarchist ideal was capitalist, not socialist, and this was the distinction I found interesting. Both Rothbard and Connolly interpreted Irish history to promote their - very different - beliefs.

  3. I haven't read anything comparing these two views in quite this way. Good read.

  4. Did not this tribal society fend off other invasions for centuries? Including other Irish tribes (there were five kingdoms, right?), the Romans, "Vikings" (who did eventually settle in Ireland, but never managed to conquer much territory), the Scots, and other English (Brythonic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman) attempts?

  5. My understanding is that the Normans conquered most of the country quite quickly. The English also reconquered the country centuries later, after the Normans became Hibernicised and English control was weakened by the War of the Roses and the Black Death, so that by 1800 most of the land was owned by Protestant Anglo-Irish. I'm not so sure about the Vikings who, as you say, settled and became Hibernicised over time. (I guess they would have been essentially tribal too, no?) And the usual story is that the Romans never invaded in the first place.

    So my understanding is that the first time the Irish faced a statist enemy - the Normans - they were swiftly conquered. Though not permanently!

    I'm not a historian, though, so I'd be happy to hear if you have any alternative understanding of this, thanks.

  6. This article ( starts off with an explanation for the differing views about Celtic Ireland.

  7. Ancient Ireland was anarchist in the sense of there being no state. Rothbard is correct in his claim that ancient Ireland was capitalist. Joint ownership of resources is not excluded in a capitalist economy, we are all familiar with share holding.

    The lending of private property for interest was well developed in ancient Ireland, as were the presence of debtors, facts that lead one to reject the claim that ancient Ireland was socialist.

    "Although there were no such institutions in ancient
    Ireland as pawn-offices, pledging articles for a
    temporary loan was common enough. The practice
    was such a general feature of society that the Brelion
    Law took cognisance of it—as our law now takes
    cognisance of pawn-offices—and stepped in to prevent
    abuses. Portable articles of any kind—including
    animals—might be pledged for a loan, or as security
    for the repayment of a debt ; and the law furnishes a
    long list of pledgable articles. The person holding
    the pledge might put it to its proper use while in
    his possession, unless there was express contract
    against it ; but he was not to injure it by rough
    usage. He was obliged to return it on receiving a
    day's notice, provided the borrower tendered the sum
    borrowed, or the debt, with its interest : and if he
    failed to do so, he was liable to fine. Borrowing or
    lending, on pledge, was a very common transaction
    among neighbours ; and it was not looked upon as in
    any sense a thing to be ashamed of, as pawning
    articles is at the present day."

    p. 519, A Smaller Social History Of Ancient Ireland


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