Ancient Ireland: Culture and Society
4.6 (186 ratings)
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757 students enrolled

Ancient Ireland: Culture and Society

Explore Ireland's ancient past with a look at the society and culture of the early Irish people.
4.6 (186 ratings)
Course Ratings are calculated from individual students’ ratings and a variety of other signals, like age of rating and reliability, to ensure that they reflect course quality fairly and accurately.
757 students enrolled
Created by Kevin Flanagan
Last updated 4/2020
English [Auto]
Price: $29.99
30-Day Money-Back Guarantee
This course includes
  • 4 hours on-demand video
  • 3 articles
  • 73 downloadable resources
  • Full lifetime access
  • Access on mobile and TV
  • Certificate of Completion
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What you'll learn
  • Insights into an ancient and advanced civilisation.
  • New perspectives on history and social values.
  • A deep understanding of early Irish history
  • Lifetime Access
  • 30 Day Money Back Guarantee
  • Lots of bonus material for further study
  • No prior knowledge or materials are needed to take this course.
  • Developed with the beginner in mind
  • Guides you through a logical progression of sections
  • Lots of extra learning materials for free download

Embark on a journey into Ireland's ancient past as we explore the culture and society of this early civilization. For lovers of Irish history and those wishing to learn about a new fascinating topic.

We'll lay a broad yet detailed foundation ranging from the tribe and family, to the intricate social order of varying grades. The royal rituals of kingship and the people of skill and art.

Education, Festivals, Burial Rites and Spirituality; to name just a few!

Upon completing this course you will have a deeper understanding and appreciation for ancient Ireland, its culture and its heritage.

Who this course is for:
  • Anyone with an interest in ancient civilizations, classical studies, culture and society.
  • Anyone wanting to learn more about Ireland.
  • Anyone who wants to learn more about Ireland’s native culture, its kings, rituals and social order.
  • Anyone with Irish ancestry.
Course content
Expand all 43 lectures 03:58:15
+ section
1 lecture 05:08

An introduction to myself and my background in this area before I begin broadly going over the topics we’ll cover in the course.

Preview 05:08
+ Blood and Soil
12 lectures 55:29

We'll begin our journey by taking a broad overview of the society of early Ireland.

Naturally, this was very different from our own in many ways. It's important to get an idea of this structure early on, to give us a foundation to build upon in subsequent lectures.

The Túath was the main political, territorial, or "tribal" unit. Though markedly different, these túatha most closely resemble our modern understandings of 'Independent States'.

They were essentially petty-kingdoms whose people were autonomous, chose their own leaders, and governed their own affairs.

The Fine was the family unit, the central and primary sub-group of the túath. These were people who united together under a common name, usually taken from some common ancestor.

In this lecture, we'll explore the the concepts of the "túath" and the "fine" and learn how they relate to each other.

Preview 08:27

The concept of the 'family' extended further than our modern conceptions.

Ultimately, all descendants from a common great-great-grandfather were part of the fine, though there were various levels of familial relationship.

In this lecture we will learn about the 3 Primary Family Units

The 3 Primary Family Units

In this lecture we'll explore the key roles and duties of the men in society.

As the protector and provider of his wife, children, and dependents, men in early Irish society fulfilled what might now consider 'traditional roles'.

From tending the land, educating and guiding their children, settling disputes around the family table, tending to the livestock, and securing their dwelling, the early Irish man had to be ever vigilant against attack from foreign neighboring túatha.

A man had to be leader and an honorable representative.

First of himself, then of his household, and ultimately for his people.

Father, Husband, Warrior, King

A man's home was his castle.

A statement that's as true today as it was in early Ireland.

Dwellings were not just homes, they were personal and private sanctuaries.

As such, a man was the authority in his own demesne.

The property was surrounded by an imaginary boundary line, the extent of which marked the extent of the individual's area of influence.

In this lecture we'll look at the importance of the homestead, how it related to status, and discover the method used in the Brehon Laws for determining the reach of the boundary.


Though the rights of women in early Ireland are popularly referred to in high regard, a closer examination reveals they were not as equitable as we might like to hear.

Unless a woman had established a higher status than her husband; whether by learning a skill or art, or by having more wealth than he, her status was dependent upon her husbands.

A woman's testimony was not given the same weight in the laws and it was generally disregarded except for in limited circumstances.

That said, women were not excluded from holding high social and professional positions, they could recover damages against their husbands for wrongdoing, had the right to be consulted on matters affecting the household, could overturn contracts entered into by her husband where the family wealth was affected, and, for the most part, women had much greater rights than other societies existing at those times.

In this lecture we'll take a more detailed look at the attitudes towards women in early Irish society.

Preview 06:44

As an addition to the Lecture on the Rights of Women, this Lecture will explore the feminine archetype in Irish legends and the Irish heroine in history.

From Queens Macha and Maeve, to Bridget, half goddess half saint, to the Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley, up to the more recent contributions of women during the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence.

The Mná na hÉireann are the Women of Ireland whose shoulders bear the burdens and the victories of the country, along with the men.

Preview 05:24

Love and marriage, do they have to go hand in hand?

While attitudes to marriage in Early Ireland could be described as progressive and practical, they differed quite starkly from our own.

Marriage was an arrangement to forge family allegiances, and pool wealth for the purposes of producing heirs to inherit.

Polygamy was widely practiced; both men and women could have multiple partners.

The laws recognised various 'forms of coupling' or 'degrees of union'.

In this Lecture we will explore the attitudes to marriage, sexual union, and the various types of coupling given legal status.


Early Ireland had a fairly liberal approach to divorce and separation, though it was best not to take the matter lightly.

Just like with trial-marriages, the laws also allowed for trial-separations.

Divorce meant a final termination of the marriage contract and it concerned both the wider family units who had invested wealth into the arrangement.

In this lecture we'll talk about how attitudes to divorce shifted in Ireland and consider the various grounds for divorce open to both husbands and wives.

Imscarad - Divorce

The good rearing of the children was in the interest of the whole community. Families had a personal responsibility to ensure their offspring grew up to be strong, educated and honorable people; the family name depended on it.

There are two key legal manuscripts dealing with children.

In this section we learn about the attitudes to children and explore the common Irish custom of fosterage in greater detail.

Preview 05:56

As the provider of nourishment and shelter, the land was very important to the early Irish.

Interestingly, they had very different perspectives on land ownership than we are familiar with today.

Beginning by setting out an understanding of these attitudes, this Lecture goes on to discuss the 5 ways land could be held and finally we'll learn about how possession of land could pass from one to another.

Land Ownership

In a land as wealthy as ancient Ireland inheritance was serious business.

Who could inherit and what could they get?

A legal manuscript called the Maccslechta sets out the rules and guidelines for inheritance.

Though children could be easily 'recognised', entitling them to the usual rights of the free-men of the túath, there were a number of excluded categories of children, known in the laws as 'the Sons of Darkness'.

In this Lecture we will learn about the basic rules of inheritance.

Plus, learn an old Irish trick for ensuring property got fairly divided!

Orbae - Inheritance

A quick recap of the topics we've covered so far!

Blood and Soil Section Summary
+ Status and Society
9 lectures 43:01

Now it's time to introduce the very intricate and well ordered social hierarchy that was based upon an individual's own status.

It is central to understanding how early Irish society operated.

We'll begin by outlining the three key features that determine status, then we'll consider a few of the ways status came into play in everyday life.

Status and Society

We'll examine the hierarchy itself and learn about the free and unfree classes, before going into more detail in the following Lectures.

The Social Hierarchy

Of the Unfree Classes there were 3 primary sub-groups.

The term 'unfree' refers to their status within the túath. Unlike the grades of the Free Classes, members of these grades had none of the usual rights of the túath.

In this Lecture we will explore the sub-groups known as:

  1. Fudhirs
  2. Bothach, and
  3. Senchléithe
Unfree Classes

The bulk of society was made up of the free classes, but there was a large spectrum within this.

From the lowest grade free farmers who had little to no personal property, to the wealthy farmers, the nobles, artists, academics and the grades of kings; all of varying degrees of wealth and merit.

In this Lecture, we outline the the different types of free classes, we will explore the two primary grades of the aes trebtha or farming people; the Céile and the Bó Aire, and we will gain a better understanding about how a freeman could gradually increase their status by increasing their signs of visible wealth.

Free Classes

The highest grades of free-men were part of an upper privileged social group called the nemed.

There were different ways to occupy this class but the most obvious of the nemed were the grades of nobles (flaith), but one could also become nemed through their own merits or wealth.

In this Lecture we will particularly focus on the flaith or 'noble' grades.

An Nemed - The Priviliged Classes

The early Irish revered members of society who had great skill and learning, making no distinction between males or females.

From poets, musicians, and craftsmen to historians, judges and doctors, we’ll learn about the value given to these members of society.

In this Lecture we will learn about the aes dana and pay particular attention to three of the highest grade professions:

  1. An Filid - The Poet
  2. An Briethimh - The Judge
  3. An Cruitire - The Harpist
Aes Dana - People of Art and Skill

An tSaer refers to the grades of craftsman, artisans, masons, and smiths who had the special knowledge and trade secrets needed to work raw materials into an array useful finished products.

Though they were a of lower grade of Aes Dana than the filid (poet), britheamh (judge), or cruitire (harpist), for example, they were still held in high regard.

The word saer means 'free', signifies the Craftman's ability to support himself with his own hands, as a sole-contractor.

In ancient times, there was a belief in the supernatural power of the smiths to take a lump of metal ore and work it into a beautiful or lethal object.

In this Lecture we learn about the basic features of the Saer grade and the mystical significance attributed to blacksmiths in the mythological accounts.

Saer - Craftsmen

Women were not excluded from working and often held high ranking positions as druids, poets, judges, etc.

Although a woman's status was generally based upon her husband's, this changed if she was a member of one of the professional grades. In such case her grade was based upon her own merit and her level of formal training.

In this Lecture we will consider the role of women in relation to work and the affect this had on her personal status.

Preview 01:57

A short summary of the topics covered in this section!

Status and Society Section Summary
+ Royal Erin - Ireland's Kings and Royal Sites
8 lectures 45:41

With about 139 túatha (small kingdoms) situated across the island, each with its own leader, Ireland was truly a land of many kings. And, because of the high regard for keeping genealogical records it is Ireland that can boast the oldest lists of kings in all of Europe.

In this Lecture, we'll take a look at the office of king in closer detail and lay a foundation for the other Lectures in this topic. Take a look at some of the key characteristics of Gaelic kingship, how they were elected, what were their duties and what sort of powers did they have?

Ríthe na hÉireann - Kings of Ireland

There were four primary grades of king in early Ireland.

The most common of these was a simple '' or King of a Túath, but these lesser kings often in turn owed tribute to kings of higher-grades, such as a Rí-Túath-Mór or a King of a Province.

Ultimately this chain of tribute and submission ended with the highest grade of kingship - the Ard Rí na hÉireann, High-King of all Ireland.

In this Lecture, we'll explore these primary grades in a bit more detail.

Preview 02:50

There was no inherent right to rule in early Ireland. Instead, leaders were chosen from among all the eligible males.

Although there were certain social and legal requirements, thus making not everyone eligible for election, all free-men of the rank of aire had a say in the outcome.

In this Lecture we'll learn more about the process of election and take a look at the Irish custom of 'tanistry' that came about as a means of avoiding disputes over succession.


Hostage-taking was very common in early Ireland, particularly in relation to kingship.

While hostages were commonly used to pledge forms of surety in important contracts, they were also frequently offered or taken as signs of submission to a higher chieftain.

In this Lecture we will explore the system of hostage-taking in more detail and develop a better understanding about what was going on.


With lists of kings dating back to pre-Christian times, a time when the function of 'king' was more akin to that of a ceremonial priest, it should come as no surprise to find a very religious and sacred significance attached to the inauguration of the rí.

In this Lecture we discuss how the royal inauguration rituals symbolised a form of marriage, a union of the chieftain to his people but ultimately to the land and nature in the form of the Goddess of Sovereignty.

We'll also learn about some of the key features of these ceremonies and find out if those strange rumours about what they did to horses in Tirconnaill are true?

Preview 08:02
Bonus Article: The Ancient Practice of Marrying the Land

30 ancient sites described as having royal significance to the old Gaelic families testify to Ireland being an island of many kingdoms.

And, given the spiritual significance of the kingship in pagan times, it's no surprise to learn that these royal sites had spiritual significance, too.

First we'll look at some of the key characteristics found across these sites, then we'll learn about six of these sites in greater detail by exploring the myths and history associated to them.

Royal Sites

A short summary of the topics covered in this section!

Royal Erin Section Summary
+ Wider Society
13 lectures 01:28:56

They had no coins but it worked!

The Irish did not mint coinage as the other European nations were prone to do.

Instead, they had a very basic, yet effective means of exchange and trade flourished relatively unhindered.

In this Lecture we'll learn about what the Irish used as an alternative to coins, and how value was measured according to two set units of measurement: the sét and the cumál.


In this section we'll learn about the Brehon Laws of Early Ireland. An ancient and native set of customary principles and laws that held the fabric of society together.

Brehon Law

Across the land we find the custom of Hospitality held in high regard and importance. Travelers could expect to be welcomed in a foreign land and there were free-hostels set up for the free use and enjoyment of all who needed them. 

Preview 08:17

Doctors and Physicians were naturally very important in early Irish society, but the reverence for them begins in Ireland’s early mythology. Here we’ll look at the role of the doctor and the medical families that serviced royalty.

Sickness and Health

Ireland’s ancient schools and centres of learning. In a land hailed as the Island of Saints and Scholars, we’ll take a look at the school system that was available to all who wanted it.

Education (Part 1)

In this lecture we'll go through the various grades of education starting with the elementary grades an then on through the 7 Grades of Wisdom. 

Preview 09:19

Marking the change of the seasons and significant solar events throughout the year, the festivals, fairs and assemblies of early Ireland were seen as an opportunity to come together for trade, exchange of ideas, competitions, and to celebrate in each others' culture.

Festivals, Fairs and Assemblies

Before the coming of Christianity Ireland was a significant centre for the Druids, a strange and elusive group of priestly magicians who had  a presence all across western Europe. In those times, the religion and beliefs of the Irish were tied more directly with nature, the movement of the sun throughout the year, and the celebrations of death and fertility.

Preview 07:10

Much of what we understand about early Irish spiritual and religious beliefs originate from our analysis of archaeological findings scattered across the island.

In this Lecture we will explore the beliefs surrounding death and burial from the earliest times, considering the customs of the wake and keening

Next we we will consider the influence of the fairy-faith on death rites and the old Irish superstions around death omens, before finally considering the shift from pre- to post-Christian times.

Preview 14:20
Bonus: The Funeral Customs of Ireland

A discussion of early Ireland would not be complete without considering the impact of the advent of Christianity. 

This new religion from the Eastern World would with first compete with and eventually replace the older customs with new beliefs and ideals. 

Writing would become increasingly important and the Irish monasteries would produce many ornate artifacts and manuscripts. 

In this Lecture we will explore how Christianity completely altered the nature of the Irish people and the character of Irish cultural heritage.


A warm thank you for making it this far! :)

Goodbye and Thanks!
Bonus Resources