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Ireland's early medieval kingdoms were understood both
as population groups and as geographical regions


The Túath – People or Place?

The túatha, the ‘tribes’ or ‘petty kingdoms’, of early medieval Ireland, have been studied in various ways in the past. Often this study has focussed on the túath as population group. This approach is not unreasonable as the word is related to many others in languages of Indo-European origin which also mean ‘people’, ‘population’, ‘tribe’, and so on. In Old Irish, too, it means primarily ‘people’ or ‘tribe’. What is interesting, though, is this:

"The law texts indicate that the basic territorial unit is the túath" (Fergus Kelly, Guide to Early Irish Law, p.3)

and, from the Dictionary of the Irish Language (DIL), we get, as the second meaning listed for túath:

“(b) In Laws territory, petty kingdom”

In both of these cases the context is specifically legal. In other contexts, however, the meaning is almost universally ‘people’ and not ‘place’. But there are exceptions. Digging deeper into this reveals that not only does túath refer to ‘place’ in the precise terminology of the law, but it is sometimes used in this sense elsewhere. Several dozen territory names of medieval Ireland (from a total of over a thousand) were named túath X. A couple of examples are given hereExamples given are from Edmund Hogan's 'Onomasticon Goedelicum':

Túath Ruisen, given as equivalent in extent to Rosless civil parish, barony of Carra, Co. Mayo

Túath Aésa Gréine, coterminous with modern Tuogh parish, diocese of Emly, Co. Limerick

It could be argued that these examples refer to the physical extent of the area occupied by members of Túath Ruisen or Túath Aésa Gréine, or directly to the tribe in question. That is true, perhaps, but in both cases the descriptions are specifically geographical, we also have references to these population groups without the use of the word túath. The addition of túath is just that: an addition. We can point, for example, to references to Aes Gréine or Aos Gréine; further, the form in which this population group’s name is given in the original example suggests ownership or posession: ‘the túath of the Aes Gréine’. That the context is a geographic description strongly suggests that we are talking about a territory rather than a tribe here. There are dozens of other examples which can be added to these, reinforcing the case by sheer weight of numbers. An examination of the names in Edmund Hogan’s ‘Onomasticon Goedelicum’, though it has some faults, will quickly reveal this to be so.

We can even look to Modern Irish for support. ‘Faoin túath’ (in the countryside) is a term very familiar to anyone who has studied Irish even at primary school level. This meaning of ‘countryside’ arose at some point, and with the hints we have there seems some reason to consider Old Irish as a likely source. I’ll return to this point shortly.

Back to the legal angle. Fergus Kelly, as noted above, agrees with DIL in giving túath as a legal term meaning ‘territory’. We might ask why. Why would a word defining a population group be extended to refer to the land on which they lived? In a rural society – perhaps moreso than in a partly or largely urban one – ownership of land, the definition of the boundaries of that land, defence of land, use of land: all are critical. The fabric of society depends on it, and the welfare of the population equally so. We might look on laws as arising only where problems have gone before, and in cases of land ownership, military incursion, inheritance, and so on claims, counter claims, disputes, allegations and worse are not exactly unheard of; ideal settings for the application of laws. The key factor in all these cases, however, is who owns what. While individuals come and go, taking references such as ‘Dubthach’s farmland’ with them, tribes – túatha – tended to stick around for somewhat longer. Hundreds of years, in fact. When the average size of a túath is considered, remembering D.A. Binchy’s often-cited estimate of 150 túatha sharing the island of IrelandIn the glossary of his transcription of the law-text 'Crith Gablach', it is not hard to see how very useful a legal term for the unit of land held by the commonest autonomous socio-political unit might be. And so, I suggest, túath meaning ‘territory of a tribe’ arose initially in the legal arena and most likely as a result of the unusually large number of such territories there were crammed into this little island.

I suggest also that this legal term, over time, filtered into more common use and became a general word to use for a ‘place’ as well as for the ‘people’ who lived within its boundaries. Its just such a useful word to have, especially when it refers to a place occupied by people who share a common identity and allegience with you, and most of whom are little more than a day’s walk away.

From there we can return to the Modern Irish phrase faoin túath. As recently as a decade ago Ireland’s population was located more in rural than urban environments. There is a long heritage behind that: in the medieval period Ireland was almost exclusively rural in character, with Norse and Anglo-Norman towns and some monasteries constituting pretty much all the settlements which could be termed urban or proto-urban. Almost everyone lived within a dispersed settlement pattern, with homes dotted across the landscape rather than clustered together. To go ‘out in the countryside’ – amuigh faoin túath – would effectively be the same as going ‘out among the people’. Whether or not the use of túath in its modern sense arose from, or independently of, the original legal meaning, it is not hard to see how the transfer of meaning arose. I have not been able to locate the earliest recorded usage of this modern phrase. However, it would be interesting to see just how early the first record actually is, and if it can be dated to the 15th century or earlier.

The Túath in Wales?

We can show that túath with a meaning related to ‘place’ probably arose within the legal terminology of early medieval Ireland, and expanded into common use. We can also show that no other language with a cognate word developed this variation in meaning, and that Irish is unusual in this respect& or can we? Two other languages break the mould. Old Prussian tauto had a meaning of ‘land’, and Welsh tud means ‘country’ or ‘nation’. It is hard to see a direct connection between the speakers of Old Irish and Old Prussian, though an examination of social structure in both locations may perhaps reveal some interesting similarities. However, it is not the Prussians that concern us here, but the Welsh.

There are several references to Irish incursions and settlements in Britain immediately before and in the earliest stages of the medieval period. They vary – sometimes wildly – in the dates they ascribe to specific settlements, ranging from the 200s AD up to the 500s. They are also generally found in legendary or pseudo-historical contexts, and both of these facts have led to great reservation on the part of scholars to speak of them with much certainty beyond the basic level. We know more about the Dál Riadan settlement in part of what is now Scotland than we do of the less successful ones in Wales and the Devon/ Cornwall area. In both cases what we do know is not great, and there are those who dispute that any medieval Irish ever settled in Wales or south west Britain at all.

If we do accept the possibility of Irish settlement in Wales, however, that Welsh word – tud – becomes potentially extremely interesting. One of the main elements in the argument for Irish settlement in Wales is the presence there of ogam inscriptionsDamian McManus has some interesting comments to make on the importance of ogam in Wales in his 'A Guide to Ogam', which otherwise are found almost exclusively in Ireland, and there mainly in the Munster counties of Kerry, Cork and Waterford. It is from these two last that settlers in Wales are said to have come, bringing the ogam script with them. Now our additional detail arises: Irish túath, meaning ‘territory of a single population’, and Welsh tud, meaning ‘country, nation’. What, I ask, is a ‘country’ or a ‘nation’ in geographical terms but the territory of a single population? The parallel is striking. So, too, is the absence in Scots Gaelic of any usage of túath as ‘place’ such as is found in Irish, despite that language being born of its Irish cousin.

It could be argued therefore that the transfer of meaning from ‘people’ to ‘place’ which we can see in Irish was carried to Wales by settlers originating in Munster and that those who left Ulster to settle in Scotland failed to do likewise. Like a curious child, we might continue to ask why. One possibility that suggests itself is regional variation. If túath with a meaning of ‘place’ was originally or most strongly rooted in Munster, we could point to this as perhaps a reason for a transfer to Welsh when a similar transfer did not occur to Scots Gaelic. I cannot show that the Welsh word derives from the Irish. It may have independent origins, or indeed the meaning may have actually travelled the other way – from Britain to Ireland: we have pseudo-historical accounts of some of the Leinster peoples originating in Britain.

Allow me one last speculation, though, on the matter of dates. It is thought that Irish settlements in Wales may have followed the decline of Roman power in Britain, with the political instability that may have caused (itself a disputed issue) opening the way for a successful Irish incursion leading to the establishment of an Irish kingdom or kingdoms. If this is so, it probably occurred in the early or mid 400s AD. Searching the annals for dates for the settlement of Dál Riada gives a wide range of possible dates, but the early 500s AD seem a popular choice. If there is anything at all credible in the above possibilities we may be able to point to the period in between the Welsh and Dál Riadan settlements as the time during which túath meaning ‘territory’ spread through Ireland. In this case records of the distribution of the term túath meaning ‘territory’ may not reveal a good picture as all placename records we have were recorded much later than both the Welsh and Dál Riadan settlements - time enough for túath in its new meaning to spread islandwide. It is, however, at least worth looking at the distribution patterns just in case. After all, if there is a regional imbalance which favours the above theory it would be worth knowing about.

The Geography of a Geographical Term

It would be extremely difficult to identify specific dates for changes in the usage of one word in late iron age or early medieval Ireland. In fact it is almost cetainly impossible. In the case of túath we may actually have such information. That possibility could be brought closer to probability by a Munster bias in the use of this term in tribal and place names. So, do we actually have any noticable regional variation in the use of túath in medieval Ireland? It is perhaps worth loking briefly at the geography of this geographical term.

A quick run through the location – where it is available – of each tribal or place name in túath listed in Hogan’s ‘Onomasticon Goedelicum’ results in a marked provincial variation. Sixty-seven are in Munster, forty are in Leinster, twenty-one in Connacht, and Ulster has thirty-one. Immediately it is apparent that Connacht has less such names listed than Ulster – ten less in fact. On this basis we may already cast doubt on Ulster as the last part of Ireland to receive the ‘new’ meaning of túath, if numbers alone are taken into account. Using the same rough guidelines, though, also tels us that over forty percent of the total lie in Munster. Thus far, the evidence seems to say both 'yes' and 'no'. However, we have not yet taken account of the distribution by county.

Within Connacht there is an imbalance. Nine of the sixteen names which we can easily link to specific counties are found in Co. Galway. Thus, over 56 percent of Connacht examples lie within a county that borders on Munster, and one which was partly under the control of the ruling dynasty of Munster during the early medieval period. This appears promising. Looking at Leinster we see that we can locate twenty-eight names by county. As with Connacht, one county bordering on Munster – Offaly – gives a large number: seven of the total. However, Meath has a similar number, and both Louth and Westmeath have four each. Laois has two, Kilkenny has but one, and Wexford none at all. Evidently the ‘borders of Munster’ rule is not universal. Ignoring provincial boundaries, however, we can see a sliding scale across the island from Galway to Wexford: 9, 7, 2, 1, 0. Perhaps there is something in this, but first consider Ulster.

The picture gets more complex. Looking at Ulster throws the distribution theory further in the air: the counties with the highest numbers of locatable names are Donegal and Antrim, and there is no discernible pattern among the rest of the Ulster counties. Antrim contained the original home of the Dál Riada. Perhaps this aspect of the theory is in trouble, perhaps not. Until the location of each name is pinpointed as best as is possible, the tribal and territorial names are separated and dated as best as possible, and both are mapped we cannot get any real grasp on this side of things. More on that issue shortly.

Meanwhile, some facts which do clearly stand out are that Munster is home to over 42 percent of all medieval names in túath, and Leinster, the other province with associations with Wales contains a further 25 percent. Further, more than half the examples from Connacht come from a county with Munster associations, and Offaly, which was also partly under Munster rule during the medieval period shares the highest total for a Leinster county.

Much work needs to be done on this and other aspects of settlement, territory and territorial naming in early medieval Ireland. This small topic is just one of many which deserve closer attention, and it is hoped that this article will at least serve to provoke others into beginning an exploration of this enormous and engrossing field of study. A beginning has been made, drawing on the work of others and on primary sources: the Historical Irish Place Names Online project (HIPNO). The objective of the project is to produce the best possible database and maps of Ireland's territorial divisions during the early medieval period, and to make these available online. Though still in its infancy (only part of county Kerry has so far been examined in detail), some interesting results have arisen. One such is the location of almost all túath names in Aes X in Munster, and these in areas with early links to the Corcu Lóegde. Though such observations are technically side-effects of the project's work, they are potentially just as valuable as the final maps. Future articles in Insight will highlight other results of the HIPNO project as they arise.

Edmund Hogan, ‘Onomasticon Goedelicum’ (reprint), Four Courts Press, 1993
Fergus Kelly, ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, DIAS, 1995
D.A. Binchy, ‘Críth Gablach’ (reprint), DIAS, 1979
‘The Dictionary of the Irish Language’ (compact edition), RIA, 1998
Damian McManus, 'A Guide to Ogam', XXX, XXX

My particular thanks to David Stifter for assistance during research on this topic.

  © Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh MMII

About the author:
Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh studied Medieval English and Medieval European History at Trinity College, Dublin where his interest in settlement and place names initially developed. He is currently researching settlement, territory and boundary in early medieval Ireland.

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To cite this article:
MacAmhalghaidh, S. "Túath: People or Place?", INSIGHT Magazine, July 2002

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