December 18, 2005

Was Gaelic society like Africa?

In response to a study showing that 20% of the men in Northwestern Ireland are in the direct male line of descent from the Neill dynasty, a reader writes:

Interesting tip on the Y-chromosome study in NW Ireland. I look forward to reading it. I'll paraphrase from Kenneth Nicholls' Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages, published in 1972:

Gaelic Society was clan based down to the 17th century, when the Irish scholar and genealogist Dualtagh Mac Firbisigh wrote "as the sons and families of the rulers multiplied, so their subjects and followers were squeezed out and withered away." Such expansion of the ruling stock has been a normal feature of the modern Basotho in South Africa where "there is a constant displacement of commoners by royals [i.e., members of the royal clan] and of collateral royals by the direct descendants of the ruling prince." This same phenomena took place in every Gaelic lordship of the early modern era.

Turlough O Donnel, lord of Tirconnell, modern county Donegal in the far North West, (died 1423) had eighteen sons by ten different women, and fifty-nine grandsons in the male line. A little further south, in East Befny (Co. Cavan), Mulmora O Reilly (died 1566) had at least fifty-eight grandsons. Pilib Maguire (died 1395), lord of Fermanagh, had twenty sons by eight mothers, and fifty known grandsons. Irish law drew no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate in matters of inheritance and the rates of multiplication approached that permitted by the polygamy practiced in the Southern African clan societies already mentioned.

All of this is applicable to the contiguous and largely identical society of the Gaelic Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which formed a single cultural province with the Gaelic north and west of Ireland.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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