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Keepers of the Gael

‘My heart in my breast is sad for your ancient tree, O hill yonder; the stem from which I was wont to see each territory, your smooth thorn I see not there’.

This exhibition explores Gaelic society and culture in Ireland through the lens of the learned families who served Gaelic and English lords in Ireland between 1200 and 1600 AD. As hereditary keepers of the arts, learned families of historians, lawyers, physicians, poets and musicians framed the outlook of Gaelic people. Their books, personal effects, buildings and landscapes invite us into the world of the society they served.

The exhibition includes a range of artefacts, images and interactives that highlight the reputed origins of the Gael, their customs and cultural practices, the territories, landscapes and settlements in which they lived, their relationship with the sea and with the Church, and the influential roles that the Gaelic arts and their practitioners played in society.

Image Credit: Crown DFC

Customs & Cultural Practice

Much of what is known about the customs and traditions of Gaelic society comes from their monuments and artefacts, and also from the contemporary writings of Gaelic scholars and English observers.


The inauguration of a chief involved an elaborate ritual called ‘proclamation of the name’ (ord an anma). The ceremony generally took place at a prehistoric site, which reinforced the long ancestry of the chief’s family. Chiefs also held great public gatherings (oireachtas), traditionally on Mayday (Beltaine) and on All Saints’ Day (Samhain).

Social Bonds

Chiefs showed their authority and dominance and maintained social bonds among their people through various customs. They crossed into neighbouring territories to raid cattle (creach). They expected a night’s entertainment (cuid oidhche) without notice, from their subjects, and hosted communal drinking (comól) at feasts.


Hospitality was considered a virtue at all levels of Gaelic society. Chiefs provided food, drink and entertainment on a lavish scale for their followers, especially their learned classes (gairm sgoile). At one such gathering in 1350, the O’Kelly chief of Uí Mhaine hosted a Christmas feast over several days.

Image Credit: (L) National Monuments Service, Department of Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht, (R) Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

Chiefs and Lordships


Gaelic society was made up of large groups of families (sliocht) who claimed their descent from common ancestors. The people lived in defined territories or lordships (oireacht), ruled by chiefs (taoiseach) who claimed their title through their male line. Chiefs were commonly addressed by their surnames – the O’Flaherty, the O’Madden. This social structure was sometimes reflected in the names of lordships where they referred to the male ancestor of the chief. For example, the lordship of the O’Kelly chief was called Uí Mhaine, after the ancestor Maine Mór.


There were about ninety lordships by c. 1500, sixty ruled by Gaelic chiefs and thirty by Old English nobles such as the de Berminghams and de Burgos or Burkes, who had adopted Gaelic customs and titles by the 14th century. Alliances were forged between the lordships of Gaelic and Old English families through intermarriage. Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Mhaol) of the lordship of Umhaill married Richard-na-Iarainn Burke of Mayo in 1567. People and Place The strong bond between people and place is evident in the broad meaning of the Gaelic word oireacht – a body of people, their chief and territory. The words taoiseach and oireacht are still used today when referring to the Irish prime minister and houses of parliament (oireachtas).

People and Place

The strong bond between people and place is evident in the broad meaning of the Gaelic word oireacht – a body of people, their chief and territory. The words taoiseach and oireacht are still used today when referring to the Irish prime minister and houses of parliament (oireachtas).

Image Credit: Valerie O’Sullivan

Landscape & Land Use

Land Division

Gaelic chiefs had land for their personal use and estates set aside for householders and service providers. Families under the protection of the chief owned their lands but paid taxes to him. Estates were formed and subdivided in such a way that they provided most of the land resources – timber, bog, pasture, arable, water – needed to sustain families and their tenants.


Gaelic chiefs had hunting grounds in borderland areas of their territories, some of which (Carnseefin) can be identified by their place-names. Huntsmen (kern, hound-keepers, horn-blowers) coursed hounds and set up ambushes to trap prey. They hunted red deer, boars and wild pigs, wolves, badgers and hares for food, furs and hides.


Gaelic chiefs had great herds of cattle, as many as 2,000 head. Herders moved cattle to uplands in summertime to protect crops and regenerate lowland pastures. This practice was called booleying, from the Irish buaile (milking place).


Before the end of the 16th century Ireland was more wooded than it is today. Pollen analysis has shown that scrub dominated by hazel was the more common treescape.


Research in Co. Clare and Co. Roscommon has shown that farmland in some Gaelic territories was, in fact, enclosed. Oats were the primary crop, but barley, corn and flax were also grown.

Image Credit: Fáilte Ireland

Lords of the Sea

The Gaelic lordships of the western seaboard were notable maritime powers from the 13th to the end of the 16th century. The relationship of their chiefs with the Atlantic was expressed in military operations at sea, by pirating and through control of fishing grounds. They also built tower houses to facilitate trade and communications along the coastline.


The Connacht sea lords were known for their naval ability. It is believed that their ships were similar to the galleys used by the chiefs of the Western Isles of Scotland. Such a galley features in the O’Malley coat of arms from Clare Island. Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Mhaol) was a renowned naval leader in the 16th century.

Tower Houses and Trade

The coastal tower houses of the O’Flahertys of Iarchonnacht (Connemara) and the O’Malleys of Umhaill (Clew Bay) were partly hidden in sheltered bays. These were difficult to reach at low tide without local knowledge. It was from these centres that fisheries and trade were controlled. The main exports from the lordships were hides and fish, while imports included wine and cloth from Continental and English merchants.

Fishing Grounds

Rich herring and salmon fishing grounds off the west coast were a major source of income for Gaelic society. Chiefs are known to have levied tolls on foreign fleets visiting their fishing grounds

Image Credit: Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler

Dwellings & Domestic Life

There were a variety of dwelling types in Gaelic Ireland that reflected regard for tradition, and social change. A family’s choice of residence indicated their role and status in society.


The ringforts and lake dwellings of the early medieval period continued to be used in some parts of Ireland into the 17th century. Ringforts were circular enclosed settlements, bounded and protected by earthen banks and ditches (ráth) or by dry-stone walls (caiseal). Some ringforts, lik Mackney, near Ballinasloe in east Galway and Cahermacnaghten, south of Ballyvaughan in the Burren were used over long periods. The crannóg was a lake dwelling on an artificial island, often connected to the shore by a causeway. The island was built of layers of stone and brushwood. The buildings, constructed on the dry platform, were enclosed by a timber fence. Crannóg residences were popular in upper Connacht and south Ulster in late medieval times.


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