Days of Future Passed

“…It was the custom for the firstborn of a tribal leader to dwell among a rival tribe once a truce had been declared.  If the least of that tribe’s members died in a renewal of hostilities, the rival chieftain’s offspring was forfeit.  The practice kept the peace, sometimes.” (Bonanno, 1985, p. 18). Emphasis on sometimes.  As any Gael will tell you, ‘peace’ is ephemeral, flitting about like a moth in this life, and possibly into the next.

When I first read this passage, I did a double-take.  It perfectly describes what I’ve come to believe about the role of hostages in keeping the peace and enforcing justice in ancient Irish society.  So, why the double-take?  The passage comes from a Star Trek novel I cracked open this week.  It was particularly eyebrow-raising since the author applies it to a highly advanced civilization – known for its abhorrence of violence – which kept up the practice of hostageship into modern (or from our perspective, futuristic) times.  The ancient Gaels did not, however.  Perhaps if they had maintained the practice of hostageship, the bloodshed owing to the recent Troubles in Northern Ireland may have been avoided.  It might be interesting to point out here that capital punishment was not the norm – even for violent crimes – in ancient Ireland.  Neither was imprisonment.  But, I digress.

Getting back to the opening passage of this week’s blog and why I say it represents what I envision as the practice of Gaelic hostageship:  only fragments survive of Di gnímaib gíall (On the Actions of Hostages), a brehon law tract.  “The annals contain numerous references to hostages….The Annals of Ulster for the year 737…record that Cathal mac Finguini (king of Cashel) conducted a hosting (slógad) against the Leinstermen from the Uí Fáeláin.  Hostages were normally taken to ensure the continued submission of a territory over which a king claimed sovereignty.  If the authority of the overking was flouted, the hostages were forfeit, and they might be killed, blinded, or ransomed.” (Kelly, 1995, p. 174).  Kelly goes on to say that “hostages were usually the sons of kings or lords.  Occasionally, however, a daughter was given as a hostage.”

Ireland’s most famous hostage-taker was the legendary king Niall Noígiallach, founder of the first great dynasty, the Uí Néill (the O’Neills).  He likely ruled during the last quarter of the 4th century AD, although his life remains in shadow.  His name means “Niall of the Nine Hostages,” these acquired from the nine tuatha (petty kingdoms) of the subject tribe known as the Airgialla (Hostage-Givers).  (Zaczek, 2000, p. 50).

As Kelly has found, “law-texts and wisdom-texts stress the political importance of hostages held by a king.  One legal passage states ‘he is not a king who does not have hostages in fetters’ (géill I nglasaib), and Tecosca Cormaic [Section 1] lists ‘hostages in fetters’ among the things which are best for a king.” (1995, p. 174).

I wonder how President Obama would take to having a son of Osama bin Laden living in the White House?


Bonanno, M.W. (1985). Dwellers in the crucible. New York: Pocket Books.

Kelly, F. (1995).  A guide to early Irish law.  Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Zaczek, I. (2000). Ireland: Land of the Celts.  New York: Sterling.

This entry was posted in History, Law, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Days of Future Passed

  1. Leslie says:

    Can you tell us if the hostages were held in prison or in a horrible, confined place which we now think of when we hear the term hostage? Or were the hostages allowed some dignity and comfort?

    • kerryross says:

      Mmmm…I could be really mean and make you wait until the triology is published, but….Royal hostages were just that — royal. From what I can tell, these hostages were treated with the respect a royal guest would receive. What they didn’t enjoy, however, was their freedom. They might have been forced to wear hostage collars, allowing their guards to chain them up at night or in other situations where it would be easy for them to slip away. While hostage collars survive in the archaeological record and are mentioned in Irish literature, this is conjecture on my part. Mmmm…you’ve just given me another plot idea. Thanks!

  2. Jesse Hill says:

    Stumbled across this on Google, but I had to remark how interesting it was. Great blog!

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