Slavery and Hostages in Early Medieval Ireland



Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave, you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver).  These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other Tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.

Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred).  Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.


The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.

When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:

  • Suriety for legal cases
  • Submission to subordinate kings
  • To secure political agreement

The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement within the Tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).

Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this is likely due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.

The terms used when referring to hostages depend on the period we are looking at:

  • Gíall (continuous use)
  • Aitre (11th century onwards)
  • Brága (12th century onwards)

11 thoughts on “Slavery and Hostages in Early Medieval Ireland

  1. Excellent clear and concise piece Shane. I’m in the US and do not have any firsthand knowledge or awareness of this utter nonsense article as you rightly described it, opposing BLM.

    I do wonder if this is the start of finding the historical thread for the shadow work we can do as white and Irish Americans. As clearly evidenced here, there is a history of slavery amongst ourselves and that was learned from even earlier eras and societies I presume? It’s not that the cruelty and abuse of slavery and racism is inherent to being of white European / Irish dissent, rather that a very long and deep cycle of inherited abuse and slavery is.

    Starting to look at and process these cycles of abuse is the place where we can do active work rather than often watching from the sidelines unsure what to do.

    I thank you for your initial steps in this education and process, and am curious of your thoughts about this interpretation of our current and historical context?


    1. i doubt very much that this was the authors intention as he pointed out at the start that his intetion was to try to make any irish-american critics of BLM look ignorant of their own history. IN fact though, I think that he has done the opposite. He has highlighted that the Irish absolutely did suffer and inflict chattel slavery in the first millenia as well as suffering other forms of slavery since i.e indentured servitude.

      Your angle though is an interesting one, I’d be inclined towards wanting to see that explored more. I personally believe that the history of the Irish people, in the main, will see us exonerated from any claims that we carried on the cycle of oppression when we got ourselves into a position of strength anywhere that we went and in Ireland.


  2. interesting article. although I’m still trying to figure out what point exactly that you are making, are ye saying that because there has been a history of irish people taking slaves before the middle ages that that means the irish couldnt have been taken as laves in the 1600’s? and that irish people couldnt have had it as bad or worse worse than african slaves in the 1600’s?? are ye saying that because irish people took part in slaving people before the middle ages that this negates any right for irish people to complain about being oppressed and taken as slaves hundreds of years later?? also what are your sources for the irish slavery system, ye mention a source for hostage taking but ye mention nothing for the irish slave story?! also, surely those who were being slaved by the irish were also themselves Irish, so in fact Irish people would of course have suffered slavery as well as inflicted slavery. are ye saying that such generational trauma couldn’t have carried on in the Irish but could have carried on in the african community?.


    1. No, I’m not saying they couldn’t be taken. The point was to counter the oppression Olympics that takes place trying to lessen the plight of African slaves in an erroneous attempt to say we suffered more and people not knowing the difference between indentured servitude and slavery.

      The sources mentioning slavery are mentioned in text with the relevant law tracts (along with the section on slavery found in Fergus Kelly, Guide to Early Irish Law)


  3. Is there a continuation of this article? It ends rather abruptly. What were the years considered “early Irish society?” Your description of slavery in Ireland is pretty dire – can you compare the suffering of Irish slaves to Black slaves for the sake of clarity? Also what was happening regarding slaves in Ireland at the time of the colonization of the Americas, and were any of those practices replicated whatsoever, as the Irish began to settle the “new world?” Still unanswered questions here………..


    1. There isn’t a follow up because it serves primary as information on slaves and hostages in Medieval Ireland.

      By early Irish society I’m referring to the time the laws were written down (7th Century) and the centuries preceding it. And the situation was dire was slaves. You had zero status is society and considered a “non-person”. They couldn’t receive any compensation for any wrong-doings towards them, had no way of climbing the social ladder, weren’t capable of making any contracts etc. The practice of keeping slaves had died out with centuries by the time people were colonising the world.


      1. you seem to be saying that because irish people in early irish society particpated in slavery and were victims of slavery, that irish people have no right to hihglight the oppression of irish people in later centuries… ??


      2. “the practice of keeping slaves had died out with centuries by the time people were colonising the world” ??
        i dont know if youre being deliberately vague here or not, but what do ye mean by that?

        are ye trying to say that in ireland the practice had stopped or are ye trying to say that across the world the practice had ceased and only began again with the european colonisation of africa?

        Even if it had ceased as a practice by the Irish, what exactly is your point with relation to the article?


      3. here is a line from the set of paragraphs at the beginning of your article: “I will not go into this post any deeper, but I bring it up solely to illustrate how ignorant the believers of this utter raiméis are of Irish history and our own practices of keeping slaves and our treatment of them.”

        so how would the fact that irish people were chattell slaves and took chattel slaves in ‘early irish society’ have any bearing on the arguments of those people who also highlight the treatment of irish slaves/indentured servants in the 1600’s??

        putting what yer saying here in a simplified context this seems to be yer argument :

        some irish americans : “why are black nationalists still blaming the white man for all of their ills, and still blaming slavery for the problems within black american communities?”

        black nationalists : “because the white man is to blame, all white people are inherently racist, we need reparations, no one has suffered the way that we have, we were slaves for a couple of hundred years, we have no responsibility for how other ethnicities may view us now today, ”

        some irish americans : “no one suffered the way you guys have?! the irish people have suffered colonialist oppression for 800 years in ireland! before that we suffered slaving, raping and pillaging also from centuries of Viking raids! And even in our early irish soceity slavery was a part of it! Centuries later when irish people first came to the americasthey faced brutal conditions and even that was still better than what they were facing back home in ireland from their colonialist british oppressors! They were not in ther Americas of their own free will! the irish people were forced to suffer several human made ‘famines’ over the centuries in ireland as well as murderous military ethnic cleansing campaigns by the british! the irish had to faced scorched earth tactics by the british! our religious practice was outlawed and ruthlessly oppressed! we were humiliated for centuries! we were betrayed constantly by those we thought were our allies in europe and then later by america! our language and customs were outlawed and oppressed! then after decades of oppression in america we fought to earn a position in america where we had a greater level of respect. we participated fully in the institutions of america and we worked hard, wanting only the opportunity to be able to work and provide for ourselves as opposed to asking for special favours being given to us to make up for past and present grievances”

        black nationalists “no but we have this generational trauma, you guys weren’t chattel slaves in the 1600’s and being a chattel slave of Europeans and Americans for a couple of centuries totally overrides anything else that may have happened to you guys, black African slaves in america had it so much worse than everyone else on this planet, you guys dont understand because ye’s are white, you guys need to just listen to us and accept that what we are saying is right”

        author of this article comes in : oh actually ‘some irish americans’, here is an article about how in fact 1000 years before the atlantic slave trade, irish people were chattel slaves in ireland and irish people did also take chattel slaves in ireland, if you guys dont know about that, then that means you guys dont know what youre talking about with respect to anything else. and im totally opposed to you guys raising the fact that irish people have suffered greatly yet don’t use this to excuse the problems that still occur in various irish communities today


  4. like how does the fact that irish took chattel slaves and were took as chattel slaves in the early centuries AD, have any bearing on some irish americans crticism of BLM in the 2010’s/2020’s ??

    unless black nationalists in BLM are using slavery for an excuse as to why there are problems in black american communities today and people from irish american communities are refuting that by saying that they arent the only people to have and enforced slavery?

    if anything, you pointing out that irish people, just like the africans, both kept slaves and were taken as slaves, reinforces any arguments that black americans cant use past slavery as an excuse for the problems in black american communities today


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