The Banchomarba

In pre-Norman Ireland people were counted as part of their father’s fine, which in modern terms can be understood as something between a family and a clan. While this may seem no different to the way kinship was counted in much of Europe where it does differ is what it meant for inheritance law. Land belonged to the individual who held it, but beyond that it also belonged to the fine, and consequentially inheritance law was written to make sure that it didn’t pass outside of it. The reason for this was that the fine’s political and military power depended on how large a territory they controlled between them, and so it was imperative that it couldn’t be passed out of their control through marriage. What this meant for women and their inheritance was that, despite the relative freedom and respect Irish women were granted compared to their counterparts in much of Europe, they would generally receive no land at all, with their father’s property being divided up amongst their brothers.

What of the brotherless girl however? Who was to receive her father’s land? Rather than being divided up amongst her male relatives, as was common even in other regions that didn’t prohibit women’s inheritance, here we see the banchomarba, the woman heir. An Irish girl with no brothers, and whose father had possessed a great deal of land held a status similar to that of the female viking ring giver. She possessed her lands in her own name, lead her people into war and answered to no man save those above her in the fine hierarchy. Unlike the ring giver however, she could not pass on more than ten percent of her lands to her children because of those rules protecting the fine’s aggregate land. Despite her status as leader or ruler she still couldn’t pass on membership of her fine to her children as a man of equivalent status would.

See Nerys Patterson’s Cattle Lords & Clansmen for further reading.

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