It is very tempting to write off the entire explanation of stateless Ireland (~650 CE to ~1650 CE) with “it was basically Iceland with different agreed upon laws”. That said, stateless Ireland was basically Iceland with different agreed upon laws and a different way of administering those laws.
Like Iceland, protection was provided by non-geographic voluntary agencies. In Ireland they were called “tuatha”, and functioned much like the chieftaincy in Iceland. Any person could start a tuath, all he needed was people willing to pay money to subscribe to his tuath, but unlike medieval Iceland, the leader of the voluntary political unit did not appoint the judges.
The only functions a “king” of a tuath had was to preside over the annual assembly, to serve as high priest, and lead the tuath in war (which was very rare in ancient Ireland). He did not decide upon the laws for members of the tuath, and he could not declare war without the tuath assembly’s approval, though he did act as head diplomat.
When the king died, the next king was elected from within the family of the king. If there was no male heir, the tuatha was disbanded, and then most likely another highly respected man would form a “new” tuatha with the same members, rituals, and subscription fee and he would become king.
The assembly was made up of freemen, that is the landholding class. Those who didn’t own land but lived as tenants on a freeman’s land did not participate in the assembly. A good way to think about the tuath would be as homeowner’s association / church branch / defense organization. If any member of the tuath found the land rules, subscription fee or anything unsatisfactory, he could join another tuath or form his own to the extent that he was able to.
This threat of unlimited secession prevented any tyrannies of the majority from forming. Tenants of freemen could also join other tuatha, and you could have the tenant of a freeman who lived under a different tuath, and this prevented the freemen from using their presence in the assembly to exploit the tenants.
The reason each tuath functioned like any other tuath in Ireland, was that the tuath itself was justified by and subject to the common law of all Ireland, called Brehon Law.
Brehon law, like the common law in England and Iceland, is simply a product of the interactions of people, it’s just what emerged. Because disputes arose, and people needed to resolve them, all throughout Ireland people came up with rules within their local community - the people they know face to face, a.k.a. the first order cluster.
Then when members of different first order clusters met with each other, they would learn of each other’s laws and most often the laws would be similar, and the differences would be either be respected or the laws would be harmonized (in a not necessarily harmonious way). Eventually the common law emerged.
In this environment, certain men became very proficient in law, men who understood the intricacies and could identify when someone was invoking common law inappropriately. These men became known for their knowledge of common law and for their fair application of it, and eventually were called Brehons. The Brehon didn’t create the law as much as he discovered it.
Brehons were not appointed, they didn’t go to a university and graduate, Brehons simply emerged, and one could become known as a Brehon if he was known for having a thorough understanding of Brehon law and was known for issuing fair rulings as a judge, and people were willing to pay for your arbitration.
Whenever anyone had a dispute, he would submit to the judication of a well-known and respected Brehon. The Brehon would issue a ruling, and the loser of the ruling could either pay the entire settlement, part of it, or none. If he chose to pay part of it or none, then his tuath, either through an assembly or the king himself could outlaw him (which means no longer protect him and he would have no legal rights under brehon law).
If the tuath in general found a ruling by a brehon to be heinous, then the tuath may decide not to outlaw the defendant and obviously no longer consider the brehon who issued said heinous ruling a brehon.
If the tuath decided to outlaw a man for shirking a brehon’s ruling, then that man, in theory, could subscribe to another tuath if that tuath would accept him. Brehons could also decide if a ruling by another brehon was just, and so this man who received what he feels is an unjust ruling could still receive legal protection from any brehon who agreed with him. This is the infinite fallback of free human interaction.
The Irish brehon law sought to prevent conflicts from arising by allowing for insurance agreements called sureties. For example, two freemen who owned property could agree to a surety that if either one of them trespassed on the other’s property, they would have to pay a fine to the property owner. Usually violations of sureties resulted in the violating party simply paying the agreed upon fine and moving on, but if there was a dispute, then they would appeal to a brehon.
The fine for a given surety could not exceed an individual’s honor-price. The honor-price of an individual was related to his wealth, and a man could not enter into a contract in which he could not honor the fine for a breach of contract. This meant he couldn’t receive loans greater than his honor price. I am not sure how a man’s honor price was determined, and I can only assume it was the amount of income he could produce over a given period of time.
If a man entered a valid contract (this includes loans), in which the fine for violating the contract (or defaulting on the loan) was lower than his honor price, yet for whatever reason he was unable to pay the fine / loan, then he became a debtor to the other party who became a creditor. The creditor could then seize the assets (usually the farm) of the debtor, and the debtor would be a tenant of the creditor until he had paid back the loan or fine, at which point his status as a freeman was restored. Or the debtor could sell his assets to anyone to pay off the fine / loan, including the creditor himself.
“Wars” of a European sense did not occur in Ireland. Because kings could not tax or conscript, all participants in any war would have chosen to do so, and typically only the affected parties of a dispute would be willing to risk their lives to settle it. And so instead of wars as we know them, Ireland had feuds or brawls numbering in the tens, not thousands.
Englishmen and many historians characterized Ireland at this time to be barbaric. They point to the fact that Ireland had no final arbiter of law, no king as they had defined it, and no coin of the realm. The first issue has been dealt with at length, and the reason Ireland had no coin of the realm was because there were no legal tender laws. The reason other areas had coins with a set value and some royal seal printed on it, was because the king had commanded that that coin be used and as required to be accepted by merchants. The value of the coin was set above its value in metal content by royal decree. This way, the king could buy gold, melt it and pour it into a mold, and use one ounce of royal coinage to buy 2 ounces of gold with which to make more coinage, etc.
That Ireland didn’t have to put up with this violently enforced nonsense is not a sign of barbarism but of a level of civility the rest of the world would do well to emulate (drunkenness and Irish roses be damned).
And it wasn’t like the people of Ireland lacked the knowledge of the rest of Europe, or that they lacked the knowhow to make coins. There is plenty of evidence that the Irish at this time were certainly as well off, as scholarly and as technologically advanced as the rest of Europe, if not more so. The Irish people have also garnered far greater attention and significance than their number would suggest. Throughout the years 650 to 1650, Ireland had a population ranging from 450,000 to 960,000, compared to England and France’s populations of 7 and 18 million in 1300.
Conflicts that could be appropriately called wars in Ireland during this time are most easily found during the Viking, Norman and English invasions.
By the 840’s Vikings had begun raiding Ireland and England. In 839, Thorgest attempted to establish a kingdom in Ireland, but found it difficult to do so due to the lack of any central political authority in Ireland that could be conquered. His kingdom lasted from 839 to 845, at which point he was assassinated by Mel Sechnaill, who then led his tuath’s army to victory over a Norse army attempting to reclaim the kingdom in 848.
In 852, Olaf the White (son of the Norwegian king at the time) and Ivar Beinlaus established a kingdom in and around Dublin bay. By 902 it was abandoned. Various other Viking big shots attempted to carve out kingdoms in Ireland, all with little success.
In 1002 Brian Boru, a king of the tuath of Thomond, was able to rally enough support throughout Ireland to be recognized as the high king of Ireland. As such, he was able to raise an army and defeated a Viking army at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, which ended the Viking kingdoms in Ireland. After the victory, Boru’s descendents were unable to maintain a unified throne and most of Ireland went on as usual.
While Ireland was nominally divided into outright compulsory kingdoms, these states were unable to exert much real control outside of their capitols. The Viking invasion illustrated the difficulty of conquering a stateless society, but also illustrated how war leads to the expansion of the state. While Ireland following the battle of Clontarf was still mostly stateless, the seeds of statism had been planted.
In 1167, a Norman army from Wales invaded Ireland, which was defeated and the leader had to pay a ransom. In 1169, another Norman invasion was more successful and captured the cities of Leinster, Waterford and Dublin. By 1300 most of Ireland was nominally under Norman rule, though in fact their rule extended only to the capitols, and most Irishmen continued to live by the brehon law.
Over the next 200 years, the effect of assimilation and the visible ineffectualness of Norman law in Ireland resulted in the already limited Norman influence to be eroded. In 1531 Normans had officially gone native when the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Fitzgerald, began conspiring with the Yorkists to overthrow King Henry VII. In response, Henry had Fitzgerald killed and began a systematic colonization and establishment of real political control over Ireland.
It was found that actually securing control was far more difficult than securing the lord’s pledges, and it wasn’t until 1603 that King James I of England could establish nominal control over all of Ireland through a series of attempts at conquests, colonization and deals with local tuaths and the nominal kings that had been there since 1014.
It wasn’t until Cromwell’s brutal conquest of Ireland from 1649 to 1653 that gave Englishmen the majority of the land in Ireland that it could be said that Ireland was truly conquered by England. Cromwell had to kill over 15,000 Irish rebels and 200,000 Irish civilians of a country with only around 1,500,000 people total, or about 14% of Ireland’s total population. In comparison, Germany lost about 13% of its population during World War 2.
Britain’s conquest of Ireland, which over the course of the conquest never had a population of over 1.5 million and was separated by 21 miles of ocean, took 484 years.
In contrast, the East India Company, a British sponsored venture, was able to conquer India in 240 years (1617 to 1857), and England was able to conquer areas of France far more populous than Ireland many times during the hundred years war.
Ireland is a testament to the effectiveness of emergent defense. Ireland’s defense was not characterized by fielding large armies and submitting to rule after a psychotic and murderous game of capture the flag. It was characterized by non-compliance and literally forcing the invader to go house to house and collect taxes person by person. Stateless Ireland not only showed how effective a stateless legal order is, but also how difficult it is to conquer people who simply will not submit to being ruled, and who do not slump their shoulders and acquiesce once their flag has been captured and signatures exchanged.
When Napoleon invaded Russia, he had assumed that once he “captured the capitol”, he would “rule Russia”. But upon arriving in a deserted Moscow, the base reality of the situation set in. All that was there were a collection of buildings, streets; sewers, etc. collectively called “Moscow”, and standing in those streets were a bunch of men with muskets collectively called “the French Army”.
What is conquest? When a soldier passes through a town, is he said to have “conquered” it? Only when a population believes in the legitimacy of a state can it be said to be truly conquered. Ireland was able to stand against overwhelming force for nearly half a millennia because Irishmen saw through the empty pomp of the state. If Europeans had half the backbone that the Irish had, there would be no states today.
Stateless Societies: Ancient Ireland by Joseph R. Peden:
Property Rights in Celtic Irish Law by Joseph R. Peden:
For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard, Pg. 215:
Anarchy and the Law By Edward Stringham, Page 565:
Medieval Ireland, An Encyclopedia by Sen Duffy, Ailbhe MacShamhrin, James Moynes, Pg. 383:
Irish History - Brehon Law by Pat Flannery: