Sir John Davies's opinion of Gaelic Irish customs, 1618

[Sir John Davies (1569-1626), attorney-general in Ireland, conveys his impressions of the Irish, expresses his disapproval of native Irish customs and Brehon law and writes to justify the extension of English common law in Ireland.]

If we consider the nature of the Irish customs, we shall find that the people which use them, must of necessity be enemies to all good government ... and bring barbarism and desolation upon the richest and most fruitful land of the world. For, whereas by the just and honourable law of England ... murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and theft are punished with death - by the Irish custom or Brehon law, the highest of these offences was punished only by fine which they called an eiric.

... Again in England, and all well-ordered commonwealths, men have certain estates in their lands and possessions, and their inheritances descend from father to son, which gives them encouragement to build and to plant and to improve their lands, and to make them better for their posterity.

But by the Irish custom of tanistry, the chieftains of every country, and the chief of every sept, had no longer estate than for life in their chiefries, the inheritance whereof did rest in no man. And when their chieftains were dead, their sons or next heirs did not succeed them, but their tanists, who were elective, and purchased their elections by strong hand.

And by the Irish custom of gavelkind, the inferior tenancies were partible (i.e. divisible) amongst all the males of the sept ... and after partition made, if anyone of the sept had died, his portion was not divided among his sons, but the chief of the sept made a new partition of all the lands belonging to that sept, and gave everyone his part according to his antiquity.

These two Irish customs made all their possessions uncertain, being shuffled and changed and removed so often from one to another by new election and partitions; which uncertainty of estates has been the true cause of such desolation and barbarism in this land, as the like was never seen in any country that professes the name of Christ. For, though the Irishry be a nation of great antiquity, and want neither wit nor valour, and though they have received the Christian faith above 1,200 years since and were lovers of music, poetry, and all kinds of learning ... Yet which is strange to be related, they did never build any houses of brick or stone ... plant any gardens or orchards, enclose or improve their lands, live together in settled villages or towns, nor made any provision for posterity; which being against all common sense and reason, must needs be imputed to those unreasonable customs which made their estates so uncertain and transitory in their possessions.

... But the most wicked and most mischievous custom of all others, was that of 'coyne and livery' ... which consisted in taking of man's meat, horse meat and money of all the inhabitants of the country, at the will and pleasure of the soldier ... this extortion was originally Irish, for they used to lay 'bonaght' upon their people, and never gave their soldiers any other pay. But when the English had learnt it, they used it with more insolence, and made it the more intolerable; for this oppression was not temporary, or limited either to place or time, but because there was everywhere a continual war ... it became universal and perpetual ... This extortion of 'coyne and livery' did produce two notorious effects. First, it made the land waste; next, it made the people idle. For, when the husbandman had laboured all the year the soldier in one night did consume the fruits of all his labour.

This extortion of 'coyne and livery' was taken for the maintenance of their men of war. But their Irish exactions, extorted by the chieftains and tanists by colour of their barbarous seigniory were almost as grievous a burden as the other, namely, coshering, which were visitations and progresses made by the lord and his followers among his tenants, where in he did eat them out of house and home. Cessing of the kerne of his family called kernety, of his horses and horse-boys, of his dogs and dog-boys and the like and lastly, cuttings, tallages or spending, high or low, at his pleasure, all which made the lord an absolute tyrant, and the tenant a very slave and villein ...

Lastly, there were two other customs proper and peculiar to the Irishry ... the one of fostering, the other gossipred; both which have ever been of greater estimation among this people, than with any other nation in the Christian world ... they put away all their children to fosterers: the potent and rich men selling, the meaner sort buying the alterage of their children ... because in the opinion of this people, fostering has always been a stronger alliance than blood, and the foster children do love and are beloved of their foster fathers and their sept, more than of their own natural parents and kindred ... Such a general custom in a Kingdom in giving and taking children to foster, making such a firm alliance as it does in Ireland, was never seen or heard of in any other country of the world besides.

Extracts from Sir John Davies, A discovery of the true causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued, 1612, reprinted in Constantia Maxwell, Irish history from contemporary sources, London, 1923, p.351.


  1. What kind of source is this?
  2. Briefly consider the document in its historical context.
  3. 'Sir John Davies was a biased observer of Ireland in the early seventeenth century'. Discuss.
  4. Summarise the information available in the document about Ireland in the early seventeenth century.
  5. Identify any two sentences or phrases that show disapproval of the Irish. Give reasons for your choice.
  6. What are the advantages of the English system of inheritance according to Sir John Davies?
  7. What are the disadvantages of the Irish system of inheritance according to Sir John Davies?
  8. Describe briefly, as if for Sir John Davies living in the seventeenth century, how our modern system of choosing political leaders works.
  9. Do you think Sir John Davies may be exaggerating when he states, 'Yet which is strange to be related, they did never build any houses of brick or stone … plant any gardens or orchards, enclose or improve their lands, live together in settled villages or towns, nor made any provision for posterity'? Give reasons for your answer.
  10. Briefly describe in your own words, based on this source, how the practice of coyne and livery worked.
  11. 'But when the English had learnt it, they used it with more insolence, and made it the more intolerable.' Does this statement made by an English man influence your judgement of Sir John Davies's account as a historical source? Give reasons for your opinion.
  12. What, according to Sir John Davies, were the effects of coyne and livery?
  13. What, according to Sir John Davies, were the effects of coshering?
  14. Describe how fostering operated, according to Sir John Davies.
  15. Explain the following terms as they are used in the above text: eiric, tanistry, gavelkind, coyne and livery, coshering, fostering.
  16. Comment on the value of the above document as a reliable historical source.
  17. Refer to the material on Family in the section on Women in Gaelic society.
contents index