The Clan System (United Irishman, 1904)

1.220. The United Irishman: A National Weekly Review, No.253, Vol.11 (2 January, 1904), 2.

Extracts from Padraig Colm, ‘The Clan System and the Clan Tradition’ (1904).

Padraig Colm’s brief account of the clan system was published in The United Irishman on the 2nd of January, 1904. It provides insight into the historical background to the particularities of the Irish family unit and the ‘bloodbond’ of some relevance to Joyce’s presentation of the Dedalus family:


¶¶The clan as a political institution passed away when the chiefs of the great Northern clans fled to Rome. But the spirit fostered by the clan system remained, and continued to have a profound influence on the history that followed. That spirit still survives and must be taken into account by the sociologist and the psychologist of our people. Anyone who has lived among our peasantry — the historic Irish people — knows the family is the unit, not the individual, as in non-Celtic countries. A peasant boy does not succeed for himself, he succeeds for his family. He leaves his country without a pang, but he never forgets those of his own blood who remain in it. He turns his sweat into gold for them. One by one he takes them out to share in the prosperity he has won. The best thing a peasant can say of a man is “He was true to his own,” and the worst, “He was shame to his people.”
¶¶All of us who have the Celtic tradition understand this feeling for the clan (family we call it now). Let us examine it from the outside. First, let us try to understand, from the intellectual standpoint, the institution that fostered this loyalty to the blood-bond.
¶¶We can hardly realise what the blood-bond meant to those ancestors of ours who broke on Europe from the East. Outbursts of the primitive clan-feeling startle us when they occur in historic times. A Highland clansman dies for his chief. To avenge one death a clan in Corsica takes up the vendetta, and another clan is wiped out. When we learn that in Celtic Ireland the eric for a man’s death was paid by the clan of the slayer to the clan of the man slain, we begin to understand that those within the bloodbond, regarded themselves not merely as members of a family (in our sense of the word), but as living members of a living organism. This feeling was in the blood of the Aryan nations before they began to spread across Europe. It became less intense among those forced into the hard conditions of the North. The keenness of the struggle for existence there tended to develop individualism. The individual became the unit, not the clan. In the South-east of Europe kingship was hereditary, not elective, and the concentration of wealth and power was possible there. Nationalities were formed, and the city, or the party within the city, became the unit. In Ireland the struggle for existence was never very keen; ours was always a land overflowing with milk and honey. Kingship and chieftainship was elective, and wealth and power were diffused.
¶¶The Celt was always egoistic. But he was never individualistic in the sense that the Norse were individualistic, for he never broke with the blood bond. No Irish king inherited the accumulated wealth of a dynasty. The clan remained the unit. Neither the nation nor the individual was ever perfectly evolved in Ireland.

Colm goes on to trace out the reasons why the nation failed to evolve between the second century and the coming of the Danes with reference to the unequal relationship between independent chieftains and any form of national monarchy (with particular reference to Tara).

… The clans were little States, and the chiefs were bound to consult the clan’s interest first.
¶¶With the flight of the Earls, the history of the clan, as a political institution, ends. Then came Cromwell; the clans were left chieftainless, and the clan grounds, once held in trust for the people by chiefs they had elected, were given over to foreign soldiers and camp followers. But not even Cromwell could uproot the clan from the soil it had grown on. The O’Moores are still strong in Leix, and the O’Byrnes in Wicklow.
¶¶The clan tradition is strong to-day. We still work in groups and cliques. Between our house and the chapel there are a dozen families we don’t speak to. We still regard the family as the unit, and, consequently, we lack the individuality and force of those who live their own lives in their own way. Yet we have gone very far in a generation. There are no faction fights now, and Co-operation and Gaelic League classes are bringing our people together. There are many national movements to-day, and, so we all have a chance of finding ourselves. Thus, as the nation evolves, the individual will evolve, and the individualism our people will attain through the many movements towards nationhood will be finer than the harsh individualism of the North, with its tradition of selfishness.

Padraig MacCormac Colm