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Functions of the Cantred in Medieval Ireland

Paul MacPotter

Peritia, 19 (2005) 308–32


At the beginning of the Anglo-Norman invasion all Ireland is found to be divided into cantreds. This spatial unit was the successor to the earlier trícha cét. This is an attempt to define the role of the cantred in the Anglo-Norman period and after. The cantred was, in many cases, used as a unit of infeudation. Thereafter it played a specific role in all royal counties and in many liberties. In the royal counties a ‘standard system’ of local administration evolved in which it had a clearly defined role. In the liberties its role varied: sometimes like that in the royal counties, sometimes ceasing to have any function. In the royal counties and in many liberties it had a clear role:— (i) a judicial function; (ii) po- licing; (iii) civil administration; and (iv) taxation. Generally, cantredal boundaries remained static but there were a few exceptions. Its decline is traced as part of the general decline in colonial local administration. Finally, the role of the cantred is examined in the uncolonised parts of Ireland.

This paper reports some results of a recent study that concluded that the cantred was an Anglo-Norman administrative and territorial division, the successor of the similar pre-Invasion indigenous Irish division, the trícha cét.1 A large part of the work was the enumerating and extending of the cantreds of Ireland. This demonstrated the existence of 151 certain cantreds and indicated the probable existence of a further 34. It showed that the cantred was a country-wide institution: all Ireland was divided into cantreds. It is possible to show that this cantredal structure was merely the older Irish trícha cét structure under a new name. Part of the research involved an examination of the function of the cantred throughout its existence but, since the aspect here treated was not in- cluded in the finished work, it is presented here as a separate study.

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