The early Irish óenach was the most prominent of all assembly practices in early medieval Ireland. Although usually translated in modern terms as ‘fair/market’, the original meaning of Óenach primarily signified a political assembly of a kingdom or territory. It was on these occasions, when the inhabitants of a territory came together, normally in a landscape of poltical, historical and sacro-religious import, that the actual business of various scales of community and kingdom was played out. We know, for instance, that an Óenach was an assembly convened by a king, possibly on royal land (mruig ríg),which held legal and judicial functions, such that, it is at major Óenaige that cáin (laws) were promulgated by early irish provincial kings over their subjects from the 8th century AD onwards. The Óenach represents an institution that is central to understanding the powers of kings in early medieval Ireland, and moroever, how civil society actually worked.
Nevertheless, the óenach is also one of the most poorly understood institutions of early Irish society. Edmund Hogan’s Onomasticon Goedelicum contains reference to roughly 80 óenaige, and if each petty kingdom in ireland can reasonably be presumed to have a specific locale associated with the practice of Óenach, then this can be regarded as one of the most ubiquitous types of royal site and assembly in early Ireland. Yet, despite the common nature of Óenaige, there is only a handful that have actually been located securely, in more than vague terms. Indeed, of that handful, virtually none have been systematically analysed. Consequently, Irish scholarship has no idea what an Óenach site looks like: how does the practice of Óenach manifest as a landscape entity? Indeed, is there a distinctive archaeological signature of this practice which might allow these places to begin being identified more systematically?
The Óenach project is a short term research project at the Department of Archaeology University College Cork which is aimed at addressing these issues. This project is funded by an IRCHSS New Ideas Grant, and is actively engaged in multi-scalar survey and interdisciplinary analysis of well known and securely identified Óenach landscapes throughout Ireland. This blog is designed to be an account of that research which allows an interactive forum for interested parties to give their views and comment on patterns observed as the findings present themselves. It is designed to encourage the establishment a basis from which the origins, nature and evolution of early Irish assembly practices can be compared and contrasted with the findings of ongoing research projects in the UK and Scandinavia which are analysing assembly places and practices throughout Europe (such as ‘The Landscapes of Governance Project‘ at the Institute of Archaeology UCL, and The Assembly Project).
As a part of this objective, The Óenach Project is hosting a conference to take place in Cork on the 24th and 25th of March in which a range of scholars will discuss various aspects of the óenach, and indeed, other types of assembly practices and landscapes throughout Ireland. It is hoped that this will provide a starting point for understanding the incredibly rich Irish evidence, and moreover, assessing the evolving role of óenaige in early Irish society.