Under Brehon law, gavelkind, a form of partible inheritance, was the system of land inheritance. The Normans gave this Irish inheritance law the name gavelkind due to its apparent similarity to Jute inheritance in Kent.
Upon the death of a land-holder, his land was divided equally among his sons. The sons of concubines, if accepted by the father as being his sons, had the same rights of inheritance as their legitimately born brothers. The adopted sons of the land-holder, if any, may also receive a share of his lands, but only if the land-holder had made specific and public provision for this before his death, and the extent of land thus received by an adopted son was not necessarily equal to that received by the land-holder's own sons.
While sons received equal shares of the land, the father often prescribed the division, stating which parcel of land was to go to which son. Another known custom was for the youngest son to divide the land into equal parts, and for his brothers to choose their parcels. The eldest chose first, followed by the second, and so on, until the youngest received the remaining land. The purpose of this system was to ensure equitable division of the land.
In cases where a land-holder had no sons, his widow and unwed daughters, if any, would collectively hold a life-interest on the entire land. Their rights on the produce of the land would lapse upon their marriage or death, as the case may be. Upon the last such lapse of usufruct, the land would devolve upon the agnatic kin of the last male land-holder.
Queen Anne's law
In 1703, in the reign of Queen Anne, a law was enacted (2 Anne c6 (Ir)) by the English parliament, which is commonly known as the Gavelkind Act. This law made sectarian affiliation a primary determinant of the inheritance of land. When a Catholic died, his estate would normally be divided equally among his sons. However, if his eldest son converted to the Protestant faith, that eldest son alone would inherit all the land, and all his Catholic brothers would be disinherited. The law was intended to put land into the hands of Protestants, and to reduce the size, and therefore influence, of Catholic landed estates.
- Robinson, On Gavelkind
- Digby, History of the Law of Real Property
- Pollock and F. W. Maitland, History of English Law
- Challis, Real Property.
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