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Old December 26th, 2010, 09:16 PM   #1

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The Brehon Laws


A Chairde,

I am proud to write a thread on the oldest law in Europe - Féineachus, which is usually called as "The Brehon Laws". I was inspired to write this thread because of a book a recently read, and because I wished to know if anybody here is interested, or has any additional knowledge. The Book I read is The Brehon Laws : A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell and you can buy it here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brehon-Laws-Legal-Handbook/dp/1445507986/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1293415477&sr=8-1 or Download it here - http://openlibrary.org/books/OL6918617M/The_Brehon_laws


The Brehon Laws : History

The Brehon Laws were in existence in Ireland long before Christianity. They may have been there since 3500 BC, according to Irish poets of the Literate ages, or longer. But because Ireland did not develop literacy of it's own accord it is impossible to know exactly. What we do know for certain is that St. Patrick himself, as surely as he introduced Christianity and Literacy, was the Catalyst for Purifying and Setting forth the Brehon Laws. The Accepted date as set forth in the Annals of the Four Masters is nine years after the arrival of St. Patrick, i.e. 441 AD for the Completion of the work. St. Patrick, having in his years in Éire discovered the law, and where it agreed with the Christian message being embraced all over Ireland, and where it conflicted, endeavored to amend the laws to his purpose. In this he succeeded. Nine persons authored the perfection of this legal code - Patrick, Benen and Cairnech (care- ney- eck) who were bishops, Laeghaire ( Leey - rey), Corc and Dara who were Kings, and Rossa mac Trechim, Dubhthach (Doov- thawk) and Fergus the Poet who were poets. Poets at the time and Place were required to be experts in the Law, which I will come to later. Laeghaire was the Ard-Rí, meaning High King, of Ireland. He was son of Niall of the Nine hostages, a man infamous for raids on Britain and Gaul and who was responsible for bringing St. Patrick to Ireland as a slave.

The Law so set forth was the law being added to and grew until the incursions of the Danes, They were defeated but the Irish High King Brian Boru and his son were killed, and the later Kings were Kings with opposition. In the absence of a true national leader the Law stagnated but remained the Law of Ireland. Then the English arrived in the 12th Century and established a foothold equal to about one county (Dublin) but which would grow and at it's height "the Pale" held parts of five counties. Feudalism and English Law was the Rule in those parts but for the enormous majority of the country the Brehon Law was the law. The Brehon Law met a disastrous end in the 17th Century when James I and Cromwell helped establish English Rule over all of Ireland. They made the Brehon Laws Illegal, and cruel punishments were inflicted on those found to have a copy of the Laws. The English burned the copies they collected and the native Irish were forced to give up their traditions or bury their books in the dirt. The Legacy of this despicable act was that we today have inherited large parts of the Brehon Law but are missing other Large Parts, which may have richly enhanced our perceptions of Ancient to Early Modern Ireland.

The Structure of Society during the height of the Brehon Laws c.441 AD - c.1014 AD.

Ireland was at this Time ruled by Kings; The Ard-Rí was the Ruler of Ireland; There were provincial Kings under him, one for Ulster, Munster, Connaught, and Leinster each. Below that were the Rí tuatha who ruled a large piece of land probably 1/100th of Ireland. I will not go into the details of the system because there is much to get through, but King is a generic term for leader at this time. Most of these Kings were not Kings in the Modern sense of the Word, but representatives of their people. The Ard-Rí was the only Despot as such.

Of the Professional Men, the Brehons are of most interest for obvious reasons. The Brehons were judges and experts in the Law, and their position in society was distinct from every other. The Brehons were called in to judge a case where the verdict was uncertain which was rare, or where the defendant was pleading not guilty. It should be noted that for the majority of cases the Law was well known and the people of Ireland did not need to consult the judges for a decision. Unlike modern judges Brehons were liable to damages, disgrace and punishment if their judgments were unfair or unjust. The High King usually kept a favorite Brehon for himself for legal advice, usually the best in all the land. A Foreigner who stood accused in Ireland got his pick of all the judges of Ireland. What the brehon said to be just, the people of Ireland accepted as just, for this was their law, and they took pride in it. The Brehon, nor indeed the law, did not say do not do this, this is the punishment for this etc. It rather said the wise men of Ireland in generations past upon long consideration deemed this to be just. And therefore it is just. The Penalty upon someone who ignored the judgment of the Brehon was double the original and so on, because there was no police force in Ireland. The People upheld the Law. And if you were not prepared to uphold the Law, you could not live in Ireland.

Druids next. Before the Introduction of Christianity Druids were Pagan Priests and Magicians. They were highly thought of, and were members of the Aos Dána (A -oss Dawn- Ah) who were the elite of Irish society. Much has been made of the mentions of Celtic Paganism by Caesar, where he describes rituals of human sacrifice. Mr. Ginnell amongst others believe that Caesar must have mis-understood the ritual he observed or that the Celts in Ireland behaved totally differently for it is now believed that the Pagan religion in Ireland did not sacrifice Humans to the Gods.

I will now move on to Bards. Bards were the literary men of the Nation - they were teachers and scholars and sometimes experts in the law. Their connection with the Law is fairly obscure, but being of the Aos Dána I will not exclude them. They wrote of Battles and Glories and inspired the young men. They were usually particularly generous to the local chieftain who paid them. They told to stories in their local area and were often consulted on as men of Wisdom.

Files (Fill -ahs) - Poets. What can poets have to do with the Law you say? Well pre-Literacy times the Law was past on generation to generation by word of mouth, which is extremely awkward and difficult. In order to make the task a wee bit easier, it was made the primary function of the poets to weave a poem from the prose, and make all the Law Rhyme. In this way the Law was made easier to learn and the Files were made experts in the law in the one go.

Ollamhs. (Oll-aves) Ollamhs were a sub-section of the Brehon profession mainly concerned with teaching the Law. An Ollamh could be a Doctor, a Professor or a Teacher. He could carry out duties as a Brehon.

Jurors, Flaiths and Freemen owning property.

Jurors were a Group of Twelve men who were referred to when knowledge other than legal was required. They arranged the use of lands etc.

Flaiths (Flahs) were nobles, or aristocracy. They were elected by their clan and received a free allocation of Land for their trouble. In the later days their exploitation of the law was in part to blame for the decline of the Brehon Laws or more accurately, the Clan System upon which they were based.

Freemen owning Land meant and means Farmers. Céiles (Kiy- les) as they were known. They held an amount of land, almost always for the clan they were part of, and grazed cattle and sheep etc. They were an integral part of the Clan System.

The Clan System is the Key to understanding Ancient Ireland. Unfortunately the detail of it's workings were never written down or have been lost. A Clan is interchangeable with Fine (finna) and seems to mean a group of families who shared a common ancestor who they attributed with the founding of their families. The Clan was a social/political unit which owned an area of land and exerted influence politically. There were many of them in Ancient Ireland, often sharing friendships with other clans or rivalries with others. It is best understood as Ireland's system of Tribalism. It Consisted of 16 male members, when members became too old, they made their position available and younger men replaced them. The Flaith-Fine was the head of the Clan and the only member who could exert all the rights of full citizenship. The Clan system is immensely complex and would require another thread to explain it fully.

Bothachs (Buth- hachks), Sen-Cleithes (Sen-Claythas), and Fuidhirs (Food-ears)


These are the non-free classes of Ancient Ireland. My only shame or regret reading about my ancestors, which for the most part makes me proud, is the slave classes of Ireland. But, There is some consolation in the fact that A slave could rise even from the lowest ranks and acquire property and become a member of a clan, or if he could get enough men like himself together, form a new clan. I will not use the craven excuse so often heard in other quaters about other henious crimes that it was common and therefore acceptable. Even were it universal it would not be acceptable. Bothachs and Sen-Cleithes were cottiers, servants, horse boys, herds etc. who were dependent on a Flaith or Clan giving them employment. Various sources say that they were prisoners of War or their descendants but because of the rotational system of society, this was probably the original function but they became Irish who were down on their luck as well as foreign stock. Fuidhirs were the lowest class in Ancient Ireland. This was the class where Prisoners of War were truly to be found. This was the only class that did not belong to a clan, but still there was hope for even these. St. Patrick was a Fuidhir in his first visit to Ireland. Fuidhirs could not be witnesses, they could not claim compensation for the murder of a Family member, they could not prosecute under law.

*A Note on the Ranks - Each Rank in ascending scale brought a man or woman an expansion of liberty, increase in Rights and Privilege with a corresponding increase in liabilities and fines payable. Rank almost always depended upon wealth and the Brehons deemed it therefore only fair to ask more from those who could pay more. There is a law which says that each different rank was permitted to wear only a certain number of colours, in Ascending Order. But, since there is no recorded case of anyone being prosecuted for disobedience, It is generally assumed that this was common practice for public occasion and ceremony only, and that it may not always have been followed. Every Free Irish Citizen was Considered equal by the Brehon Law.

The Brehon Laws - Civil Law.

Athgabhail (Ath-Gaw-wall) is the Gaelic principle whereby Good is made from Bad, Right from Wrong, Justice from Injustice etc. The Brehons reduced all liabilities whatsoever their original value to matierial value meaning Civil/Criminal distinction did not exist, At least not the way we understand it from Common Law. Whoever had a complaint to make either summoned, or obliged the other to summon by distraining, a brehon who made a judgement on who was right or wrong and that judgment had then to be obeyed. Distraint by Fasting was the means by which you could oblige the other to pay his dues. After serving a notice of five days you sat at the door of the other without food until he should gave way and give what he owed. If he would not the debt owed by him would double. If the faster refused to take an offer of what was originally owed, before the debt doubled, he forfeited his right to that debt. The Brehon Laws, rather than providing broad principles, or Law by previous judgment, went into minute detail on every possible eventuality and set forth guidlines for Brehons to take into account every peculiar detail of the case. The Ranks of the persons involved, Self Defense, Provocation etc. The Gaelic principle was to allow each case to be taken separately and the details to be considered minutely.

The Brehon Laws - Criminal Law.

The Book of Aicill is the larger part of Ireland's Criminal Law. It was written long before St. Patrick, in the 3rd Century AD by King Cormac, thought to be Ireland's first Christian King. As previously mentioned the Brehon Laws were not Penal in nature, they imposed fines of various nature for crimes and did not imprison. There were several types of fine - eiric (reparation), einachlan (honour-price; of a victim), dire (fine), smacht (fine to a specified value of mutual agreement) and airer (fine amounting to 1/7 of honour price). The Law made distinction between Manslaughter and Murder, Double the Honour price was due to the family of the victim of each and every murder. Brehons were encouraged to give minute details of the case precedence - e.g. If you injure a man who is the sole provider for his family you must pay the fines, plus his medical costs and support his family while he is injured. Another example is that if you knock of the nail of a harp-player the fine is substantially more and you must provide the player with an income while he is injured. The Brehon Laws are founded in common sense. Trespass is divided into Human trespass and Beast Trespass. In the case of a beast trespassing it depends what beast it was to determine the fine - e.g. a pig causes more damage by rooting things up therefore the fine is a lot more. If an Idler is injured because he stands by something and it falls or hurts him then he is expected to bear it, but if the same injury occurs to a man on business he is entitled to reparations. Interestingly, if the murderer is not capable of paying the price of the fines, and neither is his clan (for payment for the crimes comes from the clan, though they could kick the member out for repeated criminal activity and give the state payment against future crimes, whereupon the criminal would become a fuidhir) but If the fines cannot be payed the fate of the Criminal is left in the hands of the family members of his victim, and they may choose to have him executed. This is the only way Capital Punishment was permited in Ancient Ireland.

The Brehon Laws - Cáin Adomnáin

At the request of a king I know I will add a small piece on the Law protecting the Innocents. This Collection of Laws was written in 697 AD to dull the savagery with which these Christians were conducting warfare, and to further define the crimes against innocent persons. They are unusually severe for the Brehon Laws, for example a man who kills a woman shall have an arm and a leg cut off before being put to death. Considering the usual nature of the Brehon laws, one cannot help but feel these were intended merely to scare perhaps, and the actual law was a death penalty. In any case, the Law says dismemberment followed by death. This law prohibited women from taking part in war, which they often did in Celtic Ireland. This brought the Irish more in line with the rest of Europe. The Cáin Adomnáin is characterized by it's listing of punishments for crimes such as Rape, Murder of Children, Murder of Clerics etc. It should be noted that these were, for the larger part, already the law as set forth in Cáin Patrick, but in order to effect a halt to Celtic Savagery more Synonymous with Paganism than Christianity, The Law was re-affirmed and new laws introduced. It is thought to be the work of an abbot, Adomnán of Iona, who was the Ninth Bishop of Iona after St. Columba. Apparently he was asked to include the exclusion of women from warfare by his mother, who was appalled by the barbarity of women on the Battle field.

The Brehon Laws - Leges Minores

Laws relating to Marriage, Fosterage, Contracts & Wills and Oaths.

Marriage

The Ancient Irish family was no constructed the same way a family is today. It is impossible to tell for certain what way the family worked but as regards the Law, Marriage was extremely loose and divorce could be obtained on slight grounds. It was also more easily obtainable for a woman than a man. As regards the equality of the female, Celtic Society was ahead of it's time. With Divorce the Woman was entitled to all the material wealth she had going into the marriage, all the material wealth her husband had given her, and as much of her husband's property as her industry within the home seemed entitled to. "Divorce" in Celtic society was different however, The Law seems to expect the separation to occur several times over the life of a couple. There are three relations between men and women recognized by the Brehons : "a first lawful wife", "a first lawful adaltrach woman" and "an adaltrach woman of abduction". They are not specifically defined, and I can find no comment on them other than Mr. Ginnell, who thinks that the first was the only one with Religious sanction, The Second and Third merely Civil, the third being stuprous. It is thought that marriage was only practiced by rich people at the time, and retained an almost wholly pagan nature, into early modern times.

Fosterage

Fosterage was a concept dear to the Irish. So dear in fact, that although just a custom, it is fully explained in the Brehon law manuscripts. Children were placed in the care of somebody in the Fine, in order to strengthen family bonds and ties of kinship. Foster parents were forced by the law to have their foster childeren well educated. The foster father was liable for any damage caused by the child, and entitled to any damages due for harm done to the child. Forsterage was ended by Death, Marriage, or Crime of the Child. Forster parents were entitled to be looked after in old age by their Forster children.

Contracts & Wills

The Brehon Laws left little occasion for Contracts between individuals because of the Clan System, and so fully provided for the property of a man after his death that a will was rarely necessary. Contracts relating to land were existent but not common. Warranty on the Sale of goods was perfectly understood and in practice. In order for a contract to be legal there had to be at least one witness from the clan upon which the contract was laid. A boy was deemed to have no sense until he was 7 and then only half sense until he turned 16. Even at 16 he could not make a contract on his own while still part of his father's household. On becoming a monk one lost the ability to make contracts, on becoming an abbot one gained the ability to make contracts on behalf of a community.

Oaths

There was no fixed form in ancient Ireland for swearing; although it is certain the men of Ireland did swear when necessary. It was customary to swear by the sun, the moon and the wind and By the men of Eireann. The highest possible oath was on the gospel, although making an oath on any relic or religious building was serious as well. It was customary to give triple assurance of your word by saying the Oath standing, sitting and lying down, known to some as the triple seal. This represented the Three states of posture in which a man lived his life.

**

Thank you for reading, those of you who did. Those of you who didn't, I don't blame ye! The Ancient Laws of my country are an Inspiration to me and I wanted to write a thread about them. This thread is just a brief outline of the Brehon Laws. It is not meant to be Comprehensive, but a taster for anybody who might be interested. I would love if people commented on this thread Gael and Gall alike, for I would like to hear opinions on the Laws and further info if anybody can provide literature, websites etc.

Last edited by General Michael Collins; December 27th, 2010 at 01:51 PM.
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Old December 26th, 2010, 10:58 PM   #2
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Quite illuminating... a lot to digest but ntl quite interesting. As a result you have re-stimulated an interest in a place, long loved from afar, and it's mythical and mystical ancient traditons.....that last I pondered around 68.
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Old December 26th, 2010, 11:06 PM   #3

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Re: The Brehon Laws


Quote:
Originally Posted by Centrix Vigilis View Post
Quite illuminating... a lot to digest but ntl quite interesting. As a result you have re-stimulated an interest in a place, long loved from afar, and it's mythical and mystical ancient traditons.....that last I pondered around 68.
It's worth it now, even if nobody else posts Thanks
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Old December 26th, 2010, 11:18 PM   #4
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Most kind no thanks were necessary. You might or might not have this link...it's been great for my personal research. Good luck and keep it comming.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/index.htm

ps. I have especially loved...

The Cattle-Raid of Cooley
(Táin Bó Cúalnge) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cool/index.htm


It's something my native brothers and North Texan and New Mexican friends and family can appreciate.
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Old December 26th, 2010, 11:24 PM   #5

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Re: The Brehon Laws


I hadn't actually, 'Tis very interesting...
Love the Táin, we used be made read it at school, I always found the ancient glories interesting.

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Old December 27th, 2010, 01:25 AM   #6

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Re: The Brehon Laws


Fascinating, thank you.
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Old December 27th, 2010, 01:27 AM   #7

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Originally Posted by Linschoten View Post
Fascinating, thank you.
You're more than welcome.
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Old December 27th, 2010, 08:39 AM   #8

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Re: The Brehon Laws


It's disappointing that you didn't mention the famous ones, such as Cain Adomnan and the laws of succession. But a good overview of the largest collection of medieval laws in Europe.

However, you did miss a few of the major points: that every free Irish citizen was equal in the eyes of the law, and the rights of women in property, education, and divorce.
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Old December 27th, 2010, 08:49 AM   #9

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Re: The Brehon Laws


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Originally Posted by Ri Fhionngaill View Post
It's disappointing that you didn't mention the famous ones, such as Cain Adomnan and the laws of succession. But a good overview of the largest collection of medieval laws in Europe.

However, you did miss a few of the major points: that every free Irish citizen was equal in the eyes of the law, and the rights of women in property, education, and divorce.
Yes, you're right, and I didn't cover marriage either but I felt nobody would read the thread if it dragged on much longer. Maybe I should have made a comparison with similar laws in Europe at the time? Would anybody really care? As for Cáin Adomnáin, I was more concerned with what is called Cáin Patrick sometimes, i.e. The Senchus Mór and Feineachus.
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Old December 27th, 2010, 08:53 AM   #10

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Re: The Brehon Laws


You focused on the most interesting bits (and the big ones). I just think that the Cain Adomnan, being what it is, is worth a brief mention. It's impact on the Irish was quite significant.
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