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The Brehon Law
Michael Ragan
© 1999

Part 1; Origins

Part 2; Law texts

Part 3; Clan and
social classes

Part 4; Women's Rights

Part 5; Professionals

Part 6; Land ownership
and use

Part 7; Property

Part 8; Legal tender

Part 9; Contracts

Part 10; Distraints
and fasting

Part 11; Summation
and appendix

Part 12; Glossary

divider The Laws of a culture are an in-depth reflection of its people, their mores and way of life. For the ancient Irish, the Law was the single most important factor in both public and private life in the land. The native legal system was fully developed long before the invasions of Christian, Danish or Anglo-Norman. Though somewhat disturbed by each of these events, it continued to serve until finally abolished in the early 17th century. In this study, I will attempt to provide a historical summary and a sketch of the main features of the Brehon Law and it's reflection on the Irish culture of the early Iron Age. Thus there will be a number of disagreements with later versions of the Law, especially after the 8th century CE. I will also attempt to correct some of the more common misconceptions especially as they relate to the law and the lawgivers themselves.

When It Began

We will likely never know just when the rudiments of Brehon Law were laid down. The first mention of law in ancient texts are casual comments that shed little light. For example, there is the brief mention of the Firbolg and Tuatha de Danann negotiating "…under the Laws of Battle," during the prelude to the First Battle of Moyturra. There is also brief mention that Amergin, chief poet (Fíli) of the Milesians, was skilled in "Law Craft." Such references are hardly definitive.
        Though we don't have an exact date for the birth of the Law, there are clues that indicate development during the bronze age (2,300 to 0900 BC). For example, the lack of capital punishment and fines for major offenses was quite common throughout Europe during the bronze age and very reminiscent of the Irish Law. The Warrior classes that developed during the iron age took a much harsher approach to punishment including death by various means. For this reason and others, it appears that Brehon Law pre-dated the iron age.

          We also do not know which of the early Irish cultures planted and nurtured the Brehon seed. However, since the late bronze-age Milesians were of a warrior class aristocracy, the absence of capital punishment suggests another and earlier culture. It therefor seems logical to credit the middle bronze age Tuatha de Danann with major contribution to formation of the Brehon Law, if not outright development. Whatever the case, major development of at least a rudimentary form of the law apparently began between the 18th and 13th centuries BC. A Matter of Honor

Brehon Law continued to remain the law of the Irish until finally extinguished during the Cromwellian onslaught of the 17th century. The durability of the Law for nearly 3-millenium is astounding. The reason for its unparalleled strength and longevity was the sense of honor held by the people whom it governed. The laws were laws of users. That is, they attained their authority from public opinion. They were an expression of the moral power of the people. That moral power was the code of honor reflected throughout both ancient law and wisdom texts. An individuals word was his or her bond.
        As laws of users, no law could be changed without approval of the people. Thus any enactment of a new law or a modification to an existing law could only be accomplished in open forum of the assembled people. Thus though Rí and Noble might campaign for a specific law, it took a majority vote of all tribal free citizens to effect enactment. The Brehon Law truly was a Law of the people, by the people and for the people.

The Law-givers

What is today known as the "Brehon Law" is more properly known as Fénechas, the law of the Féine, the free land tillers. The name Brehon is an Anglicization for the name Breitheamh, the scholars of law. It was these scholars that studied and maintained the large body of legal material from the earliest of times down into the near modern era in a unique role that is generally misunderstood today.
       The Brehons are frequently described as Judges, but this is in error. Their role was one of arbitrator and legal advisor to the ruler. In pre-Norman times, it was the Ri (King or Queen) that passed judgement, when necessary, following recitation of applicable law and advice from the Brehon. In the case of Monastery Law it was the Bishop who passed judgement. It was not until late 12th century that legal experts began being appointed to serve as Judges. Even then, such appointment was generally limited to Norman dominated areas. The resident Irish clung tenaciously to their old customs. Not until the 17th century was the old Brehon law at last broken. As the legal repositories and interpreters of the law, Brehons held great influence within the community. Traditionally, they were subsidized by a particular Ri and had free lands on which to graze herds and grow crops for their maintenance. Those not so attached lived on a combination of their fees and farming activities. The legal rules were frequently very complicated and many considerations had to be made. Thus outsiders could not hope to master the intricacies. However, though the field of law was limited, the Brehon had to be extremely careful, for he or she was liable for damages if a false legal opinion was made and besides forfeiting the fee, the inaccurate Brehon was also liable for damages.
        To become a Brehon, the potential legal expert had to go through a rigorous, well-defined disciplined course of study. Following completion of the course, the potential Brehon then was required to submit to an examination of already practicing Brehons. Then, only if the candidate was found worthy was he or she permitted to enter the profession. In ancient times, the Brehon was seen as a mysterious individual of inspiration over whom deity kept watch. It was believed that if a Brehon deviated from the truth, great blotches would appear on his or her cheeks. The traditional badge of office was a torque, which was believed, would tighten when false statement was made, and loosen when truth was given. The well known Brehon, Moraann, son of Carbery Cinncat (a Munster King in the first century) wore a sin or chain of gold which functioned in such fashion.

Why It Worked

The durability of the Law is astounding. Existing in Ireland long before the common era, it remained the favored system by Irish and Norman alike until the 17the century and the reign of Queen Elizabeth. This in spite of the fact that English writers were always strong in their condemnation of the Brehon law and a number of acts of parliament were taken against it. Parliament even went so far as to declare it an act of treason for English settlers to use it. In defiance of such bans, English settlers who lived outside the pale adopted Irish custom, manner of dress and even the law, all of which they became as attached to as the Irish themselves.
        The reason for the durability of the Brehon law was the people themselves. The entire existing body of literature of Ireland shows the great respect the Irish people held for justice and law, and an abhorrence for unjust decisions. As late as the beginning of the 17th century, Sir John Davies, the Attorney General for James I stated "…there is no nation of people under the sunne that doth love equall and indifferent justice better than the Irish…" The penal system that the English throne and parliament would forcibly impose thereafter, would soon bring unfortunate change.

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