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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 At first glance, the surviving law texts carry a generally patriarchal tone. Women seem to be relegated to subservial and domestic roles. However, this was not always the case. The Biblical admonition that woman should submit to her husband was contrary to early Irish tradition, and no doubt, vigorously opposed. Objective analysis reveals considerable evidence that the Irish women, from the earliest of times, were equal partners to the men in war, love and peace. Just as the men, women could and did hold whatever social rank and profession they desired according to ability and opportunity. This included the professions and even tribal leaderships. Consider the relating of the invasion of the Milesian force in south Munster where the opposing army was led by Queen Eriu. Then there was Fidelm, the banfili of Connacht, who met Queen Medb enroute to the great cattle raid on Ulster, one tribal leader and one seeress, both women. The mythological tales certainly give pause for consideration. However, more to the point, if we look closely at the law-texts, we can catch glimpses of a more balanced viewpoint. This is especially true in the portions of Law dealing with marriage and divorce. It is quite plain that the women were absolutely equal to men in property matters. A woman was free to wed whomever she chose. Neither husband nor wife could sell, barter or make contract for the property of the other. Either could divorce the other. Upon divorce, property was divided by the same ratio as was held by the each when wed. For example, if the bride had twice as many cows as the groom upon marriage, the woman kept twice as many cows as her ex-husband upon divorce. Free to wed and even divorce at their own choosing; absolutely independent in matters of property, the women of the Irish were not chattels by any stretch of a biased imagination. Even the Crith Gablach in discussing the privileges of man of noble class, states "To his wife belongs the right to be consulted on every subject." A look at history seems in order.
          From earliest times in Ireland woman stood emancipated and eligible for the professions, rank and fame. Even in the older legends we find references to Druidesses, women physicians and women sages. The Annals of the Four Masters chronicles the death of Uallach, daughter of Muinnechan, the Chief Poetess of Ireland in the year 932 of the common era. The story of the recognition of Cormac Mac Airt as the true King identifies a Ban Bruighid (female hosteler) as a key player. Women frequently took up arms and join the men in battle. It was only in 697 that they were at last exempted from warfare by the law known as Caín Adamnan. The reason for the law was that Adamnan's mother Ronaít observed women in combat hacking each other with sickles. She prevailed on her son to bring about a ban of such barbarous activity. While it is true that much within even the early law-tracts indicate a diminished role for Irish women, we must consider the source and times.
        As noted earlier, the surviving law-texts are almost entirely those recorded within the confines of Christian monasteries. Also, as noted, these texts were primarily compiled for local consumption and application. They do not reflect the law and customs of the independent pagan clan. At the time of writings the various law tracts reflect current conditions at that particular location only.

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