Monday, 17 March 2008


The Brehon Laws

Early Irish law refers to the statutes that governed everyday life and politics in Ireland during the Gaelic period. They were partially eclipsed by the Norman invasion of 1169, but underwent a resurgence in the 13th century, and survived in parallel to English law over the majority of the island until the 17th century.[1] "Early Irish Law" was often, although not universally, referred to within the law texts as "Fenechas", the law of the Feni, or the freemen of Ireland. More recently it has been anglicized as "Brehon Law". The word "Brehon" is an Anglicisation of breitheamh (earlier brithem), the Irish word for a judge. The laws were originally held in an oral tradition. They were recorded in the Old Irish period (ca. 600–900 AD) and the texts reflect the traditional laws of pre-Christian Ireland mixed with Christian influence and and juristic innovation. These secular laws existed in parallel, and occasionally in conflict, with Canon law throughout the early Christian period.

The laws were a civil rather than a criminal code, concerned with the payment of compensation for harm done and the regulation of property, inheritance and contracts: the concept of state-administered punishment for crime was foreign to Ireland's early jurists. They show Ireland in the early medieval period to have been a hierarchical society, taking great care to define social status, and the rights and duties that went with it, according to property, and the relationships between lords and their clients and serfs.



No single theory as to the origin of early Irish law is universally accepted. Early Irish law consisted of the accumulated decisions of the Brehons, guided entirely by an oral tradition. Some of these laws were recorded in text form by Christian clerics. The early theory to be recorded is contained in the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már. According to that text after a difficult case involving St. Patrick, the Saint supervised the mixing of native Irish law and the law of the church. A representative of every group came and recited the law related to that group and they were written down and collected into the Senchas Már excepting that any law which conflicted with the law of the church was replaced. The story also tells how the law transitioned from the keeping of the poets, whose speech was "dark" and incomprehensible, to the keeping of each group who had an interest in it. The story is extremely dubious as, not only is it written many centuries after the events it depicts, but it also incorrectly dates the collection of the Senchas Már in the time of St. Patrick while scholars have been able to determine that it was collected during the eighth century, at least three centuries after the time of St. Patrick. [2] Some of the ideas in the tale may be correct, and it has been suggested by modern historians the Irish jurists were an offshoot from the poetic class which would have previously preserved the laws.

For some time, especially through the work of D. A. Binchy, the laws were held to be conservative and useful primarily for reconstructing the laws and customs of the Proto-Indo-Europeans just as linguists had reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European language. For instance, Historians have seen comparisons between Irish and Indian customs of fasting as a method of shaming a wrongdoer, in order to recover a debt or to demand the righting of a wrong.[3] Other legal institutions prominent in early Irish law but foreign to most contemporary legal systems, such as the use of sureties have been considered as survivals from earlier periods.[4] More recently historians have come to doubt such attributions. While few historians would argue that all Irish law comes from church influence, they are today much more wary as to what material is a survival and what has changed. There is still the possibility to suggest a past for a certain legal topic based on Irish legal terms being cognate with terms in other Celtic languages, although that information does not mandate that the practice described by the legal term has not changed.[5]

Today the legal system may be seen as some mixture of earlier law influenced by the church as well as adaptation through methods of reasoning which the Irish jurists would have sanctioned. It is not, however, agreed as to just how large a role each of these aspects may have played in the creation of the legal texts, but rather it represents an important scope for debate.[6]

Substantive law

Women and marriage

Cáin Adomnáin, a Christian Law, promulgated by the Synod of Birr in 697, sought to raise the status of woman of that era, although the actual effect is unknown.[7] Regardless, although Irish society under the Brehon Laws was male-dominated, women had greater freedom, independence and rights to property than in other European societies of the time. Men and women held their property separately. The marriage laws were very complex. For example, there were scores of ways of combining households and properties and then dividing the property and it's increase when disputes arose. Later, under the church laws, women were disadvantaged. For example, in this later era, a woman could not pass her property onto her children. Divorce was provided for on a number of grounds (eg. impotence or homosexuality on the husband's part), after which property was divided according to what contribution each spouse had made to the household. A husband was legally permitted to hit his wife to "correct" her, but if the blow left a mark she was entitled to the equivalent of her bride-price in compensation and could, if she wished, divorce him. Property of a household could not be disposed of without the consent of both spouses. However, under church law, women were still largely subject to their fathers or husbands and were not normally permitted to act as witnesses, their testimony being considered "biased and dishonest". [8]


While scholars have discovered a fair amount on the way in which Irish Kingship worked, relatively little is actually related by the early Irish laws. In particularly very little material survives regarding succession practices which have been reconstructed as the system of Tanistry; a section of the Senchas Már tract on status was apparently devoted to succession, although little survives. Most early material on succession was collected by Domnal O'Davoren in the 16th century[9] Another seemingly important omission is that the laws never mention the High King of Ireland centered at Tara.[10] Likewise, the laws only once mention the practice of individuals being ineligible for kingship if they are blemished (a practice which is evidenced more widely elsewhere, especially in Irish mythology). However, that mention is only incidental to a regulation on the compensation for bee stings when the legal tract Bechbretha relates the story of Congal Cáech who was deposed on account of being blinded by a bee.[11]

A fair amount of the material on kings relates to their position within the Irish laws of status, which see, of which the king is ranked at the top, parallel with the Bishops and the highest level of poets. Three levels of kings are referred to in the status tracts, such as Crith Gablac: rí benn, (the king of peaks) who is identified elsewhere as the rí túaithe (king of a [single] túath), who is below the rí buiden, (the king of bands) who is identified with the rí túath (king of [multiple] túaths), who in turn is below the rí bunaid cach cinn (the ultimate king of every individual) who is known also as the rí ruirech (king of great kings) and rí cóicid (king of a province).[12]

To a certain degree, kings acted as agents of the law. However, while other kings in Europe were able to promulgate law, such as Alfred the Great and his Doom book, the Irish had very little authority to do so. They could collaborate on law authored by the church; Cáin Adomnáin has the names of many kings attached to it who would apparently have acted to enact/enforce the law. Additionally, a king could issue a temporary law in times of emergency. Of note though, is that kings could not, by their own authority, issue permanent law codes.[13] King would also act as judges, although the extent of their power as opposed to that of professional jurists has been debated. One law tract, Gubretha Caratniad, describes a brithem giving advice to a king (in this case, advice which seems flawed but which is actually correct) who then gives it as judgment in a case. It is unclear, therefore, how much a king would be able to make judgments by themselves and how much they would have to follow the advice of a professional. It is clear, however, that a king would have to give judgment in accordance with the laws. However, the kings do not appear to have stood as judges in all cases and in some cases the professional jurists would take that role.[14]

One subject which the laws do cover is how to fit the king in within the rest of the legal system. The king was not supposed to be above the law. In fact, some stipulations apply specifically to the king. However, as the king was the most powerful individual, and the one with the highest honor, in an area it was difficult to enforce the law against him. Although it might be possible to proceed against the king as against any other, the laws also had an innovative solution to this quandary. Instead of enforcing against the king directly, a dependent of the king known as an aithech fortha (substitute churl) would be enforced against instead, and the king would be responsible for repaying the substitute churl.[15] The laws also specify certain cases in which a king would lose his honor price. Such included if he were to do the work of a commoner, if he moves around without a retinue, and likewise if he shows cowardice in battle, although, again, it is unclear how often such stipulations were followed through.[16]

Finally, the laws have a few comments on how the king arranges his life and his holdings and how many individuals should be in his retinue. In particular, Crith Gablac gives a highly schematized and unrealistic account of how the king spends his week.: Sunday is for drinking ale, Monday is for judging, Tuesday is for playing fidchell, Wednesday is for watching hounds hunt, Thursday is for sexual union, Friday is for racing horses, and Saturday is for judging (a different word from Monday, but the distinction is unclear).[17]


The Irish law texts describe a world which was highly segmented, each person would have a set status which would determine what legal tasks they could undertake and what recompense they were to receive when a crime was committed against them. Críth Gablac and Uraiccecht Becc are two of the main texts focusing on lay land holders, the latter of which also briefly covers the status of skilled individuals and of clerics.[18] Other texts describe other groups, such as Uraiccecht na Ríar which focuses on the status of poets.

Much would depend upon one's status and each rank was assigned an honor that was quantified in an honor-price which was would be paid to them if their honor was violated by certain crimes. The types of food one received will as a guest in another's house or while being taken care of by an injury would vary based on status. Lower honor-prices could limit one's ability to act as sureties and as witnesses. In addition those of higher status could "over-swear" the oaths of those of lower status.[19]

Ecclesiastical grades

In part the seven Ecclesiastical grades originate outside of Ireland although their position in Ireland has been shaped by local thinking. They are given in Uraicecht Becc as liachtor (lector), aistreóir (doorkeeper), exarcistid (exorcist), subdeochain (sub-deacon), deochain (deacon), sacart (priest), and escop (bishop)[20] although Bretha Déin Chécht puts the lector in a third position. These grades are subsumed into the Irish law of status, but it is unclear to what degree the conformed to all of the various status stipulations. It may be noted however that, according to Críth Gablac, the seven grades of the church are the basis for the theoretical seven lay and poetic grades (see below). At the same time it is clear that the number seven is an insular invention, in the Eastern Church there were normally five or six grades (sometimes more), and the Western Church typically had eight or nine grades.[21]

Although the various different groups were theoretically on par with each other, the church apparently had supremacy. Críth Gablac states "Who is nobler, the king or the bishop? The bishop is nobler, for the king rises up before him on account of the Fiath; moreover the bishop raises his knee before the king."[22] This relative ranking is reflected elsewhere.

Lay grades

Irish law recognizes a number of grades of people from unfree up to kings which are ranked within the status tract. Little space is giving to the unfree, which is reflective of the lack of dependence upon slaves as opposed to other societies, such as Ancient Rome. However, there were slaves mentioned in the laws, both male and female, and the term for a female slave, cumal, became a broader currency term. As unfree, a slave could not be a legal agent either for himself or in the case of another[23] In addition to the wholly unfree, there are a few individuals who are semi-free. The sencléithe (hereditary serf) was bound the work the land of his master, whereas the fuidir had no independent status nor land of his own, but could at least leave as he might desire.[24]

Others might not be of full status based on their age or origins. The status of children would be based upon that of their parents and could not act independently of them. The rights of sons would increase with age, but they would not fully increase until after the death of the father. A young son who is just out on his own was known as a fer midboth (a man of middle huts), apparently someone who would occupy a hut upon the land of their father. These person would be semi-independent but would not have the full honor-price of a free man until they reached 20.[25]. Even after a certain age a "Son of a Living Father" would be expected to be dutiful to his father and could only set up an independent household with the permission of his father.[26] In addition, those from outside of a túath would normally have a low status as status was based not only on property but also on familial connections.[27]

There are two main ranks of commoners, the ócaire (lit. young lord) and bóaire (cow lord), although Binchy takes the ócaire to be a recent offshot of the latter who would have less property but still be a freeman. In addition are the bóaire febsa (bóaire of quality who had an honor-price of 5 séts. The highest commoner was the mruigfer (land man). Either of the last, according, Binchy, may be the "normal bóaire who appears within the law texts.[28] The three ranks of commoners, at least according to the status tract, vary in the type of clientship they would undertake as well as the property which they would hold, although it is unclear how such would work in practice. The commoners would apparently have to cooperate in farming as they would not have enough property to own a whole plough-share or all the rights in a mill.

Above these are a series of lords who apparently would have had clients of their own - the primary factor in lordship, as well as more property and a higher honor-price. According to Críth Gablac, each grade of lord increase by 5 séts for each rank, and would also increase in the number of clients. In addition, when they travel they would be expected to maintain a retinue with them. A lord would not only have greater ability, but also would need to take greater steps to preserve their honor, lest they lose their lordship. The order of lords varies, but in Críth Gablac it is as follows: aire déso (lord of vassals), aire ard (high lord), aire tuíseo (lord of precedence), and the aire forgill (lord of superior testimony).

After the normal lords are the tánaise ríg, who was supposed to be the heir to the throne. He had higher property qualifications that the aire forgill, but his prime claim to higher status was that he would one day be the king. The individuals with highest status described in the laws are the kings. The basic king would have an honor price of seven cumals, and the higher kings would have yet a higher status. As the individual with highest status, the king especially was expect to be careful in keeping his honor, and cowardice as demonstrated in flight from battle, as well as taking up manual labor might make him lose his honor-price.[29]

These grades are generally equated with the seven grades of clerics, although there is some discrepancy as to how the grades line up, with various texts doing it in different ways and selecting only certain lay grades and ignoring others.

Poetic grades

Paralleling the status of the lay grades are the grades of the filid (poets). Each poetic rank corresponds to a particular lay (and ecclesiastical) rank, from Bóaire to king. In Uraicecht na Ríar these are given as fochloc, macfuirmid, dos, cano, clí, ánruth, and ollam.[30] These are given the same status as and the same honorprices as the lay grades, and hence have effectively the same rights. The qualifications for each grade is where the difference occurs. The qualifications fit into three categories, the status of the poet's parent or grandparent, their skill and their training. Particular number of compositions are give for each rank, with the ollam having 350.

In addition to the seven main ranks, there are variously named ranks below these which seem to be names for unskilled poets, the taman, drisiuc, and oblaires. Their honor prices are no more than a pittance, and their poetry is apparently painful to hear.[31]

Other grades

Other professions could give status based on the profession and the skill, but no professions besides poets could have a status as high as the bishop, king, or highest poet. For instance in one text the jurist or brithem had three ranks, and the highest was given an honor price only half way up the other scales. The ranking of a brithem was based on his skill and whether he knew all three components of law (here: traditional law, poetry, and canon law), or fewer. A craftsman who worked with wood could have similar honor-prices but these were based on his craftsmanship. However, a physician and a blacksmith among other ranks would have an even lower honor-price, less than half of what the brithem could achieve and the honor-price apparently did not vary based on his skill. Other professionals, such as the maker of chariots or engravers had still lower honor-prices (less than that of a bóaire). Finally a few professions receive only meagre ranks, as with the lowest poets, and the authors may be actively making fun of some of the professions, such as comb makers.[32]

Change in status

Status in early Ireland was not entirely rigid and it was possible for a family to raise their status if for three consecutive generations the grandfather, and the father, and the son had the property qualifications of a lord, or the poetic qualifications of a higher level poet, etc. then the member of the third generation would become a lord, etc. On the other hand the son/grandson of a lord or a poet, etc., who did not have the proper qualifications would not have that status. However, the grandson of a person with a certain status could have that status themselves, assuming they had the proper qualifications, even if their father did not.

This created an interesting in between stage. A commoner who had the property qualifications but not the parentage to become a lord is variously referred to as a flaith aithig, (a commoner lord), a fer fothlai (a man of withdrawal), or an aire iter da airig (an aire [here with a broader meaning than lord] between two [types of] aires). According at least to Críth Gablac, these individuals would have higher status than a commoner but lower than that of a full lord.[33] In the case of poets, a poet with skill qualifications but who did not have proper training is referred to as a bard. (Although it has been suggested that poets who were not allied with the church were given this rank for that reason). [34]

In addition, there were ways in which, under extra-ordinary circumstance, an individual could achieve higher status without having parents with such qualifications. If one chose to become a briugu (hospitaller). Such a person has twice the normal property qualifications of a lord of whatever grade (and this can extend, in theory, up to the qualifications of a king). Further, a briugu had to have his house open to any guests, which included feeding no matter how large the group - they would lose their status if they ever refused a guest.[35] Because of that stipulation, the position of briugu was potentially ruinous and this picture is created in a number of tales such as in Togail Bruidne Da Derga and Scela Mucce Meic Datho. A commoner might also ascend to the status of a lord if he is a aire échta (lord of violence). Such a person helped individuals to avenges deaths committed in another túath for a limited time after the cessation of hostilities, although the details are unclear.[36] Poet who had the skill and training of one rank, but not the proper familial qualifications, could have the status of the next lowest rank.


A member of the property-owning classes could advance himself by becoming a "free client" of a more powerful lord, somewhat akin to the Roman system of clientship The lord would make his client a grant of property (sometimes land, but more usually livestock) for a fixed period of time. The client would owe service to his lord, and at the end of the grant period would return the grant with interest. Any increase beyond the agreed interest was his to keep. This allowed for a certain degree of social mobility as an astute free client could increase his wealth until he could afford to have clients of his own, thus becoming a lord in his own right.

A poorer man could become a "base client" by selling a share in his honour-price, making his lord entitled to part of any compensation due him. The lord would make him a smaller grant of land or livestock, for which the client would pay rent in produce and manual labour. A man could be a base client to several lords simultaneously.

Avoidance of capital punishment

Early Ireland has the distinction of being one of the first areas to shun capital punishment. While a murderer might be killed for his/her crime, such was the option of last resort. Instead the murderer typically had to pay two fines. One is the fixed éraic or cró, that is either a "body fine" or a "wergild" and the other is the Log nEnech, an honor price which varied according to the status of the victim. Should the murderer be unable to pay by himself, his family would normally be responsible for paying any amount which the murderer could not pay. Should the family be either unable or unwilling to pay the victim's family would take custody of the murderer. Here, the victim's family had three options, the first were to either await payment or to sell the murderer into slavery. However, a third possibility is that they would kill the murderer, although even then the monetary possibilities may have discouraged capital punishment in some cases. In certain cases, though, where the killer and victim were relatives, capital punishment could not be carried out as it was make the executioner commit fingal or "kin-slaying". In a second situation the murderer could also be killed. That is, if the murderer was at large and the fines had not been paid, the victim's family was apparently responsible to launch a blood feud.[37] It is, of course, unclear how often capital punishment was carried out in situations where it would be licit without any records other than the legal tracts. However, it is clear that that punishment could be avoided in most cases.

The origin of this particular legal position is as unclear as the rest of Irish law. However, the so called "Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már", a late introduction to the main collection of Irish law makes a claim on how this came about. It declares that prior to the coming of St. Patrick, Irish law demanded capital punishment in all cases of murder. However, Christianity was supposed to preach forgiveness. The two fines are apparently a compromise so that the murderer is both punished and forgiven.[38] However, it is at least dubious whether or not this is a valid historical account given both the lateness of the story (originating hundreds of years after Patrick's time), and the tendency of Christianity to ask for "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" in Exodus 21:23-25 which was reflected in many other Early Medieval European legal systems.[39]


Early Irish law recognized a number of degrees of agnatic kinship, based on common male ancestor. The closest kin group which is defined gelfine (bright-kin), the descendants of a common grandfather (including the grandfather's relationships to his descendants and his children), which is followed by the derbfine (certain-kin), the descendants of a common great grandfather, the iarfine (after-kin), the descendants of a common great great grandfather, and the indfine (end-kin), all of which contain the old Irish word for kin or family, fine.[40] The derbfine is, by far, the kin-group with is most commonly mentioned.[41]

One member of the kin-group would be its leader, known either as ágae fine (pillar of the family) or cenn fine (head [literally] of the family). He would apparently be a senior member selected from the kin-group based on various qualifications. One of his main responsibilities was to take responsibility for members of the kin-group, acting as a surety for some of the actions of members, making sure debts are paid (including for murder), although if the member could not be made to pay, the fee would normally be paid generally by members of the kin. He would also be responsible for unmarried women after the death of their fathers.[42]

As mentioned above, the actions of a member could result in a fine having to be paid by other kin. However, in certain cases the kin-group could refuse liabilities, although in some cases only after they been proclaimed as a non-member, which might occur if the member did not carry out his responsibilities to the kin. One particularly heinous crime in early Irish law was fingal (kin-slaying), because it was against a group which should have some right to trust. The killer would have to give up their kin-land, but would still be liable to pay the fines incurred by other members of the kin.[43] An undutiful son might also be excluded from certain kin rights as well, especially as sons of a living father general did not have significant rights of legal actions except as permitted by the father.[44]


Early Ireland practiced partitive inheritance whereby each of the sons would receive equal portions, and any grandsons whose father predeceased their grandfather would equally split their father's portion. Early Irish law typically did not distinguish between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children, so any recognized, even those of concubines, would receive a portion. On the other hand, disobedient sons were automatically excluded. In addition, adopted children could receive a portion of kin land although this their status as an inheritor and the amount they would inherit would have to be explicitly stipulated.[45] When the Normans entered Ireland and saw this practice they named it Gavelkind on account of its similarity to Saxon inheritance in Kent

Under normal circumstances the youngest son divided the land into equal parts. The eldest chose first, followed by the second and so on until the youngest received the remaining land. This was intended so that the division of land would be made equally. Other laws suggested that the eldest son would have automatically claims to the buildings. More rarely a few would divide the land in his lifetime.[46]

While a daughter with brothers would not normally receive a portion of the inheritance in land, she would inherit movable property. However, should there be no sons, some of the law tracts allow the daughter to inherit, although no more than a certain value. However, unless her husband was a foreigner to the túath and had no land of his own, the land would not descend to her sons, but instead return to the other members of her aganatic kin group. However, there was apparently pressure for a woman with land to marry a relative to keep the land within the kin group.[47]

Finally, if a man died without children of either gender, the property would be distributed between his next nearest kin, first the descendants of his father, and if there were no such descendents, then it would be between the descendants of his grandfather, and so on. Any extra land which daughters could not inherit because of female inheritance limits, would also go to the kin.[48]

Land rights of kin

The potential for inheritance by even distant kin meant that, in Early Irish law, those kin all had some sort of right in the land. Land which had been inherited was known as finntiu (kin-land). Certain rights of use of land by the owners kin seem to have existed. Moreover, it was possible that land could be redistributed if a certain branch of the family had few descendants and hence larger shares in the land per person. In such a case even some more distant cousins could acquire the land, although they would have benefited less than closer kin.[49] Apparently because of these potential claims it could apparently be difficult to alienate kin-land. However, even when selling land which an individual had acquired separately from inheritance, a portion would go to his kin.[50]

Legal theory

Changes in the legal system

Ireland had no regular central authority capable of making new law and hence the Brehon laws were entirely in the hands of the jurists. As such some early scholars felt that the legal system was essentially unchanging and archaic.[51]. However, more recently scholars have noticed that some methods of change were laid out within the Brehon laws. In particular, Cóic Conara Fugill mentions 5 bases upon which a judge must base his judgment and at least three offer some room for change fásach legal maxim, cosmailius (legal analogy), and aicned (natural law) (the other two are roscad, a type of legal verse which jurists were trained to create and hence marked a statement made by someone who knows the law [52] and teistimin (scriptural testimony)). However, it has not yet been studied in detail how exactly these three innovative methods were used.[53]


The Use and application of maxims is clearly a location where the principles of Irish law could be recorded. Any number of maxims may be found within the Early Irish Laws and perhaps the reason why we are unable to derive a coherent theory of law from them is because that there or very many a great many different topics. Some do seem to represent a legal theory, such as the maxim in Bechbretha that "no-one is obliged to give something to another for nothing" and that in Bretha Crólige that "the misdeed of the guilty should not affect the innocent". These maxims do say more than one might think since legal systems often have problems balancing the interests of all.[54] The majority of maxims, however, treat with more specific problems. The main problem, however, with our understanding of maxims is that while one law text tells us that they were used as a basis of judgment we know little else about them; we do not even know how exactly maxims could be used for judgment. A further complication is that we know very little about the origin of maxims (or even what the jurists thought was the origin) and similarly we do not know whether jurists were introducing new maxims regularly or whether all maxims were supposed to be from time immemorial.

Natural law

Early Irish law mentions in a number of places recht aicned or natural law. This is a concept apparently borrowed from, or at least akin with, European legal theory, and reflects a type of law which is universal and may be determined by reason and observation of natural action. Neil McLeod has identified with concepts that law must accord with fír (truth) and dliged (right or entitlement), two further terms which also occur frequently although they are never strictly defined in Irish law. Similarly, the term córus, (law in accordance with proper order) is used in some places and even in the titles of certain texts. The laws tells stories of how truth could apparently cure a person and falsehood could cause blisters. These were two very really concepts to the jurists and the value of a given judgment with respect to them was apparently ascertainable. McLeod has also suggested that most of the specific laws mentioned have passed the test of time and thus their truth has been confirmed, while other provisions are justified in other ways because they are younger and have not been tested over time.[55]

Legal procedure

The early Irish laws are devoid of a state centered enforcement mechanism and at least some of the judges were outside the state apparatus. This did not mean that the laws were ineffective, rather the methods of enforcement of legal procedures worked in such a way to fit with the conditions of society.


Sureties were the prime enforcers in early Irish law. They were not government officials but rather sureties were normally appointed when a contract or other legal relationship. Berad Airechta, the law tract which deals most with sureties, offers formulaic speeches which the contractors may have said in order to appoint sureties and to make the sureties swear to perform their duties properly. In addition to sureties appointed for specific contracts, relatives might be expected to act as sureties in cases which they were not specifically bound. However, there is also evidence that most sureties would either be relatives or lords of the contractor.[56]

Three types of sureties appear in Irish law. The naidm (and in earlier texts macc refers to a surety who is expected to enforce payment from the contractor. Apparently, in standard contracts two naidmain (plural of naidm) were appointed by each party. The word naidm, however, might also refer to the "binding" of a contract. If the contractor whom he is appointed for defaults it is the naidm's responsibility to attempt to make the contractor pay. If however he does not act or does not put in sufficient effort he loses his honour price. In attempting to extract payment, the naidm had a wide range of powers. He might distrain the contractors property, imprison or even violently attack the contractor. Apparently, as with witnessing, someone could not be a naidm to a contract worth more than his honor-price.[57]

The ráth is generally referred to as a "paying surety". Should the contractor default it ráth's responsibility to pay the debt from his own property. He would then be able to attempt to extract the money from the contract. Assumedly, the ráth would only pay if the naidm had been unable to make the debtor pay. Since acting as a ráth could mean financial lose that might not be repaid, the law tracts apparently see the position as dangerous and as one of three "dark things of the world"[58]. However, it is clear also that the ráth, like the other sureties, would be paid a fee when they were hired which would potentially make up for the risk undertaken. Again, a person was not able to act as a ráth in contracts worth more than his honor-price although it was possible that one might act as a ráth for only part of a contract, in which case they would be responsible for payment only up to their honor-price. [59]

Finally, the aitire is a surety who would become a hostage in the case of a default. Once the hostage was in captivity, the debtor had ten days to pay the debt in order to have the hostage released. If the hostage was not released by then the expenses to the debtor could become exorbitant. The aitire would have to pay his own ransom by paying his body-price which would be expensive and the debtor would have to pay twice that fee plus the surety's honor-price. The aitire could enforce the debt to him by himself.[60]

Relationship to the Church and Church law

Brehon law was produced in the vernacular language by a group of professional jurists. The exact relationship of those jurists to the church is subject to considerable debate. However, it is clear that Brehon law at times were at odds with and at times influenced and were influenced by the Irish Canon Law.

Vernacular Church law

A number of law tracts which originated from the church were written in Old Irish. The most famous of these is Cáin Adomnáin. This law was apparently created in 697 under the influence of Adomnán and was ratified by a number of ecclesiasts and Kings whose names were included in the text. The idea of the law was apparently to supplement the punishments of Brehon law for crimes against women, children, and clerics. In some ways it follows the ideas embodied in Brehon law although there are differences. For instance in its use of capital punishment which is generally avoided in Brehon law.[61]

Canon law

More contradictions exists with Latin Canon Law such as in the Collectio canonum Hibernensis (Irish Collection of Canons) than with Vernacular Church law. Brehon law allows polygyny (albeit while citing the authority of the Old Testament) and divorce among other actions which cannon law expressly forbid. [62]

At the same time it is clear that the two legal systems have borrowed from each other. Much Latin terminology has entered into Old Irish and into the legal system, such as a type of witness teist from Latin testis. The Collectio Canonum Hibernensis also borrows terms found in Brehon law such as rata from Old Irish rath, a type of surety. The later also suggests more substantive borrowing from Brehon Law into Canon Law.

There are a number of places where it is clear that law was borrowed in one direction or another. Large sections on the Church have been translated wholesale from the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis into a section of the Law tract Bretha Nemed.[63] Other overlaps have been suggested, in many cases where biblical references seem to appear in the Brehon law.[64]. of course, it is not always clear in cases where both cite the same rule which came up with the rule originally. In addition to substantive law, other legal aspects may be seen in both, such as the propensity towards the use of analogy. [65]

Relationship of jurists with the Church

The above similarities have led scholars to ask what relationship did Brehons have with clerics. Some scholars, known as anti-nativists, have suggested that the Brehons were nothing more than clerics who had training in secular law. In addition to the similarities and evidence of borrowing from Canon law and the Bible, scholars who hold this position ask how any non Clerics could have been sufficiently literate at this period to create the texts. Other scholars, known as nativists, have asked how the differences could arise if the authors of Canon and Secular law were indeed the same.[66]

Legal texts

Scholars have found over 100 distinct texts which we know about, with their survival ranging from complete texts, though various degrees of partial preservation, and in some cases only as a name in a list and even, in one case, a tract that scholars have decided must have existed. Almost all of the secular legal texts existing in various manuscripts have been printed in D.A. Binchy's six volume Corpus Iuris Hibernici and a few texts which were left out of that work made it into another book intended as a companion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici.[67]

Senchas Már

A number of the legal texts may be categorized together on account of related authorship. The largest such grouping in the Senchas Már a collection of at least 47 separate tracts which were compiled into a single group sometime in the eighth century although the individual tracts vary in date. It may also be mentioned that the tracts are almost certainly written by a variety of authors, although there have been suggestions that certain authors wrote more than one of the included tracts.[68]. The collection was apparently made somewhere in the north midlands.[69] The Senchas Már tracts have been subjected to the greatest amount of glossing and commentary in later manuscripts. Moreover, one of the few examples of Old Irish glossing has been given to the various texts of Senchas Már. These glosss were apparently made in Munster.[70]

The text has been arranged into three thirds -- three was apparently a number of particular importance to the Irish, a number of laws were grouped into threes which were called triads, a practice common also among the Welsh. One scholars has recently suggested that there were a number of groups of six including one single tract, generally from the first third, two contiguous tracts generally in the second third, and three contiguous tracts from the third third. Each group of six is theorized to be related to each other in various ways.[71]

Pseudo-historical prologue

A few specific texts may be usefully mentioned here. The Pseudo-Historical Prologue was not an original part of the Senchas Már, but was actual a later addition which attempted to give a historical background. It should be noted that there is also an original introduction distinct from this text. The Pseudo-Historical Prologue was concerned with the changes in the Brehon law which it suggested occurred at the coming of Christianity. In effect, Saint Patrick is supposed to have blessed the mouth of a poet, Dubthach Maccu Lugair, who then gave judgment on a particular case regarding the killing of an assistant to Saint Patrick and then continued to recite the rest of the law leaving unaltered those laws which were acceptable to God and altering those which were not. This case is also giving as the reason why Brehon law did not favor capital punishment; while the murderer of Patrick's assistance was killed and immediately sent to heaven because he was forgiven by Patrick, future murderers were to be pardoned as Patrick would not be around to assure their forgiveness and assent to heaven. There is, however, no reason to think that the events described actually occurred although they do offer important incite in how the Brehons thought about their own law.[72]

Cethairslicht Athabálae

Literally the four paths of distraint, a process by which one was allowed under certain circumstances to seize goods owed by another. However, in Brehon law one does not immediately own the property, rather animals are taken to an intermediary land to wait in case the original owner will pay the debt. As time passes, the animals are slowly forfeited. This tract deals primarily with four types of distraint, divided based on the waiting period. The waiting period apparently varies based on the circumstance although no one has yet determined what exactly those circumstances are. Other material present includes information of other aspects of legal procedure and a long section where the author asks and then answers multiple times, why the tract is called Cethairslicht Athgabálae.[73]

Cáin Sóerraith and Cáin Aicillne

These two texts, "The Regulation of Noble Fief" and "Regulation of Base Clientship", deal with the structure of lord client relations. These two tracts regulate the circumstances of entering into clientship as well as setting forth what goods and services were given by the lord in return for what goods and services the client would give.[74]

Cáin Lánamna

This tract, the "Law of Couples", deals with not only regulations for marriage but for other unions as will. It lists tens types of coupling including three types of formal marriage, five unions where there is sexual relations but no sharing of property or cohabitating, union by rape and union by two who are mentally incompetent. The text then goes on to deal with common property as well as how it is divided upon divorce.[75]

Córus Bésgnai

This vaguely named tract has been translated as both "The Ordering of Discipline" or "The Regulation of Proper Behavior"[76]. This is a tract which describes the relationship between the Church and the people as a contract; the people have to donate tithes and first fruits and the like, while the church must provide services such as baptism and make sure that its members must be honest, devout, and qualified.[77] This is also a text which has been used both to try to show the influence of the church on Brehon law and to also to point to certain aspects which canon lawyers would dissaprove of.


At the beginning of the second third of the Senchas Már is collection of "Heptads" or collections of seven related rules (although in some cases there are more than seven). This tract actually has no single theme, rather it is useful for what it can say about various aspects of Brehon law. The tract includes sixty five heptads, although more appear elsewhere in the Senchas Már.[78]

Bechbretha and Coibes Uisci Thairdne

"Bee-Judgments" and "Kinship of Conducted Water" are two tracks which some scholars believe to have been written by the same author.[79] These two tracts both present legal information about relatively new animal and technological introductions to Irish law from elsewhere in Europe, Bees and Watermills. Hence they show the Brehons adapting to new legal challenges. In particular, this is one area where it is possible to see legal analogy in action.[80]

Slicht Othrusa, Bretha Crólige and Bretha Déin Chécht

Sections on Sick-Maintenance, "Judgments of Blood-Lyings and Judgments of Dían Cécht are three contiguous tracts in the third third of the Senchas Már. The first two deal with the practice of sick-maintenance (see above) and the third deals with payments for injuries. Unfortunately Slicht Othrusa only survives as a fragment. These tracts give us most of our knowledge on the law regarding injury, while a few other tracts exist which cover specific situations.[81]

Nemed texts

In addition to the school which produced the Senchas Már, scholars have detected a few other legal schools which produced texts. The next most fully formed is the Nemed or Bretha Nemed school, named after two of the texts which it produced. This school, which has been referred to as "poetico-legal" apparently was located in Munster, based on references which the authors make to the King of Munster and to two monasteries within Munster.[82]

Bretha Nemed Toísech and Bretha Nemed Déidenach

These two texts, the "First Judgment of Privileged Ones" and the "Final Judgment of Privileged Ones" are the later scribal names of two texts written primarily in the obscure roscad style of poetry. The first describes the roles and status of the church, poets and various other professionals. The final primarily with the status and duties of poets although it contains other material as well.[83] The first is also one of the few early texts which scholars have assigned an author, namely three brothers hua Búirecháin who are a bishop, a poet, and a judge.[84]

Uraicecht Becc

The small primer is a text on status which has the greatest breadth in coverage, including not only commoners, kings, churchmen and poets, but also a variety of other professional groups, including judges. However, it does not go into as much detail for each group and level as do other status tracts.[85]

Other texts

A number of other texts exist which have not been grouped together as coming from either the same author or from the same school. This is not to say, however, that no affiliation existed for the authors of other texts, only that scholars have not been able to find them. A few important texts may be mentioned.

Berrad Airechta

Literally "Shearing of the Court", Fergus Kelly has suggested that this might mean more loosely "court summary" or "synopsis of court procedure."[86] The text deals with a number of topics for judicial procedure, but most importantly on the role of the various types of sureties. Perhaps even more interesting, it covers the ways in which sureties would be appointed to do their duties and hence it is informative on the way contracts were created.[87]

Críth Gablac

"Branched Purchase" is the title of what is perhaps the most well known tract on status and certainly the most accessible as an edition has been published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. The text goes into details on the grades of commoners and nobility: what property should they own, how large should their house be, how should their clientship be arranged. The text however present a schema which would not have been used in actuality. For instance, included is the clientship information for even the highest nobility who would not have acted as clients. The text also presents a certain amount of interesting information on the duties of king.[88]. In addition to the main text their a poem which immediately follows it in the manuscript, but there has been some debate as to whether this is actually a part of the tract.[89]

Di Astud Chor

"On the Binding of Contracts" is a two part text which deals with when contracts are binding and when they are not. The first section deals with general rules regarding when contracts are binding, including an analogy to the fact that Adam's trade of an apple for access to the Garden of Eden was valid even though it was an uneven contract because Adam knew it was such. The second half deals with cases in which a contract may be over turned. The tract is also interesting because it is a collection of material from varying dates and places and as such much more uneven in content than other tracts.[90]

Uraicecht na Ríar

The "Primer of Stipulations" is a text on the status of poets. It includes information on compensation based on status, but it also includes information about the poetic craft such as the number of type of positions one must have to be a certain grade. It also describes the difference between a fili and a bard.[91]

Later texts

While most of the legal tracts were composed during the seventh an eighth centuries, there were some independent tracts as well as a significant amount of glossing and commentary which began often within a century of when some of the tracts were composed.

Glosses and commentary

The most voluminous legal material written after the eighth century takes the form of notes upon that earlier material. There have been numerous questions about the degree to which such glossators understood material which they were working upon.[92] However, it is also possible that in some cases jurists used the earlier material for a legitimate method of explaining the ways in which the law had come to work. This material takes two main forms: glossing between the lines of a text, and mini texts which begin with a quote from earlier legal material.

The 16th Century jurist Domnall O'Davoren created a glossary in which he quoted from many other sources. In many cases it is only text which includes certain quotes as well as information about certain whole law tracts. Its primary focus, however, is to list and define certain words, particularly legal terms, and as such has provided significant help in understanding the oldest laws.[93]

Later legal tracts

While the majority of legal texts were written before the ninth century, a few were written later. "The Distribution of Cró and Dibad" is a Middle Irish text which deals with extracting fines from a killer and dividing a dead man's property.[94] Additionally, the legal text Cóic Conara Fugill(the Five Paths of Judgment) was originally written during the earliest period but received a number of subsequent recensions afterward. The text deals with how a court case should proceed based on the substance of the intended argument. It is not clear, however, what distinctions are made in this text.[95]

Case law

Early Irish Law is almost completely lacking in case law. What exists are a few brief references in a number of texts, both legal and non-legal, which reference the laws in action. For instance Bechbretha mentions the case of a king who lost his throne because he was blinded by a bee.[96]. Additionally, the Latin Life of St. Columba refers to the case of a man who killed another and the subsequent punishment which he was supposed to endure.[97]

Decline of the Brehon laws

Following the Norman invasion, areas under Anglo-Norman control were subject to English law. Henry II who created the Lordship of Ireland was also by chance a legal reformer within his empire, and started to centralize the administration of justice and abolish local customary laws. However, in the centuries that followed, a "Gaelic re-conquest" eventually came to cover the larger portion of the island. The majority of Norman barons eventually adopted Irish culture and language, married in with the native Irish, and adopted Irish legal custom. By the 15th century, in the areas outside of the England-controlled Pale) around Dublin and some notable areas of joint tradition in northern and eastern Munster, Brehon law became the de facto legal writ.

However, the Brehon Laws would never be adopted on an official basis by the English-controlled government of the Lordship of Ireland, although some modernized concepts have been readopted in the laws of the Republic of Ireland. The imposition of the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 and the policy of Surrender and regrant effectively outlawed the Brehon Law. In one exceptional case, vestigial rights have been recognised in recent Irish case law, in reference to the survival of Brehon law-governed customary local fishery rights in Tyrconnell, as these also amounted to an easement under Common Law.

The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the mid-16th century and the Flight of the Earls in 1607, brought the end to the rule of Brehon law and the extension of English law across the entire island.


The Brehon Laws and associated themes from Celtic Ireland have been fictionalised in the Sister Fidelma novels by Peter Tremayne.

Brehon law is the usual term for Irish native law, as administered in Ireland down to almost the middle of the seventeenth century, and in fact amongst the native Irish until the final consummation of the English conquest. It derives its name from the Irish word Breitheamh (genitive Breitheamhan, pronounced Brehoon or Brehon) which means a judge.

That we have ample means for becoming acquainted with some of the principal provisions of the Brehon code is entirely owing to the labours of two men, O'Curry and O'Donovan, who were the first Irish scholars since the death of the great hereditary Irish antiquarian, Duald Mac Firbis (murdered by an English settler in 1670), to penetrate and understand the difficult and highly technical language of the ancient law tracts. After much laborious work in the libraries of Trinity College Dublin, in the Royal Irish Academy, in the British Museum, and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, O'Curry transcribed eight volumes full of the so-called Brehon Laws containing 2,906 pages, and O'Donovan nine more volumes containing 2,491 pages. Nor was their labour by any means exhaustive. There are many more valuable Brehon documents still untranscribed in the library of Trinity College, in the British Museum, and in the Bodleian, and possibly some fragments in the Royal Irish Academy and other repositories. From the labours of O'Donovan and O'Curry the Government published in the Master of the Rolls series five great tomes and a sixth containing a glossary. But these five large volumes do not by any means contain the whole of Irish law literature, which, in its widest sense, that is, including such pieces as the "Book of Rights", would probably fill at least ten such volumes.


The first two volumes of the Brehon Law, as published, contain the Seanchus Mór (Shanahus More) or "Great Immemorial Custom" which includes a preface to the text, in which we are told the occasion of its being first put together and "purified", and theLaw of Distress, a process which always had much influence in Irish legislation. The second volume contains the Law of Hostage Sureties, also a very important item in ancient Irish life, the law of fosterage, of tenure of stock, and of social connections. The third volume contains the important document known as the "Book of Acaill" which is chiefly taken up with the law of torts and injuries. This book professes to be a compilation of the various dicta and judgments of King Cormac Mac Airt who lived in the third century, and of Cennfaeladh, a famous warrior who fought in the Battle of Moyrath (c. 634), and afterwards became a renowned jurist, who lived in the seventh. The fourth and fifth volumes consist of isolated law tracts, on taking possession, on tenancy, right of water, divisions of land, social ranks, the laws relating to poets and their verse, the laws relating to the Church, chiefs, husbandmen, pledges, renewals of covenants, etc.

Although all these tracts go commonly under the generic name of the Brehon Laws, they are not really codes of law at all, or at least not essentially so. They are rather the digests or compilations of generations of learned lawyers. The text of the Seanchus Mór, for instance, which is contained in the first two volumes, is comparatively brief. That part of it relating to the law of immediate seizure must, according to M. d'Arbois de Jubainville, have been written before the year 600, but not before the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, which probably took place in the third century. The rest of the Seanchus is not so old. The year 438 is that given by the Irish annalists themselves for the redaction of the Seanchus Mór which according to its own commentary was the joint effort of three kings, of two clerics, of Ross a doctor of the Bérla Féine or legal dialect, of Dubhthach a doctor of literature, of Fergus a doctor of poetry, and of St. Patrick himself, who struck out of it all that "clashed with the law of God". It is impossible to say how far certain parts of the law may have reached back into antiquity and become stereotyped by usage before they became stereotyped in writing. The text of the Seanchus Mór itself is not extensive. It is the great amount of commentaries written by generations of lawyers upon the text, and then the additional annotations written upon these commentaries by other lawyers, which swells the whole to such a size.


We are able to gather fairly well from these books the remains only of what must once have been an immense law literature, the social organization of a pure Aryan people, closely cognate with the ancestors of the modern Gauls, Spaniards, and Britons; and from what we learn of the ancestors of the present Irish people we may deduce a good deal that is probably no less applicable to the other Aryan Celts.

Broadly speaking, the country was governed by a ruling class called "Kings", of different grades, the highest being the King of Ireland, and next to these were the nobles or princes called in Irish Flaith (pronounced like flah or floih). In all there were, including kings and flaiths, nominally at least, seven different kinds of aires (arras), or nobles, and provision was carefully made that a wealthy farmer, or peasant grown rich through cattle, could, if he possessed twice the wealth of the lowest of the seven, and had held it for certain generations, become an aire, or noble, of the seventh, or lowest degree. Thus wealth and descent were carefully balanced over against each other. "He is an inferior chief whose father is not a chief", says the law. But it took care at the same time not to close to anyone the avenues to chieftainship. Under ancient Irish law the land did not belong to the king or the chief or the landlord, but to the tribe, and the lowest of the free-tribesmen had as much an inalienable right to his share as had the chief himself. In process of time parts of the tribal territory appear to have become alienated to subtribes or families, and the chief, who always exercised certain administrative duties with respect to the land, appears to have had certain specific portions of the tribal land allotted to himself for his own use, and for the maintenance of his household and relatives. He was in no sense, however, what is now known as a landlord, although the whole tendency of later times was to increase his power at the expense of his tribe and vassals.


The great bulk of the ancient Irish cultivators were the Féine (Faina) or free-tribesmen from whom the Brehon law is called in Irish Féineachas, or the "Law of the Free-tribesmen". In process of time many of these in hours of distress naturally found themselves involved in something like pecuniary transactions with their head-chiefs, and, owing to poverty, or for some other reason, were driven to borrow or accept cattle from them, either for milk or tillage. These tribesmen then became the chieftain's céiles (kailas) or vassals. They were known as Saer-stock and Daer-stock Céiles. The Saer-stock tenant — saer means free in the Irish language — accepted only a limited amount of stock; and retained his tribal rights, always most carefully guarded by the Brehon law, in their integrity. But the Daer-stockdaer means unfree — tenant, who took stock from his chief, became liable for heavier but still carefully defined duties. For instance for every three heifers deposited with him by his chief, he became liable to pay his chief the "proportionate stock of a calf of the value of a sack with its accompaniments", and refections for three persons in the summer, and work for three days. The tribesman, it will be observed, by accepting stock from his chief parted to some extent with his freedom, but hisinterests were carefully looked after by law, and it was provided that after food-rent and service had been rendered for seven years, if the chief should die, the tenant should become entitled to the stock deposited with him. If, on the other hand, the tenant died, his heirs were partly relieved from their obligation. It will be observed that while this to some extent resembles the well-known Metayer system, so common on the continent of Europe, where the landlord supplies the stock and the land, and the tenant the labour and the skill, it differs from it in this, namely that in Ireland the saer- and daer-stock farmer did not supply the land, which was theirs by right of their free tribesmanship. In this way, namely, by accepting stock from their overlords, a rent-paying class grew up in Ireland, to which undoubtedly in time a large proportion of the ancient Irish came to belong, but the rent was paid not for the land but for the chief's property deposited with the tenant.

But outside of the Free-tribesman (the Féine and Céile) there grew up gradually a class of tenants who were not free, who in fact must have been in something very like a state of servitude. These were known by the name of fuidirs or bothachs, i.e. cottiers. They appear to have been principally composed of broken men, outcasts from foreign tribes, fugitives from justice, and the like, who, driven out of or forsaking their own tribes, sought refuge under some other chief. These men must have been natural objects of suspicion if not of detestation to the free tribesmen, and, being themselves absolutely helpless, and having no tribal rights of their own, they became entirely dependent upon their chief, who settled them down upon the outlying or waste lands of the tribe, or possibly at times upon his own separate land which as chief he held in severalty, and imposed upon them far heavier tolls or rents than the law permitted to be exacted from any other members of the tribe. As Ireland became more troubled by Northmen, Normans, and English, this class of tenant increased in numbers, so many tribes were broken or destroyed, and the survivors dispersed to find refuge in other tribes and under other chiefs. In this way there grew up gradually, even under Irish law, a body of tenants to whom their chiefs must have stood in the light of something like English landlords.


A curious Irish social unit was the fine (finna), consisting of one group of five persons and three groups of four, all males. The head of the family, called the ceann-fine (Kan-finna), and four members made up the first group, called geil-fine, the other three groups of four each were called deirbh-fine (true family), iar-fine (after family), and inn-fine (end family). On the birth of a new male member in the geil-fine the eldest member of the group was moved up into the next four (the deirbh-fine), and one out of that four into the next four, and one out of the last four was moved out of the fine altogether, into the clan, or sept, this last male thereby ceasing to be a member of the family, or fine. The sept, to use the English term, sprang from the family, or the family after some generations grew into the sept and then into the clan, contracting a greater share of artificiality in proportion to its enlargement. Because, while all the members of the sept could actually point to a common descent, the descent from a single ancestor in the case of the whole tribe was more or less founded upon fiction. The portion of territory ruled over by a sub-king was called tuath (too-a) and contained within it, at all events in later times, members of different descents. The chief, both of the tuath and the sept, was elected by the tribe or clansmen. The law of primogeniture did not obtain in Ireland, and the selection was made of the man who being of the chieftain's near blood could best defend the tribe and lead it in both war and peace. "The head of every tribe", says the Brehon Law tract the Cain Aigillne, "should be the man of the tribe who is the most experienced, the most notable, the most wealthy, the most learned, the most truly popular, the most powerful to oppose, the most steadfast to sue for profits and to be sued for losses." As early as the third century, in a well-known piece of Irish literature, Cairbre, afterwards King of Ireland, is depicted as asking his father Cormac Mac Airt the question: "For what qualifications is a king elected over countries and tribes of people?" And Cormac in his answer embodied the views of practically every clan in Ireland down to the beginning of the seventeenth century. "He is chosen", said the king, "from the goodness of his shape and family, from his experience and wisdom, from his prudence and magnanimity, from his eloquence and bravery in battle, and from the number of his friends." He was, however, always chosen from the near kindred of the reigning chieftain.


There seems to have been no hard and fast line drawn between civil and criminal offences in the Brehon law. They were both sued for in the same way before a Brehon, who heard the case argued, and either acquitted or else found guilty and assessed the fine. In the case of a crime committed by an individual all the sept were liable. If the offence were one against the person, and the criminal happened to die, then the liability of the sept was wiped out, for, according to the maxim, "the crime dies with the criminal". If, however, the offence had been one causing damage to property or causing material loss, then the sept remained still liable for it, even after the death of the criminal. This regulation resulted in every member of the sept having a directinterest in suppressing crime.

There was always a fine inflicted for manslaughter, even unpremeditated, which was called an eric. If the manslaughter was premeditated, or what we would call murder, the eric was doubled, and it was distributed to the relatives of the slain in the proportion to which they were entitled to inherit his property. If the eric were not paid, then the injured person or family had a right to put the criminal to death. This acceptance of a blood-fine or eric for murder was a great source of scandal to the English, but, as Keating points out in the preface to his history of Ireland written in Irish, it was really a beneficent and logical institution, made necessary by the number of tribes into which Ireland was divided. Nor was the punishment, though short of the capital one, by any means light, and it at least insured compensation to the murdered man's relatives, a compensation amounting to the entire "honour-price" of the murderer. For every man, from king to fuidir (the lowest class of tenant), had what was in Irish law termed his eineachlan, or honour-price, and this was forfeited in part or in whole, according to well-defined rules for various crimes. It was always forfeited for taking human life. Clergy we find more heavily punished than laymen. A man of high rank was always fined more than one of low rank for the same misdemeanour. An assault on a person of rank was more severely punished than one on an ordinary man. Fines for crimes against the person were particularly heavy; two cows, for instance, was the fine for a blow which raised a lump but did not draw the blood. The punishments awarded by the Brehons were of a most humane character. There is no trace of torture or of ordeal in ancient Irish law.

From the earliest times in which the English invaders made the acquaintance of the Brehon law system they denounced it with the most unsparing invective. But all the Norman chiefs who ruled over Irish tribal lands governed their territories by it in preference to English law, and in Elizabeth's reign the great Shane O'Neill pointed out with bitter irony that if his Irish laws were so barbarous as the queen's ministers alleged, it was passing strange that three hundred families had migrated from the English pale and the beneficent operations of English law to take refuge in his dominions. As early as 1367 an English Statute of Kilkenny denounced Brehon laws "wicked and damnable". "Lewd" and "unreasonable" are the epithets applied to it by Sir John Davies. "In many things repugning quite both to God's law and man's" is how the poet Edmund Spenser characterized it.

The student, however, who views these laws dispassionately today, and merely from a juridical point of view, will find in them, to use the words of the great English jurist Sir Henry Maine, "a very remarkable body of archaic law unusually pure from its origin". It is, in fact, a body of law that reflects for us early Aryan custom in its purity, almost perfectly untainted or uninfluenced by that Roman law which overran so much of the rest of Europe. It is true that Brehon law does bear certain resemblances to Roman law, but they are of the slightest, and not even so strong as its resemblance to the Hindoo codes. It has in truth certain relations to all known bodies of Aryan law from the Tiber to the Ganges, some to the Roman laws of earliest times, some to the Scandinavian, some to the Slavonic, and some particularly strong ones to the Hindoo laws and quite enough to old Germanic law of all kinds "to render valueless", to use the words of Sir Henry Maine, "the comparison which the English observers so constantly institute with the laws of England". "Much of it", says Maine, "is (now) worthless save for historical purposes, but on some points it really does come close to the most advanced legal doctrines of our day". "There is a singularly close approach", he remarks in another place, "to modern doctrines on the subject of contributory negligence, and I have found it possible to extract from the quaint texts of the 'Book of Acaill' some extremely sensible rulings on the difficult subject of the measure of damages, for which it would he in vain to study the writings of Lord Coke though these last are relatively of much later date". But he points out how heavily the Brehon Law pays in other respects for this striking anticipation of the modern legal spirit by its too frequent air of fancifulness and unreality and indulgence of imagination. In the "Book of Acaill", for instance, which, as mentioned before, is chiefly concerned with the law of torts, we find four long pages concerned solely with the injuries received from dogs in dogfights — Ireland was famous for its hounds, and dog-fights figure more than once in old Irish literature — setting forth in the most elaborate way all the qualifications of the governing rule required in the case of owners, in the case of spectators, in the case of the "impartial interposer", in the case of the "half-interposer", that is the man who tries to separate the dogs with a bias in favour of one of them, in the case of an accidental onlooker, in the case of a youth under age, and in the case of an idiot. The Brehons, in fact, appear to have never hesitated about inventing or imagining facts upon which to base their theoretical judgments. They endeavour to deal with all cases and all varieties of circumstances, and they have special rules for almost every relation of life and every detail of the social economy. A great number of the cases which come under discussion in the law books appear to be rather problematical than real, cases propounded by a teacher to his pupils to be argued on according to general principles, rather than actual subject for legal discussion.


Ancient Irish law was not produced by a process resembling legislation, but grew up gradually round the dicta and judgments of the most famous Brehons. These Brehons may very well have been in old times the Irish equivalents of the Gaulish Druids. There were only four periods in the entire history of Ireland when special laws were said to have been enacted by legislative authority: first during the reign of that Cormac Mac Airt already mentioned, in the third century; second, when St. Patrick came; third, by Cormac mac Culinan, the King-Bishop of Cashel, who died in 908; and lastly by Brian Boru, about a century later. But the great mass of the Brehon code appears to have been traditional or to have grown with the slow growth of custom. The very first paragraph of the Law of Distress takes us back to a case which happened in the reign of Conn of the Hundred Battles in the second century, and this passage was already so antique at the close of the ninth century that it required a gloss, for Cormac mac Culinan (who died in 908) alludes in his glossary to the gloss upon this passage. There are many allusions in this glossary to the Seanchus Mór, always referring to the glossed text, which must consequently have been in existence before the year 900. The text of the Seanchus Mor relies upon the judgments of famous Brehons such as Sencha in the first century, but there is no allusion in its text to any books or treatises. The gloss, however, is full of such allusions. Fourteen different books of civil law are alluded to in it. Cormac in his glossary alludes to five. Only one of the five alluded to by Cormac is among the fourteen mentioned in the Seanchus Mor. This shows that the number of books upon law must in old times have been legion. They perished, with so much of the rest of Irish literature, under the horrors of the English invasion and the penal laws, when an Irish manuscripts was a source of danger to the possessor.

The essential idea of modern law is entirely absent from the Brehons, if by law is meant a command, given by some one possessing authority, to do or to forbear doing a certain thing under pains and penalties. There is no sanction laid down in the Brehon laws against those who violated them, nor did the State provide any such sanction. This was the great inherent weakness of Irish jurisprudence, that it lacked the controlling hand of a strong central government to enforce its decisions. It is a weakness inseparable from a tribal organization in which the idea of the State, which had begun to emerge under the early Irish kings, had been repressed. When a Brehon had heard a case and delivered his judgment, there was no machinery of law set in motion to force the litigant to accept it. The only executive authority in ancient Ireland which lay behind the decision of the judge was the traditional obedience and good sense of the people, and it does not appear that this was ever found wanting. The Brehons never appear to have had any trouble in getting their decisions accepted by the common people. The public appear to have seen to it that the Brehon's decision was always carried out. This was indeed the very essence of democratic government, with no executive authority behind it but the will of the people. There can be no doubt whatever that the system trained an intelligent and law-abiding public. Even Sir John Davies, the Elizabethan jurist, confesses "there is no nation or people under the Sunne that doth love equall and indifferent justice better than the Irish; or will rest better satisfied with the execution thereof although it be against themselves, so that they may have the protection and benefit of the law when upon just cause they do desire it".

Brehon Law Links
Essays on Brehon Law
Electrocnic Texts (Full & Excepts)
Link Pages
Bibliographies & References
Libraries & Schools
Book Stores
Organizations of Interest Ancient Law Sites
Future Law Using Ancient Law
Brehon Aid Member Sites
Members of Brehon Aid
Discussion Archives
WWW Various

Essays on Brehon Law

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Brehon Laws Compiled by Dan McClure, a small number of interesting selected laws, unfortunately without references to sources.

Dalriada Magazine Archives. Law & Society Section. Contains Brehon Laws, Part One and Part Two. Good overview essays with references.

Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust Brehon Laws 'The Brehon Laws' Author: L. MacDonald 1993. Brief overview without references.

Gaelic Social Structure, by Patrick M. O'Shea. A short essay without references. Part of Uasal, an educational Source for Irish Nobility, Heraldry and Genealogy.

History of Land Tenure in Ireland, by Proinnsias Killeen, including 'Christianity and the Brehon Laws' and 'Land Tenure in the Brehon Laws.' Includes some interesting Irish sources.

Ireland 5th-10th Century CE; Fascinating information on ancient Irish dress codes, according to status, regulated by Brehon Laws. The basic elements of ancient Irish dress for people in the upper classes were the léine and the brat. These lasted, with variations over time, from the earliest recorded times down to the 16th century.

List Essay Brehon Law; Very comprehensive overview of ancient Celtic Laws of Ireland as well as other countries, From: Karl Raimund To listserv: CELTIC-L@DANANN.HEA.IE Subject: Celtic Law - a short summary - Part 1 - 12. Sun, 15 Dec 1996 - Tue, 21 Oct 1997

Poyning's Law This 1495 Act, applied to Ireland, the statutes lately made in England, and made Irish Parliament subservient to the English Crown.

The Descent of the Irish Celtic Kings, After the Flood, by Bill Cooper, Chapter 8. Good essay.

Tir na Nog. Brief essay on the Brehon Laws. Well worth the read.

Using Old Irish 'Brehon' Law in Pendragon, by Mike Maxwell. Excerpted from the work in progress "The Courts of King Arthur", Peter Corless, Editor. Written for future publication by the Chaosium.

Electronic Full Texts & Excerpts

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CELT; Corpus of Electronic Texts Home of the electronic text conversion project underway. Essential site, published by U.C.C. (University College Cork), Ireland. An online resource for contemporary and historical Irish documents in literature, history and politics. The U.C.C. library has huge resources, so please look around. Some very prominent scholars in residence too.

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University A must see. Digital facsimiles of complete Celtic manuscripts, scanned directly from the originals. The project forms part of the Specialized Research Collections in the Humanities initiative supported by the Higher Education Funding bodies of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Henry Sumner Maine Full text of Lecture One: New Materials for the Early History of Institutions. Part of Lectures on the Early History of Institutions. John Murray Ltd. London, (1875) A landmark treatise.

Internet Ancient History Sourcebook Ancient Legal Texts Massive full text source of ancient law, except for Celtic. Fordham University project, dealing with Medieval Law, and laws of many ancient cultures. Still under construction as of June 1999 and little on Celtic Law so far, but looks promising and is certainly great for comparative purposes. There are many full text versions of classical texts. Maybe they need a suggestion too.

Medieval Sourcebook Full Text Sources Monster Site, great for comparative studies and hopefully some more Celtic soon, hosted by Fordham University in NYC.

Power of Truth This fragment is derived from the Book of Leinster, where a famous Brehon, Morann Mac Cairbre, leaves instructions for the High King, Feradach Finn Fachtnach (AD 95 - 117), in his will.

RBC Celtic Triads The ultimate compilation of Celtic Triads, compiled by John F. Wright, of Clannada.

Senchus Mor, Patrick and the Revision of The Ancient Irish Law, Chapter One from the essential book by Sophie Bryant. Liberty Order and Law - Under Native Irish Rule.

Link Pages

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America Online, Members Links list of Medieval Celtic Manuscripts, full text sources. Some very good ones.

NetSERF The Internet Connection for Medieval Resources Over 1,000 links to all things Medieval on the Web. Very professionally done. Sponsored by the Department of History at The Catholic University of America

Bibliographies, Indexes & References

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Antiquity Journal Index; An international journal of expert archaeology. Index to volumes 1-71 (1927-1997) available online. Though the Brehon Laws are not specifically mentioned in the Index, this is a huge resource for those willing to dig a little deeper. Certainly there is much Celtic history and a wealth of information on ancient, laws and customs of all lands.

Catholic Encyclopedia - Brehon Laws, Written by Douglas Hyde, author of A Literary History of Ireland (London, 1903) This is a very good account of the laws, as well as an invaluable insight into the times, around the turn of the century, when they were still recently rediscovered. Excellent sources cited also. There are simply hundreds of names, vital to Celtic history, and the thus the Brehon Laws, such as The Book of Kells, St. Brenach, St Brieuc (Briocus, Brioc, or Bru), Saint Brigid, written by Henry Grattan Flood, Torlogh O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach O Cearbhalláin), Daniel O'Connell (excellent) Charles O'Conor, the "Venerable", scholar of Irish manuscripts, John O'Dugan Seághan "mor" O Dubhagáin, hereditary historian, and Eugene O'Growney a founder of the Gaelic League. As a footnote there is a piece on St. Lawrence O'Toole (Lorcan Ua TUATHAIL), (a distant relative of mine), who is being celebrated in Ireland this year as first native Archbishop of Dublin (Diocese Jubilee this year) He was taken as a hostage by Dermot McMurrogh, King of Leinster. In 1140 the boy obtained permission to enter the Celtic Abbey of Glendalough.

Old Irish and Early Christian Ireland A Basic Bibliography; Unbelievable resource, for all topics. Presented by Charles D. Wright, at Department of History,University of Kansas. No links though as originates from old list.

Libraries & Schools

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Bodleian Library The library itself is home to many manuscripts of Brehon Laws and Ancient Celtic Laws. An Image Catalogue is apparently under way...but not too many interesting results as far as Brehon law. Maybe they are just waiting for some suggestive emails expressing interest.

Burren College of Art - The Burren Law School, Friday April 30th - Sunday May 2nd 1999 Though the conference is past, the page gives the names of speakers, mostly Irish scholars from various disciplines, active in Brehon Law study. Mr. Greene who administers the program is very pleasant and helpful.

JANET Home Page The United Kingdom Research and Academic Network, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the Higher Education Funding Councils for England (HEFCE), Scotland (SHEFC), Wales (HEFCW) and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI).

Trinity College Dublin - Law School Trinity is home of The Book of Kells, housed in The Long Room in the Old Library, one of the finest library buildings in the world. Like the Bodlein Library, a massive repository of Brehon Laws, that sadly has not yet delivered.

Book Stores

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LarkSpirit Bookshop Great online source of Irish Government and Legal History books, as well as other interesting topics. Many links are in fact to and a search of Celtic Law there is also very worthwhile.

Books for Scholars

Organizations of Interest

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The Royal Irish Academy The Royal Irish Academy is the principal learned society in Ireland (I quote), founded in 1785 as a society for "promoting the study of science, polite literature and antiquities". Today, the Academy is at the centre of Irish educational life and, particularly through its National Committees, Research Projects, Library and Publications, it helps to coordinate scholarship on a cross-institutional, inter-disciplinary, national and international basis.

Ancient Law Sites

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Future Law Using Ancient Law

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Nick Szabo -- History of Law and Governance Resources Great timeline links to legal resources covering law from Egypt, through Brehon Laws to Cyberspace. Organized by topic as well.


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Old Ireland - History Elizabeth continues the Conquest; Part of a History of the Irish Race. Very well presented chronological history site, with a good deal of detail. Not much specifically on the laws, but good background. Lacks references too, for all its glossiness. Part of:, a good general launching site.

Doras - Contents Page

Government of Ireland - Dept of Foreign Affairs - Embassy and Consular Services - The Irish Times - FEATURES

Ireland Online -Irish History Recipes

Old Irish and Early Christian Ireland A Basic Bibliography

The Irish Parliamentary Tradition Oireachtais. The Irish Parliament Home Page

Sacred Places- Ireland