Ireland’s Brehon Laws were way ahead of their time
Painting of one of the Brehons recording ancient Irish law
Brehon Law is the body of ancient native Irish law which was generally operational in Gaelic areas until the completion of the English conquest of Ireland in the early 17th century. They were first set down on parchment in the 7th century and were named after wandering lawyers, the Brehons.
A superb new book explains Ireland’s ancient Brehon Laws in fine detail. Written by San Francisco attorney Catherine Duggan, who has studied the laws extensively, the book called “The Lost Laws of Ireland” is available from GlasnevinPublishing.com in Ireland.
As Duggan noted, the laws governed Ireland for over a millennium and she has synthesized much of the available scholarship in her new book. “The laws are significant because they shed light on the complex sophisticated society of early Ireland that the laws reflect,” she says. “The laws reveal a culture in which modern concepts such as equity, social mobility, negligence, unbiased witnesses and fair and open process of law and women’s rights were developed.”
By the time of Elizabeth I, the Brehon laws were considered to be old, lewd, and unreasonable. They were banned and English common law was introduced. However, thankfully, some of the Brehons thought to hide the precious manuscripts and a good number of them survived
In 1852, two Irish scholars, Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan, took to translating the laws. In the words of another Irish scholar, D. A. Binchy, what they found were “secrets” about Ireland’s past. The laws were “details,” Binchy said, “details that describe ancient life in the days when the Irish still lived in mud huts and small ringed settlements and paid their bills in cows and bacon.”
The Brehon laws: “They shed light on the complex sophisticated society of early Ireland that the laws reflect”.
Here are just a couple of Ireland’s stranger ancient laws:
Musicians / Artists
The Brian Boru Harp
The harpist is the only musician who is of noble standing. Flute players, trumpeters and timpanists as well as jugglers, conjurers, and equestrians who stand on the back of horses at fairs, have no status of their own in the community, only that of the noble chieftain to whom they are attached.
The poet who overcharges for a poem shall be stripped of half his rank in society.
The creditor who holds your brooch, your necklet of your earrings as a pledge against your loan must return them so you may wear them at the great assembly. Or he will be fined for your humiliation.
For the best arable land the price is 24 cows. The price for dry, coarse land is 12 dry cows.
Found on a beach in 1850 the Tara Brooch has become one of Ireland’s great national treasures. Image: National Museum of Ireland.
February first is the day on which husband and wife may decide to walk away from the marriage.
If a man takes a woman off on a horse, into the woods or onto a sea-going ship, and if members of the woman’s tribe are present, they must object within 24 hours or they may not demand payment of the fine.
The husband-to-be shall pay a bride price of land, cattle, horses, gold or silver to the father of the bride. Husband and wife retain individual rights to all land, flocks and household goods each brings to the marriage.
A husband who through listlessness does not go to his wife in her bed must pay a fine.
If a pregnant woman craves a morsel of food and her husband withholds it though stinginess or neglect he must pay a fine.
If a woman makes an assignation with a man to come to her in a bed or behind a bush, the man is not considered guilty even if she screams. If she has not agreed to a meeting, however, he is guilty as soon as she screams.
When you become old your family must provide you with one oatcake a day plus a container of sour milk. They must bathe you every 20th night and wash your head every Saturday. Seventeen sticks of firewood is the allotment for keeping you warm.
No fools, drunks or female scolds are allowed in the doctor’s house when a patient is healing there. No bad news to be brought and no talking across the bed. No grunts of pigs or barking of dogs outside.
If the doctor heals your wound but it breaks out anew because of his carelessness, neglect or gross want of skill he must return the fee you paid. He must also pay you damages as if he himself had wounded you.
Whoever comes to your door you must feed him and care for him with no questions asked.
It is illegal to give somebody food that has been found with a dead mouse or weasel.
A layman may drink six pints of ale with his dinner but a monk my drink only three pints. This is so he will not be intoxicated when prayer-time arrives.
IrishCentral Staff Writers @irishcentral August 22, 2015 04:00 AM
Niall O’Dowd @niallodowd May 18, 2014 04:00 AM