The Brehon Law
Brehon Law is the result of the interaction between inherited Celtic
tradition and the lawmaking of the Christian Church in Ireland. It
was the law of Ireland for well over 1,000 years, until it was
suppressed by English conquest in the early 11th Century, It
is the earliest vernacular law code in Europe and, in many ways,
the most sophisticated and subtle. For example, it distinguished
between accidental homicide, culpable homicide and murder six
centuries before the English common law did so. The greatest
collections of laws, the Senchas Akir, is eighth century, comes
from the North, possibly Armagh, contains 25 tracts on injuries,
theft, title to real estate, land-law & neighborhood law
(trespass and liability), contracts, pledges, deposits, bequests,
distraint (aka distress), and marriage & inheritance. There is a
very extensive family law-marriage & divorce, heirs, legitimacy
& inheritance. There are two extensive medico-legal tracts on
personal injuries and the liabilities of the injurer, and these display
a dazzling mixture of medicine and law. Class mattered greatly in
medieval Ireland and there are tracts on class that can be read, if
one wishes, as medieval handbooks of sociology. Besides, there
is the "Law of Adoman" (AD 697), the first specific law protecting
women from violence and sexual harrassment.
Due to the interest resulting from the Brehon Law topic presented
at our Sept. 21 (2003) meeting, we hope to have either a book or
cassette tape on the subject in our library in the near future.
1. The Brehons
Law formed a most important factor both in public and private life in
ancient Ireland. The native legal system, as briefly outlined in this
chapter, existed in its fullness before the ninth century. It was
somewhat disturbed by the Danish and Anglo-Norman invasions, and still
more by the English settlement; but it continued in use till finally
abolished in the beginning of the seventeenth century. In this short
chapter I merely attempt a popular sketch of the main features of the
Brehon laws, devoid of technical legal terms.
In Ireland a judge was called a brehon, whence the native Irish law is
commonly known as the "Brehon Law": but its proper designation is
Fénechas, i.e. the law of the Féine or Féne, or free land-tillers. The
brehons had absolutely in their hands the interpretation of the laws
and the application of them to individual cases. They were therefore
a very influential class of men and those attached to chiefs had free
lands for their maintenance, which, like the profession itself,
remained in the same family for generations. Those not so attached
lived simply on the fees of their profession, and many eminent brehons
became wealthy. The legal rules, as set forth in the Law Books, were
commonly very complicated and mixed up with a variety of' technical
terms; and many forms had to be gone through and many circumstances
taken into account, all legally essential: so that no outsider could
hope to master their intricacies. The brehon had to be very careful;
for he was himself liable for damages, besides forfeiting his fee, if
he delivered a false or unjust judgement.
To become a brehon a person had to go through a regular, well-defined
course of study and training. It would appear that the same course
qualified for any branch of the legal profession, and that once a man
had mastered the course he set up as a brehon or judge proper, a
consulting lawyer, an advocate, or a law-agent. In very early times
the brehon was regarded as a mysterious, half-inspired person, and a
divine power kept watch over his pronouncements to punish him for
unjust judgements : "When the brehons deviated from the truth, there
appeared blotches upon their cheeks." The great brehon, Morann, son
of Carbery Kinncat (king of Ireland in the first century), wore a sín
[sheen] or collar round his neck, which tightened when he delivered a
false judgement, and expanded again when he delivered the true one.
All this agrees with the whole tenor of Irish literature, whether
legendary, legal, or historical, which shows the great respect the
Irish entertained for justice pure and simple according to law, and
their horror of unjust decisions. It was the same at the most ancient
period as it was in the beginning of the seventeenth century, when
Sir John Davies -an Englishman- the Irish attorney-general of James I.,
testified :-"For there is no nation of people under the sunne that
doth love equall and indifferent [i.e. impartial] justice better then
the Irish; or will rest better satisfied with the execution thereof,
although it bee against themselves so as they may have the protection
and benefit of the law, when uppon just cause they do desire it." But
later on the Penal Laws changed all that, and turned the Irish natural
love of justice into hatred and distrust of law, which in many ways
continues to manifest itself to this day.
2. The Senchus Mor and other Books of Law
The brehons had collections of laws in volumes or tracts, all in the
Irish language, by which they regulated their judgements, and which
those of them who kept law-schools expounded to their scholars ;
each tract treating of one subject or one group of subjects.
Many of these have been preserved, and of late years the most
important have been published, with translations, forming five printed
volumes (with a sixth consisting of a valuable Glossary to the preceding
Of the tracts contained in these volumes, the two largest and most
important are the Senchus Mór [Shanahus More] and the Book of Acaill
[Ack'ill]. In the ancient Introduction to the Senchus Mor the following
account is given of its original compilation. In the year 438 A.D. a
collection of the pagan laws was made at the request of St. Patrick;
and Laegaire [Laery] King of Ireland, appointed a committee of nine
learned and eminent persons, including himself and St. Patrick, to
revise them. At the end of three years these nine produced a new code,
from which everything that clashed with the Christian doctrine had
been carefully excluded. This was the Senchus Mór.
The very book left by St. Patrick and the others has been long lost.
Successive copies were made from time to time with commentaries and
explanations appended, till the manuscripts we now possess were
The existing manuscript copies of the Senchus Mór consist of
1.The original text, written in a large hand
2.An introduction to the text:
3.Commentaries on the text, in a small
The laws were written in the oldest dialect of the Irish language,
called Bérla Féini [Bairla-faina] which even at the time was so
difficult that persons about to become brehons had to be specially
instructed in it. Even the authors of the Commentaries and Glosses
who wrote hundreds of years ago, and were themselves learned brehons,
were often quite at fault in their attempts to explain the archaic
text: and their words show that they were fully conscious of the
difficulty. It will then be readily understood that the task of
translating these laws was a very difficult one, rendered all the more
so by the number of technical terms and phrases, many of which are to
this day obscure, as well as by the peculiar style, which is very
elliptical and abrupt-often incomplete sentences, or mere catch-words of
rules not written down in full, but held in memory by the experts of the
time. Another circumstance that greatly adds to the difficulty of
deciphering these mss. is the confused way in which the Commentaries
and glosses are written in, mainly with the object of economising the
expensive vellum. The explanatory note under fig. 31 will give some
idea of this.
The two great Irish scholars-O'Donovan and O'Curry-who translated the
laws included in the five printed volumes, were able to do so only
after a life-long study ; and in numerous instances were, to the last,
not quite sure of the meaning. As they had to retain the legal terms
and the elliptical style, even the translation is hard enough to
understand, and is often unintelligible. It is, moreover, imperfect
for another reason: it was only a preliminary and provisional
translation, containing many imperfections and errors, to be afterwards
corrected ; but the translators did not live to revise it, and it was
printed as they left it.
3. Suitability of the Brehon Laws
The Brehon Code forms a great body of civil, military, and criminal law.
It regulates the various ranks of society, from the king down to the
slave, and enumerates their several rights and privileges. There are
minute rules for the management of property, for the several industries
- building, brewing, mills, water-courses, fishing-weirs, bees and honey
- for distress or seizure of goods, for tithes, trespass, and evidence.
The relations of landlord and tenant, the fees of professional men
- doctors, judges, teachers, builders, artificers,
- the mutual duties of father and son, of foster-parents and
foster-children, of master and servant, are all carefully regulated. In
that portion corresponding to what is now known as criminal law, the
various offences are minutely distinguished - murder, manslaughter,
assaults, wounding, thefts, and all sorts of wilful damage ; and
accidental injuries from flails, sledgehammers, machines, and weapons
of all kinds ; and the amount of compensation is laid down in detail
for almost every possible variety of injury.
The Brehon Law was vehemently condemned by English writers ; and in
several acts of parliament it was made treason for the English settlers
to use it. But these testimonies are to be received with much reserve
as coming from prejudiced and interested parties. We have good reason
to believe that the Brehon Law was very well suited to the society in
which, and from which, it grew up. This view is confirmed by the
well-known fact that when the English settlers living outside the Pale
adopted the Irish manners and customs, they all, both high and low,
abandoned their own law and adopted the Brehon Code, to which they
became quite as much attached as the Irish themselves.
4. Structure of Society
Five main Classes of People
The lay people were divided into classes, from the king down to the
slave, and the Brehon Law took cognisance of all - setting forth their
rights, duties, and privileges. The leading, though not the sole,
qualification to confer rank was property; the rank being, roughly
speaking, in proportion to the amount. Under certain conditions,
persons could pass from one class to the next above, always provided
their character was unimpeachable.
There were five main classes of people -
1.Kings of several grades, from the king of the tuath or cantred
up to the king of Ireland:
2.Nobles, which class indeed included kings:
3.Non-noble Freemen with property:
4.Non-noble Freemen without property, or with some, but not
sufficient to place them among the class next above :
5.The non-free clauses.
The first three - Kings, Nobles, non-noble Freemen with property-were
the privileged classes ; a person belonging to these was an aire [arra]
or chief. Kings have been treated of in chapter ii.
Flaiths or Nobles
The Nobles were those who had land as their own property, for which
they did not pay rent : they were the owners of the soil -
the aristocracy. An aire of this class was called a Flaith [flah], i.e.
a noble, a chief, a prince. There were several ranks of nobles, the
rank depending chiefly on the amount of landed property.
Non-noble Freemen with Property
A person belonging to the other class of aire - a non-noble rent-paying
freeman with property (No.3, above) - had no land of his own, his
property consisting of cattle and other movable goods; hence he was
called a Bó-aire, i.e. a ' cow-chief' (bó, 'a cow'). He should rent a
certain amount of land, and possess a certain amount of property in
cattle and other goods, to entitle him to rank as an aire. As in the
case of the nobles, there were several classes of bo-aires, ranking
according to their property. If a person belonging to the highest class
of bo-aires could prove that he had twice as much property as was
required for the lowest rank of noble, and complied with certain other
conditions and formalities, and also provided his father and grandfather
had been aires who owned land, he was himself entitled to take rank as a
noble of the lowest rank.
The three preceding main classes-kings, nobles, and bo-aires - were all
aires, chiefs, or privileged people : the first two being flaiths or
noble aires, the third, non-noble aires, i.e. free tenants, with property
sufficient to entitle them to the position of aire. All three had some
part in the government of the country and in the administration of the
law, as kings, tanists, nobles, military chiefs, magistrates, and
persons otherwise in authority; and they commonly wore a flesc or
bracelet on the arm as a mark of their dignity.
Non-noble Freemen without Property
The next class - the fourth - the freemen with little or with no
property, were céiles [kailas] or free tenants. They differed from the
bo-aires only in not being rich enough to rank as aires or chiefs;
for the bo-aires were themselves céiles or rent-payers; and accordingly
a man of the fourth class could become a bo-aire if he accumulated
property enough: the amount being laid down in the Brehon Law. These
céiles or tenants, or free rent-payers - corresponding with the old
English ceorls - or churls- formed the great body of the farming class.
They were called aithech [ah'-egh], i.e. 'plebeian,' 'farmer,' 'peasant,'
-to distinguish them from the aires or chieftain grades: and the term
féine or féne [faine], which means much the same as aitech, was also
applied to them.
The land held by the féine or free tenants was either a part of the
tribe-land, or was the private property of some flaith or noble, from
whom they rented it. Everywhere in the literature, especially in the
laws, the féine or free farming classes are spoken of as a most
important part of the community - as the foundation of society, and
as the ultimate source of law and authority.
Tradesmen formed another very important class of freemen. The greater
number belonged to the fourth class - freemen without property. Some
crafts were ‘noble' or privileged, of which the members enjoyed
advantages and privileges beyond those of other trades: and some
high-class craftsmen belonged to the class aire or chief.
The Non-free Classes
So far we have treated of freemen, that is those who enjoyed all the
rights of the tribe, of which the most important was the right to the
use of a portion of the tribe-land and commons We now come to treat
of the non-free classes. The term 'non-free' does not necessarily
mean that they were slaves. The non-free people were those who had not
the full rights of the free people of the tribe. They had no claim to
any part of the tribe-land, though they were permitted, under strict
conditions, to till little plots for mere subsistence. This was by far
the most serious of their disabilities. Their standing varied, some
being absolute slaves, some little removed from slavery, and others
far above it. That slavery pure and simple existed in Ireland in early
times we know from the law-books as well as from history; and that it
continued to a comparatively late period is proved by the testimony of
Giraldus Cambrensis - twelfth century-who relates that it was a common
custom among the English to sell their children and other relatives to
the Irish for slaves - Bristol being the great mart for the trade. From
this, as well as from our own records, we see that some slaves were
imported. But the greater number were native Irish, who, from various
causes had lost their liberty and had been reduced to a state of slavery.
Groups of Society
The people were formed into groups of various sizes, from the family
upwards. The Family was the group consisting of the living parents and
all their descendants. The Sept was a larger group, descended from
common parents long since dead: but this is an imported word, brought
into use in comparatively late times. All the members of a sept were
nearly related, and in later times bore the same surname. The Clan or
house was still larger. Clann means 'children,' and the word therefore
implied descent from one ancestor. The word fine [finna] usually meant
a group of persons related by blood within certain degrees of
consanguinity, all residing in the same neighbourhood; but it was often
applied in a much wider sense. The Tribe (tuath) was made up of several
septs, clans, or houses, and usually claimed, like the subordinate
groups, to be descended from a common ancestor. The adoption of
strangers-sometimes individuals, sometimes whole groups - into the
family or clan was common; but it required the consent of the fine or
circle of near relations - formally given at a court meeting. From all
this it will be seen that in every tribe there was much admixture; and
the theory of common descent from one ancestor became a fiction, except
for the leading families, who kept a careful record of their genealogy.
5. The Laws relating to Land
Land originally common Property
It would appear that originally - in prehistoric times - the land was
all common property, belonging to the tribe, not to individuals, and
chief and people were liable to be called on to give up their portions
for a new distribution. But as time went on, this custom was gradually
broken in upon ; and the lands held by some, after long possession,
came to be looked upon as private property. As far back as our records
go, there was some private ownership in land.
Five ways of holding Land
Within historic times the following were the rules of land tenure, as
set forth chiefly in the Brehon Laws, and also in some important points
by early English writers. The tribe (or aggregate or tribes), under
the rule of one king or chief held permanently a definite district of
the country. The tribe was divided, as already described, into smaller
groups-clans or septs - each of which, being governed by a sub-chief
under the chief of the tribe, was a sort of miniature of the whole
tribe ; and each clan was permanently settled down on a separate
portion of the land, which was considered as their separate property,
and which was not interfered with by any other clans or septs of the
tribe. The land was held by individuals in some one of five different
1.The chief, whether of tribe or of the sept, had a portion as
mensal land, for life or for as long as he remained chief.
2.Another portion was held as private property by persons who had
come, in various ways, to own the land.
3.Persons held, as tenants, portions of the lands belonging to
those who owned it as private property, or portions of the mensal
land of the chief - much like tenants of the present day: these paid
what was equivalent to rent - always in kind. The term was commonly
seven years, and they might sublet to under-tenants.
4.The rest of the arable land, which was called the
Tribe-land - equivalent to the folc or folk land of England - forming
by far the largest part of the territory, belonged to the people in
general, the several subdivisions of it to the several septs, no part
being private property. This was occupied by the free members of the
sept, who were owners for the time being, each of his own farm. Every
free man had a right to his share - a right never questioned. Those
who occupied the tribe-land did not hold for any fixed term, for the
land of the sept was liable to gavelkind (below) or redistribution
from time to time - once every three or four years. Yet they were not
tenants at will, for they could not be disturbed till the time of
gavelling; even then each man kept his crops and got compensation for
unexhausted improvements; and although he gave up one farm, he always
5.The non-arable or waste land - mountain, forest, bog, etc.-was
Commons-land. This was not appropriated by individuals; but every free
man had a right to use it for grazing, for procuring fuel, or for the
chase. There was no need of subdividing the commons by fences, for the
cattle of all grazed over it without distinction. This custom still
exists in many places all through Ireland.
The portion of territory occupied by each clan or sept commonly included
land held in all the five ways here described. It should be observed
that the individuals and families who owned land as private property
were comparatively few, and their possessions were not extensive: the
great bulk of both people and land fell under the conditions of tenure
described under the Fourth and Fifth headings.
Tenants: their Payments and Subsidies
Every tribesman had to pay to his chief certain subsidies according to
his means. Those who held portion of the tribe-land, and who used the
commons-land for grazing or other purposes, paid these subsidies of
course; but beyond this they had no rent to pay to any individual for
land held or used under headings four and five described above.
The tribesman who placed himself under the protection of a chief, and
who held land, whether it was the private property of the lessor or a
part of the general tribe-land, was, as already explained, a Céile
[cail'eh] or tenant; also called féine and aithech, i.e. a plebeian,
farmer, or rent-payer. But a man who takes land must have stock - cows
and sheep for the pasture-land, horses or oxen to carry on the work of
tillage. A small proportion of the ceiles had stock of their own, but
the great majority had not. Where the tenant needed stock it was the
custom for the chief to give him as much as he wanted at certain rates
of payment. This custom of giving and taking stock on hire was universal
in Ireland, and was regulated in great detail by the Brehon Law.
Every tenant and every tradesman had to give his chief a yearly or
half-yearly tribute, chiefly food supplies - cows, pigs, corn, bacon,
butter, honey, malt for making ale, etc.- the amount chiefly depending
on the quantity of land he held and on the amount of stock he hired.
Some tenants were obliged to give coinmed [coiney], that is to say, the
chief was privileged to go with a retinue, for one or more days to the
house of the tenant, who was to lodge and feed them for the time. This
was an evil custom, liable to great abuse ; and it was afterwards
imitated by the Anglo-Norman chiefs, who called it coyne and livery;
which they chiefly levied from their own people, the English settlers.
They committed great excesses, and their coyne and livery was far worse
than the Irish coinmed, so that it came at last to be forbidden by the
There was a numerous class of very poor unfree tenants called fudirs,
who were generally in a very wretched condition. They were tenants
at will, having no right in their holdings. A fudir was completely at
the mercy of his chief, who might turn him off at any time, and who
generally rackrented him so as to leave barely enough for subsistence.
The ancient rights of the tenants, i.e. of the ceiles or freemen, were
chiefly three - A right to some portion of the arable or tribe-land,
and to the use of the commons: a right to pay no more than a fair rent,
which, in the absence of express agreement, was adjusted by the Brehon
Law: a right to own a house and homestead, and (with certain equitable
exceptions) all unexhausted improvements. Among the freemen who held
farm land there was no such thing as eviction from house or farm, for
there was a universal conviction that the landlord was not the absolute
owner, so that all free tenants had what was equivalent to fixity of
tenure. If a man failed to pay the subsidy to his chief, or the rent
of land held in any way, or the debt due for stock, it was recovered,
like any other debt, by the processes described in next section, never
by process of eviction.
Descent of Land
In Ireland the land descended in three different ways.
1. As private property.-When a man had land understood to be his own,
it would naturally pass to his heirs; or he might if he wished divide
it among them during his life - a thing that was sometimes done.
2.The land held by the chief as mensal estate descended, not to his
heir, but to the person who succeeded him in the chiefship. This is
what is known as descent by Tanistry.
3. By Gavelkind.-When a tenant who held a part of the tribe-land died,
his farm did not go to his children: but the whole of the land belonging
to the fine or sept was redivided or gavelled among all the male adult
members of the sept - including the dead man's adult sons. The domain
of the chief, and all land that was private property, were exempt. The
redistribution by gavelkind on each occasion extended to the clan or
sept - not beyond. Davies complains, with justice, that this custom
prevented the tenants from making permanent improvements.
The two customs of Tanistry and Gavelkind formerly prevailed all over
Europe, and continued in Russia till a very recent period : and
Gavelkind, in a modified form, still exists in Rent. They were
abolished and made illegal in Ireland in the reign of James I.;
after which land descended to the next heir according to English law.
6. The Administration of Justice
The Law of Compensation
In very early times, beyond the reach of history, the law of retaliation
prevailed, as in most other countries-" an eye for an eye, a tooth for a
tooth "-in other words, every man or every family that was injured might
take direct revenge on the offender. But this being found inconsistent
with the peace and well-being of the community - especially in cases of
homicide, which were frequent enough in those days - gradually gave
place to the law of compensation, which applied to every form of injury.
In Ireland the process was this -The injured party sued the offender in
proper form, and, if the latter responded, the case was referred to the
local brehon, who decided according to law. The penalty always took the
form of a fine to be paid by the offender to the person or family
injured, and the brehon's fee was usually paid out of this fine.
Procedure by Distress
If the offender refused to submit the case to the usual tribunal, or
if he withheld payment after the case had been decided against him, or
if a man refused to pay a just debt of any kind - in any one of these
cases the plaintiff or the creditor proceeded by Distress; that is to
say, he distrained or seized the cattle or other effects of the
defendant. We will suppose the effects to be cattle. There was
generally an anad or stay of one or more days on the distress; that is,
the plaintiff went through the form of seizing the cattle, but did not
remove them. During the stay the cattle remained in the possession of
the defendant or debtor, no doubt to give him time to make up his mind
as to what course to take, viz. either to pay the debt or to have the
case tried before the brehon: but the plaintiff had all the time a claim
on them. If the debt was not paid at the end of the lawful stay, the
plaintiff, in the presence of certain witnesses, removed the animals
and put them in a pound, the expense of feeding and tending being paid
out of the value of the cattle. If the debtor persisted in refusing to
settle the case, the creditor sold or kept as many of the cattle as
paid the debt.
Procedure by Fasting
In some cases before distress was resorted to, a curious custom came
into play -the plaintiff "fasted on" the defendant. It was done in
this way. The plaintiff, having served due notice, went to the house
of the defendant, and, sitting before the door, remained there without
food ; and as long as he remained, the defendant was also obliged to
fast. It may be inferred that the debtor generally yielded before the
fast was ended, i.e. either paid the debt or gave a pledge that he
would settle the case.
This fasting process - which exists still in India - was regarded with
a sort of superstitious awe ; and it was considered outrageously
disgraceful for a defendant not to submit to it. It is pretty evident
that the man who refused to abide by the custom, not only incurred
personal danger, but lost all character, and was subject to something
like what we now call a universal boycott, which in those days no man
could bear. He had in fact to fly and become a sort of outlaw.
Eric or Compensation Fine
Homicide or bodily injury of any kind was atoned for by a fine called
Eric [errick]. The injured person brought the offender before a brehon,
by whom the case was tried and the exact amount of the eric was
adjudged. Many modifying circumstances had to be taken into account -
the actual injury, the rank of the parties, the intention of the
wrong-doer, the provocation, the amount of set-off claims, etc. - so
that the settlement called for much legal knowledge, tact, and technical
skill on the part of the brehon - quite as much as we expect in a
lawyer of the present day.
In case of homicide the family of the victim were entitled to the eric.
If the culprit did not pay, or absconded, leaving no property, his fine
or family were liable. If he refused to come before a brehon, or if,
after trial, the eric fine was not paid by him or his family, then
he might be lawfully killed. The eric for bodily injury depended, to
some extent, on the "dignity" of the part injured: if it was the
forehead, or chin, or any other part of the face, the eric was
greater than if the injured part was covered by raiment. Half the
eric for homicide was due for the loss of a leg, a hand, an eye, or
an ear; but in no case was the collective eric for such injuries to
exceed the "body-fine " -i.e. the eric for homicide.
The principle of compensation for murder and for unintentional homicide
existed among the Anglo-Saxons, as well as among the ancient Greeks,
Franks, and Germans. In the laws of the English king Athelstan, there
is laid down a detailed scale of prices to be paid in compensation for
killing persons of various ranks or society, from an archbishop or
duke down to a churl or farmer; and traces of the custom remained in
English law till the early part of the last century.
Modes of Punishment
There was no such thing as a sentence of death passed by a brehon in a
court of law, no matter what the crime was: it was always compensation;
and the brehon's business was to determine the amount. Capital
punishment was known well enough, however, and practised, outside the
courts of law. Kings claimed the right to put persons to death for
certain crimes. Thus we are told, in the Tripartite Life or St.
Patrick, that neither gold nor silver would be accepted from him who
lighted a fire before the lighting or the festival fire of Tara, but
he should be put to death; and the death-penalty was inflicted on
anyone who, at a fair-meeting, killed another or raised a serious
quarrel. We have seen that if for any cause homicide was not atoned
for by eric, then the criminal's life was forfeit.
Various modes of putting criminals to death were in use in ancient
Ireland. Sometimes they were hanged. Sometimes the culprit was drowned
by being flung into water, either tied up in a sack or with a heavy
stone round his neck.
Where the death penalty was not inflicted for a crime, various other
modes of punishment were resorted to, though never as the result of a
judicial process before a brehon. Blinding as a punishment was very
common, not only in Ireland but among many other nations. A very
singular punishment was to send the culprit adrift on the open sea in
a boat, without sail, oar, or rudder; as, for instance, in case of
homicide, if it was unintentional. A person of this kind cast on shore
belonged to the owner of the shore until a cuinal was paid for his
Courts of Justice
Courts for the trial of legal cases, as well as meetings of
representative people to settle local affairs, were often held in the
open - sometimes on green little hills, and sometimes in buildings.
There was a gradation of courts, from the lowest - something like our
petty sessions - to the highest, the great national assembly whether at
Tara or elsewhere -representing all Ireland. Over each court a member
of the chieftain or privileged classes presided : the rank of the
president corresponded to the rank of the court; and his legal status,
duties, powers, and privileges were very strictly defined. The
over-king presided over the National Feis or assembly.
In each court - besides the brehon who sat in judgement - there were
one or more professional lawyers, advocates, or pleaders, called, in
Cormac 's Glossary, dálaige [dawlee] and dai who conducted the cases
for their clients; and the presiding brehon judge had to hear the
pleadings for both sides before coming to a decision. Whether the
court was held in a building or in the open air, there was a platform
of some kind on which the pleader stood while addressing the court.
With regard to evidence, various rules were in force, which may be
gathered from detached passages in the laws and general literature.
In order to prove home a matter of fact in a court of justice, at
least two witnesses were required. If a man gave evidence against his
wife, the wife was entitled to give evidence in reply; but a man's
daughter would not be heard against him in like circumstances. Any
freeman might give evidence against a fudir; but the fudir was not
permitted to give evidence in reply. A king's evidence was good
against all other people, with the three exceptions mentioned at
page 23. The period at which a young man could give legal evidence was
when he was seventeen years of age, or when he began to grow a beard.
The Irish delighted in judgements delivered in the form of a sententious
maxim, or an apt illustration - some illustration bearing a striking
resemblance to the case in question. The jurist who decided a case by
the aid of such a parallel was recognised as gifted with great judicial
wisdom, and his judgement often passed into a proverb.
Several judgements of this kind are recorded, of which one is given here.
When Cormac mac Art, the rightful heir to the throne of Ireland, was a
boy, he lived at Tara in disguise; for the throne was held by the usurper
Mac Con, so that Cormac dared not reveal his identity. There was at this
time living near Tara a female brewy, named Bennaid, whose sheep
trespassed on the royal domain, and ate up the queen's valuable crop of
glaisín [glasheen] or woadplants for dyeing. The queen instituted
proceedings for damages; and the question came up for decision before
the king, who, after hearing the evidence, decided that the sheep should
be forfeit in payment for the glaisin. "Not so," exclaimed the boy Cormac,
who was present, and who could not restrain his judicial instincts: "the
cropping of the sheep should be sufficient for the cropping of the glaisin
- the wool for the woad - for both will grow again." "That is a true
judgement," exclaimed all : " and he who has pronounced it is surely the
son of a king "-for kings were supposed to possess a kind of inspiration
in giving their decisions. And so they discovered who Cormac was, and
in a short time placed him on the throne, after deposing the usurper.