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Prior to the coming of writing, Ireland had a highly developed legal system that was enshrined in the collective oral tradition of a powerful legal caste. The 'Brehon Laws', from the Old Gaelic breithem, meaning 'a judge', governed relationships at all levels of society. With the advent of writing, much of this legal system was preserved. One must be careful, however, in reading our manuscripts of ancient Irish laws. By the time they were written down a good deal of Christian influence had been brought to bear on the native tradition. Even the oldest laws show this influence, and those laws which have sometimes been regarded as the most primitive have been shown to contain Gaelic versions of Jewish laws mediated through the Bible - Leviticus, for example.
Nevertheless, the surviving tracts of early Irish laws are very revealing of the society in which they operated - and show similarities in content and form to many of the ancient laws of Indo-European traditions, going back to the Vedic Laws of Manu in India.
Documentary evidence from the seventh and eighth centuries show Ireland to be a relatively settled agricultural society divided into as many as 150 túatha or small kingdoms. The settlement was well scattered with no towns, and the closest we come to an urban setting is in the larger monasteries.
The Brehon lawyers drew up an elaborate system based on two important institutions of society: the fine or family group and the túath or kingdom. The kings of some túatha managed to gain power over neighbouring kings, and a hierarchy of kingship gradually emerged: there were kings of one túath, kings of several túatha, and kings of whole provinces.
Unlike Roman Law, native Irish law had no concept of a crime against the king's law or against the state. Every crime was an offence against another person or their family, and so rather than the king or his judges punishing crimes in courts of law, the resolution of offences was effected by paying compensation to the victim of a crime or to his family - a payment and restitution governed by laws made by the Brehon class.
Irish society was enormously hierarchical. There were sóer and dóer classes, free and unfree. Within the class of free men there were further hierarchical divisions, dependent on family, wealth and power, and expressed in terms of honour. The higher a person's honour the heavier the fine or payment was due for offending him. Thus for inflicting a slight facial injury on a man, if the victim is a powerful lord the 'honour price' or payment is a cow. If he is a mere inol - a lower class of person - he is only entitled to payment of a sheep's fleece.
The lower castes, the dóer or unfree, lacked the protection of having their own honour price. These included at the lowest level the senchleithe or 'hereditary serf', who had no power to leave the service of his lord or the land to which he was tied, and the slave (male and female, mug and cumal respectively).
Generally speaking, a free man only had rights within his own túath. Once he moved beyond its borders he was unprotected by law. Only a few learned classes, such as poets, lawyers, holy pilgrims and clergy, had the ability to travel freely beyond their own territory while enjoying the law's protection. Outside the túath, relationships were the responsibility of the king - usually in terms of demanding the subjection of another king, or in recognising his overlordship.
The lawyers catalogued every aspect of a person's status and property, sometimes in highly artificial and theoretical terms which were probably hard to apply in practice. All freemen were landowners and the higher grade of landowner [the bóaire] had to have land worth three times that of 63 milch-cows. His property was described in detail, including a large number of cooking pots, household goods and farming equipment. Here are some of the other requirements for a man to 'make the grade':
He owns seven houses: a kiln, a barn, a mill or a share in one, a house of twenty-seven feet, an outhouse of seventeen feet, a pig-stye, a pen for calves, a sheep pen.
He has twenty cows, two bulls, six oxen, twenty pigs, twenty sheep, four domestic boars, two sows, a saddle horse, an enamelled bridle,
sixteen bushels of seed in the ground. He has a bronze cauldron in which there is room for a boar. He possess a green in which there are always sheep without having to change pasture.
He and his wife have four suits of clothes.
The fine was the family group and it was here that ultimate ownership of family land was vested. The family group was made up of the relations in the male line of descent. If someone died without heirs, the property would be divided among their fine, to each kinsman according to the nearness of his kinship. The system had no place for primogeniture as land was shared equally among brothers. The fine also came into play in the matter of paying compensation for offences: they were responsible for payment if one of their members committed a crime. And if one of their members was criminally slain, payment was made to the fine.
At the peak of the social pyramid, the king was in a position of power, but carefully constrained by law and ritual. His kingship was understood in sexual terms, as he was the 'husband of the land', or of the fertility goddess who represented the prosperity of the land. His justice, the fir flathemon ensured its continuing productiveness. He must also be careful not to lose his honour, as a reduction in his honour would result in a loss of legal protection and status. Loss of honour for a king might happen as a result of him giving a false judgment, or by doing manual labour which would make him look like a commoner, and would give him the reduced honour-price of a commoner. He must have a retinue to travel round with him, and be able to enforce his rights and receive tribute. Some of this enforcement depended on his having taken hostages from those subject to him, to ensure their good behaviour.
Contrary to some rather romantic notions about women in ancient Irish laws, women were pretty powerless. There is no evidence for any real woman (as opposed to a legendary goddess such as Medb) exercising political-military power. The laws reveal severe restrictions on her rights: a crime against her is treated as a crime against her father or her husband; he is paid, not her, the compensation. A woman could not inherit land, but if she had no brothers when her father died she might gain merely a life-time interest in her father's property. However, on her death it would revert to her male kin. Some rights were maintained for women, however, such as the right to divorce her husband under some circumstances.
Check out the following sections of the website for related information:
- Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin, 1988
- Robin Chapman Stacey, The Road to Judgement: from Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales, University of Pennsylvania, 1994
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