Celtic Design





From The Brehon Laws by Laurence Ginnell, 1894

« Minutiae | Contents page | Criminal Law »

Celtic T
HE Senchus Mor is the greatest work on Irish Law in general, civil and criminal. As it deals with the whole subject, the civil law occupies much more space than the criminal. Various branches of law are treated specially in separate treatises. The most important of these is the Book of Aicill. It is taken up mainly, but not exclusively, with what we now call criminal law, and may be regarded as the Irish criminal code; and it is this work that will mainly be referred to in explaining that code. It also contains some useful statements of law relating to partnership, borrowing and lending, and other transactions of civil life.

The whole of the Book of Aicill is composed of the opinions or placita of two eminent men, illustrious in law and in other respects: The first was King Cormac mac Airt, otherwise called Cormac ua Cuinn; the second was Cennfaeladh the Learned. Cormac was one of the most deservedly celebrated of the monarchs of ancient Erinn. He was Ard-Rig from A.D. 227 until 266 (according to others from 218 until 260). He was, as his names signify, the son of Art and the grandson of Conn of the Hundred Battles, both monarchs of Erinn, and he was the father of Cairbre who may be said to have succeeded him, the very short reign of Eochaidh alone intervening. He was also the father of Grainne, celebrated in the Fenian poetry of Oisin and his contemporaries. In youth he was violent enough, perhaps unscrupulous in pursuit of power; but his subsequent life proved that his ambition rose from the solid basis of ability to rule men; and to this extent, as also by the use he made of power when acquired, he justified himself. He was a great reformer of the national institutions of his time, civil and military, including the Feis of Tara; and most of the traces of its former greatness now existing at Tara are attributed to his time. Consistently with his reforming spirit, he was a great patron of literature, art, and industry, the first of whose patronage we have undoubted evidence. He either wrote himself or procured the writing of several works on law, history, and other important subjects. Some of these works on subjects other than law were still extant so late as the seventeenth century, but appear to have been since destroyed or lost. Among the useful things for which the country was indebted to Cormac was the introduction of the water-mill. He had the first mill erected on a small stream on the slope of Tara. He was a man in many respects far in advance of his time. Though living long before Saint Patrick's arrival, and king of a pagan nation, there is reason for thinking that he was a believer in Christianity before his death. He at all events ceased to believe in the pagan gods.

"Crom Cruach and his sub-gods twelve,"
Said Cormac, "are but craven treene:
The axe that made them, haft and helve,
Had worthier of our worship been.

"But He who made the tree to grow,
And hid in earth the iron stone,
And made the man with mind to know
The axe's use, is God alone.

"Spread not the beds of Brugh for me
When restless death-bed's use is done,
But bury me at Rosnaree,
And face me to the rising sun.

"For all the kings that lie in Brugh
Put trust in gods of wood and stone;
And 'twas at Ross that I first knew
One, Unseen, who is God alone."

According to one Gaelic authority Cormac was the author of the text of the Book of Aicill throughout, and Cennfaeladh afterwards modified and commented on the whole of it, besides adding some of the case law which had grown up in the interval. And I am inclined to think that this view is correct. However, the introduction to the Book of Aicill gives a different account, and naturally it is that usually accepted. It begins thus:—"The place of this book is Aicill, close to Tara, and its time is the time of Coirpri Lifechair (Carbre of the Liffey), the son of Cormac, and its author is Cormac, and the cause of its having been composed was the blinding of the eye of Cormac by Aengus Gabhuaidech." Owing to the loss of his eye, Cormac became incapable under the Irish law of retaining the sovereignty, "because it is a prohibited thing for one with a blemish to be king at Tara." The sovereignty was transferred to his son, after a temporary usurper had been got rid of, and Cormac retired to Aicill, now called Skreen, near Tara. It is stated that in difficult cases he was consulted by his son the young king. However this may be, a great deal of the Book of Aicill is written as if in answer to questions submitted, and the answer in each case begins with the words, "My son, that thou mayest know."

It was on account of this injury to his eye that Cormac expelled the Deisi from the district in Meath still from them called Deece, and drove them to Munster where they settled and gave their name to a district there also.

Having told where, when, on what occasion, and by whom, the book was first written, the introduction proceeds:—"These were the place and time of it as far as regards Cormac. But as regards Cennfaeladh, its place is Daire Lurain (now Derryloran, in Tyrone), and its time was the time of Domhnall, son of Aedh, son of Ainmiré; and its author was Cennfaeladh, son of Oilell, and the cause of its being composed was that part of his brain was taken out of his [Cennfaeladh's] head after it had been split in the battle of Magh Rath." The Domhnall (Donal) in whose reign this occurred was monarch of Ireland and fought the battle of Magh Rath (now Anglicised Moira) in A.D. 634 (? 642) against Congal Claen, king of Uladh.

The foregoing statements are remarkably clear and explicit. They represent the Book of Aicill as the production of two authors, one writing in the third century, the other in the seventh. Notwithstanding this, Sir Henry Maine, the standard authority on ancient law, in his learned discoveries of "village communities" where they never existed, represents Cennfaeladh as assisting Cormac! Worse still, I find an Irish author saying gravely that Cormac was just the man to appreciate Cennfaeladh's services! Granted that Cormac was highly endowed, still the power of appreciating services rendered more than three hundred years after his own death can hardly be conceded even to Cormac mac Airt; and if he had such power, any express recognition of Cennfaeladh's services would then have been rather premature.

We are told that Cennfaeladh (Kenfacla) was a soldier, not a lawyer. I would rather describe him as a soldier and a lawyer, and much besides. Having been wounded in the battle of Moira, the commentary goes on to say of him, "And Cennfaeladh was brought to the house of Bricin of Tuam Drecain (now Toomregan, in Cavan) at the meeting of the three streets, between the houses of three ollamhs. And there were three schools in the town, a school of literature, a school of law, and a school of poetry. And whatever he used to hear rehearsed in the three schools every day, he had by heart every night; and he put a fine thread of poetry about them, and wrote them on slates and tablets, and transcribed them into a paper book." This was the way in which Cennfaeladh spent his time while recovering from his severe wound; and there is a characteristic explanation given of his wonderful memory, namely, that the brain of forgetfulness had been taken out of his head by the sword by which he had been wounded. Throughout the Ancient Laws occasional touches of fancy like this are met with, thrown in apparently by way of ornament, and possibly as an assistance to young students in learning these laws. Saint Bricin kept a school at Tuam Drecain; and Cennfaeladh appears to have done part of his work there and part at Derryloran.

Commentaries written by lawyers of later times run through the Book of Aicill as through the Senchus Mor. According to these, the part of the Book of Aicill in which occur the introductory words, "My son, that thou mayest know," and the part called "the exemptions," are all the work of Cormac, and the remainder of the book is the work of Cennfaeladh. Cennfaeladh re-wrote the whole work, and in doing so he probably modernised it to some extent in effect and in form of expression, and harmonised it with the requirements of Christianity after the example of the Senchus Mor. One may say in our present language that Cennfaeladh brought out a new and revised edition of King Cormac's work.

« Minutiae | Contents page | Criminal Law »

Celtic Knotwork

Library Ireland Facebook