Celtic Snakes



From The Brehon Laws by Laurence Ginnell, 1894

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Celtic S
UCH is a general outline of the law of distress. There were many rules regarding the legality of certain distresses, the effect of exemption in different cases, and other differences, and curious and elaborate provisions for the execution of distress in the case of almost every animal and thing then held as property; and further numerous differences arose from the numerous classes of suitors and defendants, and the modifications of honour-price and consequently of liability caused by the progress of either or both parties in the scale of status, the arrest of that progress, and a great many other causes. The fines, distresses, stays, and all the processes of action were specifically adjusted to all these variations. There is hardly a way in which a wrong could be inflicted in country life against which a special provision is not made, hardly a thing relating to property or its use or abuse for which a special rule is not given.

These minute rules are far too numerous and intricate for discussion here. The same may be said of every branch of the Brehon Laws. Even so friendly a critic as Dr. Joyce has said it in his chapter on the subject, where he contrasts unfavourably the minute specialism of the Brehon Laws with the adoption of broad principles of general application. He does not tell us, however, in what ancient laws the material for this contrast can be found, in what ancient laws broad principles have been actually adopted. It is hard to find even in modern laws. He leaves his readers to infer that the characteristic he condemns is more observable in the Irish than in other ancient laws, and that the adoption of broad principles is easy and was easy to the brehons. Neither of these assumptions would as a general rule be correct. The tendency, however vain, to deal with particular cases, to relieve where the shoe pinches, is observable in all laws, past and present, even in countries having legislatures at hand to enact, amend, or abolish; and as regards the liberty a judge should take in interpreting law, most modern judges uniformly and consistently shrink from laying down broad principles or extending any rule beyond the requirements of the case before them. Dr. Joyce's criticism, therefore, while applicable to the Brehon Laws, is also of far wider application than Dr. Joyce's readers are led to suppose. It may be observed, too, that for us this proneness to deal with particular cases and minute circumstances is not wholly a defect, since to it we owe our knowledge of many facts revealing to us the habits of the people.

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