Brehon Code

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

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Those who have studied the subject most carefully, and who are therefore most competent to give an opinion, accept the popular account of the revision of our laws.

The Four Masters thus record this important event:—"The age of Christ 438. The tenth year of Laeghairé. The Feinchus of Ireland were purified and written, the writings and old works of Ireland having been collected [and brought] to one place at the request of St. Patrick. Those were the nine supporting props by whom this was done: Laeghairé, i.e., King of Ireland, Corc, and Daire, the three kings; Patrick, Benen, and Cairneach, the three saints; Ross, Dubhthach, and Fearghus, the three antiquaries." Dr. O'Donovan, in his note, shelters himself under an extract from Petrie's Tara ; but it is to be supposed that he coincides in the opinion of that gentleman.

Dr. Petrie thinks that "little doubt can be entertained that such a work was compiled within a short period after the introduction of Christianity in the country, and that St. Patrick may have laid the foundations of it;"[9] though he gives no satisfactory reason why that saint should not have assisted at the compilation, and why the statements of our annalists should be refused on this subject, when they are accepted on others. A list of the "family" [household] of Patrick is given immediately after, which Dr. O'Donovan has taken great pains to verify, and with which he appears satisfied. If the one statement is true, why should the other be false?

Mr. O'Curry, whose opinion on such subjects is admittedly worthy of the highest consideration, expresses himself strongly in favour of receiving the statements of our annalists, and thinks that both Dr. Petrie and Dr. Lanigan are mistaken in supposing that the compilation was not effected by those to whom it has been attributed. As to the antiquity of these laws, he observes that Cormac Mac Cullinan quotes passages from them in his Glossary, which was written not later than the ninth century, and then the language of the Seanchus [1] Mor was so ancient that it had become obsolete. To these laws, he well observes, the language of Moore, on the MSS. in the Royal Irish Academy, may be applied: "They were not written by a foolish people, nor for any foolish purpose;" and these were the "laws and institutions which regulated the political and social system of a people the most remarkable in Europe, from a period almost lost in the dark mazes of antiquity, down to about within two hundred years of our own time, and whose spirit and traditions influence the feelings and actions of the native Irish even to this day."[2]

But we can adduce further testimony. The able editor and translator of the Seanchus Mor, which forms so important a portion of our ancient code, has, in his admirable Preface, fully removed all doubt on this question. He shows the groundlessness of the objections (principally chronological) which had been made regarding those who are asserted to have been its compilers. He also makes it evident that it was a work in which St. Patrick should have been expected to engage: (1) because, being a Roman citizen, and one who had travelled much, he was probably well aware of the Christian modifications which had already been introduced into the Roman code. (2) That he was eminently a judicious missionary, and such a revision of national laws would obviously be no slight support to the advancement of national Christianity. It is also remarked, that St. Patrick may not necessarily have assisted personally in writing the MS.; his confirmation of what was compiled by others would be sufficient. St. Benignus, who is known to be the author of other works,[3] probably acted as his amanuensis.

The subject-matter of the portions of the Seanchus Mor which have been translated, is the law of distress. Two points are noticeable in this: First, the careful and accurate administration of justice which is indicated by the details of these legal enactments; second, the custom therein sanctioned of the creditor fasting upon the debtor, a custom which still exists in Hindostan. Hence, in some cases, the creditor fasts on the debtor until he is compelled to pay his debt, lest his creditor should die at the door; in other cases, the creditor not only fasts himself, but also compels his debtor to fast, by stopping his supplies. Elphinstone describes this as used even against princes, and especially by troops to procure payment of arrears.[4]

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[9] It.—Four Masters, vol. i. p. 133. The Seanchus Mor was sometimes called Cain Phadruig, or Patrick's Law.

[1] Seanchus.—From the old Celtic root sen, old, which has direct cognates, not merely in the Indo-European, but also in the Semitic; Arabic, sen, old, ancient—sunnah, institution, regulation; Persian, san, law, right; sanna. Phoenicibus idem fuit quod Arabibus summa, lex, doctrina jux canonicum.—Bochart, Geo. Sae. 1. ii. c. 17. See Petrie's Tara, p. 79.

[2] Day.—O'Curry, page 201.

[3] Works.—He appears to have been the author of the original Book of Rights, and "commenced and composed the Psalter of Caiseal, in which are described the acts, laws, " &c—See Preface to Seanchus Mor, p. 17.

[4] Arrears.—Elphinstone's India, vol. i. p. 372.


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