Ancient Laws of Ireland

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter X. ...continued

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Customs were probably the origin of laws. Law, in its most comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action laid down [8] by a superior. Divine law is manifested (1) by the law of nature, and (2) by revelation. The law of nations is an arbitrary arrangement, founded on the law of nature and the law of revelation: its perfection depends obviously on its correspondence with the divine law. Hence, by common consent, the greatest praise is given to those laws of ancient nations which approximate most closely to the law of nature, though when such laws came to be revised by those who had received the law of revelation, they were necessarily amended or altered in conformity therewith.

No government can exist without law; but as hereditary succession preceded the law of hereditary succession, which was at first established by custom, so the lex non scripta, or national custom, preceded the lex scripta, or statute law. The intellectual condition of a nation may be well and safely estimated by its laws. A code of laws that were observed for centuries before the Christian era, and for centuries after the Christian era, and which can bear the most critical tests of forensic acumen in the nineteenth century, evidence that the framers of the code were possessed of no slight degree of mental culture. Such are the Brehon laws, by which pagan and Christian Erinn was governed for centuries.

The sixth century was a marked period of legal reform. The Emperor Justinian, by closing the schools of Athens, gave a death-blow to Grecian philosophy and jurisprudence. But Grecian influence had already acted on the formation of Roman law, and probably much of the Athenian code was embodied therein. The origin of Roman law is involved in the same obscurity as the origin of the Brehon code. In both cases, the mist of ages lies like a light, but impenetrable veil, over all that could give certainty to conjecture. Before the era of the Twelve Tables, mention is made of laws enacted by Romulus respecting what we should now call civil liabilities. Laws concerning religion are ascribed to Numa, and laws of contract to Servius Tullius, who is supposed to have collected the regulations made by his predecessors. The Twelve Tables were notably formed on the legal enactments of Greece.

The cruel severity of the law for insolvent debtors, forms a marked contrast to the milder and more equitable arrangements of the Brehon code. By the Roman enactments, the person of the debtor was at the mercy of his creditor, who might sell him for a slave beyond the Tiber. The Celt allowed only the seizure of goods, and even this was under regulations most favourable to the debtor. The legal establishment of Christianity by Constantine, or we should rather say the existence of Christianity, necessitated a complete revision of all ancient laws: hence we find the compilation of the Theodosian code almost synchronizing with the revision of the Brehon laws. The spread of Christianity, and the new modes of thought and action which obtained thereby, necessitated the reconstruction of ancient jurisprudence in lands as widely distant geographically, and as entirely separated politically, as Italy and Ireland.

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[8] Laid down.—Law, Saxon, lagu, lah ; from lecgan= Goth, lagjan, to lay, to place; Gael. lagh, a law; leag, to lie down; Latin, lex, from Gr. lego, to lay.


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