Ancient Laws of Ireland (2)

Laurence Ginnell

Inquirers into the native antiquities of Western Europe naturally turn to Caesar to learn what was the state of things he found existing in Gaul; and if that could be ascertained with certainty, we might reasonably assume that the state of things in Ireland at that and at a later period was not very different. But although it was very good of Caesar to write so much as he did, his mind was far too much occupied with Caesar to be troubled recording many facts relating to mere barbarous life, or with adequately checking those recorded. Caesar and other Roman writers give it to be understood that the Gauls on some occasions sacrificed human beings to their gods; and some modern writers calmly assume, as a matter beyond question, that the Gauls "sacrificed human beings in hecatombs," and that the Druids presided over these horrible butcheries. The innate absurdity of such assumptions might have prevented their expression were it not that the ghastly and sensational grows upon and takes possession of the mind that conceives it, until from excessive fulness the temptation to communicate it becomes irresistible. When communicated, it strikes the hearer or reader more forcibly and effectually than truth, modest and sober, can ever hope to do. Remembering what gross and scandalous falsehoods are sometimes deliberately told of our own contemporaries, even by people of respectable and sanctimonious exterior, I cannot admit that there is any truth in those stories of the Gauls and their Druids who are unable to return with their explanation. It is probable that either Caesar was misinformed or some ceremony, observed by the Gauls in putting criminals to death, was misinterpreted to him or by him. At all events, there is no reason at all to think that human sacrifice ever was practised in Ireland.

Owing to the isolated geographical position of Ireland, references to it by Roman and other ancient writers are comparatively few and of a vague and general character; but fortunately a very full study of Gaelic Ireland can be made from native sources without consulting other authorities except for corroboration. Many leading facts of Irish history have been quite satisfactorily ascertained to the extent of three hundred years before Caesar's time. It would, however, be difficult to lay down a connected and consequential narrative until about A.D. 250, in the reign of King Cormac. This was the time at which some of the laws we are about to consider were reduced to their present form, though they had existed in some other form long before. Those laws, as well as the laws comprised in the greater collection made two centuries later, had probably existed, as laws, a thousand years before Cormac's time. Almost all the Brehon Laws had actually reached their full proportions and maturity about the time that Alfred was reducing to order the scraps of elementary law he found existing amongst his people.

It is with the remains of the laws that then existed in Ireland—boulders from the dun—that we are mainly concerned. Needless to say, they were not written in a foreign tongue. No foreign mind conceived them. No foreign hand enforced them. They were made by those who, one would think, ought to make them: the Irish. They were made for the benefit of those for whose benefit they ought to have been made: the Irish. Hence they were good; if not perfect in the abstract, yet good in the sense that they were obeyed and regarded as priceless treasures, not submitted to as an irksome yoke. And the presence or absence of popular sympathy with law I take to be a true test of the quality of that law and the very touchstone of good government. Originating in the customs of early settlers in times beyond the reach of history, these laws grew in volume and in perfection down to the time mentioned; after which, though continually applied, though copied, re-copied, and commented upon, little of substantial value was added to them. They prevailed over the whole country until the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, and they prevailed over the whole country except the Pale until the beginning of the seventeenth century. In such a great length of time they must have undergone more or less change; but the political condition of the country during all that time being wholly adverse to true development, the actual changes may be taken to have been the very least possible.

In proportion as they lost in utility owing to this cause, they now gain in value to us as archaic relics. And not to us alone, but to continental peoples; to some especially, because they claim a common origin with with us and have little or no native records reaching so far back as ours; to all, for their philological and general antiquarian interest, and because in these laws can be studied nearer to their source than anywhere else the ancient legal ideas of a Celtic people expanding free from external control. Other Celtic nations were subjected to Roman sway and modified by Roman influences, and now little can be ascertained regarding their pre-Roman state except through Roman sources.