Ancient Laws of Ireland (3)

Laurence Ginnell

The isolated position of our country, perhaps a disadvantage on the whole, had, at all events, the effect of leaving one nation truly Celtic, while its kindred on the Continent were being transmuted. The incursions of the Danes produced the first external effect on our laws; but only to the extent of stopping their growth and development and throwing what may be called the organs of development into disorder, from which, owing to historical causes, they never recovered. The Danes never obtained supreme control over Ireland, as they did over England and the North of Gaul, but they harassed and plundered the people, lowered the standard of religion, morality, and patriotism, and fatally smote the institutions of the country, so that from the first arrival of the Danes in A.D. 795 the nation and its laws ceased to progress.

The laws were petrified and fossilised, and remained at the expulsion of the Danes what they had been at their arrival. And they remain practically the same still; for to conquer the Danes at Clontarf, though hard the task, was easier than to restore efficiency and fresh growth to institutions once paralysed, or to revive national patriotism, the stagnation of which had become normal. Those institutions had not recovered their former vigour when the Anglo-Normans came, threw the country once more into turmoil, and kept it so. The Normans, like the Danes, had conquered England and established their own institutions there; but even they never conquered the whole of Ireland, and institutions of their introduction flourished only in the Pale, a small district whose extent varied with the fortunes of war, rarely exceeding four of the present Leinster counties. The Anglo-Norman settlers in other parts of Ireland conformed in the main to the Irish laws, with here and there some slight modifications which were strictly transgressions.

Successive English Governments sent over Deputies and Governors, nominally to rule Ireland, but really to rule the Pale, to create as much dissension as possible beyond that limit, and at any rate to maintain a foothold. A country so circumstanced, partially conquered, the mutilated prey for which two nations hungered and tore and thwarted each other, was one in which the rational development of law or of anything else was scarcely possible. And thus it comes to pass that the laws may be said to remain to-day substantially what they were before the arrival of the Danes more than a thousand years ago.

Celtic Knotwork