Celtic Design


Capital Punishment in Ancient Ireland

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic T
HE fact that the Irish took compensation for murder instead of putting the murderer to death, has been stupidly laid hold of by some English authors and journalists as a national reproach, which, with characteristic courtesy, instead of overlooking as a thing of the dead past, they delight to utilise. It would be foreign to my present undertaking to discuss the abstract question, whether it is better on the one hand when one man has been killed to kill another and make no reparation to the sufferers by the first death, or on the other hand, to make reparation out of the murderer's property and spare his life. The latter course is prima facie the more humane, and either side of the question is quite arguable. It is with the superior critics I am for the moment concerned. Those gentlemen with their readiness to criticise must be assumed to know, and with that delicacy of conscience by which they profess to be moved might be expected to state, that the law of making reparation for murder, be it good or bad, so far from being peculiarly Irish, was formerly almost universal. It was practised by, amongst others, their own ancestors—that is, if it be possible to determine who were the ancestors of a hybrid people. It was practised by the ancient Greeks, and in later times by the Lombards, Gauls, Franks, Swedes, Danes, Germans, and Saxons, the only difference being that while the laws of those nations imposed fixed and rigid fines for the murder of specified persons, the Irish laws always allowed fines to be reduced or increased by mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

The Anglo-Saxons called the price or value set upon a man his wergild, the same as the German wehrgeld, the amount of which depended mainly upon rank and the amount of property possessed, and the nature of which does not seem to have at all differed from the Irish honour-price. The wergild is met with all through the old English laws. But one had better be specific. It is met with in the laws of Ine, of Alfred, of Edward the Elder, of Æthelstan, and of Edmund, who appears to have encroached upon it. He did not extinguish it, however, for it appears in the laws of Ethelred, of Cnut, of Edward the Confessor, and of William the Conqueror; in the latter case the mode of its distribution being laid down, the largest portion being given to the widow of the man slain, and the remainder divided among his nearest surviving relatives. In the code or compilation called the Laws of Henry the First, the wergild appears as a clearly recognised part of the existing law, and the amount of it is specified for parricide and all the graver crimes committed by or against the various classes from king to peasant; and the only variation of the fixed amounts that appears to have been allowed was, that they might be increased if the crimes had been committed on holy days, as Sunday, Ascension Day, Lady Day, All Saints' Day, &c.

These are historical facts recorded on authority which Englishmen would be the last in the world to question. Any one may read them, and it is an Englishman's duty to know and remember them when he feels tempted to make himself ridiculous by thanking God that he is not like the rest of men, and assuming sanctimonious airs, to which nobody but himself thinks he is entitled. It may be said that they are very ancient facts. So are the Brehon Laws. It was possible to compound a felony in England until the power to do so was abolished in 1819 by the now meaningless looking statute, 59 George the Third, chapter 46. That is not very ancient. Until 7 and 8 George the Fourth, chapter 28, was passed, a man who fled from trial, forfeited all his goods and chattels, even though as the result of the trial he was acquitted. That is not very ancient. Until 54 George the Third, chapter 146, the dead bodies of victims of the law were not sacred. Of course it will be argued, and with truth, that many things are possible under the law long after they have ceased to be practised; and, you know, every conceivable excuse must be urged when the English character is assailed. Excuses exist only for English consumption. It never at any time was possible to say of the courts of the brehons as Hallam says of the courts of the Tudors, that they were "little better than caverns of murderers."

And if we turn to what was actually practised in England in times still more modern, what do we find? We find that a prisoner was not allowed before his trial to know anything of the case against him, was not even told the name of his accuser, was given no reasonable opportunity for preparing his defence, while the State paid for preparing the case against him; and if found guilty—as well he might be in such circumstances, though innocent—the sentence might be death, or breaking of limbs, or stretching on the wheel, or cutting out of his tongue, or gouging out of his eyes, or clipping of his ears, or a combination of several of these. I should be sorry to suggest that there is a decent Englishman living to-day who would not shudder and blush at the long catalogue of unfortunate human beings who, under every one of the four Georges, were after every assizes put to death or subjected to the other grim barbarities mentioned, in many cases for offences for which a flogging or a month's imprisonment is now deemed sufficient punishment. Those punishments were so many fragments of the savage law of vengeance, carried out, not by the sufferer or his friends, nor in their interest, but by the State, and as likely as not carried out on the wrong persons.

They are recalled in no spirit of antipathy to the Saxon, for though a Gael of the purest blood I entertain none; nor are they recalled to make him ashamed of his ancestors, for we all have enough to do to keep our own lives pure; but they are recalled as common knowledge which it is his special duty to possess, and the possession of which should moderate his conceit to becoming limits, since it shows that, after all, he is not so much superior to the rest of men, and that in this very matter in which he presumes so much, we have at least as good ground for pride. No doubt it is very good of him to desire that his ancestors should be spoken of only with charity. We quite agree—because they need it. For ours all we desire is justice. His reproach amounts in substance to this, that our ancestors were more humane than his, and have not so much innocent blood on their heads. But for his modesty no doubt he would add, in further proof of our national depravity, that our ancestors never had any witches to burn, and never made the schoolmaster, as such, a criminal. It would be to his advantage to remember, what he cannot prevent the world at large from knowing, that his present perfection in this particular, as in many others of which he boasts, has not been evolved from his own inner essence, but is due to external influences acting on him, sometimes acting very much against his will. There is ample space in this world even for Saxon mediocrity in borrowed Norman plumes; but it must not disregard the fitness of things and presume to lecture where it can more profitably learn.