Conclusion to The Brehon Laws (2)

Laurence Ginnell

The Gaelic race, with its peculiar institutions, national and domestic, was kept disorganised until disorganisation became its normal condition. It was not so much that civilisation was undergoing a change as that it was being strangled. There were two nations in the land, animated not by a desire to evolve a better condition of things, but by a mutual desire to thwart each other at every hand's turn. Neither was able to establish a central government of its own of sufficient potency to enforce its own views. Each was able and willing to prevent the other from doing it. It is doubtful that either correctly understood the true remedy of the evil they jointly created; and certain that they would not have adopted the true remedy if they had understood it. All over the country, except the Pale, the Brehon Laws, like sun through storm, prevailed in some way; for other law there was none.

The so-called parliaments held before the reign of Henry the Eighth were organised mainly by hungry adventurers and in their interest, and consisted of themselves, their friends and connections in office, and knights of the Pale. Hardly any Gaelic Irishmen attended them, and many were unaware of their existence. During the reigns of Henry the Eighth, Edward the Sixth, and Mary, a semblance of English institutions gradually grew upon the country, not by reason of their superiority, but partly with the hope that their adoption would, as a concession to English prejudice, contribute somewhat to peace, and partly owing to the enforced decay of all that was native. I need not tell how, in Elizabeth's bloody reign, the hope was blasted, the work of destruction carried on by fire and sword, craft and poison, and Teutonic institutions set up on the ruins. The great transformation was completed under James the First, and confirmed and rendered irrevocable under Charles the First, Cromwell, and William the Third. Such old brehons and ollamhs as may have been then living sank into obscurity and into the grave without successors. Night had fallen on the Gael, and Justice as a living presence had been banished from among them.

In the third, fourth, and probably all future volumes of the Brehon Laws the student will find elaborate introductions written by the editors, no doubt in good faith, for his guidance. From the same volumes he will miss the simpler and safer Gaelic guidance of O'Donovan and O'Curry. He will soon realise that he has passed into the hands of men of Teutonic instinct, training, and sympathies, and under alien, if not unfriendly guidance. Should he be so much in earnest about his subject that his guides do not succeed in disgusting him with it, as they are apt to do, he will begin to realise that it would have been just as well for his progress and for their reputation if those elaborate introductions had never been written. When he has begun to relish and digest the Brehon Laws in spite of the introductions, his success in acquiring a knowledge of them is assured, and the rate of his further progress will correspond with the rate at which he frees himself from their guidance.