Conclusion to The Brehon Laws (3)

Laurence Ginnell

As a classic poet may be translated in such a way as to make him look ridiculous, so it is conceivable that of two presentations of these laws equally true in substance one may be positively unfair. Without being intentionally unfair, those introductions are distinctly so in effect. Originating in a Teutonic mind, they are based on the initial assumption that the Teuton alone of all mankind is capable of devising and attaining perfection in legal and political institutions, and that the Irish Celt is incapable of either devising them or adopting them when devised by others. The notion is so grotesque as not to be worth contradicting. But why has its expression been given a place in our national documents? It is clearly the offspring of mental bias, however acquired or however unconscious. The sum paid to this un-Irish editor was, I fear, too small; yet it was probably quite as much as his Irish predecessors had been paid, and so long as he did take it one cannot help thinking that he might have been a little more polite towards a nation good enough to pay it.

Of many passages in which the Teutonic type is set up as the standard of perfection and anything differing from it stamped as barbarous, one sentence taken at random will be quite enough as a specimen. "An act is criminal in the correct use of the word when it is regarded as an offence against the State."

Observe the word "correct." What does it mean here? It means "English." Or, expanded, it means "In accordance with the present English theory of crime, in which I have been instructed." The editor seems quite oblivious of the fact that if he had been instructed in a different system his "correct" would have a different meaning, that if he had been instructed solely in English law of a past age his "correct" would have a different meaning. Which of these meanings, then, would be truly correct? I think none of them. In such matters there is no such thing as perfect abstract correctness universal and eternal. The most correct in one set of circumstances might be the most incorrect in another. To set up any one system, however good, as the only correct system for all mankind in all ages, is not alone incorrect, but is absurd arrogance. Our ancestors happened to think, as some of ourselves think, that a wrongful act, knowingly and wilfully committed against another person, contained in itself all the essentials of a crime, irrespective of the manner in which the State regarded it. Of course this alien editor would object that this is confounding the moral view with the legal, a thing abhorrent to an English lawyer. A brehon would ask in astonishment, What harm if they are confounded? If the moral view is enforced by law it becomes the legal view as well, and there is harmony instead of unnatural antagonism.