Conclusion to The Brehon Laws (4)

Laurence Ginnell

An exponent of Gaelic law who can, without seeing the impropriety, write of English law as "our ancient law," as Mr. Richey does, appears to me to stand self-condemned. It is a confession, if it be not a boast, that he must not be regarded as a native exponent. Deliberately taking up the position, not of a friendly editor, but of a foreign and more or less adverse critic, he scrutinises his subject from aloft or from without. To him these are at best ancient laws, and at that only Irish ancient laws. To us they are much more. They are OUR ANCIENT LAWS emphatically. Nations, like individuals, have their heirlooms, which they do not like to see disrespectfully used. If a Scotch advocate were stupid enough to commit in a treatise on Scotch law such a blunder as that just pointed out he would be completely discredited. It is only for Irish laws this treatment is considered good enough.

The matters in which the foreign mind of the editor manifests itself are mostly small, taken singly, but scattered over a volume or two, positively in statements and negatively in omissions, they produce a lasting effect. Even defect of knowledge which hundreds of living Irish men and women could have supplied is to be met with; as where a note of interrogation is inserted after the word dilesc, a form of duileasg, the name of a sea-plant well known under both its English and its Irish names all round the coast, and to be seen on the stalls of market women. The editor apparently did not condescend to ask information from such people.

To acquire perfect knowledge of a difficult subject, as to acquire skill in a difficult art, one needs the inspiration and guidance of some degree of affection, or at least tolerant sympathy. Unless he takes the ideas to himself, and warms them in his own breast, they are like stricken roses which never open, and he inevitably misses or misunderstands some portion of them. To be able to present in the English language a true picture of the Gaelic laws, one requires much more than philological knowledge, literary skill, and a keen legal perception. He obviously requires to imbibe the Gaelic spirit to some extent if it is not naturally his. Why not? Otherwise "it is the lark and not the nightingale." He requires a heart attuned to the Gaelic pulse, a mind capable of understanding, for the time at least, the Gaelic mode of reasoning: and this necessity is rendered not less imperative but more so by the fact that the Gaelic pulse now beats low and has done so for some time past. It does beat still, and may even yet beat strongly once more; for it is the native pulse of many who now know it not. Still "There is many a man of the race of Conn in beautiful Erinn of the smooth grass," and many more elsewhere. No one can expound those laws unless he understands them, and to understand them one must treat them respectfully, somewhat as one would treat flowers he had found preserved amongst the leaves of a deceased friend's book, or the cerements of a mummy. They will not yield their sweetness to him if he tosses them disdainfully as with a pitchfork. It is a privilege to be allowed to meddle with them, and ought not to be done as though it were an irksome task grudgingly performed. The editor of whom I complain has not squandered any affection on these laws. What one does not respect he does not warm in his bosom. One does not imbibe a spirit he despises.