Conclusion to The Brehon Laws (5)

Laurence Ginnell

I am quite aware that opinions such as mine have to contend, and often to contend in vain, against the universal disposition, unusually developed in the Teutonic temperament, to spurn the suggestion that any people have peculiarities which outsiders cannot understand as well as themselves. This disposition is fortified by the acknowledged importance of seeing ourselves as others see us. The vision of others may be true, while our own may be partial. The opinions of an unfriendly critic may be sound, so far as he understands the subject. My contention is, that the principle of seeing ourselves as others see us may be carried too far on one side, that so far as it is good it is universally applicable, that Teutonic peoples do not pay us for telling how we see them, that there is much in human life and manners which outsiders never can by any means perceive, and not perceiving never can understand or describe, and that the translation of our own laws at our own expense was an occasion when the Gaelic view was unquestionably the view that ought to have been presented above all others.

No one presumes to claim that either the laws or the brehons were perfect. They would indeed have been wonderful, and out of place in this world, had they been perfect. It is very easy to point out imperfections in both. The laws were in many respects painfully restrictive, in many crude and seriously defective according to our conceptions. But why should we expect the Brehon Laws, any more than other leges barbarorum with which they may be classed, to suit modern conceptions or to be adaptable to the complex texture of the modern world? They were never intended for that. If they suited ancient conceptions they fulfilled the object of their institution. That they did this to as large an extent as any other laws, past or present, is sufficiently established by the enormous length of time during which they continued in force, and in force, remember, by the will of the people. In considering them it should be borne in mind throughout, but especially when any startling feature is met with, that it is not with modern laws they ought to be compared, but with those of their own time. This test they bear well, so far as it can be applied; and from such a comparison we have no occasion to shrink.

But the fact is that few modern nations possess material sufficiently old for instituting this comparison, and what they do possess of ancient date is mainly concerned with crimes. To be sure, the Irish laws ought to have been gradually adapted to the changed conditions of the people. But then they would have lost in the process that archaic character in which their chief interest now lies. Even now, tried by our modern consciences and searched by our modern lights, they afford sufficient evidence that all perfection is not modern. Side by side with the crude, and equally archaic with it, are some principles which modern legislators might adopt with advantage. The desire just now so prevalent to found courts of arbitration and conciliation is the best practical tribute that could be paid to the wisdom of our ancestors, as shown in the consensual character of the brehon's jurisdiction. Every competent and impartial reader of these laws will admit that their merits far outnumber their defects, that they were animated by a spirit of justice and a desire to secure fair dealing, especially to those who needed that security, and that they were highly creditable as an attempt to harmonise conflicting rights. These must always be important objects of law; and that they should be attained in each age and country in its own way is the important thing, not the manner of their attainment. The development of legal ideas was not uniform in Ireland. It never has been uniform anywhere.