Conclusion to The Brehon Laws (7)

Laurence Ginnell

The student of legal history, Roman and English, will turn from exasperating auspices and fantastic ceremonial, and all the cruel delay and injustice of which these were the guilty occasion, and will give credit to the brehons for their manly good sense in not inventing artificial meshes for their own feet and the feet of those who sought justice at their hands. That a man had moral right on his side did not matter a pin's point to the old-fashioned judges of Rome and of London if their fantastic technicalities had not been complied with. In no instance in the Brehon Laws have I met with an outrage upon justice for the sake of mere form, a thing quite common under the Formal system at Rome, quite common in England until a few years ago, and possible even now, as in the case of Kendall versus Hamilton.

The brehons of the Gaelic decadence, owing mainly to political causes, have left us little whereby to gauge their capacity. For this it would ill become us to blame them. It is a mistake to suppose that to transmit judgments to posterity to criticise is at any time the highest duty of a judge. If in the disorder of their times they managed still to make just laws prevail amongst their contemporaries against the law of the strong hand, they performed their whole duty, and a difficult one it must have been. Through no fault of theirs their rulings, once executing themselves proprio vigore, were no longer universally obeyed. Their sphere of influence was shrinking, and with it virility of thought. We, however, cannot be indifferent to the fact that if they had neither the ability nor the opportunity to add to or develop the laws, they had at least the judgment and grace to preserve them. It is easy to be wise after events, and to point out in what respects things might have been better had they been managed differently. It is easy, but not brave, to censure those who cannot return to explain. Not even the wise men of the nineteenth century can penetrate far into the future, nor do they always understand the hidden springs of their own conduct or the drift of their own acts; and in their most pretentious efforts they may be merely spoiling some possibilities of the future. Since the days of the brehons man's powers and purposes have increased and multiplied tenfold. We shall not be deemed unworthy members of society if, with our enlarged facilities, we deserve as well of our own age as the brehons did of theirs.

Law at best is not the most fascinating of subjects. Very handsome things have been said of it, and justly; but they have been said mostly by lawyers. It is, among other things, the bulwark of the righteous, the shield of the weak, the noble science of discovering in circumstances of great complexity what is just, and making the balance play on its pivot with strict impartiality. It may also be considered as a very vulgar business, mainly connected with, and sometimes debased to the promotion of, what is sordid and criminal. Whichever view be taken, the importance of the law of a country cannot be disputed.

There are many important things connected with ancient Ireland yet to be learned; few more so than that which we have been considering. A nation's law is an irrebuttable witness to its character, a mirror that cannot be disclaimed. We should in justice remember that it is in general an unfavourable witness, an unflattering mirror. It reflects cases, disputes, quarrels, and lends undue importance to the comparatively few members of the population who figure in them, while almost wholly ignoring all the sweetness and goodness of human life and the vast numbers who pass through life without a legal dispute at all. It takes little notice of duties faithfully discharged, but is endlessly garrulous about obligations broken. It provides against offences which are rarely committed, and disregards the good acts with which the hours are studded.

In a vast flock, which it apparently sees not, it spies with eagle eye the distempered kid. It is so little concerned with quiet folk who all their lives do right and justice that if left to legal reading one might suppose they did not exist; so much concerned with wrong and wrong-doers that if left to legal reading one might judge the world very uncharitably indeed. These remarks in the abstract apply neither more nor less to Irish than to other laws. But in the case of other laws that are now read, the effect on the reader's mind is usually counteracted by other miscellaneous literature of the nation to which the laws belong, while it is likely that many who will read this little treatise on Irish laws will not be fortified with much miscellaneous reading in reference to ancient Ireland. Persons for whom the quiet voices of ancient peace and harmony are wholly still, and to whom the best types of our race are wholly unknown, will here make acquaintance with ancient disputes and with the aspects of men in contest. These, unrelieved, will linger in the memory, and these alone the mention of ancient Ireland will recall. In truth, they formed little of the real ancient Ireland, and I now feel guilty of having in some measure contributed to their posthumous importance.