Criminal Law (2): Fines under the Brehon Law

Laurence Ginnell

The names of the fines are retained untranslated, for reasons already mentioned. They were eiric or eric, reparation; einachlan, honour-price (not strictly a fine); dire, fine; coirpdire, body-fine; smacht, usually a fine of five seds; and airer, a fine amounting to one-seventh of the honour-price. Eric is defined as the fine for separating body from soul, that is for killing, whether murder or manslaughter. But of course the amount of it was not the same in these cases; for one of the most important distinctions made by the law in crimes was the presence or absence of intention. A man who happened by pure accident to kill another who was about his lawful business did not go wholly unpunished, as such a one does here at the present time. Having destroyed human life and inflicted an irreparable injury on a family, he had to pay eric to the family of the deceased, and so alleviate suffering by sharing it. But one who committed wilful murder with malice aforethought had to pay at least a double fine. As an English lawyer would express it, the eric for murder was double that for manslaughter. So the translators tell us, and they are supported by the commentary which says, "The double of honour-price is due to each and every person for the crime of secret murder." Still it is conceivable that the word diabalta might be as correctly translated twofold; for there were really two fines imposed, in some cases three, and they were not always equal in amount as the word double implies, since they started from different bases and the amount of each was affected by a different status and a somewhat different combination of circumstances. I find it laid down in one place that there were three fines imposed on a murderer, (1) his own honour-price; (2) seven cumhals for the homicide itself; (3) twice seven cumhals if malice was proved. I do not know of what rank this is said; but the actual amounts were affected by the different ranks, as well as by the facts and peculiar circumstances of each particular case, and each of the parts of the fine was in every case the subject of a separate and independent calculation.

Some loosely written passages in the commentaries have been interpreted, I think incorrectly, as meaning that the amount of fine which a murderer had to pay in order to avoid the liability of being put to death was his own honour-price. This would mean that the eric of the slain would always be equal to the honour-price of the murderer; a thing which, so far from being the rule, could hardly ever occur in practice. It could occur only when the slayer and his victim belonged to precisely the same rank and there were no circumstances to either extenuate or aggravate the guilt. As these essential conditions could scarcely ever be satisfied, the amount of simple eric could scarcely ever tally with the murderer's honour-price. But still less could the double and triple eric mentioned so tally. Eric and honour-price were, both in theory and in fact, wholly different things. Eric was strictly a fine regarded from the point of view of the party who had to pay it; but its amount was determined not by his status but by that of the victim. Honour-price was the assessed value of status; and, as applied to fines, the status in this case might be that of the criminal.

The eric (= reparation) was given, as its name imports, to the relatives of the person slain, in the proportion in which they were entitled to inherit his property, that being also in accordance with the degree of relationship, and usually with the degree in which those persons were really sufferers. In the Middle Ages all the parts of the fine were called comprehensively eric, and were so distributed. While Ireland had a monarch of her own he was entitled to one-third of the honour-price of every murderer in Ireland. If he was a "king with opposition," that is one whose title was disputed, he was entitled to only half this amount.