Criminal Law (4)

Laurence Ginnell

For an offence committed against himself, as distinguished from one against his property, the plaintiff obtained a general judgment which he was entitled to realise out of any property belonging to the defendant that he pleased. If the defendant preferred to pay in any particular kind, he should offer it promptly. The judgments ran—so many screpalls for a white wound, so many for a red wound, so many for a lump blow, so many for a wound which left a mark on the face, so many for one which left no mark. These amounts, however, were only fixed by the law for the brehon's guidance, and subject to increase or diminution by him according as negligence on the one side, contributary negligence on the other, provocation, self-defence, accident, or any other modifying element appeared in the case. Subject to such modifications, minute regulations are laid down for a vast number of conditions, occupations, and circumstances, and the various offences connected with them. Of crimes directly against the person, the more serious have been noticed in connection with eric and honour-price. All fines were what we should consider heavy, fines for crimes against the person especially so.

A fine of two cows was very heavy for a lump blow, that is, a blow which raised a lump but did not draw blood. And the same was the fine inflicted for shaving a man against his will. I think it meant shaving his head. This was an ignominious form of punishment in England under Alfred, and it may have been so in Ireland as well, and therefore if done without authority of law it would be particularly outrageous. It must also have been peculiarly aggravating among a people like the Irish who took pride in their long hair. They knew how to punish it at all events. But it must be remembered that the amount of a fine was affected by the status of the criminal as well as by that of the person he had outraged, and the heavy fines stated in the text applied only to aires or persons of full status who, as such, were wealthy. It is also fair to point out that the punishments of ancient laws were generally severe, some of them much more so than those of the Irish laws. Take a specimen from the dooms of Alfred, the model English king:—"He who curseth his father or mother, let him perish by death."

If one wounded a man who was the sole support of a family, he was fined for the actual injury, he had to pay for the medical and surgical attendance, and he had to pay a substitute to carry on the injured person's business. Fines are laid down for injury resulting in the loss of limbs, eyes, and all members; and the amount was affected by, among other things, the use the person was accustomed to make of the limb before its injury. One who knocked the nail off the finger of a harper was fined more than if he had inflicted a similar injury upon any other person. Another element sometimes presenting itself in calculating the amount of fine to be paid for a crime was, that the accused might have been provoked by some antecedent crime of the accuser. If this was shown, and the previous offence was one of which the law took cognizance, the judge was allowed to apply the principle of setoff, as were the judges of England according to the Laws of Henry the First.

Fines are carefully laid down for cattle-stealing, the laceration or injury of living cattle by dogs or otherwise, and trespass upon land. This latter was divided into man-trespass and beast-trespass. The forms of man-trespass most frequently dealt with were felling trees on another person's land and taking them away, and cutting turf, rushes, &c, on another person's land. The form of beast-trespass most severely dealt with was that of pigs, because they not alone eat and trample upon a crop but root it out of the earth. For the trespass of a large pig in a growing crop the fine was a sack of corn. For the trespass of a middle-sized pig, half a sack. For the trespass of a sucking-pig, two mams, a mam being all the corn it is possible to raise between the two hands. Other matters of frequent occurrence in the laws are the bites and other forms of damage done by dogs; meddling with another person's bees; bees stinging strangers and blinding or killing them; bees stinging the various kinds of cattle and driving them furious; dangers connected with the felling of timber, the building of houses, the works of smiths, weavers, threshers, millers, kiln owners, &c. If an idler coming uninvited about such works was accidentally struck, he should put up with his injury.

A person on lawful business so struck should be fully compensated; unless he had been warned, either expressly or by the noise of the work, and had disregarded the warning. Rules are also laid down for cases of fellow-workmen hurting one another. There are rules regarding the management of horses at a fair, and liability arising from damage done by them; also regarding damage done by vicious horses. Many rules relate to ferries, there having been more water in the country formerly than now, and fewer bridges. There are rules regarding the mistakes and malpractices of doctors. It appears that, unless under special agreement, a doctor could recover his fee only on the patient getting well. In a dangerous case in which an operation, as the amputation of a limb, became necessary, a doctor should take an indemnity against liability for the fatal termination of his operation. If he was not a duly qualified doctor he should give notice of that fact to the patient and his family. If one suffered, from crime or accident, an injury at first apparently slight, and got judgment for a small amount, and afterwards, without fault of the doctor, the injury "came against" the patient seriously, or became fatal, the person to blame was liable to a second trial, but in this regard would be had to the amount recovered under the previous judgment.

In short, here as elsewhere, the brehons endeavour to deal with all cases and all varieties of circumstances. They lay down special rules for every relation of life known in their time and every detail of social and domestic economy, and some rules relating to conditions so obsolete that their nature can now only be conjectured.