Existing Remains of Irish Law (4)

Laurence Ginnell

The laws were originally written in the Bearla Feini, the Fenian dialect of Gaelic. As this language in course of time tended to become obsolete the laws tended to become unintelligible, and the tenacious adherence to old forms of expression common to all laws had to be severed or counteracted in some way. The transcribers did not act according to any uniform plan, nor did any transcriber continue throughout the work the mode of treatment with which he began, but each from time to time translated early into late Gaelic to the extent of some words that were in his time difficult, or left the original phrase standing, and supplied a gloss or a commentary. Each may be considered to have done the best that his circumstances permitted, for writing was not a thousand years ago the simple thing it now is. The great antiquity, both of the original text and of the commentaries, is shown in several ways. Quotations from both are found in works admittedly written not later than the tenth century. Some parts of these older commentaries, although written later than the text, are still very ancient, and besides they contain, as quotations or otherwise, some fragments of traditional law fully as archaic as any in the text. The language being of a highly technical, elliptical and abbreviated character too, and devoid of all proper definitions, is now scarcely intelligible to speakers of what is nominally the same language; and of the few who can read still fewer can confidently construe. Even some of the Gaelic transcribers of the Middle Ages may possibly have erred in its construction.

Imagine a work treated at one time in the manner described, and then, after another century or two had elapsed, treated again in a similarly irregular fashion by another transcriber—here a literal copy, there a translation, in another place a gloss or a commentary, to keep pace with the further changes in the spoken language, and you will have a fair idea of the present condition of the Brehon Laws. What are thus spoken of under the general name of commentaries contain much matter not suggested by that title. Many independent decisions and dicta, old and current, are inserted under particular texts with which some of them have little or no connection, but as the most suitable or most convenient place the writer could find for them. The most valuable of the commentaries were written before the existing manuscripts were transcribed, and they interpret not alone obscure passages in the text but the substantive law itself.

Later commentaries were written by various hands on the present manuscripts, and even these may not be all original. They were written between the original lines, on the margin, at the foot, wherever room was found. For the most part a text is given; but in some instances the whole of the original text does not now exist, only the opening words of passages being retained in the existing transcripts. These opening words, used as headings or catchwords, are quite meaningless in themselves as they now stand; but of course they were full of meaning for those whose business it was to know what followed. They are now followed by commentaries from which may be gathered the substance of the original, as a commentary on the Lord's Prayer might be headed with the words "Our Father." Comments upon law and glosses upon words are inserted without any apparent attempt to keep them separate, and with the latter are frequently given an assortment of etymological speculations in which the writers display some knowledge of what they call "the four principal languages of the world," Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Gaelic. Derivations of words, of rules, and of customs are suggested almost at random, and are no more reliable than similar attempts of ancient Roman writers; some of them being clearly fabulous and not seriously meant. When the commentary is mainly etymological and in the nature of a translation of the text, and both are translated into English side by side, the result in the English is an unpleasant tautological repetition of the same thing. Sometimes the commentators purport to explain the text, start with that apparent object but with a relative pronoun for which it is now difficult to find an antecedent, plunge in medias res, and end by leaving the whole matter quite as obscure as the text had left it.