Existing Remains of Irish Law (5)

Laurence Ginnell

Accounts of the effects of particular judgments are also met with, some of them legendary, others of real value. According to one commentator, "Sencha MacColl Cluin was not wont to pass judgment until he had pondered upon it in his breast the night before." This probably refers to a judgment in a grave case involving human life. Judges of the Hebrew nation in early times were accustomed to fast the night and morning before passing a death sentence. The text of the old laws is fairly self-consistent throughout. The commentaries, as might be expected from the manner in which they were written by different hands at different times, are not always reconcilable, and there is a good deal of tiresome repetition in them. The translators have found them useful in many cases, misleading in some. They are interesting throughout.

The condition just described involves so many difficulties in dealing with these laws, that Gaelic scholars generally in the last century believed the translation of them to have become impossible, the key having been lost. If occasionally an educated Englishman of the present day finds the legal documents in which he is personally concerned hard to understand, though assisted by his knowledge of the actual facts to which they relate, his knowledge of the language and of contemporary life in all its phases, how much more difficult must it not be to draw legal writings of a distant past from their dust and cobwebs and the greater load of impedimenta just mentioned, to understand them fully and to render them correctly, when the system of life which those laws contemplated and provided for has vanished from the earth leaving no derivative institutions in existence?

In 1852 a Royal Commission was appointed to translate and publish the Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland, and thus bring them within the reach of English readers. The nature of the undertaking may be judged from the difficulties enumerated, and many others must have been encountered in the actual performance of the work. It is only just that we who can now read those laws at our ease should remember those difficulties and be grateful to the learned men who have surmounted them; and we cannot be surprised to find that, distinguished scholars though they were and are, they have actually failed to understand some passages which they have translated; and they repeatedly emphasise the fact that their translation is in certain parts conjectural only and must not be taken as final or satisfactory.

Many technical terms relating to status, ranks and degrees, as well as names of fines, diseases of horses, &c, are retained in the English untranslated; some because the translators were unable to satisfy themselves as to the true meaning; others because the words have no direct or adequate equivalents in English, and would demand a tedious circumlocution each time they had to be used; others because, although the translators understood them, and could find suitable equivalents in English, yet remembering that the ancient Irish manuscript materials have never in modern times been fully investigated, the translators have, with commendable modesty and patriotism, retained the original words, appending to them temporary explanations to serve until that better time comes for which, without being politicians, we are all permitted to hope, when those laws can be thoroughly analyzed and explained. This latter work is one of greater difficulty still, and should be undertaken only by men free from the preliminary work of translating, free from the necessity of making a living, and endowed with a keen and unconquerable genius for minute research. This was not the work undertaken by the Commissioners; it still awaits the enthusiast.

That these laws should be found difficult is not wonderful, seeing that the English are now unable to translate some technical terms in the Saxon laws so late as those of the reign of Cnut.