Existing Remains of Irish Law (6)

Laurence Ginnell

The Brehon Law Commissioners have already published, at different dates as the work proceeded, four volumes of the Ancient Laws of Ireland, and a fifth is now (1894) in the press. The ancient law book called the Senchus Mor, or rather all that remains of it, was the first selected for publication, as being one of the oldest and most important portions of the Brehon Laws which have escaped destruction. This ancient work occupies the whole of the first volume of the translations, the whole of the second volume, except an appendix of scraps, and a portion of the third volume.

The part of the Senchus Mor given in the first volume deals directly with the law of distress, that is the seizure by distraint of property for the satisfaction of debt, and only incidentally with other subjects. It will be seen in the chapter on distress why this branch of law required so much space and was given this extraordinary prominence. This first volume of the translations was published in 1865. The second volume, which was published in 1869, contains very interesting fac-similes of ancient writing, and more than four hundred pages of text of the Senchus Mor, consisting of the completion of the law of distress, the law of services of hostage sureties (from which I have not drawn for the present occasion), the law of fosterage, the law of tenure, and the law of social connections, all of which are of the highest interest. The text of this volume is preceded by a long dissertation, the object of which is to prove that Saint Patrick was a Briton. Interesting though this might be as a separate publication, dependent for its worth solely on its author's name, I cannot but think it out of place here where the question cannot be discussed on equal terms. In the third volume of the translations, published in 1873, further specimens of ancient writing are given. The volume contains a long general preface, followed by a special introduction to the remaining portion of the Senchus Mor—the Corus Bescna—which itself occupies seventy-nine pages. This is the conclusion of the Senchus Mor so far as it is now known to exist.

The Corus Bescna, or customary law, is said to have been the fifth book of the original work, there being then more than five books. Possibly the remaining portions exist somewhere, but they have not been discovered. The Senchus Mor, as now given to us, is not clearly divided into books. Portions of the original work having been lost, we may be thankful to get the remainder kept together in any way. After the conclusion of the Senchus Mor in the third volume, we are given nearly one hundred pages of preface to the Book of Aicill, followed by the Book of Aicill itself, which, with an appendix, occupies over five hundred pages. The fourth volume opens with a long and elaborate introduction containing a discussion of the different subjects treated in the volume, but dealing especially with the Irish family and clan system. The text of this volume consists of a number of tracts selected as especially illustrating the land laws of the ancient Irish, the law of taking possession, and the laws affecting the constitution of clan and fine and the rights and obligations of members of those two organisations. I have no knowledge of the contents of the fifth volume now in type.

Celtic Knotwork