Senchus Mor (2)

Laurence Ginnell

One of the Gaelic commentators says of the contents of the Senchus Mor, "In the Senchus Mor were promulgated the four laws, namely—(1) the law of fosterage; (2) the law relating to free tenants and the law relating to base tenants; (3) the law of social relationship; (4) the binding of all by their verbal contracts; for the world would be in a state of confusion if verbal contracts were not binding." This is a very inadequate presentation of the contents of the work. The most important branch of law dealt with in the work is wholly omitted from this enumeration, and those mentioned are given neither in the order of their arrangement nor in that of their importance. But the commentary goes on: "The binding of all to their good and bad contracts prevents the lawlessness of the world. Except the five contracts which are dissolved by the Feini, even though they be perfected—(1) The contract of a labourer without his chief; (2) the contract of a monk without his abbot; (3) the contract of the son of a living father without the father; (4) the contract of a fool or mad woman; (5) the contract of a woman without her husband." "In it was established the dire-fine of each one according to his dignity; for the world was at an equality until the Senchus Mor was established." These few quotations give an idea of the nature of the commentaries and of the scope of the Senchus Mor proper.

The Senchus Mor was, according to the introduction to it, compiled at the suggestion and under the supervision of St. Patrick in the time of King Laeghaire (Leary), when Theodosius was Ard-Rig of the world. The same introduction places St. Patrick's arrival in the ninth year of the reign of Theodosius as Ard-Rig of the world, and in the fourth year of the reign of Laeghaire as Ard-Rig of Erinn. Theodosius the Second is the emperor meant. While a mere child he succeeded his father Arcadius as Emperor of the East in A.D. 407. On the death of his uncle Honorius in 423, he became Emperor of the West also, and thus Ard-Rig or monarch of the world. Nine years after this date was 432, which is also the date of the arrival of St. Patrick according to the Four Masters and other Irish authorities. Theodosius did not continue Emperor of the West during those nine years, but voluntarily resigned that position to Valentinian the Third and confined himself to the East again. However, as the East and West were long ruled as two parts of one empire rather than as two distinct empires, the same laws being promulgated simultaneously in both, the partial and friendly abdication of Theodosius may well have escaped the notice or comprehension of Irishmen in those times. In the commentary it is stated that at the end of nine years after the arrival of St. Patrick the Senchus Mor was completed. That would be A.D. 441. In the Annals of the Four Masters it is said, "The age of Christ 438. The tenth year of Laeghaire. The Senchus Mor and Feineachus of Ireland were purified and written." The work must have extended over several years, and those from 438 to 441 appear the most probable.