Senchus Mor (3)

Laurence Ginnell

The laws, being wholly the production of pagans, needed some modification to reconcile them with the requirements of Christianity. St. Patrick having during seven or eight years of missionary work all over the country, as well as in the previous years of his bondage, learned in what respects the laws conflicted with his teaching and thwarted his efforts, desired, as well for the material welfare of the people as for the success of his mission, to have the laws amended. The most permanently and universally effective way in which this could be done was to have a simultaneous collection and revision of the laws decreed by a great assembly of the nation, and then to take care that the work should be actually performed by men imbued with the Christian spirit. Accordingly, "He requested the men of Erinn to come to one place to hold a conference with him. When they came to the conference the Gospel of Christ was preached to them all. . . . And when they saw Laeghaire and his druids overcome by the great science and miracles wrought in the presence of the men of Erinn, they bowed down in obedience to the will of God and Patrick, in the presence of every chief in Erinn. It was then that Dubhthach (pronounced Dhoovah) was ordered to exhibit the judgments and all the poetry (literature) of Erinn, and every law which prevailed amongst the men of Erinn, through the law of nature, and the law of seers, and in the judgments of the island of Erinn, and in the poets. Now the judgments of true nature which the Holy Spirit had spoken through the mouths of the brehons and just poets of the men of Erinn from the first occupation of the island down to the reception of the faith were all exhibited by Dubhthach to Patrick. What did not clash with the Word of God in the written law and in the New Testament, and with the consciences of believers, was confirmed in the laws of the brehons by the ecclesiastics and the chief men of Erinn; for the law of nature was quite right, except the faith and its obligations, and the harmony of the Church and the people. And this is the Senchus Mor." Yes, such is the Senchus Mor, a name which it is said to have received not from the magnitude of the work but from the greatness of the number and nobility of the assembly by which it was sanctioned. This latter statement, however, is rendered doubtful by the existence of a Senchus Beg. (Mor - Great. Beg - Little. Senchus is pronounced nearly Shankus).

It will be observed that the account just quoted treats the laws in the plainest possible terms as preexisting, and neither as freshly enacted nor as imported. In another place the introduction is equally explicit on this point. Some of the commentaries written centuries later, when Christian zeal was greater than critical acumen or historical accuracy, attributed the origin of the laws to the influence of Cai, an imagined contemporary of Moses, who had learned the law of Moses before coming from the East. Of course this myth deserves no consideration. Cai is only another word for ollamh, or sage.