Senchus Mor (6)

Laurence Ginnell

No credit whatsoever is due to Trinity College as an institution for the preservation of the legal or other ancient documents now stored there. When it was dangerous to preserve them, they were preserved by Irish peasants in spite of the danger, in spite of the system of government which created the danger and of which Trinity College was a part and an instrument; and it was only when Ireland's darkest age, which Trinity College had heralded, was coming to an end, that most of those ancient documents reached their present resting-place.

Some English critics have raised various objections against the possibility of the Senchus Mor having been compiled under the supervision of Saint Patrick, as, for instance, that he had enough to do besides, that he could not have been a member of the Irish national assembly, and so on. Personally, I do not think these shallow objections deserve any notice; but whoever cares to know how little of substance there is in them should read Dr. Hancock's comments thereon. He shows them to be evidence of either ignorance or want of due consideration. He might have added that they are, in some instances, evidence of the old English animus which would, if possible, deny the existence of the Senchus Mor itself, and in fact does so by representing that Ireland was wholly without law until English law was introduced. Many generations of English children have been deliberately taught this falsehood at school, and when they have grown up the fact that a thing is respectable and Irish is quite sufficient proof for them that it does not exist at all. It is the very existence of the Senchus Mor and of our beautiful illuminated manuscripts that confounds such people, and therefore irritates them. Knowing that themselves cannot err, they feel that the facts are perverse and have got wrong somehow. They would willingly lavish money digging for such things in the débris of Greece or in the sands of Egypt, but if told of its existence in Ireland they duly shrug their shoulders and proceed to doubt and criticise instead of taking the trouble to learn. A similar modification and codification of laws took place in Gaul about a quarter of a century earlier than in Ireland; and we have already observed that more than a century and a half later Saint Augustine had the scraps of Saxon laws that existed in Kent collected, arranged, and modified.

I find it stated that after the laws had been collected and revised by the Committee of Nine, they did not ipso facto take effect in their altered state until sanctioned by the national assembly. No authority is given for this statement, nor have I met with any in the Senchus Mor itself. But since without a positive national ratification and acceptance, although the changes effected were not such as could be called revolutionary, they might be disputed in some quarter. As nothing of this sort appears to have occurred, and as the universal acceptance and stability of the alterations were essential to the success of Saint Patrick's work, there is little doubt that he took the obvious precaution of having the alterations sanctioned in the most formal and effectual manner then known, namely, by a great assembly. Whether the second assembly was a special one of an unusual character like the first, or the ordinary Feis of Tara, there is no record to show.

Celtic Knotwork