The Brehon Law

The brehon or judge was held in high honour, and if he belonged to a king or chief he had a tract of land set apart for his maintenance; in other cases he received a fee for his work. The brehon was possessed of no machinery to put his decisions into force; there were no sheriffs nor bailiffs to execute the law, nothing except public opinion. This was very strong, and in most cases judgments were respected. But we can conceive, especially in the case of hardened criminals, that in many cases such decisions were treated with contempt. This, of course, led to dissension and civil war, and we find these evils frequently arose in the past. The office of brehon was hereditary, and remained in the same families, and this was a blot in Celtic jurisprudence, and the state suffered, as the services of the best men were excluded.

This was another defect: All crimes, even murder, were punished by the payment of a fine (eric). The fine for murder should be paid by the perpetrator, or his family, to the father, or son, or nearest relatives of deceased, or to the whole sept; that for adultery to the husband of the offender by her father or nearest relatives. The fine paid to a son for the murder of his father was rated at seven cumhals or twenty-one kine. If the criminal refused, or was unable to pay, the amount was levied on the sept.

The Brehon Law was for a long period something like our English Common Law, that is, an unwritten code. When knowledge of letters was acquired many of the laws were committed to writing and formed into tracts. Some of these have come down to us. The principal are the Book of Acaill and the Senchus Mor. The Book of Acaill was composed by Cormac Mac Art, and deals chiefly with the criminal law. At the request of St. Patrick, Laeghaire, Ard Righ, appointed a Committee of nine persons to revise the ancient laws of Erin—three kings, three ecclesiastics, and three poets and antiquarians. After three years’ labour they produced a revised code, which is called the Senchus Mor. John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry have translated the tracts. The archaic character of the language rendered this a very difficult task, and the result is that the meaning of the English version is in many instances most obscure. The original revised code of the Senchus Mor is lost, but several copies survive. The laws were drawn up in the form of proverbs without any regard to grammatical construction, or logical formation of sentences. The Senchus Mor dealt with civil matters—fosterage, saer stock, daer stock, social relationship, and the binding of all verbal contracts.

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