The Brehon Law

Patrick Weston Joyce

36. In Ireland judges were called Brehons; and the law they administered—the ancient law of Ireland—is now commonly known as the Brehon law. To become a brehon, a person had to go through a regular, well defined course of training.

The brehons were a very influential class of men, and those attached to chiefs had free lands for their maintenance. Those not so attached lived simply on the fees of their profession. It generally required great technical skill to decide cases, the legal rules, as set forth in the law-books, were so complicated, and so many circumstances had to be taken into account. The brehon, moreover, had to be very careful, for he was himself liable to damages if he delivered a false or an unjust judgment.

37. The brehons had collections of laws in volumes or tracts, all in the Irish language, by which they regulated their judgments. Many of these have been preserved, and of late years the most important of them have been published, with translations, forming five printed volumes. Of the tracts contained in these volumes, the two largest and most important are the Senchus Mor [Shan'ahus More] and the Book of Acaill [Ack'ill]. The Senchus Mor is chiefly concerned with the Irish civil law, and the Book of Acaill with the criminal law and the law relating to personal injuries.

38. At the request of St. Patrick, Laeghaire [Leary] king of Ireland formed a committee of nine persons to revise the laws:— viz., three kings, of whom Laeghaire himself was one: three ecclesiastics, of whom Patrick was one; and three poets and antiquarians, of whom Duftach, Laeghaire's chief poet was one. These nine having expunged everything that clashed with the Christian faith, produced at the end of three years a revised code which was called Senchus Mor.

39. The very book left by St. Patrick and the others has been long lost. Successive copies were made from time to time, with commentaries and explanations appended, till the manuscripts we now possess were produced.

The language of the laws is extremely archaic and difficult, indicating a very remote antiquity, though probably not the very language of the text left by the revising committee, but a modified version of a later time. The two great Irish scholars—John O'Donovan and Eugene O'Curry—who translated them, were able to do so only after long study; and in numerous instances were, to the last, not quite sure of the meaning. Even the translation is hard enough to understand, and is often unintelligible.