The Law of Compensation

Patrick Weston Joyce

40. The Brehon code forms a great body of civil, military, and criminal law. It regulates the various ranks of society, from the king down to the slave, and enumerates their several rights and privileges. There are minute rules for the management of property, for the several industries—building, brewing, mills, water-courses, fishing-weirs, bees and honey—for distress or seizure of goods, for tithes, trespass, and evidence. The relations of landlord and tenant, the fees of professional men—doctors, judges, teachers, builders, artificers—the mutual duties of father and son, of foster-parents and foster-children, of master and servant, are all carefully regulated. Contracts are regarded as peculiarly sacred, and are treated in great detail.

In criminal law, the various offences are minutely distinguished:— Murder, manslaughter, wounding, thefts, and every variety of wilful damage; and accidental injuries from flails, sledge-hammers, and all sorts of weapons.

41. Injuries of all kinds as between man and man were atoned for by a compensation payment. Homicide, whether by intent or by misadventure, was atoned for like other injuries, by a money fine.

The fine for homicide or for bodily injury of any kind was called eric [er'rick]: the amount was adjudged by a brehon. The principles on which these awards should be made are laid down in great detail in the Book of Acaill.

In case of homicide the family of the victim were entitled to the eric. If the culprit did not pay, or absconded, leaving no property, his fine [finna] or family were liable. If they wished to avoid this they were required to give up the offender to the family of the victim, who might then if they pleased, kill him: or failing this, his family had to expel him. and to lodge a sum to free themselves from the consequences of his subsequent misconduct.

In the Book of Acaill there is a minute enumeration of bodily injuries, whether by design or accident, with the compensation for each, taking into account the position of the parties and the other numerous circumstances that modified the amount.

42. For homicide and for most injuries to person, property or dignity, the fine consisted of two parts:—first, the payment for the mere injury, which was determined by the severity of the injury, and by other circumstances: second, a sum called Log-enech or Honour-price, which varied according to the rank of the parties: the higher the rank the greater the honour-price. The consideration of honour-price entered into a great number of the provisions of the Brehon law. This principle also existed in the early Teutonic codes.

To make due allowance for all modifying circumstances in cases of trial, called for much legal knowledge and technical skill on the part of the brehon: quite as much as we expect in a lawyer of the present day.

The principle of compensation for murder was not peculiar to Ireland. It existed among the Anglo-Saxons, as well as among the ancient Greeks, Franks, and Germans.