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Brehon (Irish: breitheamh - IPA brʲehəvˠ or brʲejuː) is a term for a historical arbitration, mediative and judicial role in Gaelic culture. Brehons were part of the system of Early Irish law, which was also simply called "Brehon law". Brehons were judges, close in importance to the chiefs.
Ireland's indigenous system of law dates from the Iron Age. Known as Brehon law, it developed from customs which had been passed on orally from one generation to the next. Brehon law was administered by brehons. They were similar to judges, though their role was closer to that of arbitrators. Their task was to preserve and interpret the law.
In the history of the Kingdom of Dublin, the Gaelic Irish recaptured the city from the Norse Vikings after the Battle of Tara. Dublin was officially founded in 988 when the Norse King Glúniairn first recognised Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill as the High King of Ireland, he also agreed to pay taxes and accept Brehon law. The city celebrated its millennium in 1988 to mark 1000 years from its founding. Even though this event was seen as the first recorded establishment of the city, evidence exists of other settlements on the River Liffey prior to this event, one being Viking known as Dyflin and the other Gaelic Irish known as Átha Cliath (Ford of Hurdles).
The brehons of ancient Ireland were wise individuals who memorised and applied the laws to settle disputes among members of an extended family. Some brehons were attached to clans, and were allotted a portion of land for their support. Others lived independently by their profession. They were recognised as a professional class apart from druids and bards, and became, by custom, to a large extent hereditary. The term ‘bard’ is associated with a Brehon family of poets, called Mac an Bháird (Son of the Bard). They were one of the descendants of the ancient tribes of Soghain in the Kingdom of Uí Maine.
In ancient Ireland, Brehons, as part of the leading members of society, would take part in an event which took place every three years on Samhain known as Feis Teamhrach (Festival of Tara) in the House of the Banquets (Teach Moidhchuarta) at the Hill of Tara. The assembly was also originally referred to as an Aonach in prehistoric times. It was a national event with the purpose of resolving any regional disputes regarding title to rank, property and privilege. They would be settled by the lawmakers, the Brehons, and all annals and records would be carefully noted and entered by the Ard Ollams in the official records. The event was founded in a very early period and lasted until 560 AD when the last assembly was held by King Dermot, son of Fergus.
The preparatory course of study extended over some twenty years. The Brehon laws were originally composed in poetic verse to aid memorisation. Brehons were liable for damages if their rulings were incorrect, illegal or unjust. When one brehon had adjudicated on a matter submitted to him, there could be no appeal to another brehon of the same rank; but there might be an appeal to a higher court, provided the appellant gave security. The ranking of a brithem was based on his skill, and on whether he knew all three components of law: traditional law, poetry, and (added later) canon law.
In Prechristian Medieval Ireland prior to the earliest written manuscript. Law was practised by hereditary judges known as bards or fili, who passed on information orally down the generations, they held the positions of Ollam to a provincial High king or rí.
In pre-Norman times, it was the King who passed judgement, when necessary, following recitation of applicable law and advice from the Brehon.
While originating in oral legal history, it is a common belief that Brehon law enacted the first piece of copyright legislation in relation to written text in world legal history. It involved a bitter dispute around 561 AD between Saint Colmcille and Saint Finian over the authorship of a manuscript called "St Jerome’s Psalter". Despite the enactment of the law by the king, a bloody conflict still took place known as Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, which resulted in many deaths.
One of the main responsibilities of a Brehon was to record the genealogies of the people. One of the most notable Brehons associated with recording genealogies was the Clan Mac Fhirbhisigh. Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh produced Leabhar na nGenealach, also the abridgment version Cuimre na nGenealach and Great Book of Lecan. The genealogist would also be referred to in old Irish as a Seanchaidhe. The basic family unit under brehon law in ancient Ireland was defined as Derbfine, or ‘True Kin’ in English Another Brehon family noted for recording genealogies were the Ó Cléirigh, such as Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, the author of the Annals of the Four Masters.
In 2000 controversial Irish Lawyer Vincent Salafia founded the Brehon Law Project, to promote the academic study of Brehon Law. The courses were formed to aid the funding of the translation of early Irish Law manuscripts and to make the study of Ancient Irish Law available for academic scholarship.
Several dozen families were recognised as hereditary brehon clans.
Within the bardic tradition, a poetic genre developed during the 17th century known as the Aisling, it was a political form of poetry based on a vision or a dream, the poems invariably involved the visitation of a lady like figure sometimes carrying a message or prophecy and symbolically representing Ireland. The first fully developed Aisling was produced by Aodhagán Ó Rathaille who was related to the Brehons who served as Ollamhs to the Mac Cárthaigh Mór family. Aodhagán Ó Rathaille attended one of the last bardic schools in Killarney before all these ancient Gaelic bardic institutions where suppressed towards the end of the 17th century, the Aisling replaced the Dán Díreach, an older style of poetry that came to an end with destruction of Gaelic society. He is said to have been a bridge between the old world in which he was educated and the new one in which the professional poet had no place. He wrote in the new metres but preserved the attitudes of a previous age.
Other notable classifications of Aisling poetry or sometimes in the form of musical lyrics in Irish history and culture include Róisín Dubh, Mná na hÉireann, Aisling Óenguso(The Dream of Óengus), in his dream Aengus sees the most beautiful woman in Eriu standing next to his bed, The Song of Wandering Aengus, an old man sees a silver trout transform into glimmering girl before vanishing, The Vision of Adamnán, it was said the Cáin Adomnáin(Law of Innocents) was prompted by Adomnáin's Aisling or Vision of his mother, instructing him to protect women and children against harm and "Aisling an Óigfhir" ("The Young Man's Dream"), which later influenced the tune of The Last Rose of Summer, some historians have suggested it formed the origins of the tune used for Londonderry Air. Aisling an Óigfhir first appeared in Edward Bunting's collection, The Ancient Music of Ireland.
An Bradán Feasa (Salmon of Knowledge)Edit
One story states that Fionn Mac Cumhaill, a great warrior, received great knowledge or “fios” by devouring the flesh of a salmon. According to the legend the salmon had eaten from a hazel tree that surrounded the Well of Segais. By this act the salmon gained all the world's knowledge. The first person to eat its flesh, in turn, would gain this knowledge.
The salmon is also connected mythologically to the Celtic Otherworld and the tales of the Sidhe. Symbolically it can exist in two worlds, one being the freshwater rivers and also in the otherworld being in the saltwater of the sea. There is a story mentioned in the Annal of the four Masters about Tuan mac Cairill, who is said to have lived during the age of the Patholónians. He had the supernatural ability to shape-shift into different forms of creature, the final form being a salmon, just before being eaten by the wife of a chieftain called Cairill, who later gave birth to him as human once again. He lived for several thousand years in numerous different reincarnations as animals and seen through their eyes the coming of the different ages and invaders throughout Irish history, right up to the dawning of the Christian age. He was known as the ‘seer’ or the storehouse of knowledge of Irish history. Fintan mac Bóchra also transformed into a salmon in a place now known as Fintan's Grave near Lough Derg, he arrived with the first settlers in Ireland, the Cessairians.
Brehon Laws and the Early Irish Church(Céilí Dé)Edit
With the birth of Christianity in Ireland, in regard to the older Brehon Civil laws and Pre-Christian customs, efforts were made to assimilate them into the earliest Christian movement in Ireland known as the Céilí Dé or in English the Culdees by its founding Saints/Monks. An example is the ancient practice of crafting a Brigid's cross and the surrounding myths associated with it had been a Imbolc custom associated with the pagan goddesses Brigid, these customs were adopted and incorporated into the early Irish Christian church. Some of the Culdee Saints were brought up in pagan traditions before being converted to the new belief system. One of the most notable leaders of the Céilí Dé in Ireland was Máel Ruain, who had a disciple Óengus the Culdee, a son of a Óengobann, a king of Dál nAraidi, he produced a martyrolgy of Irish Culdee Saints and some non-Irish Saints ina manuscript known as the Félire Óengusso Céli Dé in Tallaght Monastery. Today St. Maelruain's stands on the grounds the original monastery once stood.  Máel Ruain and Óengus were said to have been the authors of a text, which sets out the rule of the Céilí Dé monks
Some of the locations of the earliest Culdee churches were sited near or on top of what used to be important Pre-Christian sites. In Ireland, a notable example is when Saint Patrick choose to build his first stone church in Ireland, he decided to build it as close as possible to the Ancient Druidic site of Emain Macha. The oldest of the two Cathedrals in Armagh is located on a steep sided hill which Queen Macha allegedly had chosen as a defense of the ancient Fortress at Emain Macha in Pre-Christian times.
In Scotland a sacred pagan site had existed on the Island of Iona also known as Innis na Druineach(Isle of the Druids) before Saint Columba settled on the island and established a small Culdee hermitage, community and monastery. Diarmait of Iona was recorded at the Tallaght Monastery as an important figure of the Céli Dé of Iona. The druidic mound of Moot Hill, was the location for the Scottish Culdee’s to build Scone Abbey(later owned by the Augustinian canons), today the Scone Palace is built on the land were the monastery once stood. Historically Moot hill itself was known as a Brehon hill, a judicial place of assembly in Pre-Christian times, its name also relates to the historical village of Muthill, an important Culdee centre. Moot hill was similar to the Hill of Tara in its prehistory importance. In Wales examples of Culdee establishments are Saint Tudwal's Islands and Penmon abbey on the Isle of Anglesea, an island which has strong druidic history. One of the earliest Celtic Christian Churches found in Britain is St Piran's Oratory and Old Church in Perranzabuloe, dating from the 6th century.
At St Michael’s Church Tower on Glastonbury Tor, there’s a carved depiction of Saint Brigid milking a cow at the entrance to the tower, Brigit has strong connections with nearby ancient Hermitage settlement of Bride's Hill located on an island in the Avalon Marshes. The Glastonbury Tor hill itself is associated with the Welsh Otherworld in Pagan times going back possibly centuries before the Christian church was built on its peak.
In the Martyrology of Tallaght, it lists the feast dates of five principal Pre-Patrician Christian Saints as being Abbán of Moyarny, Ailbe of Emly, Ciarán of Saigir, Declán of Ardmore and Ibar of Beggerin. All are said to be originally from Munster and also as being the earliest recorded Christian Saints that had existed in Ireland prior to the arrival of Saint Patrick. Most notable of the five is Ailbe of Emly, he is the Patron Saint of Munster and also known as St Eilfyw in Wales, where he founded a tiny community called St Elvis in Wales believed to have been one of the smallest parishes to be established in Britain, which is named after him, its just four miles north of the ancient city of St Davids. Its been suggested by certain scholars that it was Saint Ailbe who baptimized Saint David 454 AD at Port Clais in Dyfed. In 2000 Terry Breverton, a lecturer at Cardiff University, while promoting his book, suggested that the rock star Elvis Presley's ancestral roots came from the Celtic prehistoric site of Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire and may have had links to a chapel at St Elvis.
In the Martyrology of Tallaght, it lists one of the key figures in the founding of the early Christian Irish Church as Dallán Forgaill, his feast day is the 29 January. In the Martyrology, its states that he later became a Saint although he was from a strong Bardic, Pagan tradition. At the time of the forming of Christianity he was in fact the Chief Ollamh of Ireland and was considered a leader of the Bardic community. He founded numerous churches in Ireland and came to be known as ‘Forgaill Cille’ meaning Forgaill of the Churches. What he is most remembered for is Amra Coluim Chille, which he wrote to show his gratitude to St Columba for saving the bards from expulsion at Druim Cetta.
The high king Aodh, son of Ainmire called for what amounted to a nationwide assembly of kings and leading clerics among other issues to firstly consider the expulsion of all the Seanchaí, filí and the Bards, the event took place on Mullagh hill, Limavady and was known as the Synods of Druim Cetta. Dignitaries from all over Ireland or Scotia as the island was referred to back at that time. An important delegation also arrived from the Dál Riata which was at that time an oversea colony of Scotia, travelled to take part in the Druim Cetta, lead by St Columba and the then king of Dál Riata, Áedán mac Gabráin. According to some versions of the legends surrounding the event as St Columba had previously promised never to set foot on his native home land again after being banished to Iona, for his role ina event that was known as the Battle of the Book. When he returned for the Druim Cetta he refused to disembark from the boat. As a result the boat was carried, with him still inside it, to the place of the great assembly. This is depicted on the official coat of arms of Limavady.
Some have suggested that St Canice may also have been part of the Dal Riata delegation that arrived at Druim Cetta. Saint Canice was born into a bardic family, his father Lughadh Leithdhearg was a distinguished bard. The Saint founded Drumachose Abbey close to Limavady, he is also the patron saint of nearby Roe Valley, the place where St Columba is said to have arrived by boat on the River Roe to take part in the Great Assembly on Mullagh Hill.
The Ancient Tree Laws(Bretha Comaithchesa)Edit
In Irish Mythology the Mother Goddess Danu symbolically represented the land, her consort is Bilé who was the god of Dead and the Otherworld. The sacred tree was seen as doorway into the otherworld, the roots of the tree go down into realm of the sídhe of the mound, while the tree branches reached to the celestial skies above. Bilé returns once a year from the veil of the Otherworld to be reunited with the Goddesses of the land, he returns in the form of a sacred tree(Bilé Uisnigh or Craeb Uisnig) at Bealtaine, it was one of five sacred trees of Ireland. The word ‘Bilé’ translates from old Irish to sacred tree and it represents an Irish god who is the equivalent to the Celtic god of Belenus, in Milesian myth the ancestor of the Gaels was called Bilé aswell, he was the father of Milesius and king of Galicia.
In the Brehon Law manuscript ‘Bretha Comaithchesa’ or 'Laws of the Neighbourhood' it describes the earliest constructed christian church in Ireland as being referred to as a ‘Dairthech’ or Oak Church in English, County Kildare derives its name from one of these Churches, also the ‘Kil’ or ‘Chille’ in its name has two meanings both church and woodland, in modern Irish wood translates to ‘Coill’. The Ogham alphabet was derived from twenty different native trees, the language resembles the branches of a tree and was etitched on stone or wood which was meant to be read from the ground up to reflect the direction a tree grows. The different type of trees also had strong assocaitions with the passing of the year, for example Holly(Lughnasa), Ash(Imbolc), Hawthorn(Bealtaine), Oak(Summer Solistice), Yew, (Samhain) and Willow(Imbolc). The ancient Irish instead of physically building temple structures, they assocaited there temples with those provided by natural world, hills and tree’s were seen as places important assemblies and events. Underneath or next to a tree judgements were made, Kings and Chiefs inaugerated and even during penal times children were thought lessons in the secret hedge schools, according to the tradition under the branches of a overhanging tree, usually the teacher was a wandering bard who had received his formal training from the then outlawed and extinct bardic schools. One of the most noted bards to establish and teach ina hedge school was the famous Aisling poet Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin. .
In the Bretha Comaithchesa, the Brehon Laws imposed heavy fines for the destruction of trees based on a hierarchical classification of punishment depending on the importance of the tree. The seven most important trees which were catagorized in the highest classification ‘Airig Fedo’ for protection were the Oak, Scot Pine, Hazel, Ash, Yew, Apple and the Holly. These trees were all referred to as ‘the Chieftains of the woods’ and any damage inflected on them would result in the most severe punishment, the same kind of penalty that would be imposed upon a person who was found guilty of killing the Nobliest Chieftain(person). The next category down was the ‘Aithig Fedo’(Commoners of the woods), these seven included the Hawthorn and Birch among other trees. ‘Fodla fedo’ (‘lower divisions of the wood’) includes Blackthorn and Elder and the lowest category being the ‘Losa fedo’ (‘bushes of the wood’). According to another law text Bechbretha ‘Bee Judgements’ the fines for damages became even harsher or heavier if the tree was tampered with during a time of growth rather than a time of dormancy. Tragically with the value placed on tree’s in ancient Ireland, today Ireland on official records has one of the least woodland cover in the whole of Europe, only 11% of the island is covered by tree’s and the vast majority being conifers, planted for purely economic or farming purposes rather than unfetted wild wooded oak forests.
The Brehon laws and Anglo-Norman Invasion of 1169Edit
The first real effort to encroach on the Irish laws came with the Anglo Norman invasion in the 12th century, lead by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke commonly known as ‘Strongbow’. The Normans also claimed they were issued with the Laudabiliter by Pope Adrian IV which gave official Vatican approval for the Anglo-Normans to invade and forcefully bring the native Irish Christian church under the jurisdiction of Holy see of Rome.
The invasion came about due to the deposed King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada enlisting the help from King Henry II England in order to recover his kingdom in 1167. Diarmait Mac Murchada was deposed by the High King of Ireland, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’ Connor) for the abduction of Derbforgaill, the wife of King of Breifne, Tiernan O’Rourke. Ultimately Diarmait Mac Murchada enlisted the military support of the Earl of Pembroke(nicknamed “Strongbow”) in order to regain his title.
A conflict occurred between the native Brehon laws and the newly imposed Norman laws over who should be the successor to Diarmait Mac Murchada as King of Leinster. After the King, passed away, the Brehon laws recognised his eldest son Domhnall Caomhánach mac Murchada through the Kings derbfine, he was the chosen Tánaist to succeed him as the king of Leinster, in keeping with the laws of Tanistry. The Norman laws however supported the Anglo-Norman leader Strongbow claim as the successor Diarmait Mac Murchada on the basis that he was married to the king’s daughter Aoife Mac Murchada. Strongbow tried to present the argument that he should inherit the title through his wife bloodlines.
The Brehon Laws and 1925 Case of the Erne FishermanEdit
The revival of the Brehon laws proved crucial in the twentieth century in the case of Kildoney fishermen caught poaching salmon between the Assaroe Falls and River Erne tidal estuary. It was one of the longest running and complex cases in the country's history. Fishing rights on the river estuary were under the ownership of the Erne Fishing Company, originally owned by a landowner, and this had been the case for three centuries since the introduction of the common law legal system. Natives or locals of Ballyshannon were legally restricted from benefiting or fishing in the river tidal estuary which was teeming with salmon. One of the most notable previous owners of the Erne Fishing Company was a landowner called William Conolly, he was also known for building the cursed Hellfire club on top of already existing ancient sacred cairn on Montpelier hill.
In 1925 six local fishermen from Kildoney were arrested poaching in broad daylight. Many believe it was deliberate provocation in order to legally challenge or contest legitimacy of the legal status quo at that time. They were caught by an Erne Fishing company patrol boat, the subsequent court case proved to be the longest in the countries history and ultimately the courts examined interpretations of the Brehon laws, which proved to be key in deciding the final verdict.
It considered the legal rights of individuals to fish not just in terms of the then existing common law system but also from Magna Carta before it and then even further back to Ancient Gaelic laws. Two of the leading scholarly authorities in Brehon law at that time, Eoin MacNeill and D.A. Binchy were called on to give evidence on behalf the Kildoney Fishermen. Eoin MacNeill and Binchy produced extracts from the Senchas Mar as evidence in trial. In Ancient Ireland everyone had equal rights to fish within the boundaries of any individual Tuatha or Petty State, ‘aé áite’ or ‘the salmon of the place’, under the old system there was no evidence of individuals or groups having sole ownership to the exclusion of all others. At the trial MacNeill and Binchy also supported their case with the ancient tract ‘Do Fastad Cirt ocus Dligid’ or ‘Of the Confirmation of Right and Law’. It was the first court case to be decided on interpretation of the Brehon laws in over three centuries.
This particular case was seen as a significant landmark in the Sovereignty of the modern Irish state. The owner of Erne Fishery Company, called Robert Lyon Moore attempted to appeal the decision of the Irish courts to the Privy council in London. The government at the time promptly passed legislation that abolished any right to appeal on any decisions made in courts in Ireland to the Privy council in London, which was deemed outside the jurisdiction of the state. A Fianna Fáil government brought in the Constitution Act in 1933 just after the completion of the case in July 1933.
Craftsmen in Ancient IrelandEdit
According to Brehon Law, craftsmen were regarded with great respect in pre-Christian Ireland. Irish mythology mentions Trí Dée Dána (three gods of art) Creidhne, Goibniu and Luchtaine, all part of Tuatha Dé Danann. An artist was afforded the same privileges as the lowest noble. This tradition and respect for people of craft was carried on into the Christian age, which can be seen by the artisanry exhibited and associated with the founding monasteries. The Triads of Ireland mentions three chief artisans of Ireland. Assicus or Tassac was assigned to Saint Patrick, Conleth to Saint Brigid and Daig to Ciarán of Saigir. Their skills were so highly regarded that they became saints themselves.
One of the most notable of these craftsmen was Saint Assicus, who became the first Bishop of Elphin. He came from druidic family lineage but converted to Christianity, as was the case with many of the earliest Irish Saints, with the advent of Christianity. Artefacts such as Cross of Cong, The Aghadoe Crosier and Shrine of Manchan of Mohill have been associated with a workshop linked to Saint Assicus in Elphin. Many believe Saint Assicus is actually the same person as Saint Tassac. Saint Tassac of Raholp had a similar trade. He was the metalworker who decorated the first-ever Christian church in Ireland, established by Saint Patrick near present-day Downpatrick, called the Church of Raholp in Saul. The church started out as an old barn donated by a local Druid chieftain called Dichu.
Law of the TanistryEdit
The ancient law of succession or Tanistry has its origins in Brehon law. It was a Gaelic custom where legally the eldest son (Tánaiste) succeeded his father to exclusion of all collateral claimants. In terms of land inheritance it was a similar system to Gavelkind in ancient Ireland. In the case of failure of the presumptive heir or eldest to the throne, other sons were regarded as ‘righdhamhua’ which means 'king material' or 'King in the making'.
According to Adomnán, life of Columba, it states when selecting a capable king for Dál Riada, Saint Columba acted in accordance with the Law of the Tanistry when he deselected the then Tánaiste, a feeble prince, Eoganán in favour of his younger brother Áedhán, both sons of Gabrán mac Domangairt. Áedhán had trained at the institute of Iona. Saint Columba sate him on the ‘stone of fate’, he solemnly anointed him King of the Scottish Dal Riada, it was said to be the first known example of an ordination in Britain and Ireland.
Brehon Law during the Early/Late Middle AgesEdit
Towards the end of the 13th century, elements of native Irish Brehon law through necessity were incorporated into the English common law in the areas of The Pale; it was referred to as March Law. King Edward I of England, had a need at that time to divert much-needed resources from Ireland, to concentrate on conflicts elsewhere. As a result, English settlers, especially outside of the Pale, began to develop Irish customs and manner of dress and become accustomed to the native Brehon law.
Its popularity among what were known as the ‘Old English (Pre-Reformation)’ in Ireland would become a source of concern for future English monarchs and ultimately accumulated in King Edward III later enforcing the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 to counteract its growing popularity among his own subjects in Ireland.
A high-profile example of Old English descent in favour of Ancient Irish law/Custom happened during the period of the reformation, an Archbishop of Armagh and Primate, George Cromer was found to have applied Brehon Law in granting an Éraic of 340 cows to the Earl of Kildare due to his foster brother's death. As a result of George Cromer's act of insubordination he was defrocked by King Henry VIII. Only to be later pardoned during Queen Mary I era.
One of the most noted Hiberno-Norman dynasties in Ireland called the Earls of Ormond also known as the Butlers of Ormond observed English laws but also selectively on certain customs preferred to adhere to the old native Gaelic or Brehon Laws. They were known to have employed numerous Brehon judges from the MacEgan legal family based in Lower Ormond. Gilla na Naemh Mac Aodhagáin and Seaán Buidhe Ó Cléirigh served as the two principal scribes for Sir Edmund MacRichard Butler of Polestown. They transcribed texts and added sections to a manuscript called Leabhar na Rátha for their Patron’s Uncle James Butler, White Earl of Ormond. Notably Sir Edmund’ MacRichard Butler’s father Sir Richard Butler, defied the English King and the Statutes of Kilkenny by choosing to marrying the daughter of an Irish Noble.
Bretha Dein Chécht (Judgement of Dian Cecht)Edit
Bretha Dein Chécht, is an ancient medical law tract first appeared in Senchas Már. It relates to a judgement made by Dian Cecht, a physician to the Tuatha de Danann. It offers a detailed account of compensations for wounding depending on the nature of the injury, its severity and what part of the body. Much of the translation work of this old Irish manuscript is attributed to the 20th-century scholar D.A. Binchy, who first published his findings in the Eriu journal.
In pre-Christian Ireland legend the first ever hospital was Bhrionbherg (House of Sorrows), set up by Macha Mong Ruadh, a legendary Irish Queen, at Emain Macha (Navan Fort), an ancient ruler of the five Kingdoms of Tara and also the daughter of Áed Rúad. Other hospitals spread to all the other kingdoms; these institutes would later be carried on by monks, as parts of monasteries during the Christian times. Brehon law laid down a medical code of ethics on regulations and management for treatment of the sick and wounded, and also details of patient entitlements, compensations and fees.
Bretha Crólige (Binchy, 1938) was also part of this law tract; it highlights obligations in the event of an injury to person. The cost of maintenance and entitlements to the injured party are carefully laid out in the tract. This particular law tract highlighted the fact that Druids' sick maintenance was exactly the same as a Bóaire (ordinary freeman), regardless of status.
Cain Aigillne deals with a system of laws in regards to clientship and livestock farming. Covered in this manuscript is the treatment of cattle and also of domestic animals. The law tract describes a wide variety of domestic pet animals that people kept in pre-Christian Ireland, many would be deemed as unconventional domestic pets to keep nowadays, the list included crows, ravens, cranes, badgers, wolves, foxes and others.
Early Irish literature and Brehon law depicts a tenderness towards animals was characteristic of Irish people. When cattle were taken on a long journey, they were fed at intermediate stations along the route with food and water. Brehon laws also had penalties for injury or theft offences against domestic animals such as cats, dogs, cattle and horses.
According to Senchas Mor the third most popular pet in Pre-Christian Ireland after cats and dogs was the crane (Peata Corr). In pagan times, the druids saw cranes as the heavenly transporters of the human soul to isles in the west. Some suggest fires were lit under a migration flight path of the now extinct in Ireland, Grús at Dun Aonghasa. The fort is associated with the Aengus the foster son of Midir who is said to have owned three mystical magical cranes.
This pre-Christian custom of adopting unusual native animals as pets was carried on by some of the Irish abbots into the Christian age. Saint Columba was also commonly known as the ‘crane cleric’ as he kept a pet crane in his home on the Island of Iona, In the book of kells there is a depiction of a bald red patch on a cranes crown. Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise owned a pet Fox (Sionnach), Saint Brendan of Clonfert had a pet Raven (préchán), Saint Brigid adopted and offered sanctuary to a boar, Saint Colman mac Duagh had a pet Rooster that also served as an alarm clock and Saint Colman of Templeshambo owned a flock of sacred ducks, that were so tame they came and went at his call.
Cai of the Fair JudgementEdit
Numerous myths associated with different invaders in Irish mythology exist as to the origins of Brehon Law. In Milesian folklore, The Scholar's Primer describes the first Brehon or lawgiver as being Caí Caínbrethach ("Fair-Judgement"), he fostered and was a mentor to a Son of Mil known as Amorghain Glúngheal, who later would become Chief Ollamh of Ireland and he also was said to be the 72nd disciple of the school of Fénius Farsaid. Caí in legend, first arrived in Ireland in the company of the Mil Espaine on board a ship, during the Milesian conquest of Ireland.
The word Cáin in old Irish translates to "law" in English. Some of the earliest Brehon or Gaelic legislation was associated with the word such as Cáin Lanamna (Law of Couples) or Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Innocents), a Christian law passed by the Synod of Birr in the ancient Territory of Eile. Brehon law came under two categories, Cáin and Urradas. Cáin Law broadly applied to entire tribes, regions, all under a High King. Urradas law was at a more local level.
The first volume of The Law of Distress (Athgabdla) was published in a Harleian Manuscript in 1865 and the second in 1869. It deals with ancient legal issues of Seizure by distraint of property for the satisfaction of debt, also laws related fosterage, tenure and social connections.
In the law tract Cetharslicht Athgabdla, it states that three noble tribes passed a judgement at a Dál-Criche (territorial assembly) and divided Ireland between them. A Dál was similar to an Aonach, in that it refers to a ritual annual gathering of legislators at a fixed site of ceremonial importance in order, to among other rituals, collectively pass laws. In Connacht the most famous of these sites was in Cruachan near Tulsk, site of the kings of Connacht, it contains a large number of Ráth, Barrows, Mounds and Earthworks. In Old Irish the word ‘Dál’ means assembly or conferring, for example in its modern Irish form, ‘Dáil Éireann’ translates to Assembly of Ireland. Dál was also associated with the old Irish word of Tulach (Hillock), which represented the place where ancient druidic ceremonial gatherings took place, it was usually a burial mound. Some place names derive from the word, such as Tullamore, Tullow or Tullynadal (Tulach na dála) in Donegal which translates as 'a mustering place'.
Numerous categories or levels of assembly, at which laws were passed existed in ancient Ireland, the highest was the Feis Temrach at Tara (National level), Aonach (National or Regional), Dál (Túath Sept Nobles), Cuirmtig (Túath members) and finally a Tocomra, where a Túath elected their own Taoiseach and Tánaiste. The main purpose of these gatherings was to promulgate and reaffirm the laws. The Chief Ollamh of Ireland coordinated the Feis at Tara, Ard Ollamh at Regional and Ollamh at a Tuath level.
The earliest reference in the Senchas Már to the reading of the law of Athgabdla at an assembly, took place at the Hill of Uisneach, just before the eve of Bealtaine about a hundred years before the birth of Christ, a uniform law of distraint passed for the whole of Ireland was adopted on the motion of Sen, son of Aigé. This did not prevent the gatherings at Uisneach from being for ages celebrated for gaiety and amusement.
Maeltine Mor Brethach (The Great Judgement)Edit
Its unknown when the first rudiments of Brehon Law were first practised, some suggest as far back as the Iron Age. With it being orally practised, not many documented writings were produced prior to the Christian age. Some information was later passed on and translated or pieced together from the oldest surviving manuscripts by the endeavours of Christian Monks, much of it was in the form of myth and poetry.
One of the earliest mythical references to a judgement of a Brehon was following the second Battle of Moytura. The then king of the Tuatha de Danann, Lugh consulted with Maeltine, his Brehon on the capture of Bres, ex-king and a defector to the Formorians. Lugh agreed to spare Bris's life, if he ensured that Irish cows give milk in abundance, by teaching the people of the Tuatha de Danann agriculture.
The second Battle of Moytura was not the first ever documented mythical judgement by Brehon, According to Lebor Gabála the first-ever recorded case involved a dispute between Partholón and his adulterous wife, Dealgnaid, a Brehon was said to have adjudicated a settlement between both parties.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn describes a famous mythical Brehon judge known as Morann Mac Máin (son of Cairbre Cinnchait), who was the Chief Ollam to High King Feradach Finnfechtnach. Morann would wear a Brehon Sín or collar, which was said to contract around his neck when he gave a false judgement and would then only loosen once he made a just one. He is also mentioned in the Ogam Tract for creating one of the three Bríatharogam, used to interpret the Ogham alphabet. In Ancient Irish law, the Ogham carved stones on a piece of land represented the underpinning of legal ownership to that land.
Morann is also associated with the manuscript Audacht Morainn (The Testament of Morann), a medieval old Irish wisdom literature which gave advice to a prospective or future king. It was produced as a piece of insight for Feradach Finnfechtnach, just before he was made a high king. There are five known compositions of this genre in Old Irish, most notably Tecosca Cormaic or Bríathra Flainn Fína mac Ossu, although Audacht Morainn is the oldest. It is officially seen by many to be the forerunner to the 9th century Mirrors for princes, which was produced by an Irish Christian monk called Sedulius Scottus.
Nemed Schools of LawEdit
The Bretha Nemed school’s, trained bards in the poetico-legal disciplines, allegedly these schools were all located in Munster, they may originally had strong connections with the Mumu Kingdom. The two major manuscripts produced by these schools are the Bretha Nemed Toísech(First Judgment of Privileged Ones) and the Bretha Nemed Déidenach (Final Judgment of Privileged Ones). The old Irish word ‘Nemed’ means “privileged” or “holy” in English, the term was also associated with a certain ancient mythical charachter and race that once existed on the island. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn the first ever Beltane fire in Ireland was lit on the Hill of Uisneach by a Nemedian druid called Mide. The fire was seen from as far away as the Hill of Tara, when those at Tara saw it, they followed suit and lit their own fire. The Old Irish name for the county of Meath derives from this same Nemedian druid called ‘Mide’ and its also the old irish word for ‘centre’ which is generally used as a reference to the geographical and spiritual importance of the Hill of Uisneach .
In Bretha Nemed Toísech(First Judgment of Privileged Ones) some of its composition is attributed to the accounts of three kinsmen, Fornannán(a Bishop), Máel Tuili (a poet), Báethgalach hua Búirecháin (a judge), who flourished during the reign of Cathal mac Finguine. This manscript mostly tackles legal matters concerning the early church and the importance of the role of ecclesiastical scholars, which is reflected also in the Uraicecht Becc and Collectio canonum Hibernensis both are connected with the Nemed school of law. The Collectio canonum Hibernensis was in created in both Iona Abbey and also at Dairinis near Waterford. A translated Old Irish copy was found among the Bretha Nemed Déidenach law manuscripts.
There’s also numerious Áiliu poems and extracts from Aimirgin Glúngel tuir tend within the Bretha Nemed Déidenach tracts, Áiliu means ‘to invoke’ in English. It was a style of poetry that was assocaited with the legendary figure of Amergin Glúingel, in Milesian mythology its claimed he passed both the first judgement and recited the first Irish language poem (The Song of Amergin) when he set foot on a land that would become known as Ireland. Although much earlier groups or invaders in their respective Mythologies also have accounts of judgements being made in Irish history, groups such as Túatha Dé Danann and Cessairians.
Book of Aicill and Fénechus LawEdit
The first ever attempt at transferring Brehon law into written code or legal text was carried out under the patronage of King Cormac mac Airt. He produced the Book of Achall or Aicill, written between 227 and 266 AD, which relates mainly to criminal law. Cormac is said to have retired to the mound of Aicill, in what is now called Skreen near Tara and started working on the book.
Another later significant document was Senchas Már or Fénechus Law (that which relates to the Féine), drafted around 438 AD by a select committee of nine, presided over by Saint Patrick. Senchas Már is mostly associated with ancient Civil law, selective parts of pre-Christian Irish law that were deemed non-compatible to the teachings of the new Christian age were excluded by the committee from the final written tract. Dubthach maccu Lugair was the judge or Brehon chosen by St Patrick, as part of the committee of three kings, three bishops and three professors of literature, poetry and law, in the creation of Senchas Már.
The earliest tracts were produced in the oldest archaic form of Irish dialect known as 'Bérla Féine’, some also suggest the written text to be an ancient poetic legal dialect of Dubthach. According to Irish myth the "Feine" were descendants of a legendary figure known as Fénius Farsaid, who is said to have created the ancient language "Bérla Féne". These early manuscripts proved a difficult challenge for centuries after to translate for future academics and even to later Brehons. Only in the seventeenth century did Irish Gaelic scholars such as Eugene O'Curry and John O'Donovan manage to translate much of these original text, but only due to a life-long study.
Berla Fene was one of the five extensions of the Goídelc language; it was known as the legal dialect or dark speech of the Filí and the Brehon. The 7th-century manuscript Auraicept na n-Eces or "Scholars Primer" describes the mythical origins of the Ollav, 72 named linguistic scholars who had assisted Fenius Farsaid, later asked him to select from all the languages, and develop a tongue that nobody else should have but which might belong to them alone. Fenius created Berla Tobaide and later commanded Gaedheal son of Eathor or Goídel mac Ethéoir to set about arranging and regulate into five dialects and name them all after himself. Berla Fene makes up the corpus of the earliest written manuscripts and proved the most challenging to translate in the Christian Era.
The first detailed scientific study of Ancient Irish Law tracts took place in the 20th century. A comprehensive study of difficult Old Irish law texts was carried out by German Celticist Rudolf Thurneysen, English linguist Charles Plummer and Irish Historian Eoin Mac Neill.
The Bee LawsEdit
One of the more unusual tracts in Brehon law was known as the Bee Judgment (Bech Bretha). In the twenty page manuscript it goes into great detail about legal entitlements or ownership of a swarm (faithche), hives, nests or honey found on a piece of land or property, discovered by a finder or property/land owner and also a detailed compensation scheme for victims of bee stings.
Honey was considered of great value at a time before the advent of sugar cane. It had many applications such as basting meat while roasting, treating salmon while broiling, also used as an ingredient in lard and drinks. One of the more important Celtic customs was in the production of mead (fermenting of honey with water), in medieval times the alcoholic drink had mystical and religious qualities, a noted example was Lindisfarne Mead, produced by the Celtic Monks on Holy Island. The word ‘mither’ derives from the mether, which is a mead drinking vessel. People are said to get ‘confused and bothered as a result of too much mead’.
Mead is also associated with the wife of Ailill and Sovereignty Queen, Medb. In Pagan times, Brehon law states that before a new High King can be inaugurated they must first accept an alcoholic drink in form of Mead off the Queen of the Land, and thus become intoxicated by her.
Brigh Brigaid, also spelled as Briugaid or Brughaidh, (flourished circa CE 50, Ireland) was a woman who held office as a brehon, or judge, in Ireland in the 1st century CE. Brigh is mentioned in the Senchus Mór, a compendium of the ancient laws of Ireland, and her decisions were cited as precedents for centuries after her death. Her name is possibly associated to the Celtic Pagan Goddesses, who had a strong connection with the bardic traditions. She was known as the “great brig” or brigit, an honored brehon women who is said to have healed a fellow judge, Sencha mac Ailella blotched face by correcting his biased judgement against women.
Decline of Brehon LawEdit
The gradual decline of Brehon law began during the Norman conquest, it continued to co-existed with an imposed legal system from the 12th century onwards. It was only in the middle seventeenth century efforts were made to completely suppress it out of existence in favour of the colonial common law system, which has remained the official legal system right up to the present day. In the late 17th century it was deemed a serious criminal offence to be found in possession of old Irish law book and often punishable by transportation to penal servitude.
It was only in the middle 19th century when two scholarly Church of Ireland Clergymen called James Henthorn Todd and Charles Graves, a professor of Trinty College, he was the Grandfather of another Gaelic Scholar Robert Graves persuaded the British Government to set up a Brehon Law Commission in 1852 in order to save the ancient law text. Native Irish Scholars Eugene O'Curry and John O’Donovan were employed by the commission to translate old law manuscripts.
Brehons had a tradition of providing bardic Schools, from pre-Christian times up until middle of the seventeenth century. They provided education in Irish language, literature, history and Brehon law. These scholarly institutions facilitated up to what amounted to university education. They had a history of producing an abundance of Poets and Bard's. The imposition of Penal law, Popery Act combined with the first Cromwellian regime saw the suppression of these native educational institutions. As a result, secret hedge schools began to appear up until the Penal laws ended.
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