During the early 17th century the English common law was introduced to Ireland replacing ancient Irish law.

Ancient Irish Law: Collective Responsibility Sometimes Had a Sting in its Tail


During the early 17 th century the English completed their conquest of Ireland and English common law was introduced on the island. Prior to this, a set of native laws was used to for the island’s administration. Known as the Brehon Law, this set of laws was first written down during the 7 th century.

The Brehon Law governed many aspects of everyday life in Ireland during the Medieval period and is considered to be ahead of its time.

What Ancient Irish Law Was Favored?

The Brehon Law derived its name from the Irish word ‘Breitheamh’, which means ‘judge’. The Brehons are considered to be the successors of the Celtic Druids and their role in Irish society was not so much to judge but to arbitrate. The Brehon law developed from oral tradition and was first written down during the 7 th century. This set of laws was used in Ireland until the 12 th century when the Norman invasion of 1169 reduced its importance. Although the invaders brought English laws with them, the Normans who governed Ireland had a preference for using the Brehon Law when dealing with the native population. Thus, this set of laws experienced a resurgence in the following century and was in use until the 17 th century.

The Brehon Law - the ancient Irish Law – used Breitheamhs – judges. (Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)

The Brehon Law - the ancient Irish Law – used Breitheamhs – judges. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)

Although the Brehon Law fell out of use, its manuscripts survived and have been preserved in various libraries in Ireland and England, including the library of Trinity College Dublin, the British Museum, and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is thanks to the efforts of two 19 th century Irish scholars, Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan, that we are able to acquaint ourselves today with some of the main provisions of the Brehon Law. O’Curry had transcribed eight volumes of the Brehon Laws, amounting to 2906 pages and O’Donovan another nine volumes containing 2491 pages. Nevertheless, their work is by no means exhaustive, as there are many more manuscripts that have yet to be translated.

What Did Ancient Irish Law Encompass?

The Brehon Law covers a wide range of topics and there was no clear line to divide between civil and criminal offences . Both types of offences would be brought before a Brehon and the case argued before him. The Brehon would then either acquit the accused or find him/her guilty and assessed the fine. The punishments prescribed by the Brehon Law are an example of its progressiveness. For instance, the clergy were more severely punished by laypeople, while a person of rank was fined more heavily than an ordinary person for the same offence. As another example, the entire sept (clan) was liable for the offences committed by its members. This provision meant that every member of the sept had an interest in suppressing crime and would have helped reduce wrongdoings. In instances where the offender happens to die, the liability of the sept would be wiped out if the crime was committed against another person, according to the maxim, ‘the crime dies with the criminal’. If the crime involved the damage of property or material goods, however, the entire sept was still liable.

Under ancient Irish law the entire sept was liable for the offences committed by its members. (Hic et nunc / Public Domain)

Under ancient Irish law the entire sept was liable for the offences committed by its members. (Hic et nunc / Public Domain )

A Very Responsible Society

The Brehon Law was also extended to domestic animals , which were regarded as property and could be used as currency to pay for goods and services, as well as to settle fines.

For instance, a pair of cows was the fine imposed on a person who assaulted another, if the blow raised a lump, but did not draw blood. The Brehon Law’s attention to detail when dealing with domestic animals is evident in the fact that there were even rules concerning bees, which were kept primarily for their honey. If bees were found to be collecting nectar from flowers on a neighbor’s land, they could be accused of trespassing. To get around this issue, the Brehon Law allowed a beekeeper three years of freedom, during which the bees were free to collect nectar from anywhere they pleased. On the fourth year, however, the first swarm to issue from the hive had to be given to the neighbor as payment.

As another example, a person stung by a bee is entitled to a meal of honey from its owner, provided that he/she did not retaliate by killing the bee. If the said person died from the sting, two hives were given as compensation.

Domestic animals, including bee hives, were regulated under ancient Irish law. ( C. Schüßler / Adobe)

There are many other examples in the Brehon Law that reflect its progressive and rational nature. For instance, a layperson may drink up to six pints of ale with his dinner but a monk only three, so that he would not be intoxicated at prayer time. As another example, an elderly person had to be provided for by his/her family – an oatcake and a container of sour milk each day, 17 sticks of firewood for keeping warm, a bath every 20 th night, and a head wash every Saturday.

English Common Law Replaced Ancient Irish Law

During the 17 th century, English common law supplanted the Brehon Law after the English completed their conquest of Ireland. The English of this period were appalled by this ancient Irish law, as they had been for centuries. In 1367, for instance, an English statute of Kilkenny described the Brehon Law as ‘wicked and damnable’, while Sir John Davies, who lived during the 17 th century, called it ‘lewd’ and ‘unreasonable’. In any case, as the English were now the masters of the land, the Irish had no choice but to accept their laws.

Top image: During the early 17th century the English common law was introduced to Ireland replacing ancient Irish law. Source: promesaartstudio / Adobe .​

By Wu Mingren


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