New book by Cork-based author opens a magic portal into a forgotten world

Jo Kerrigan shares some of the discoveries she made while researching her new book on Brehon laws.
New book by Cork-based author opens a magic portal into a forgotten world

Marriage stones on Cape Clear in Co Cork

IT’S a fact not often acknowledged, but Ireland had the most advanced legal system anywhere in Europe way back 3,000 years ago.

There were a set of laws in place that governed a wide range of issues: Marriage, divorce, rape, injury, theft, as well as tree preservation, care of animals, protection for the poor, the sick, and those of unsound mind.

These Brehon Laws also laid down rules for a range of issues, such as the proper sharing out of honey produced by your bees but gathered from your neighbour’s fields, and exactly how a good fence should be constructed.

All this, long before King Alfred the Great over the water in England even thought about gathering local codes together to make a general law system.

In fact, Alfred was educated at one of our famous Irish law schools, so it was the Irish who put manners on the English, not the other way round!

Brehon Laws, book by Jo Kerrigan
Brehon Laws, book by Jo Kerrigan

When O’Brien Press first suggested to me that there was need for a bright and interesting book on the Brehon Laws, as opposed to the highly academic articles in learned journals, I was, frankly, a bit apprehensive.

But once my research started, it became more and more enthralling, not just because of the information I gathered on these highly sensible laws, which had evolved from the people themselves instead of being imposed from on high, but also for the absolute wealth of information on life in ancient Ireland at the time that they yielded.

There was a fine for letting your hens get into the neighbour’s woad patch, which shows that flocks of poultry were kept, and that woad was grown for dyeing linen and wool.

A cat which could both purr and catch vermin was valued more highly than one which just purred.

Stealing food when starving was not a crime — just compare that with Victorian London.

If you caused injury to someone else, not only was recompense due, but you were responsible for sick maintenance during his recovery.

The list of different injuries, and the diet required for the invalid, reveal a great deal about the advanced medical knowledge of the time, as well as foods available.

Interestingly, though, if someone happened to injure himself while visiting your house or workplace without invitation, then he didn’t have a hope of compensation, and might well be fined himself for intruding.

Old Ireland did not go in for the death penalty. That was a vicious intrusion from the later, more rabid, Christian church, eagerly taken up by English law.

Brehon Laws, book by Jo Kerrigan. The Brehon's Chair in Co. Dublin.
Brehon Laws, book by Jo Kerrigan. The Brehon's Chair in Co. Dublin.

Instead, a killer was forced to pay enormous fines to the bereaved family or clan, and was stripped of all local legal rights. Thereafter he had to work as the lowest of labourers. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

What use is it to a sorrowing wife and family to know that the offender has himself been killed (apart from revenge, which is exactly what Brehon Law was avoiding — family feuds did nothing for peaceful co-existence).

Instead, they got practical compensation — which was usually in the form of the wrongdoer’s cattle and goods — and he lost all status. Which spelt disaster at a time when reliance on the protection of your clan was paramount.

In the most extreme cases, an unrepentant criminal might be put in a small boat without oars, food or water, and set adrift ‘beyond the ninth wave’; that is, further out than any current could carry him to shore. Mostly these criminals didn’t survive, but if they drifted on to another coast, then whoever found them could take them into slavery.

The rights of women were considerable by modern day standards. Keeping their own property after marriage — something modern Ireland only put into law in 1957; divorce for a variety of reasons, including a husband becoming too gross for marital relations, or him talking loosely about her, or insulting her in public.

Marriages of many kinds were recognised, from the trial of a year and a day (often solemnised by joining hands through a holed stone), right down to elopement. There was no such cruel slur as an unmarried mother or indeed an illegitimate child.

If a couple separated, both mother and child returned to their own kin and belonged there. If she owned more property than her husband, she made all the business deals and contracts.

Men could take a second wife, it’s true: but the first spouse had the right to inflict injury on this new bride without fear of legal reprisal (the second wife was strictly limited to biting, kicking and scratching only).

Pets were regarded just as highly as guard or hunting hounds, and if a lady was deprived of her lapdog at a time when she was about to give birth, the purloiner was obliged to pay for the services of a priest to pray by her side instead during labour.

That is clearly a later Christian interpolation, but it would be marvellous to know what the original provision was. More than one dog-loving friend said she could quite believe having your pet by your side during labour would be of huge comfort. Somehow one feels that the constant presence of an intoning clergyman might not have quite the same soothing effect.

There is so much more: Punishment for damaging a tree by taking its bark to tan leather for a pair of shoes. Fines if your cat went thieving, but not if the deprived party had left the lids off pots, and thus the contents freely available. The obligation of lords or wealthy farmers to offer food and shelter freely to anyone passing. The necessity for the clan to participate in wolf hunts at regular intervals...

Looking into these venerable laws is like opening a magic portal into a forgotten world.

Brehon Laws: The Ancient Wisdom of Ireland, by Jo Kerrigan, is published by O’Brien Press, ISBN 978-1-78849-107-5.

More in this section

Sponsored Content