The Brehon Laws

Law was important in public and private life in ancient Ireland and the native legal system was in existence before the ninth century. The Danish, Anglo-Normans and English managed to disturb the native laws somewhat, but the Brehon Laws continued to be used till fully abolished in the seventeenth century.

In Ireland a judge was called a ‘brehon’ and so the native Irish law is known as the “Brehon Law”: but its proper designation is Fénechas i.e. the law of the Féine or Féne, or free land-tillers.

In the very early days every file or poet was also a brehon or judge and it is believed that the laws were written in verse. In later years then become a brehon a person had to go through a regular, well-defined course of study or training. A man who had been through this could set up as a brehon or a judge proper, a consulting lawyer, an advocate or a law-agent. A brehon also qualified as a shanachie or historian and the profession was held by a family through generations.

In very early times the brehon was regarded as a mysterious half-inspired person, and he could not deviate from justice. “”When the brehons deviated from the truth of nature there appeared blotches upon their cheeks.””

The brehons were a very influential class of men. Some were attached to chiefs and had free lands for their maintenance, which, like the profession itself, remained in the family for generations. Those not so attached lived simply on the fees of their profession and many eminent brehons became wealthy. The brehon’s fee (fola) was one twelfth, of the property in dispute, or of the fine in the case of an action for damages. He had to be very careful because he was accountable for his own mistakes.

The legal rules set forth in the Law Books were commonly very complicated and mixed up with a variety of technical terms; and many forms had to be gone through and many circumstances taken into account, all legally essential; so that no outsider could hope to master their intricacies. The brehons had the absolute interpretation of the laws in their hands. These law collections were all written in the oldest Irish dialect called the Bérla Feini, and this was so difficult that even some of those destined to become brehons had to be specially instructed in the language.

O’Donovan and Curry, two Irish scholars translated the laws in 5 printed volumes and it took them a life time to do this. The translation is not perfect.

From ‘A Social History of Ancient Ireland’, P. W. Joyce, Vol, I, 1913:

The Brehon Code formed a great body of civil, military and criminal law. It regulated the various ranks of society, from the king down to the slave, and it enumerated their several rights and privileges. It was was treason for English settlers to use the Brehon Code. English settlers living outside the Pale abandoned their own law and adopted the Brehon Code, to which they became quite as much attached to it as the Irish themselves, this included those of all classes. The Anglo-Irish lords of those times commonly kept brehons at their service in the same way as the native Irish chiefs. Even the Butlers, who of all the great Anglo-Irish families were least inclined to imitate the Irish adopted this Irish custom.