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 The Brehon Law

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PostSubject: The Brehon Law   Mon Sep 21, 2009 2:51 pm

Ireland was possibly the most advanced of all European cultures: it had an Iron Age culture which included bards, historians, judges and a set of laws that governed all aspects of life. This voluminous set of laws covered everything from hurting a chained dog to behavior while drinking. The set of laws was known as the Law of the Commoner or Freemen, or the Brehon Law.

So balanced and just was the ancient Law that it was adopted by the majority of the Norman conquerors and held sway among the populace until ruthlessly put down by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century.

Many suppose that the Brehons served as judges. Actually, the Brehon was but the legal expert. His primary function was arbitration. In the event that judgement must be forced, it was the Righ (ruler) who, in consort with his Law Givers, gave judgement. However, even the Righ was not the final authority. A Righ who became unpopular could be summarily voted from office. . Ultimate control was the moral power of public opinion. Every individual felt it his or her bound duty to ensure that their venerated Brehon Law was upheld.

Although the age of these laws is unknown, they appear to be at least four thousand years old, as they date back at least to the time of the Tuatha de Danann in Ireland. They are perhaps even older, as there is mention among the history of Ireland that the Tuatha and the Fir Bolg people made agreements under a law of the time. This agreement gave one side the right to even the odds by reducing the opposing force and allowing time to prepare weapons. Whether this agreement was based on actual Brehon Law or just a current (at that time) common law of nations is unknown.

The practitioners of these laws were called Brehons. They were not judges or lawyers although many consider them so. In actuality, they were arbitrators whose responsibility it was to settle disagreements. The Brehons had to study the laws for years before they were allowed to practice their art and this is due in part to the size or volume of the laws that were enforced. It was an oral code to the greatest extent, and was only written down around the 3rd Century and in later times.

Here are a few of the most interesting Brehon laws quoted from the book of Irish Traditional Law.. Many serve to illustrate the degree of civilization of the ancient Celts and show how once Irish society was ordered. Some are certainly inappropriate to the modern view of a person's status, in particular that of women.

"It is illegal to overide a horse, force a weakened ox to do excessive work or threaten an animal with angry vehemence which breaks bones."

''There are three tresspasses of a hen in a herb garden: the soft-swallowing of bees, injury to the dye plants, and attacks on the garlic. A guilty hen shall have her feet tied together, or rag boots put on."

''At the main feast of the assembly the king and the chief poet of the tribe shall be served a thigh of the roast. The young lord is served a leg. Blacksmiths and charioteers shall be served the head and queens get haunches.''

''The wife who minds the sheep shall be paid two lambs a year.''

''The chief poet of the tribe earns twenty-one cows annually, plus enough pasture lands to feed them, plus two hounds and two horses.''

''If a person who is of a higher rank than you refuses to pay his debt you may sit at his doorstep and fast until he submits to arbitration. If you die before he submits he shall be blamed for your death and shall suffer lifelong disgrace.''

''Whether the offspring of kings, warriors, poets, workers in wood or stone, or tillers of the soil, a son or daughter shall follow the career of his or her parents.''

''...the son of a king of Erin shall wear satin and red clothes...''

''The sons of the inferior classes of chieftains shall wear black, yellow, or gray clothing..."

''The sons of the lowest class of chieftain shall wear old clothes...''

''A king exercises not falsehood nor force nor oppressive might. He is righteous towards all his people, both weak and strong.''

"Three things that cause the overthrow of a king; injustice, extortion, and kin-slaying.''

''For digging in a churchyard to steal from it, for making a dam in a stream to take an excess of fish, or for stealing a hunter's tent, your cattle will be taken to the animal pound for three to ten days, depending on the circumstances.''

''If a tribesman breaks another tribesman's leg he must pay a fine and supply a horse for the victim to ride on.''

''All members of the tribe are required to offer hospitality to strangers. The only exceptions are minor children, madmen, and old people.''

''The selfish man, who thinks only of his cows and his fields, and not of his fellow human beings, may be insulted without risking a blush fine.''

''The satirist who satirises a guiltless person will grow blisters on his own face. And then he will die.''

Every third year roads must be cleared of brambles, brush, weeds, and water to make ready for the great assembly, feast/fair.

The creditor who holds your brooch, necklaces and, rings as security for your pledge must return them back to you to wear at the great assembly and prevent embarrassment.

For the best arable land the price is 24 cows. The price for dry, coarse land is 12 dry cows.

If a woman makes an assignation with a man to come to her bed or behind a bush the man is not guilty of rape even if she screams. If she has not agreed to the meeting, however, he is guilty as soon as she screams.

The groom shall pay a bride-price of cattle, land, horses, gold, silver, to the Father of the bride. Husband and wife retain individual rights to property, goods and possessions each bring to the marriage.

If a pregnant women craves a morsel of food and her husband withholds it through stinginess, meanness or neglect he must pay a fine.

A fine of 6 cows for breaking a tribesman's two front teeth; 12 heifers for maiming a homeless man. For pulling off the hairs of a virgin Bishop one yearling for each 20 hairs.

It is illegal to give someone food in which a dead weasel or mouse has been found.

If your neighbor does not repay the debt he owes you, you may prevent him from going about his daily business. A withe-tie goes around the blacksmith anvil, carpenter's axe or tree fellers hatchet. He is on his honor to do no work until the debt is settled or wrong righted. If a Bard or physician is the debtor immobilize his horse whip for both ride their circuits. The creditor may fast in front of the debtor's house to humiliate him until the debt is paid.

If a rational adult brings a simpleton into an ale house for amusement and the simpleton injures a patron the adult who brought him must make compensation.

The blacksmith must rouse all sleeping customers before he puts the iron in the fire to guard against injury from sparks. Those who fall asleep again will receive no compensation.

When a judge deviates from the truth, a blotch will appear on his cheek. Whoever comes to your door, you must feed him or care for him, with no questions asked.

The chief poet of the tribe shall sit next to the king at a banquet. Each shall be served the choicest cut of meat.

The poet who overcharges for a poem shall be stripped of half his rank in society.

The mill-owner is exempt from liability for injury to a person caught between the millstones.

The husband who, through listlessness, does not go to his wife in her bed must pay a fine.

If a pregnant woman craves a morsel of food and her husband withholds it through stinginess or neglect, he must pay a fine.

A layman may drink six pints of ale with his dinner, but a monk may drink only three pints.

This is so he will not be intoxicated when prayer-time arrives.

If the poet or the physician is in debt, immobilize his horse-whip, for both ride their circuits on the backs of horses.

The lender of a horse must give notice of the horse's kicking habits.

Notice of the hound in heat and the mad dog must be sent to the four nearest neighbourhoods.

The harpist is the only musician who is of noble standing. Flute-players, trumpeters and timpanists, as well as jugglers, conjurers and equestrians who stand on the backs of horses at fairs, have no status of their own in the community, only that of the noble chieftain to whom they are attached.

The creditor who holds your brooch, your necklet or your earrings as a pledge against your loan must return them so you may wear them at the great assembly. Or he will be fined for your humiliation.

The time allotted to each Brehon for pleading his case is long or short according to his dignity. In determining the length of the speech he is allowed, count eighteen breathings to the minute.

On the best land everything is good. The herbs are sweet and no manure or shells are needed. There will be no plants that will stick in a horse's mane or tail: no briars, no blackthorns, no burdocks.

With the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland, the laws were collected from all over the country and reviewed. Some of the laws were then stricken if they ran contrary to the laws of God. Those that remained were copied down for succeeding generations and continued in use until the English gained total control of Ireland in the 16th Century.

Sadly a large portion of these laws are now lost, as only a portion of the volumes can be found. Of those that remain, they sit in a limbo of sorts. They have been copied down in their original form, but much of this work is in Old Irish, and has not yet been translated. Efforts are underway to correct this by a group called Brehon Aid, which hopes to get the funding and the human resources to complete this monumental task. study
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