Brehon Law

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Owing to the isolated geographical position of Ireland, references to it by Roman and other ancient writers are comparatively few and of a vague and general character; but fortunately a very full study of Gaelic Ireland can be made from native sources without consulting other authorities except for corroboration. Many leading facts of Irish history have been quite satisfactorily ascertained to the extent of three hundred years before Caesar's time. It would, however, be difficult to lay down a connected and consequential narrative until about A.D. 250, in the reign of King Cormac. This was the time at which some of the laws we are about to consider were reduced to their present form, though they had existed in some other form long before. Those laws, as well as the laws comprised in the greater collection made two centuries later, had probably existed, as laws, a thousand years before Cormac's time. Almost all the Brehon Laws had actually reached their full proportions and maturity about the time that Alfred was reducing to order the scraps of elementary law he found existing amongst his people.

It is with the remains of the laws that then existed in Ireland—boulders from the dun—that we are mainly concerned. Needless to say, they were not written in a foreign tongue. No foreign mind conceived them. No foreign hand enforced them. They were made by those who, one would think, ought to make them: the Irish. They were made for the benefit of those for whose benefit they ought to have been made: the Irish. Hence they were good; if not perfect in the abstract, yet good in the sense that they were obeyed and regarded as priceless treasures, not submitted to as an irksome yoke. And the presence or absence of popular sympathy with law I take to be a true test of the quality of that law and the very touchstone of good government. Originating in the customs of early settlers in times beyond the reach of history, these laws grew in volume and in perfection down to the time mentioned; after which, though.

 

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