That Will Be Two and a Half Cows Please: Ancient Irish Laws
Updated: Mar 19
Celts have been portrayed at times as wild pagans whose main pastimes were fighting and making human sacrifices. This negative publicity originated with those, such as the Romans and the English, who wanted to justify invading and occupying Celtic lands. In 1156, the only English-born Pope, Adrian IV, issued a Papal Bull giving King Henry II of England permission to invade Ireland in order to correct the morals of the unruly Irish who, supposedly, were incapable of ruling themselves. However, the truth is the Irish had a highly developed culture which valued learning and the arts. Also, Irish women had more rights under the law than women in other European countries, including England. Those rights came from ancient Irish law which had been in effect for centuries. It was written down in the seventh century A.D. but scholars believe it had existed in oral tradition long before that. The ancient legal code has become known as Brehon law because the Irish judges were called Brehons. This code of law governed Ireland until the seventeenth century when Elizabeth I ordered it to be replaced with English Common law.
Brehon law dealt with all aspects of society including social standing and wages. Primarily it was a system of fines and reparations along with some moral imperatives. Fines and wages were paid most often in livestock, especially with one of the greatest marks of Irish social standing: cattle. For example, the law says that shipbuilders were to be paid four cows a year. Those who built huts, chariots and causeways received two cows, and “the overseer of the poor and the wretched” only earned “one cow of second quality.” Some reparations required a half a cow (a calf).
Under Brehon law, animals, as well as humans, could commit crimes. A bee, for example, who stung “a passerby who [had] done it no harm or anything illegal” was a criminal. But a human was responsible for reparations. Which human? The owner of the nearest garden. If there was more than one nearby, lots were cast to determine the responsible party. There could be mitigating circumstances which relieved an animal (and the responsible human) from guilt. Cows and bulls, for instance, were not to be held liable if they charged a human during mating season.
The law protected animals as well. If anyone disturbed a hive, a bee was legally justified in stinging that person. It was illegal to overwork your horse. Even inanimate things were protected under law. It was a crime to overwork your ax.
A person’s standing in society is detailed under Brehon law as well. It says that a bard is equal to a king. A harpist is listed as a member of the nobility. Other musicians, however, had no specific rank. Their place in society depended entirely on the social standing of their chieftain. Kings were at the pinnacle of society but they were not above the law which outlined the ruler’s duties and cited situations in which he could lose his standing. A king who was discovered working with an ax or a spade was to be downgraded to the position of commoner. A king legally could be overthrown if he committed injustice or extortion. Some laws regarding kings demonstrate a belief in divine justice. Here is a very specific example: "If a king of Leinster neglects preparations for his great assembly, he shall suffer early greyness, baldness, or feebleness."
Family matters also were addressed by Irish law. Both men and woman had the right to a divorce (in most countries this was exclusively a man’s right). Married women had the legal right to expect some interesting things from their husbands. Here are three examples:
1) If a woman is pregnant, her husband must provide her with the food she craves. If he neglects to do so or is too cheap to get it, he is subject to a fine.
2) A man must visit his wife in her bed. If he doesn’t, he will be fined.
3) The wife who tends the sheep is entitled to two lambs a year.
Families were legally required to take care of elderly members. By law, the family had to provide the person each day with sour milk and one oatcake. They also had to wash the person—once every twenty days!
The sick too had rights. For example, if a sick person stayed at the doctor’s house, it was illegal for the doctor to put the patient in a pig-house, sheep-house, or cow-house. The law protected the medical practitioner as well. If the doctor had ordered the patient not to eat certain foods or drinks but a visitor snuck it in to the patient, the visitor had to pay a fine. The good news is any patient of any social rank could have as much celery as he or she wanted!
Here are a few more Brehon laws:
1) It is illegal to fight on a poet’s lawn.
2) Quarreling at assemblies is against the law.
3) A tribesman who breaks another tribesman’s leg must provide the injured man with a horse to ride.
4) You may not take a boat out in a storm if the owner is absent unless you are in danger.
5) Digging in a graveyard to steal from it or stealing a hunter’s tent results in the impounding of the culprit’s livestock for 3 to 10 days.
There is one Brehon law that is written on the hearts of all Celts, never to be effaced: Be hospitable to everyone. The actual law says: “Whoever comes to your door, you must feed him and care for him, no questions asked.”
Thankfully, when threatened by the Elizabethan obliteration of the Irish legal system, some Brehon judges hid copies of the ancient law. While not all of it has been recovered, enough of it has to demonstrate that the Irish didn’t need overlords. They were quite capable of governing themselves.
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Slan go foil!
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