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LAWS OF THE ANCIENT IRISH.
COMPARATIVELY little can be learned of the ordinary life of a people from their legendary and poetic remains read even as a gloss upon their history. Taking Keating as our guide to the romantic annals of the Irish Gael, and the Ossianic and other legendary remains as to their manners, and customs, and character, we should be tempted to say that the ancient jurisprudence of Ireland must have consisted of very few and simple rules, and that these were executed by the armed retainers of the kings or chiefs. With these guides we should arrive at the following simple system of political and legal economy. The ArdRigh (High King) had Meath, or a portion taken from each of the four provinces, for his private property, and eked out his income by tributes received from the four provincial kings. He had but a small standing army, and if any of his four crowned vassals proved contumacious, he called on one or more of the others to help in bringing the stubborn chief to a sense of his duty. These campaigns were generally short. If the monarch was defeated, he generally lost life and crown together-and all was decided in one hand-to-hand fight. The supreme king at Tara might, through his brehons, settle disputes between his Meath farmers and graziers, and receive the tribute collected at the great fairs held in his own territory ; but he never interfered in the private provincial concerns. VOL. LXVII.-NO. CCCXCVII.
The King of Leinster kept matters quiet if he could among his own chieftains, and if one of them acted unjustly toward his bordering neighbour, and would not make condign satisfaction, his dun (palatial fortress) was beset by his insulted king, assisted by the wronged chief, and as many others as could be induced to afford a few days campaigning. The provincial king had his own district of arable and grazing land like the Ard-Righ, and his chiefs yearly contributed certain offerings in the guise of rich cloaks, offensive arms, coats of mail, and helmets-the only defensive arms in use, cattle, and male and female slaves.
He settled all civil matters between his farmers and graziers through the medium of a lawyer, who also acted as judge. Each chief superintended the internal concerns of his estate or chieftaincy in the same way. Such is the vague outline derivable from the sources we have described.
There is some general correctness in this sketch, but there must be taken along with it a complex network of laws by which social order was maintained as effectually as the incursive character of chiefs and kings would suffer. The king had his chief brehon (judge), assisted by poets (fileadhs) and lawyers (ollamhs), who settled all matters within the central province, and decided on the mutual obligations of the four provincial kings toward each 1*
other, as also on their respective obligations to the Ard-Righ. Every king had his chief brehon and assistants, similar to those of the Court at Tara, and these regulated the general affairs of the province, deciding matters of dispute between the chiefs, or between a chief and the farmers or graziers of a neighbouring chief. Every chief's rath had one lawyer at least to settle matters between the dependants or the duine uasals (gentlemen) of the family.
Any near relative of the chief was eligible for succession, on the death of the living ruler. If there was a son in the case, of full age and approved wisdom and valour, he was generally selected. The chief's brother would have the next claim, and after him the most capable relative in war and council. The election being made during the life of the chieftain, the change at his death was generally unattended with any disturbance. There was, indeed, some trouble in adjusting the property, and making a new division of the lands when a mere relative assumed the toparchy, but the brehon and his brothers were at hand, with a full command of precedents to make an equitable division.
Now, these brehons, from the highest at Tara to the simple adviser of a chief, devoted their whole lives to the study of the law. When the sons of Milidh gained possession of the country, Amergin, the poet and lawyer, issued the general body of these political and social regulations in verse; having, probably, himself received the principles of the code in the same shape. These verse summaries of the laws were received with the greatest respect; and succeeding lawyers made it their business to commit them to memory, or to such writing as they possessed. There was no such system extant as that of yearly meetings for the abrogation of obsolete laws or the enacting of new ones. Nearly the same principles of government and the same frame-work of society lasted for probably twelve hundred years. The kings and brehons met, indeed, once in three years, but not to tamper with the body of the common law, and the brehons continued to repeat the old formulas, and to cite
precedents; and as the regulations observed in the different provinces had a common origin, all were pervaded by one general spirit, slightly modified by local circumstances. Those of the body acting as judges received the eleventh part of the property in litigation, as fee.
Superficial or prejudiced readers of ancient Irish history judge from the many battles that were fought, and the general rule of so many succeeding to the kings whom their own hands had slain, that there was no such thing as a settled state of peaceful society. However, by dividing the number of years over which these violences are spread, by the number of battles recorded in them, they will find many years' quiet for every few days' trouble. The greater number of the conflicts were between one or other of the provincial kings and the Ard-Righ for the sovereignty of the island, and the warfare was ended by one decisive battle. All the forces that could be collected by the two adverse kings stood then and there in face of each other, and whichever saw the day decided-by going against him, rather than live captive or vassal to his opponent, rushed into the thick of his foemen, and sold his life as dearly as he could. No more blood was shed; the victor resumed or assumed the sceptre at Tara, and peace prevailed till some other aspirant took it into his head to strike a bold stroke for supreme mastery.
Meanwhile there was no change in the policy or jurisprudence of the country. The brehons preserved the body of the laws as they had received them, at first in a poetic shape, and later, in a mixed vehicle of prose and poetry, even as the Ossianic legends of latter times, which, passing through the minds of degenerate story-tellers, lost their poetic form, with the exceptions of some quatrains here and there, which, from some peculiar excellence, fastened themselves strongly on the memory.
The body of ancient laws, slightly modified and abridged in the fifth century of our era, and remaining in full force in parts of Ireland till the close of the sixteenth century, was constructed with the utmost care, and adapted to the needs of a people highly civilized, and apparently satisfied with their rulers and with the
regulations of their social state. Under the graziers and farmers we find the class of free labourers, and also of those of conquered lands, who in that case became serfs. The laws took cognizance of the relations of all these ranks-chiefs, gentlemen of the chiefs' families, renters of lands, peasants, and serfs-and made such distinctions in the circumstances of every injury or offence, that an indifferent examiner of the code would say it was better adapted to the requirements of a highly civilized people, thickly scattered over the country, rather captious, and vigilant against trespass or imposition, than of a warlike people, all of whom that did not profess arms tilled the ground, fed herds and flocks, worked in metals, and wove fabrics.
Great care was taken to preserve the distinction of the different grades. The laws even condescended to set out what should compose the furniture of a chieftainess's work-box in the way of silk threads, bodkins, needles, &c., and to prescribe the fewer and less costly articles permitted to the farmer's or grazier's wife. Above all it was careful to mark every individual's " honour price," that is, the value of his ransom if taken prisoner, or of the "eric," or compensation, which his slayer should pay his family-unless his death occurred in open warfare. The laws were even so bold as to indicate the crimes or defects which would incapacitate a king from reigning, or (when Christianity was established) what should degrade a bishop.
The modification in the statutes effected at the advent of Christianity was thus brought about, and is here given from the introduction to the great body of the laws which then christianized, as it were, continued in full force in all parts of the country not under the control of Danes or Normans for twelve hundred years, This we are enabled to do by the
publication, Irish and English, of the first volume of the complete issue of the Ancient Gaelic Code.*
the world at that time.
"The Senchus was composed in the time of Lacghaire (pr. Laeré) son of Niall, King of Erin; and Theodosius was monarch of of the Senchus having been composed was this. Patrick came to Ireland to baptize, and to disseminate religion among the Gaeidhil, i.e., in the ninth year of Theodosius, and in the fourth year of the reign of Laeghaire, son of Niall, King of Erin.
"Laeghaire ordered his people to kill a man of Patrick's people, and agreed to give his own award to the person who should kill the man, that he might discover whether he (Patrick) would grant forgiveLaeghaire, then in captivity in the hands of ness for it. And Nuada Derg, brother of Lacghaire, said that if he were released, and
got other rewards he would kill one of Patrick's people.. He was released from captivity, and he took his lance at once and went towards the clerics, and hurled the lance at them, and slew Odhran, Patrick's charioteer.
"The Lord ordered Patrick to obtain
judgment for his servant who had been choice of the Brehons of Erin (for judge, to killed, and told him that he should get his wit). And the choice he made was to go according to the judgment of the royal poet of the island of Erin, viz., Dubhthach Mac Ua Lugair, who was a vessel full of the grace of the Holy Ghost... And this thing was grievous to Dubhthach, and he said, It is severe in thee, O cleric, to say this to me. It is irksome to me to be in this cause beIf I say that tween God and man. eric fine is to be paid, and that it is to be avenged, it will not be good, for what thou hast brought with thee into Erin is the
judgment of the Gospel, i.e., perfect forgiveness of every evil by each neighbour to the other. What was in Erin before thee was the judgment of the law, i.e., retaliation: a foot for a foot, an eye for an eye, 'Well then,' and life for life.' Patrick, what God will give for utterance, say it.'"
Patrick praying for Dubhthach, and blessing his mouth, he uttered a long poetical discourse in which
Ancient Laws of Ireland-Senchup Mop. Introduction to SENCHUS MOR and ((thgabail or Law of Distress, as contained in the Harleian manuscripts. Published under the direction of the Commissioners for publishing the Antient Laws and Institutes of Ireland. Dublin: Alexander Thom; Hodges and Smith. London: Longman and Co.
Lacré was not well affected to the new religion, and as he supposed that the saint would naturally seek justice on the murderer, he hoped thus to affix a brand of severity to his character, and render his preaching of no effect.