The ancient Irish legal system is likely the most sophisticated law tradition in Europe of a thousand years ago and provides us with fascinating insight into who the Irish people of this time were. What their values were, what their ethics and beliefs said about what was socially and morally acceptable and unacceptable and how justice was dispensed is all invaluable information in understanding the society they lived in, their customs and their way of life at that time.
The body of law as a whole is often called "Brehon law" which is the anglicized name but it is more properly called Fénechus, which can be translated to "that which relates to the Feine" or "the law of free men" or "the law of the free land-tillers", all of which refer to the free classes that formed the main body of Irish society.
Initially these laws were not written down, they existing in the collective knowledge of the Brehons (the judges). While this may seem strange to us today it does appear to fit into the culture of Ireland at the time, a time where knowledge was passed on and preserved orally rather than in books and documents.
It should be noted that the law (or more accurately the notion of justice) was held in very high regard in Ireland at this time. Rather than a set of restrictive rules that had to be begrudgingly followed the law was seen much more as sensible and fair guidelines to resolving common disputes and accidents that inevitably occur in a society. It helped ensure that conflicts did not escalate unnecessarily and was beneficial to society as a whole. They were not dictated to the main body of society but instead developed as a society wide consensus with different locations having variations if needed or desired i.e. from the bottom up rather than the modern top down approach. Integral to the whole system was the notion of honour, a word that is still (mis)used today but was actually taken seriously in these times, as we shall see. Adhering to the law was a matter of honour and to the vast majority the notion of breaking the law would have been unthinkable as it would have brought dishonour not only to themselves but also to their family or clan. The notion of law being a good thing which ensured justice and was to be revered and respected eventually completely dissipated and in fact understandably completely reversed when things such as the Penal Laws were enacted. What once protected Irish society was now being used to brutally destroy it, stories for another time but for now the law and the honour involved in respecting it flourished.
Eventually these laws did get written down. The story behind this corresponds with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The law needed to be updated to be in harmony with Christian doctrine and this was an impossible task while it only lived in the minds of men so Saint Patrick requested that they be written down. So in 438 A.D. Laegaire Mac Neill, the high king Of Ireland appointed a committee of 9 people to undertake the task. There were to be 3 kings (Laegaire was one), 3 bishops (Patrick was one) and 3 scholars (Duftach, Laeghaire's chief poet was one). The task took 3 years to complete and produced a 5 volume complete works of Irish law of which the Senchus Mór is the largest and most important part.
While this is the story behind the Senchus Mór the current general consensus among historians (right or wrong) is that the texts seem to have actually been written in mid 8th century which would date them to several hundred years after Patrick's death. The suggestion being that attributing them to Patrick would give them more weight and legitimacy. A debate for another time.
Whatever the truth of its origins sadly the work in its entirety, the Fénechas, no longer exists. What does exist has has been painstakingly pieced together over years from the various pieces and fragments that survived. Thankfully most the Senchus Mór has been pieced together.
Accessing the information contained within the Seanchus Mór wasn't complete after piecing the work together from fragments centuries later, there was then the problem of translating it. It was written in Béarla Féini, an ancient Irish dialect that even the Brehons themselves struggled with and modern translators really struggled with. It's not even read in left to right order from the top of the page to the bottom, it seems to start halfway down the page, then you sometimes read in the up direction from there, sometime down etc. even before the difficulty of the words themselves are taken into account. It almost seems like it was meant to be cryptic and difficult to read. Whatever the reason the main translators of the work freely admit that at times their translation is a 'best guess'.
But enough of all this, what does it actually say?!
Well, it's huge, so it says a lot, way too much to cover here but we'll mention some interesting bits and provide resources for you to explore further if you wish.
To some extent it says what you would expect. There are lists of rules (actually more customs and guidelines) for dealing with all sorts of areas of society where legal arbitration might be required such as:
We're just sketching out some broad categories here but there is a fair amount of detail for just about every subject. For example, just how many bags of corn a month should a woman receive for the next year if things don't work out? Or if someone puts a lunatic and a madwoman together for a laugh and a child results, who's sorting that mess out? Customs around such example issues are addressed in Cáin Lánamna (Law of women and marriage).
As can be seen from the Cáin Lánamna link above even once translated into English the law can still be hard to follow. Be assured this is not a lacking in your ability or understanding, it's just hard to follow and as mentioned, translation is also an issue. To study this ancient legal system some accompanying explanatory notes are an almost essential addition to the texts themselves.
To that end let's look at some interesting insights the texts actually provide rather than trying to work it out for ourselves. An example of a quick and easy insight might be that there seems to be a disproportionate amount of laws around bees. Bee stings appeared to be a real issue and someone was normally liable, with the liability normally resulting in being awarded honey as redress. So we can assume that bee keeping and honey production was fairly widespread in Ireland at that time.
OK let's try a slightly deeper insight. When you read the example text of the Cáin Lánamna above there are words that don't make sense. For example what is an éraic? And what's this talk of the honour-price? This is one of the most interesting insights into ancient Irish culture that study of the law reveals.
The Senchus Mór and other legal texts reveal that ancient Ireland had a highly developed social order and one's honour was an extremely important and integral part of that system. There was definitely a class system in place where to be a scholar, a poet, a bishop, a king or some other highly regarded position within society came with an associated honour, but honour was just as important for the main body of society. Your honour basically translated into how much respect and esteem you were held in by the rest of society. Rather than being some sort of abstract notion it was a much more tangible attribute and when it came to the law it had a particularly important function. Your honour was known as your Enechlann which basically translates to your 'face-price'. It was how much society valued you and your contribution to it. Do good things (honourable things) and your Enechlann increased, do bad things (break the law, behave selfishly etc.) and your Enechlann decreased.
When it came to the law each infringement carried with it a dire (a fine) which was payable to the person you transgressed. But the amount of reparation (the Eiric) took your Enechlann (honour-price) into account when being calculated. What this meant was there was a fundamental difference to the way justice was dispensed in Ireland at this time. The English common law which eventually supplanted Brehon law in Ireland right up until present day works on the basis that everyone is equal before the law. With the Brehon law of ancient Ireland everyone was very intentionally NOT equal before the law. We would tend to shriek in horror at such a concept today but when we look a little closer at how this worked it doesn't appear quite as 'unfair' as it initially seems.
Let's take an example of an assault. There is a particular amount of reparation needed for an assault but with a common law approach a person who regularly performs bad deeds will be awarded the same amount as someone who regularly performs good deeds. This was actually considered an injustice under Brehon law. The regular bad deed doer while deserving reparation for the assault does not deserve as much reparation as the regular good deed doer. The 'crime' against society is deemed greater against the good man. This is where someone's honour-price gets factored into the calculation and is rationalized along the lines that good should not be assigned to bad, that a large honour-price should not be given to the person to whom only small honour-price is due.
There is also a spiritual aspect to the reasoning along the lines of "because it is according to his deeds God judges man" and therefore the law should try to follow God's example. It can work both ways however, the reparation for a particular infringement may be something like your honour-price plus 5 bags of corn meaning the higher your honour price the greater the fine (as an honourable man you are held to higher standards and should have known better). It is clear from the texts that the higher your honour-price the harsher the penalty. For example someone who is found guilty of lying 3 times loses half his honour-price, once more and he loses it completely which is an effective societal demotion meaning he cannot hold public office, sue or act as guarantor. However after a set period of time he can recover it. A member of the clergy however if found guilty of the same offence cannot recover it after a set period of time, the penalty is harsher. Similarly if a Brehon is found guilty of an unjust ruling etc. then it's basically over for him in society. The basic principal at work here is that there are greater consequences for those of greater status. Now isn't that something that modern Ireland could learn from? Compare this to today where is seems those in public office appear to be completley above the law with no consequences for their actions at all!
So we can begin to see that honour in ancient Irish culture was something that was of utmost importance, it was basically your standing in society with very real implications and associated responsibility as the higer you rose, the harder you fell. This is one of the main reasons why the law was so revered, it was seen as genuinely fair and was appreciated even by those on the wrong side of it as they knew it would be just and fair to them should they one day need it. As it was so widely accepted and adhered to a breach of the law was simply considered.. "a lapse from the standards of personal honour and brotherly kindness...".
One last insight the Senchus Mór gives us about ancient Ireland was there was no such things as prisons, no such thing as the death penalty and probably the most difficult one for people of today to get their heads around, there was no such thing as police to actually 'enforce' the law! So how did that work? Couldn't you just refuse to be tried? You could, but your life would be over. Society policed the law themselves. If you break the law and do not subject yourself to a hearing from a Brehon, then you are quite simply an outlaw (outside the law). As an outlaw you are deeply dishonourable and if anyone associates with you it will affect their honour too. Remember your honour also reflects on your family also. So you can no longer function in society, nobody will speak to or even acknowledge you. Maybe you could bear that for a while but without human contact no-one can last very long and eventually you will have to face justice and the longer you leave it the more dishonour you bring on yourself. Our ancestors and the society they built for themselves certainly is an interesting one is it not?
If you actually want to see the Senchus Mór most of the remaining fragments are kept in Trinity College in Dublin. If you want to read more of the actual texts along with some explanatory notes you can find the links below. The Senchus Mór itself is split into 3 parts and the links below are the first 3 volumes of a 12 volume series 'Ancient Laws of Ireland' written circa 1865. They are digitized copies so they can be difficult reads both in terms of print quality as well as the content itself. You would certainly earn the title of 'hard core' if you managed to work your way through all of them, but we include them here for completeness and prosperity.