The Brehon Laws

The study of the Brehon Laws; of ancient Ireland is now engaging students In England and Germany and the Emerald Isle itself. These laws are extremely interesting since they furnish the connecting links between the jurisprudence of the intelligent pagan and the enlightened legal procedure of the Christian. The use of the Irish language in court ceased In the year 1619.

The Brehons were lawyer bards. The bards of Ireland were divided into three classes – the Fileas (sic.) who celebrated the strains of war and religion, the Brehons who devoted themselves to the study of law which they versified and recited to the people and the Seanachies who filled the offices of antiquarian and historian.
Almost every homestead of importance had its own Seanachie, whose duty it was to sing the exploits and trace the genealogy of the family up to Mllesius. The clan or tribe system prevailed in Ireland as it did in all other countries
 of Europe In early ages.The ancient Irish felt very proud of their oriental descent from this monarch.

A clan or sept consisted of a number of families all in one district and generally bearing the same family name. A tribe was a larger group consisting of several clans or septs all more or less distantly related to each other – of 
which each sept had a separate district without interference by other septs of tho same tribe. Over each tribe as well as over each sept there was a chief and the chief of the tribe had authority over those of the several septs under him. If the territory occupied by the tribe was very large the chief was a Ri or King and sometimes a king ruled over two or more tribes.

From the very early times Ireland was partitioned into five provinces – Ulster, Lelnster Munster Connacht and Meath. Ulster in its coastline extended from the Boyne round northward to the little river Drowes which issues from Lough Melvin and flows between the counties of Donegal and Leitrlm; Leinster extended from the Boyne to the mouth of the Suir; Munster extended from the Sulr round southward to the Shannon; Connacht from the Shannon to the Drowes. The province of Meath which was last formed was much larger than the present two counties of Meath and Westmeath. It extended from the Shannon eastward to the sea and from the confines of the present Kings county (Offaly) and County Klldare on the south to the confines of Fermanagh
and Armagh on the north.

Subsequently there were some changes. Clare was wrested from Connacht and added to Munster and Louth was transferred from Ulster to Leinster. Finally in the latter subdivision of the country Meath disappeared altogether as a province and the four older provinces still remain.

Over each province there was a king and there was a king over all Ireland 
who was called the Ard-Rl. He lived at Tara till its abandonment as a royal 
residence in the sixth century and the Province of Meath always belonged to
 him to enable him to maintain his court with due dignity. Besides this, he received tribute from the provincial kings to support his armies and defray other expenses of government.

The kings of the provinces were in like manner paid tribute by the chiefs of their several tribes and these again were partly supported by payments from their subordinate chiefs and heads of households. As the supreme monarch had Meath for his personal expenses so each king and chief had a tract of land for life, or as long as he continued as chief, for the support of his household. He also received payments from those under him. This land on his death went not to his family but to his successor in the chiefship.

The king or chief was always taken from one of the ruling families of the tribe or clan He was chosen because he was considered best fitted to govern in peace or in war and he had to be free from bodily deformity. The king was elected by the votes of the principal men. However the king was not absolute; he could not decide on any important matter concerning the tribe 
or territory without consulting and obtaining the consent of the principal men.
It was customary to hold meetings in various places for the transaction of important business sometimes once a year, occasionally once in two or three years. At these assemblies laws were proclaimed to keep them before the 
minds of the people; taxes were arranged and pastimes and athletic sports were carried on.

Standing armies were seldom kept but the men of the tribe were called on as occasion arose, to serve in war. Two kinds of foot soldiers were employed – galloglasses and kern. The former were heavy-armed soldiers. They wore a coat of mall and an iron helmet, a long sword hung by the side. In the hand was carried a broad heavy keen-edged ax. They were not noted for their dexterity in tho use the battle ax, against which neither armor nor helmet was a sufficient protection. The kern were light-armed, wore head pieces and fought with a dagger or short sword, a small bow and a Javelin.

For more than 1000 years the Brehon code settled the social relations and governed the conduct of the Irish people. In criminal cases the Brehons were allowed an eleventh part of all fines and sometimes these amounted to considerable sums. The Brehons held office largely by heredity.

To become a Brehon a person had to undergo a long and carefully arranged course of training under masters who were themselves skilled Brehons. They had collections of laws in volumes, in the Irish language, by which they regulated their judgments. The kings of Ireland founded colleges for the education of the bards, whose term of study was at least seven years. Out in the green woods, beneath the shade of the sacred oak, these poetic institutions flourished.
When the term of study was completed the degree of Ollamh, or doctor, was conferred upon the students. Then the bards went forth and sang the war songs of the clans, and the dogmas of religion; versified the proclamations of law, the axioms of philosophy and the annals of history.
The different orders of the State were distinguished by the number of colors which adorned their dress, and while the kings were allowed five colors and the serving class one, the Irish bard was always permitted to wear four colors – indicating that his rank was little less than a monarch.


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