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~~Celtic 2~~

"The Brehon Laws"

presented by Scone

The Brehon Laws,
The System of Law of Early Celts>

~~Celtic Page Two~~


All culture developed originally from the people's relationship with the particular land they live on. Today, culture is as important as it ever was, for it gives us an expression of being which is in harmony with the land, other people of like mind and the forces of the natural world. Culture is a way of life; there is still a thriving cultural tradition within the Gaidhealtachd, although like other Celtic 'fringes' it has become rather marginalised in its forms of expression - musical, linguistic, and so on.

The social structure of Bronze Age Celtic society was highly developed. It was, nevertheless, a clan society, bonded together by an all-encompassing system of laws and social customs, known as the Brehon Laws, which lasted intact for centuries.

FAMILY - the extended family ('fine' or 'clann') was the basic social unit, consisting of several generations of descendants from one ancestor. When several families settled in a particular territory they formed a 'tuath', ruled over by a chieftain or a petty king. There were about 150 tuatha, or kingdoms, in ancient Ireland.

KINSHIP - The kinship group, and not the individual, was all important under Brehon law. The kinship group was responsible for the actions of all its members. 'Eric fine' had to be paid by the whole family on behalf of any transgressors of the law. Kinship also ensured a right to shares in any family inheritance (known as derbhfine').

HEARTH - The hearth was of central importance in Celtic society, and its foundation was the contract of handfasting. Within the hearth the woman's authority was absolute. The hearth was the centre of much activity, where many traditional crafts were carried out; it also provided warmth and nourishment, it was a gathering place for storytelling and music, and it had to be an open place of hospitality to all.

HOSPITALITY - A very important aspect of Celtic life. Both the hosts and the guests were expected to observe certain social customs.

THE HOSTS - Hosts had to provide food, drink, a warm bed if possible,and entertainment. They had to give the very best they had; not to do so was a gross insult. Once the guests had partaken of the hearth's hospitality, the hosts were obliged to refrain from any violence or quarrelling with them, for the guests were under the protection of the dun from then on.

THE GUESTS would be expected to make an offering to the hearth of cakes, bread, wine etc., according to their ability. They must show respect to the hosts and not cause quarrels, fights or disruptions during their stay. They would normally be expected to sing a song, play a tune, or tell a tale.


BREHON LAWS - The Brehon laws were responsible for regulating a large part of social life even in ways that would fall outside the legal system of today. The laws set out codes of behaviour that all members of a blood family had to adhere to. Within Celtic society there existed a clearly defined system of rank or caste (which was transient) - serfs/ peasants; freemen/craftsmen; warriors; nobles; kings and priesthood.

The Brehons, or judges, were of the Druid priesthood caste. If they made ill-judgements they were expected to forfeit their fee and pay damage costs. Codes of behaviour and levels of responsibility were laid down in the laws for each caste. The higher ranks had the most restrictions placed on them.

STATUS - This was largely determined by the ownership of cattle (there was no concept of land ownership in early Celtic society). Leases of livestock were granted to the tribe by the nobility in return for loyalty.

HONOUR PRICE - A strange mutual dependence existed between nobles and their clients. The status of a nobleman depended on the number of clients he leased cattle to. The client, however, gave up any status in law except through his creditor. Hence, creditors gave legal protection to their clients (known as their 'honour price'). Honour prices were central to the operation of the Brehon laws, and clients would seek out creditors with the highest status, to gain the highest honour price.

TUATH - Beyond a family member's particular tuath, or tribal land, they could not normally be guaranteed legal protection, unless formerly agreed between tuatha.

KINGSHIP - The king was the key element of the social structure. He was responsible for harmony between the tribe and the land, and also for the prosperity of the tribe. He had to be generous; if he was niggardly he would suffer the poet's satire (a formidable weapon in Celtic society) and have his kingship taken from him. The king was responsible for the redistribution of wealth in his kingdom, by means of banquets and donating gifts.

FAIRS, FESTIVALS AND BANQUETS - These were important occasions which brought together all strata of society. Participation in the festivities was compulsory! (Not to enjoy the life you had been given was an insult). Guests were seated according to rank. The "champion's portion" was awarded to the warrior who showed the greatest courage. To hold a good banquet was to gain much prestige. It was important to invite the 'aes dana' (people of the arts - bards, musicians, etc. ) Songs were sung, legends retold, and clan genealogies recited. Also, at festivals, settlements and judgements of legal cases were made, and handfasting contracts signed. However, no enmity must exist, no debt must be collected and no weapon must be lifted.

A way of life that survived for centuries in these isles is rapidly being lost before a torrent of mass consumerism, and an individualistic society, where 'dog eat dog' is the rule, and where the power of the State is so great that it shapes your very thoughts and life-style. We Would like to think there is an alternative to all this, that the old values of clan and family can still be followed. We have much to learn from our Celtic ancestors, and keeping alive our culture and social customs is one very important aspect of this. THE BREHON LAWS (legal structure)

In a previous article I looked at the role of the family unit in Celtic society and the importance of the kinship group in providing a link between the individual and the tribe. In this article I would like to introduce the reader to the legal structure within which the Celtic kinship group operated - the ancient law of the Brehons.

Ireland is extremely unique and privileged to have preserved as part of her heritage a large body of ancient law tracts, known collectively as 'Fenechas', the law of the Feine (Freemen), or more commonly, the Brehon Law. These laws are probably the oldest in Europe; they were in origin the laws of a pastoral people whose status was measured in the ownership of cattle, and whose legal fines were assessed in units of 'sets' (one set was half the value of a milk cow). This ancient legal system was very comprehensive in both its range and technicality even before the ninth century; there were few areas of life that could not be encompassed in some way into the great body of the law. The laws were originally composed in poetical verse and handed down by the Filid. In later times they were written down and several important law books have been preserved and translated, among them the Senchus Mor, the Book of Acaill, and the Uraiccecht Becc (Small Primer). It must be stated, however, that some of the translations are open to debate, for the original manuscripts were written in an archaic language which could easily have been misinterpreted. The scholars who were working on these manuscripts were aware of this fact, but sadly did not have the opportunity to finish their task before their deaths.

The Brehon Laws were considered by all to be based on sound principles of justice, so much so that the English settlers of 'The Pale' adopted the Irish laws themselves. The Brehon Laws governed Ireland for centuries, until they were finally abolished in the seventeenth century.

The foundation of the Brehon law rested to a large extent on the power of custom, or customary law, the popular acceptability of the law as being founded on 'tradition'. With no central governing authority, no organised institutions of crime prevention, the most powerful deterrent was the threat of sanctions, and the consequent loss of status within the community. In principle, an individual's rights and status existed only within the boundaries of his or her tuath, in accordance with the laws of 'derbhfhine' (four generations of descent from a common ancestor). Loss of face within your own tuath was considered by all to be a disgraceful state of affairs; to allow such a situation to continue was even worse, and so the victim would seek to obtain a settlement of compensation from the transgressor as soon as possible, to restore order and balance within the tuath.

The interpretation and nforcement of the law was vested in the hands of a specialist group of the Druidh caste known as Brithem, or Brehons. The Brehons underwent a lengthy training, which involved large amounts of traditional knowledge being committed to memory. The legal rules were very complicated, with many intricacies. The Brehons themselves were liable for damages if they gave a false judgement. Moreover, the laws were preserved in an archaic form of Irish known as 'berla Feine'. This was not a language in common use, which made the law tracts generally inaccessible to the layman. Hence the Brithem class were a very influential group, but the power that they wielded did not rest solely on the matter of legal language. Other aspects of life in tribal /clan societies should be borne in mind when discussing ancient Celtic institutions, aspects of life that are no longer present in modern society, but which were of enormous significance to our ancestors. One example of this is the extent to which the Brehons were held in awe by the people. They were believed to possess a divine power which helped them to make true judgements. This divine power also kept watch over them and meted out punishments for falsity. The ancient Irish held the principles of Truth and Justice in high esteem.

To fully appreciate the power of the Brehons, we must understand that their role in the community was much wider in scope than solely as law givers. They were also responsible for the execution of all public religious rituals and ceremonies. 'The Law' was not distinguished from the religious and magical aspects of life. Assemblies for the giving of law judgements were held during the sacred festival times and were conducted in a formalised, itualised manner in accordance with ancient tradition. These early courts of law were usually held in open places, especially on hills and at the burial site of kings. There are many such law hills to be found all over Scotland also. On Arran we have Cnoc na Comhairlie, the Consultation Hill, near Whiting Bay, Cnoc a' Chrochaidh, the Hill of Hanging (pointing perhaps to some rather gruesome punishments) at Sliddery, and Cnoc na Ceille, the Hill of Meeting at Dougarie. The assemblies held in such places were the very linchpin of the Celtic tradition, for they: "represent both a return to the original unity and the re-creation of order". (Rees, Celtic Heritage). At these assemblies the foundations of the tradition were re-laid, involving the re-enactment of its mythological origins. The sacred power of myth was brought to bear upon matters of judgement. Disputes over land use were settled according to the mythological divisions of Ireland; sick maintenance was assessed according to an alleged 'Judgement of iancecht', the God of Medicine. All manner of judgements, fines, satires and punishments were to be found in the myths and legends. The wise king or Brehon had only to search for parallels, which he would then often embody into his own judgement in the form of a proverb - the Irish loved this kind of word play and were very skilled at it. From this we can see that the power of myth, tradition and precedent were combined together to be woven into the fabric of the legal system, giving it authority, credibility and sanctity in all situations.

There is one more important aspect of the ancient Celtic legal system that I would like to discuss in this introductory article. This concerns the status of the class known as the 'nemed'. The meaning of this Celtic word would seem to be a description for something holy or sacred; it is also used as a noun to denote a place of sanctuary. In Irish law it had an additional meaning in that it signified all persons of free status. It was specifically the franchise of the 'nemed' that allowed a person participation in the public religious rites. It is important to note that the franchise of the 'nemed' did not depend on birth. Certain kinds of craftspeople attained the 'nemed' by virtue of their vocation, among them being builders of houses, ships and mills, wood carvers, chariot makers, turners, leatherworkers, fishermen, metal workers and smiths, and harpers (incidentally, harpers were the only class of musicians who held the status of 'nemed').

There were two classes of Nemeds - soernemeds (higher) and doernemeds (lower). The doernemeds included the 'filid', the professional learning class and in ancient times the Druidh. The doernemeds were workers of the specific crafts upon which the nemed was granted. In later times, with the advent of Christianity, the distinctions became rather more blurred, with the Druid class becoming relegated to the lower nemed. Curiously enough, the filid retained the higher nemed. We can perhaps conclude from this that the Church recognised a threat to the new religion from the Druidh, but not from the filid who merely recorded it.

Presented by Nancy A. MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot
Clans Gunn, MacLeod of Lewis, and Keith (Marshall)
Ancient Material from Carmichael and Mrs. H. Skimming founder Dalriada Society Material from Carmichael
Nancy MacCorkill's own writings
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