How Kings Chiefs And People Were Subject To The Brehon Laws

The ancient Irish had a system of laws which grew up gradually among them

from time immemorial. And there were lawyers who made law the business of

their lives, and lived by it. When a lawyer was very distinguished, and

became noted for his knowledge, skill, and justice, he was recognised as

competent to act as a Brehon or judge. A brehon was also a magistrate by

virtue of his position. From this word 'brehon,' the old Irish law is

commonly called the 'Brehon Law.'

We have seen that every king kept in his household distinguished men of

all the learned professions, and paid them well. Among these the brehon

always held a high place; so that a large number of brehons found

employment in this way. But many were unattached, and lived by deciding

cases brought before them; for which they held courts, and were paid fees

by the litigants in each case. On these fees they lived, for they had no

regular salaries. And there were practising lawyers also, not holding the

position of brehon, who made a living by their profession, like lawyers of

our day.

To become a lawyer a person had to go through a regular course of study

and training. The subjects were laid down with great exactness from year

to year of the course; and the time was much longer than that required by

a young man now-a-days to become a barrister. Until the student had put in

the full time, and mastered the whole course, he was not permitted to

practise as a lawyer of any kind--pleader, law-agent, professor of law,

law-adviser, or brehon.

Law was perhaps the most difficult of all the professions to study. For

there were many strange terms hard to understand, all of which had to be

learned, many puzzling forms to be gone through, many circumstances to be

taken into account in all transactions where law was brought in, or where

trials took place in a brehon's court. And if there was the least flaw or

omission, if the smallest error was committed, either by the client or by

his lawyer, it was instantly pounced upon by the opposing pleader, and the

case was likely enough to go against them.

As soon as the Irish had learned the art of writing, they began to write

down their laws in books. There is the best reason to believe that before

the time of St. Patrick the pagan brehons had law-books. But they were

full of paganism--pagan gods, pagan customs, and pagan expressions

everywhere through them; and they would not answer for a Christian people.

So about six years after St. Patrick's arrival, when Christianity had been

pretty widely spread through Ireland, he saw that it was necessary to have

a new code, suitable for the new and pure faith; and he advised Laeghaire

[Laery], the ard-ri, to take steps to have the laws revised and

re-written. The king, seeing this could not be avoided, appointed nine

learned and eminent persons--of whom he himself and St. Patrick were

two--to carry out this important work. At the end of three years, these

nine produced a new code, quite free from any taint of paganism: and this

book got the name of Senchus Mor [Shannahus More], meaning 'Great old


The very book left by St. Patrick and the others has been long lost. But

successive copies were made from time to time, of which some are still

preserved. We have also manuscript copies of several other old Irish

law-books, most of which, as well as the Senchus Mor, have been lately

translated and printed. As the language of those old books is very obscure

and difficult, it was a hard task to translate them; but this was

successfully done by the two great Irish scholars, Dr. John O'Donovan and

Professor Eugene O'Curry. These translations of the Senchus Mor and the

other old law-books, with the Irish texts, and with notes, explanations,

and indexes, form six large printed volumes, which may now be seen in

every important library.

The brehons held courts at regular intervals, where cases were tried. If a

man was wronged by another, he summoned him to one of these courts, and

there were lawyers to plead for both sides, and witnesses were examined,

much in the same way as we see in our present law courts; and after the

brehon had carefully listened to all, he gave his decision. This decision

was given by the brehon alone: there were no juries such as we have now.

All parties, high and low, submitted to the Brehon Laws, and abided by the

judge's decisions; unless the party who lost the suit thought the decision

wrong--which indeed happened but seldom--in which case, he appealed to the

court of a higher brehon. Then, if it was found that the first had given

an unjust decision, he had to return the fee and pay damages, besides more

or less losing character, and lessening his chances of further employment.

So the brehons had to be very careful in trying cases and giving their


The highest people in the land, even kings and queens, had to submit to

the laws, exactly the same as common subjects; and if a king was wronged,

he had to appeal to the law, like other people. A couple of hundred years

ago, when the kings of France were, to all intents and purposes, despotic,

and could act much as they pleased towards their subjects, a learned

French writer on law, during a visit to England, happened to pass near the

grounds of one of the palaces, where he observed a notice on the fence of

a field belonging to the king:--"Trespassers will be prosecuted according

to law." Now this gave him great pleasure, as it showed how the king had

to call in the aid of the law to redress a wrong, like any of his

subjects; and it gave him occasion to contrast the condition of England

with that of France, where the king or queen would have made short work of

the trespasser, without any notice or law at all.

But if the same Frenchman had been in Ireland 1,500 years ago, he might

have witnessed what would give him still greater pleasure:--not a mere

notice, but an actual case of trespass on a queen's ground, tried in open

court before his eyes. In those days there reigned at Tara a king named

Mac Con, whose queen had a plot of land, not far from the palace, planted

with glasheen, i.e., the woad-plant, for dyeing blue. In the

neighbourhood there lived a female brewy, or keeper of a hostel for

travellers, who had flocks and herds like all other brewys. One night a

flock of sheep belonging to her broke into the queen's grounds, and ate up

or destroyed the whole crop of glasheen; whereupon the queen summoned her

for damages.

In due course the case came before the king (for the queen would not

appear before an ordinary brehon), and on hearing the evidence he decided

that the sheep should be forfeit to the queen to pay for the crop. Now,

although the glasheen was an expensive and valuable crop, the sheep were

worth a great deal more; and the people were enraged at this unjust

sentence; but they dared not speak out, for Mac Con was a usurper and a


Among the people who dwelt in Tara at this time was a boy, a handsome,

noble-looking young fellow, whom the people all knew by the name of

Cormac. But no one in the least suspected that he was in reality a prince,

the son of the last monarch, Art the Solitary, who had been slain in

battle by the usurper, Mac Con. He was wise and silent, and carefully

concealed from all who he was; for he well knew that if he was discovered

the king would be sure to kill him.

While the trial was going on he stood behind the crowd listening quietly;

and being by nature noble and just-minded, even from his youth up, he

could not contain himself when he heard the king's unfair and oppressive

sentence; and he cried out amid the dead silence:--"That is an unjust

judgment! Let the fleeces be given up for the glasheen--the sheep-crop for

the land-crop--for both will grow again!"

The king was astonished and enraged, and became still more so when the

people exclaimed with one voice:--"That is a true judgment, and he who has

pronounced it is surely the son of a king!"

In this manner the people, to their great joy, discovered who Cormac was.

How he managed to escape the vengeance of the king we are not told; but

escape he did; and after a time the usurper was expelled from Tara, and

Cormac was put in his place. To this day Cormac Mac Art is celebrated in

Irish records as a skilful lawyer and writer on law, and as the wisest and

most illustrious of all the ancient Irish kings.[1]