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Rise And Fall Of Brehon Laws of Ireland

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Brehon Laws

What are Brehon Laws of Ireland

Brehon Law is a body of ancient native Irish law that was generally operative in Gaelic areas until the completion of the English conquest of Ireland in the early 17th century.

They were first laid down on parchment in the 7th century and were named after the itinerant lawyers of the Brehons.

By the time of Elizabeth I, the Brehon Laws were considered old, lewd and unreasonable. They were banned and English common law was introduced.

Fortunately, however, some Brehon thought to hide the precious manuscripts and many of them survived.

In 1852, two Irish scholars, Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan, set about translating the laws. In the words of another Irish scholar, D. A. Binchy, what they found were “secrets” about Ireland’s past

The laws were “details,” said Binchy, “details that describe ancient life in the days when the Irish still lived in mud huts and small circle settlements and paid their bills with cows and bacon.”

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Glimpse of some of the Ireland’s ancient Brehon laws


  • The harpist is the only musician who has a noble position. Flute-players, trumpeters, and timpanists, like jugglers, magicians, and riders on horseback in pilgrimages, have no position of their own in the community, only that of the noble chief to whom they are attached.
  • A poet who overcharges for a poem will be deprived of half his position in society.


The creditor who holds your brooch, your necklace, your earrings as collateral for your loan, must return them so that you can wear them in the great assembly. Or he will be fined for your humiliation.

The price for the best arable land is 24 cows. The price for dry rough land is 12 dry cows.


No lunatics, drunkards, or swearers are allowed in the doctor’s house when a patient is being treated there. No bad news to deliver and no talking over the bed. No pigs grunting or dogs barking outside.

If the doctor heals your wound, but a new one breaks out due to his carelessness, negligence or gross lack of skill, he must return the fee paid. He must also pay you damages as if he had injured you himself.


February 1st is the day a husband and wife can decide to leave their marriage.

If a man takes a woman on horseback, in the forest, or on a sea-ship, and members of the woman’s tribe are present, he must file an objection within 24 hours, otherwise he must not demand payment of a fine.

The future husband pays the bride’s father the price of land, cattle, horses, gold or silver. Husband and wife retain individual rights to all land, livestock, and household goods each brings to the marriage.

A husband who does not go to his wife’s bed because of apathy must pay a fine.

If a pregnant woman desires a morsel of food and her husband withholds it from her due to avarice or neglect, she must pay a fine.

If a woman asks a man to come to her in bed or behind a bush, the man is not considered guilty, even if he screams. However, if she did not agree to the meeting, he is guilty as soon as he shouts.

When you get old, your family has to provide you with one oat cake a day plus a container of sour milk. He must bathe you every twentieth night and wash your head every Saturday. Seventeen sticks of firewood is enough to keep you warm.

Evolution in Legal system

Ireland had no regular central authority capable of making new laws, and so the Brehon laws were entirely in the hands of the lawyers. As such, some early scholars felt that the legal system was essentially unchanging and archaic. More recently, scholars have noted that some methods of change have been established within the Brehon Laws. Specifically, Cóic Conara Fugill mentions five foundations on which a judge must base his judgment, and at least three offer some room for variation: fásach (legal principle), cosmailius (legal analogy), and aicned (natural law) (the other two are roscad, a type of lawyers , verse jurists were trained to produce a designation of a statement made by someone knowledgeable in the law and theistimin (testimony of the scriptures). How exactly these three innovative methods were used has not yet been studied in detail.

Decline of Brehon Laws

The first attempt to interfere with Brehon law in Ireland came in 1155, when the English Pope Adrian IV. issued the papal bull Laudabiliter which authorized the Norman invasion of Ireland.[124] After the Norman invasion (from 1171), the areas under Anglo-Norman control were subject to English law. One of the first changes came with the Synod of Cashel in 1172, which required free marriages with partners who were not closely related and exempted the clergy from paying their share of family payments.

Henry II, who created the Lordship of Ireland, was also a legal reformer in his realm and began to centralize the administration of justice and abolish local customary law. Strongbow was granted large parts of Leinster in 1170 under Brehon law by his new father-in-law Dermot McMurrough, which was then re-granted by Henry. Landowners like the Earl of Kildare could claim a continuous title that just preceded the lordship itself.

In the centuries that followed, a cultural and military “Gaelic revival” eventually covered much of the island. Most Norman barons eventually adopted Irish culture and language, married a native Irishman, and adopted Irish legal customs. By the 15th century, in the non-English Pale-controlled areas around Dublin and some notable areas of common tradition in northern and eastern Munster, Brehon law had become a de facto legal order.

However, the Brehon Laws could never be adopted on an official basis by the English-controlled Lordship of Ireland, although some modernized concepts were re-adopted in the laws of the Republic of Ireland. [clarification needed] Imposing statutes. of Kilkenny in 1367 and the capitulation and regrant policy effectively outlawed the Brehon Law. In one exceptional case, residuary rights have been recognized in recent Irish jurisprudence with reference to the survival of customary local fishing rights in Tyrconnell governed by Brehon law, but these rights also constituted an easement at common law.

Contributed by Ankit Raj Sharma

Edited by Imtiaz Ullah

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