The Laws of Hospitality
The Brehon Laws
The Brehon laws were an immensely complex legal system that functioned in Ireland for a period of at least 1000 years until
the middle of the 17th century. These laws respected individuals first and property second. They honoured the sanctity of
contract. Women had equal rights to men and all citizens owed a duty of hospitality to strangers. Incredibly, this legal system
needed no court to enforce the law since all citizens respected it. Among these are such rules as: ''Whoever comes to yourdoor, you must feed him or care for him, with no questions asked.'' ''All members of the tribe are required to offer
hospitality to strangers. The only exceptions are minor children, madmen, and old people.''

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Dissertations on Celtic Law, The Brehon Laws and the Laws of Hospitality

Laws of Hospitality and Protection, Refusal of hospitality, Law of Protection
A Summary of the Brehon Laws

(6 subpages detailing Celtic Law)
"The Brehon Laws" (The Brehon Laws, The System of Law of Early Celts) by Scone
THE AES DANA, PEOPLE OF MANY ARTS ( The History of Dalriada -- The Beginning) by Scone
Brehon, Bards and Druids
Brehon Law Basics (Customary Laws, Complexity of the laws , Influences on Celtic Law, Points of similarity - Brehon and Welsh Law )

Laws of Hospitality and Protection

Fergus Kelly mentions 3 types of outsider though the distinctions among them in the legal tracts aren't always clear.

The literal meaning of ambue seems to be 'non person'. Heptad 16 states that its not a legal offence to avoid payment of a body fine for such. This would mean that an ambue can be killed or injured with impunity. Kelly further states that because of his lack of status, he can't get anyone to act as a valid surety for him (Heptad 30-31) or give a valid pledge on his behalf (Heptad 32). This excludes him from normal legal agreements and remedies.

The second type, cu glas (literally 'grey dog') is explained to be an exile from overseas by a 9th century legal glossator. Most references to this status deal with the legal consequences of his marriage to a woman of the tuath. Being an outsider, he has no honor price on his own, but if the union is recognized by the wife's kin, then he is said to have half his wife's honor price but no ability to make any legal contracts without her permission and she pays any fines or debts he incurs.

Occasionally a third outsider is mentioned, that of the murchoirthe. Literally this is 'one thrown up by the sea, a castaway'. He has no legal standing unless taken in to service at which time his honor price is then 1/3 that of his master.

Refusal of hospitality

To refuse someone food and shelter where it is due would make the offender guilty of the offence of esa/in Hospitality is the duty of every freeman. Refusal requires a compensation equal to their honor price. Now there are of course exceptions to this. The rank of fer midboth and o/caire which had to only provide hospitality to thier lord as set in the clientship contract due to their lack of property. There are instances where hospitality would need to be refused such as in the case of a known criminal. One such as this must not be fed or protected. If someone indirectly causes another to refuse hospitality, he must himself pay the honor price of the embarrassed host. An example of this would be not returning borrowed food.

The obligation of hospitality falls to some degree on all householders. To refuse food and shelter where it is due is to be guilty of the offence of esain, literally, 'driving away'. In Heptad 15, there is a list of women who lose their honor price and it includes 'the woman who refuses hospitality to every 'law abiding person'. (emphasis mine) Of course there are circumstances where hospitality must be refused. Such as a criminal who can't be fed or protected. And according to the text on Sunday observances, he who supplies food to one who labors on Sunday is as guilty as the offender himself.

A person who is refused hospitality is paid his full honor price. Again, since an outsider has a lack of status within the tuath, he has no surety nor pledge and no recourse within the law.

Law of Protection

A very important principle of Irish law is the right of any freeman to provide legal protection to another person of equal or lesser rank for a specified period of time (an aire ard - high lord - 15 days, an aire tuiseo - lord of precedence - 10 days). To kill or injure a person under protection is to commit the crime of diguin, 'violation of protection'. The fine for this violation is the payment of the protector's honor price as well as the appropriate payment to the victim or kin.

It was illegal, even for a cleric or a laymen of nemed rank to give protection to various categories of offenders - runaway wife or slave, a fugitive killer, an absconder from his kindred, a son who fails to look after his father, just to name a few.

Source: A Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly, Dublin Institute for Advance Studies, 1998

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A Summary of the Brehon Laws

Prehistoric religion, superstition and ritual evolved into the pagan religion and social laws developed by the Celtic Druids known as the Brehon Laws. This pagan religion was heavily entwined with nature, i.e. water, wind and the seasons.
When Christianity came to Ireland c450, the religious part of the Brehon laws were gradually replaced by Christian belief and the ritual was adopted to some Christian ceremony. The laws were written and interpreted by the druids and were the law of the land under the clan system. The land was held equally by all clan members under a hereditary clan chieftain who held the land from a larger clan chieftain who in turn held the land from the largest clan leader who had the name Mór or Rí before his name. The first Munster Rí was Connel Corr who built a fortress on the rock of Cashel in 450 and founded the McCarthy Mór clan [who dominated Munster for 1200 years]. They accepted the authority of the High King of Tara in 859 and remained undisputed kings of Munster until 944. Throughout the centuries this clan had intimate association with the church of Rome and at least four of their kings were bishops: Olchobar 796, Feidlimid 847, Cormac Mc Cuilenain 908, Flaithbertach 944. Some of these King Bishops were married. The authority of these bishops was felt in Castlemagner.
By nearly all accounts much of the European continental laws have a common origin traceable to early Irish law, or Brehon Laws. Owing to its geographical isolation throughout much of early history, these laws can be studied for their uninfluenced qualities, practically free from change by the Roman laws that spread throughout Europe during the rule of the Roman Empire.

In Ireland a judge was called a brehon, whence the native Irish law is commonly known as the "Brehon Law": but its proper designation is Fénechas, i.e. the law of the Féine or Féne, or free land-tillers. The brehons had absolutely in their hands the interpretation of the laws and the application of them to individual cases. They were therefore a very influential class of men and those attached to chiefs had free lands for their maintenance, which, like the profession itself, remained in the same family for generations. Those not so attached lived simply on the fees of their profession, and many eminent brehons became wealthy. The legal rules, as set forth in the Law Books, were commonly very complicated and mixed up with a variety of' technical terms; and many forms had to be gone through and many circumstances taken into account, all legally essential: so that no outsider could hope to master their intricacies. The brehon had to be very careful; for he was himself liable for damages, besides forfeiting his fee, if he delivered a false or unjust judgement.
To become a brehon a person had to go through a regular, well-defined course of study and training. It would appear that the same course qualified for any branch of the legal profession, and that once a man had mastered the course he set up as a brehon or judge proper, a consulting lawyer, an advocate, or a law-agent. In very early times the brehon was regarded as a mysterious, half-inspired person, and a divine power kept watch over his pronouncements to punish him for unjust judgements : "When the brehons deviated from the truth, there appeared blotches upon their cheeks." The great brehon, Morann, son of Carbery Kinncat (king of Ireland in the first century), wore a sín [sheen] or collar round his neck, which tightened when he delivered a false judgement, and expanded again when he delivered the true one. All this agrees with the whole tenor of Irish literature, whether legendary, legal, or historical, which shows the great respect the Irish entertained for justice pure and simple according to law, and their horror of unjust decisions. It was the same at the most ancient period as it was in the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Sir John Davies -an Englishman- the Irish attorney-general of James I., testified :-"For there is no nation of people under the sunne that doth love equall and indifferent [i.e. impartial] justice better then the Irish; or will rest better satisfied with the execution thereof, although it bee against themselves so as they may have the protection and benefit of the law, when uppon just cause they do desire it." But later on the Penal Laws changed all that, and turned the Irish natural love of justice into hatred and distrust of law, which in many ways continues to manifest itself to this day.

The Senchus Mor and other Books of Law
The brehons had collections of laws in volumes or tracts, all in the Irish language, by which they regulated their judgements, and which those of them who kept law-schools expounded to their scholars ; each tract treating of one subject or one group of subjects. Many of these have been preserved, and of late years the most important have been published, with translations, forming five printed volumes (with a sixth consisting of a valuable Glossary to the preceding five).
Of the tracts contained in these volumes, the two largest and most important are the Senchus Mór [Shanahus More] and the Book of Acaill [Ack'ill]. In the ancient Introduction to the Senchus Mor the following account is given of its original compilation. In the year 438 A.D. a collection of the pagan laws was made at the request of St. Patrick; and Laegaire [Laery] King of Ireland, appointed a committee of nine learned and eminent persons, including himself and St. Patrick, to revise them. At the end of three years these nine produced a new code, from which everything that clashed with the Christian doctrine had been carefully excluded. This was the Senchus Mór.

The laws were written in the oldest dialect of the Irish language, called Bérla Féini [Bairla-faina] which even at the time was so difficult that persons about to become brehons had to be specially instructed in it. Even the authors of the Commentaries and Glosses who wrote hundreds of years ago, and were themselves learned brehons, were often quite at fault in their attempts to explain the archaic text: and their words show that they were fully conscious of the difficulty. It will then be readily understood that the task of translating these laws was a very difficult one, rendered all the more so by the number of technical terms and phrases, many of which are to this day obscure, as well as by the peculiar style, which is very elliptical and abrupt-often incomplete sentences, or mere catch-words of rules not written down in full, but held in memory by the experts of the time. Another circumstance that greatly adds to the difficulty of deciphering these mss. is the confused way in which the Commentaries and glosses are written in, mainly with the object of economising the expensive vellum.
Ireland was possibly the most advanced of all European cultures: it had an Iron Age culture which included bards, historians, judges and a set of laws that governed all aspects of life. This voluminous set of laws covered everything from hurting a chained dog to behavior while drinking. The set of laws was known as the Law of the Commoner or Freemen, or the Brehon Law.
So balanced and just was the ancient Law that it was adopted by the majority of the Norman conquerors and held sway among the populace until ruthlessly put down by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century.
Many suppose that the Brehons served as judges. Actually, the Brehon was but the legal expert. His primary function was arbitration. In the event that judgement must be forced, it was the Righ (ruler) who, in consort with his Law Givers, gave judgement. However, even the Righ was not the final authority. A Righ who became unpopular could be summarily voted from office. . Ultimate control was the moral power of public opinion. Every individual felt it his or her bound duty to ensure that their venerated Brehon Law was upheld.
Although the age of these laws is unknown, they appear to be at least four thousand years old, as they date back at least to the time of the Tuatha de Danann in Ireland. They are perhaps even older, as there is mention among the history of Ireland that the Tuatha and the Fir Bolg people made agreements under a law of the time. This agreement gave one side the right to even the odds by reducing the opposing force and allowing time to prepare weapons. Whether this agreement was based on actual Brehon Law or just a current (at that time) common law of nations is unknown.
The practitioners of these laws were called Brehons. They were not judges or lawyers although many consider them so. In actuality, they were arbitrators whose responsibility it was to settle disagreements. The Brehons had to study the laws for years before they were allowed to practice their art and this is due in part to the size or volume of the laws that were enforced. It was an oral code to the greatest extent, and was only written down around the 3rd Century and in later times.


Here are a few of the most interesting Brehon laws quoted from the book of Irish Traditional Law.. Many serve to illustrate the degree of civilization of the ancient Celts and show how once Irish society was ordered. Some are certainly inappropriate to the modern view of a person's status, in particular that of women.

· "It is illegal to overide a horse, force a weakened ox to do excessive work or threaten an animal with angry vehemence which breaks bones."
· ''There are three tresspasses of a hen in a herb garden: the soft-swallowing of bees, injury to the dye plants, and attacks on the garlic. A guilty hen shall have her feet tied together, or rag boots put on."
· ''At the main feast of the assembly the king and the chief poet of the tribe shall be served a thigh of the roast. The young lord is served a leg. Blacksmiths and charioteers shall be served the head and queens get haunches.''
· ''The wife who minds the sheep shall be paid two lambs a year.''
· ''The chief poet of the tribe earns twenty-one cows annually, plus enough pasture lands to feed them, plus two hounds and two horses.''
· ''If a person who is of a higher rank than you refuses to pay his debt you may sit at his doorstep and fast until he submits to arbitration. If you die before he submits he shall be blamed for your death and shall suffer lifelong disgrace.''
· ''Whether the offspring of kings, warriors, poets, workers in wood or stone, or tillers of the soil, a son or daughter shall follow the career of his or her parents.''
· ''...the son of a king of Erin shall wear satin and red clothes...''
· ''The sons of the inferior classes of chieftains shall wear black, yellow, or gray clothing..."
· ''The sons of the lowest class of chieftain shall wear old clothes...''
· ''A king exercises not falsehood nor force nor oppressive might. He is righteous towards all his people, both weak and strong.''
· "Three things that cause the overthrow of a king; injustice, extortion, and kin-slaying.''
· ''For digging in a churchyard to steal from it, for making a dam in a stream to take an excess of fish, or for stealing a hunter's tent, your cattle will be taken to the animal pound for three to ten days, depending on the circumstances.''
· ''If a tribesman breaks another tribesman's leg he must pay a fine and supply a horse for the victim to ride on.''
· ''All members of the tribe are required to offer hospitality to strangers. The only exceptions are minor children, madmen, and old people.''
· ''The selfish man, who thinks only of his cows and his fields, and not of his fellow human beings, may be insulted without risking a blush fine.''
· ''The satirist who satirises a guiltless person will grow blisters on his own face. And then he will die.''
· Every third year roads must be cleared of brambles, brush, weeds, and water to make ready for the great assembly, feast/fair.
· The creditor who holds your brooch, necklaces and, rings as security for your pledge must return them back to you to wear at the great assembly and prevent embarrassment.
· For the best arable land the price is 24 cows. The price for dry, coarse land is 12 dry cows.
· If a woman makes an assignation with a man to come to her bed or behind a bush the man is not guilty of rape even if she screams. If she has not agreed to the meeting, however, he is guilty as soon as she screams.
· The groom shall pay a bride-price of cattle, land, horses, gold, silver, to the Father of the bride. Husband and wife retain individual rights to property, goods and possessions each bring to the marriage.
· If a pregnant women craves a morsel of food and her husband withholds it through stinginess, meanness or neglect he must pay a fine.
· A fine of 6 cows for breaking a tribesman's two front teeth; 12 heifers for maiming a homeless man. For pulling off the hairs of a virgin Bishop one yearling for each 20 hairs.
· It is illegal to give someone food in which a dead weasel or mouse has been found.
· If your neighbor does not repay the debt he owes you, you may prevent him from going about his daily business. A withe-tie goes around the blacksmith anvil, carpenter's axe or tree fellers hatchet. He is on his honor to do no work until the debt is settled or wrong righted. If a Bard or physician is the debtor immobilize his horse whip for both ride their circuits. The creditor may fast in front of the debtor's house to humiliate him until the debt is paid.
· If a rational adult brings a simpleton into an ale house for amusement and the simpleton injures a patron the adult who brought him must make compensation.
· The blacksmith must rouse all sleeping customers before he puts the iron in the fire to guard against injury from sparks. Those who fall asleep again will receive no compensation.
· When a judge deviates from the truth, a blotch will appear on his cheek. Whoever comes to your door, you must feed him or care for him, with no questions asked.
· The chief poet of the tribe shall sit next to the king at a banquet. Each shall be served the choicest cut of meat.
· The poet who overcharges for a poem shall be stripped of half his rank in society.
· The mill-owner is exempt from liability for injury to a person caught between the millstones.
· The husband who, through listlessness, does not go to his wife in her bed must pay a fine.
· If a pregnant woman craves a morsel of food and her husband withholds it through stinginess or neglect, he must pay a fine.
· A layman may drink six pints of ale with his dinner, but a monk may drink only three pints.
· This is so he will not be intoxicated when prayer-time arrives.
· If the poet or the physician is in debt, immobilize his horse-whip, for both ride their circuits on the backs of horses.
· The lender of a horse must give notice of the horse's kicking habits.
· Notice of the hound in heat and the mad dog must be sent to the four nearest neighbourhoods.
· The harpist is the only musician who is of noble standing. Flute-players, trumpeters and timpanists, as well as jugglers, conjurers and equestrians who stand on the backs of horses at fairs, have no status of their own in the community, only that of the noble chieftain to whom they are attached.
· The creditor who holds your brooch, your necklet or your earrings as a pledge against your loan must return them so you may wear them at the great assembly. Or he will be fined for your humiliation.
· The time allotted to each Brehon for pleading his case is long or short according to his dignity. In determining the length of the speech he is allowed, count eighteen breathings to the minute.
· On the best land everything is good. The herbs are sweet and no manure or shells are needed. There will be no plants that will stick in a horse's mane or tail: no briars, no blackthorns, no burdocks.

With the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland, the laws were collected from all over the country and reviewed. Some of the laws were then stricken if they ran contrary to the laws of God. Those that remained were copied down for succeeding generations and continued in use until the English gained total control of Ireland in the 16th Century.
Sadly a large portion of these laws are now lost, as only a portion of the volumes can be found. Of those that remain, they sit in a limbo of sorts. They have been copied down in their original form, but much of this work is in Old Irish, and has not yet been translated. Efforts are underway to correct this by a group called Brehon Aid, which hopes to get the funding and the human resources to complete this monumental task.

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(Part 1)

Table of Contents
{ Hyperlinked }

Section 1Introduction, The Irish Laws,
The Sources for Celtic Law, Liturature
Section 2Legal Basics, Rank, Kin, Maternal Kin
Section 3The Law of Persons,
People of Nemed Rank,
King (R/i), Kings Justice, Legislation, Law-Enforcement, Judgemwnt, Law-Observance, Lord (flaith),
Hospitaller (Briugu), Clerics,
Women Poets (Banfili),
Persons of Doernemed Status,
People of Non-nemed Status, Craftsmen, Servents, Women,
Legaly Incompetent People,
Female heir (Banchomarbae),
Son of a Living Father, Children,
Insane Persons, Disabled Persons,
Section 4Laws Dealing with Property, Land,
Buildings, Moveable Property, Cumal, Cattle, (Silver) Ounce, Se/t,
Relation of the Currencies, Lost Property
Section 5Contract Law, Contracts, Witnesses,
Sureties, Oaths, Invalid Contracts,
Formulae and Handshake, Pledges,
Section 6Offences, Offences Against the Person,
Killing, Fingal (Kin-Slaying),
Secret Killing, Lawfull Killing, Injury,
Sick-Maintenance, Lawfull Injury,Rape,
Sexual Harrasment, Satire,
Refusal of Hospitality,
Violation of Protection,
Offences Against Property,
Animal Trespass, Human Trespass,
Ofences Aginst Buildings,
Damage to Movable Property, Theft,
Reduced Liability for Offences, Accidents,
Ignorance, Negligence, Stress/Necessity,
Liability of Onlookers and Accessories,
Liability After Death
Section 7Legal Procedure, Distraint (Athgaba/k),
Fasting, Substitue Churles,
Restrictions on/and Illegal Distraint,
Legal Entry (Tellach),
Female Entry (Bantellach), Illegal Entry

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"The Brehon Laws"

by Scone

The Brehon Laws, The System of Law of Early Celts


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
"All Rights Reserved Nov 1997/98,99,2000,2001, 2002 and 2003 N. MacCorkill"

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The History of Dalriada -- The Beginning

The heritage of what we now call the Scottish people have their roots set firmly in the history of Dalriada, particularly the people of the Western Isles and Highlands - The Gaidheal. It is for this reason that this the Trust carries the name of Dalriada. Dalriada was the name of the people who came here from Ireland and whom the Romans called the Scots. The earliest knowledge we have of them comes from when they were still in Ireland. At that time there were four septs or main families of the Erainn stock, who were considered to be a section of the original inhabitants of Eire

These four septs were named the Muscraige, Corco Duibne, Corco Baiscind and Dal Riata, who came from three sons of Conaire Mor called Cairpre Musc, Cairpre Baschain and Cairpre Riata. These four septs of the Erainn migrated from Breg in the north of Ireland to Munster in the south. No reason is given as to why they traveled south, although it is probable that their own family lands could no longer contain them.

On arriving in Munster the Erainn allied themselves with a people known as the Eoganachta, to wage war against another people of Munster known as the Erna Mumaim and in doing so they managed to obtain land to live on. At some point later a famine in Munster forced the Dal Riata sept of the Erainn to move back north into the ancient territory of the Ulaid, later to become known as Ulster. One of the other Erainn septs, the Corco Duibne, claimed the Munster land they left.

When the Dal Riata arrived in Ulaid they found two other peoples there. The Dal Fiatach who were also known as the Ulaid and the Dal nAraide also known as the Cruithne. Cruithne is also the name applied to the ancient Picts of Scotland. The Dal Fiatach and the Dal nAraide were constantly warring with one another over the rulership of their territory with the Kingship falling into the hands of which ever one was the most powerful at the time. The portion of Dal Riata that remained in Ireland allied themselves to the Dal nAraide, helping to make them more powerful, while Cairpre Riata led the rest of his people across the water to the land of the Picts.

We know little of the events that took place when Cairpre Riata landed with his people except for the fact that the Kingship of Dal Riata stayed in Ireland. This remained the case until Fergus mor Mac Erc, King of Dal Riata, arrived with more of his people bringing his Kingship with him and in doing so shifting the emphasis of Dal Riata from Ireland to Scotland. Historians place great importance on the arrival of Fergus mor Mac Erc as being the starting point of the history of Dal Riata in Scotland. However, by this time Dal Riata was already well established and it is reported that Fergus arrived to exercise his authority over his Scottish subjects by force of arms if necessary.

Fergus was accepted as King by the Scottish Dal Riata and when he died the Kingship was passed on to his son Domangart. From there the Kingship was passed on to Domangart's two sons, firstly Comgall, who like his father appears to have ruled during peaceful times. Gabran took up the Kingship after Comgall and his reign seems to have been fraught with battles with the Picts. By this time there were four distinct sections of the Dal Riata.

The Cenel Gabrain, whose leaders were most frequently the Kings of Dal Riata, coming from the Royal line of Fergus mor Mac Erc; the Cenel Loairn, the Cenel nOengusa and the Cenel Comgall.

These four main peoples now occupied all of Argyll, Kintyre and the Inner Hebrides. After Gabran the Kingship went to his nephew Conall. It is Conall who is reputed to have given Colum Cille the island of Iona, in agreement with the King of the Picts, Brude MacMealchon. Colum Cille was not in fact a Dal Riata but from the Royal line of the Ui Niells who had made his way to Scotland in exile.

The next King to rule over Dal Riata was Aedan, son of Gabran, succeeding his uncle Conall. Aedan was the first King of Dal Riata to be consecrated on Iona by Colum Cille, although it is reported that Colum Cille was rather reluctant to carry out the inauguration. Up until that point and for a while after a large majority of the people of Dal Riata were pagan. It was Aedan who then encouraged Colum Cille to his court and asked him to attend the convention of Drum Cett with him. This convention was held to consider the position of the Irish Dal Riata in relation to Aed mac Aimrech, King of the northern Ui Niells on the one hand and to Aedan, King of the Dal Riata on the other. The convention decided that any taxes levied on the Irish Dal Riata belonged to the Scottish Dal Riata and that the Irish Dal Riata fleet should also remain with them, otherwise, from that point the Irish Dal Riata became a separate entity, although the two were still allied.

It is Aedan mac Gabran who is credited with being the greatest King of Dal Riata. Through intermarriage with the Picts he carried on the work of his father to establish the ultimate nucleus of Scotland. Although there were still troubles along the way, this situation carried on right through until the time of Kenneth acAlpin who was recognised as King of all Scotland. Kenneth was Pictish on his mother's side and carried the Royal line of Gabran from his father Alpin and as such was acceptable to both sides. From that point the customs of the Picts were amalgamated with those of Dal Riata with the King's seat moving to the old Pictish palace of Scone, where it remained.

Presented for your enjoyment,
Nancy A. MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot USA
Author, Poet,
Historiian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland
Constant Researcher

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Brehon, Bards and Druids

Every Druid is a Bard, but not every Bard is a Druid.

The reason I say this is because a Bard's training lasted 7 years, a Vates, 12 years while a Druid continued on in their studies for 20 years.

Each druid would their own specialty but they've all attended a college where they've undergone at least 12 years of extensive training which includes all the disciplines before branching out in their specialty such as Brehon (law) or Cainte (magic) or Fili (Bardic training). While a Ollamh Cainte would know more of the ways of magic than a Ollamh Brehon, a Brehon would still know magic as a Cainte would still know law.

After Christianity began to take hold in Britain and Ireland, the Druids found themselves being phased out (remember that in Britain, the Romans had already seriously damaged the Druids). The Brehons were the longest lasting branch of the Druidic teachings, lasting until the early 1600s when the Brehon Law in Ireland was replaced with English Common Law.

I recently read a very interesting theory about the role of Druids in Celtic society. Sean B. Dunham in an article Caesar's perception of Gallic social structures puts forth the theory that we may have the role of the Druid all wrong. Whereas the modern view of them is that of priests, that in actuality they had the tripartite duties of priests, philosophers and judges. The ancient world didn't have the separation of church and state that we do now. Instead of being a mysterious magician priests, they actually were an oligarchical elite with both judicial and religious duties.

If so, it appears that Caesar had a much clearer picture of the Druids and the Celts than many have given him credit for. He understood the importance of the Druids which quite possibly accounts for his very harsh treatment of them. They held the history, the law, the wisdom, the religion of their society. Once this was removed, much of what made them Celts also eventually vanished.

source: Celtic chiefdom, Celtic State, New Directions in Archaeology, Edited by Bettina Arnold and D. Blair Gibson, Cambridge University Press, 1996

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Brehon Law Basics

We should start with a quick look at the basics of the law. The basic regional unit was the tuath and this seems to also be the basic legal unit since Irish Law distinguishes between the deorad (outsider) and the aurrad (person of legal standing within the tuath). Basically stated, the outsider has no legal rights within the tuath and can be killed, maimed or treated in any manner without these acts being considered as legal offences IF there is no treaty between the tribe the outsider came from and the one where he is about to be maimed, killed, or treated badly. He would have legal standing only if there was a treaty between the two tribes.

The second basic of Irish law was rank. Simply said, the higher your rank, the more legal standing you'd have. "An offence against a person of higher rank entails a greater penalty than the same offence against that of a person of lower rank. Similarily, the oath of a person of higher rank automatically outweighs that of a person of lower rank." (Kelly, 1998 p. 7)

Another basic element of the legal system was kinship. The kin group referred to most often in the law texts is the derbfine (true kin) which consists of all descendants through the male line from a common great grandfather. This group has considerable legal rights over its individual members. Each kin group has its own kin land (fintiu) and each legally competent male had some responsibility over this land. It could only be sold with the consent of the kin and if a man has sucessfully fulfilled his obligations toward his kin, he can annul contracts of other members of the derbfine if he feels they are detrimental to the kin group.

Customary Laws

Ancient Irish law wasn't produced by a process resembling today's legislation, rather it grew around the dicta and judgments of the most famous Brehons. There are only four periods in the entire history of Ireland when special laws are said to have been enacted by anything resembling such legislative authority: first during the reign of Cormac Mac Airt in the 3rd century, second, when St. Patrick came; third by Cormac Mac Culinan, the King-Bishop of Cashel who died in 908, and lastly by Brian Boru about a century later. But the great mass of the Brehon code appears to have been traditional or have grown with the slow growth of custom. The very first paragraph of the Law of Distress takes us back to a case which happened in the reign of Conn of the Hundred Battles in the second century, and this passage was already so antique by the close of the ninth century that it required a gloss, for Cormac Mac Culinan alludes in his glossary to the gloss upon this passage. There are many allusions in this glossary in the Seanchus Mor, always referring to the glossed text which must consequently have been in existence before the year 900. The text of the of the Seanchus Mor relies upon the judgments of famous Brehons such as Sencha in the first century, but there is no allusion in its text to any books or treatises. The gloss, however, is full of such allusions. Fourteen different books of civil law are alluded to in it. Cormac in his glossary alludes to five. Only one of the five alluded to by Cormac is among the fourteen mentioned in the gloss. This shows that the number of books upon law must have been legion in old times. They perished, unfortunately, with so much of the rest of Irish literature, under the horrors of the English invasion and the penal laws when an Irish manuscript was the source of great danger to the possessor of such.

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Complexity of the laws

Ancient Ireland under the Brehon laws functioned as a society that knew the law and obeyed the law resorting to a Brehon only as a last resort unlike our modern litigious society. The universal remedy for a wrong done was payment of compensation. That payment was based on honor price of the victim, their kin and the nature and seriousness of the wrong. Broken down to its basic form, its really simple.

The law of the Celts grew from a complex set of customs and practices handed down for millenia. They seem complicated to us at first because we are looking at them from an 20th century mindset which has known nothing other than a Roman based legal system.

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Influences on Celtic Law

The Brehon Laws and the Laws of Hywell Dda stem from a time before the concept of the "Irish" or "Welsh", instead they derived from a complex set of customs and practices that were handed down from generation to generation of what then were the Celtic tribes.

The Brehon Laws were written down first, from the 5th - 8th centuries, whereas the Law of Hywell Dda was first written down much later and already shows outside influences which must be stripped away to find the Celtic root of the laws. An example of such influence is found in a series of laws regarding the rights and duties of members of a royal court, starting with the heir apparent, the Edling. The legal term, "Edling", is derived from the Anglo Saxon "aetheling" in contrast to the original Welsh "gwrthrychiad".

Of course even the Brehon Laws were not without their outside influences, in their case that of the Church. For example, the Cain Lanamna text gives detailed descriptions for divorce proceedings with no mention of condemnation. However, the author of Heptad 51 quotes Mark 10.9, "what no God has joined, let no man put asunder'.

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Points of similarity - Brehon and Welsh Law

The laws of Hywel Dda were taken down later and had already been corrupted by Anglo Saxon influences. The laws are separated into three parts, predominantly, the Laws of Court, the Laws of the Country, and the Justices' Test Book..

In the Laws of the Court, we see the strongest differences to Brehon Law. Its here that the Anglo Saxon Laws have the strongest influence.

It is in the Laws of the Country that we find ourselves back on solid Celtic Law ground. They include the Laws of Women (mainly marriage and divorce), the validity of oaths, injury to animals, surety, land law (inheriting, acquiring and reclaiming, sharing, Women and the land), laws on aliens and family law. All of those laws are very similar to the comparable Irish regulations and variations usually appear only at the level of detail.

The last part deals with legal procedures and punishments for offenses against life, health or property. It contains regulations in regards to homicide, theft, fire, the value of animals, value of trees, houses and equipment, the value of humans and contains regulations on joint ploughing and corn damage. Again, these regulations parallel the Irish Laws in respective areas and this helps us to find common ground and evidence of the 'common Celtic' legal elements.

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