Brehon Law

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Brehon Law was an ancient Irish legal system that survived until the early 17th. This native legal system was fully developed prior to, and continued in spite of, Christian, Danish, and Anglo-Norman invasions of Ireland; although it was, somewhat, disrupted by each event. Although the exact date of inception of the Law is unknown, the existing evidence would suggest that it was developed during the Bronze Age (2,300 to 900 BC). There is also evidence that would suggest that the major development of, at least, a rudimentary form of the Law took place between the 18th and 13th century BC.

Brehon Law managed to remain the law of the Irish until the Cromwellian onslaught of the 17th century. The survival of the law for almost 3 millennia is testament to the sense of honour held by the people it governed. The laws were laws of users. That is, they attained their authority from public opinion. They were the expression of the moral power of the people. The moral power was the code of honour reflected throughout ancient law and wisdom texts. An individual’s word was their bond.

As laws of users, law could not be changed without public approval. Thus, any modification of existing laws or enactment of new ones could only be achieved in open forum of the assembled people. Thus, although certain individuals could campaign for a specific law, it took a majority vote of all free persons to effect enactment. The Brehon Law truly was a Law of the people, by the people, and for the people. The Brehons, although often improperly described as Judges, were actually arbitrators and legal advisors to the ruler. Originally, in pre-Norman times, it was the Rí (King or Queen) who passed judgement when necessary, following recitation of applicable law and advice from the Brehon. It was not until late into the 12th century that legal experts began to be appointed as judges. However, even then it was generally limited to Norman dominated areas that such appointments took place. The resident Irish steadfastly refused to give up their old customs. Not until the 17th century was the Brehon Law finally overthrown.

As a result of legal rules very frequently being complicated and many considerations having to be made, an outsider could not hope to master the intricacies. Nevertheless, although the field of law was limited, the Brehon had to be extremely careful, for they were liable for damages if a false legal opinion was made and besides forfeiting the fee, the inaccurate Brehon was also liable for damages. The durability of the Law was quite astounding. Existing in Ireland long before the common-era, it remained the favoured system by the Irish and Norman alike until the 17th century and reign of Queen Elizabeth. This was despite the fact that English writers were always strong in their condemnation of the Brehon Law; and a number of acts of parliament were taken against it. Parliament even went so far as to declare it an act of treason for English settlers to use it. In defiance of such bans, English who lived outside the pale – English dominated area – adopted Brehon Law.

The reason for the durability of the Brehon law was the people themselves. The entire existing body of literature of Ireland shows the great respect the Irish people held for justice and law, and an abhorrence for unjust decisions. As late as the beginning of the 17th century, Sir John Davies, the Attorney General for James I stated "…there is no nation of people under the sunne that doth love equall and indifferent justice better than the Irish…" The penal system that the English throne and parliament would forcibly impose thereafter, would soon bring about unfortunate change.[1]


  1. Michael Ragan. The Brehon Law, 1999.