Brehon Law




Aedh pushes open the white front gate and smiles. He can see little Aoife’s face in the window as she smiles back, then turns and runs, probably to get the others. Walking slowly up the front path, he knocks loudly on the door and Mor opens it. "Well you’ve done it again. My husbands not home. Really Aedh, the rumors will start flying."

Aedh steps inside and notices the pint of Guinness already set up by his favorite chair. "What could he be up to then? I even came by on a Sunday so surely he’s not working."

"Aye, you’re not at fault this time," replies Mor. "He went up the road to Nolan’s because Tom needed some help with his hay wagon. If all goes well he may be back before you leave."

Aedh leans over to Mor and whispers, "Perhaps I’ll stretch the story out a bit," then he turns to the children, all of whom are arranged on the floor by his chair. Removing his hat and brushing his thinning white hair back with his hand, Aedh remarks, "Well we all look well today. What would you like to hear about?"

"Brandub!" shouts Enna.

"More about the fairs," cries Aoife.

Aedh walks over to his chair and sits down. Picking up the glass of Guinness, he takes a sip and leans back. "And Donal, what would you like to hear?"

"I’d like to hear more about the Battle of Clontarf."

"I see," says Aedh slowly. "That’s quite an assortment for me to cover. Rather than choosing, perhaps I’ll try all three...They all share a common thread; they’re all governed by Irish law. Let me see." Aedh muses for a moment, taking a few more sips from his glass before putting it down, then he begins.

"The early Irish system of laws was quite different from what we have today and very different from what England or the Continent had at the time. For instance, to the Irish the death penalty was not required for any crime, no matter how hideous; a fee could be paid instead. Now notice I didn’t say the death penalty wasn’t allowed for any crime, I said required, for it was the option of last resort. On the Continent, it was normally the first and only option. For simply killing a deer on the King’s land one would be beheaded or worse." Aedh pauses to drink deeply from his glass and watch their expressions. He realizes he hasn’t excited their interest, not like he usually can.

"Aoife, how did the average Irish farmer go to a fair?"

Her eyes gleam suddenly at mention of a fair and she answers, "By horse. That’s why they had so many horse races." She beams triumphantly up at the older man.

He leans down to pat her head. "No child, if all the Irish had horses, there would be no grass left in Ireland! Many of them walked, but they walked not as a single family, but as a larger unit called the derbfine which included their relatives."

The gaze of the man now drifts over to Donal, the eldest. "All right Donal, approximately how many men did Maelmorda have with him when he brought Brian Boru the tribute of 3 huge trees?"

Donal knots up his brow as he begins to concentrate. Seeing that this might take awhile, Aedh sits back in his rocking chair and lifts his Guinness again. It had been a dry walk today and he could still taste the dust from the road. "C’mon, Donal, just guess," whispers Enna. Donal continues thinking.

Finally the young boy answers, "100 men."

"We’re too flooded by knowledge of England and Continental King. That would be a good guess for their entourage, but an Irish King didn’t need so many attendants." Aedh places his drink down on the table and continues, "Maelmorda should have had 30 men attending him."

Enna squirms with anticipation as Aedh turns to look at him. "In the battle between Brandub and the High King, Aedh, how were the men on either side grouped into fighting units?"

Enna’s eyes become round as acorns, then he looks down at the ground as Donal smirks. Suddenly Enna lifts his head and shouts, "They weren’t grouped into fighting units, each fought individually."

Aedh smiles before he answers. "Now that might work for a school fight, but any army that went to battle with not organization would be destroyed by a much smaller of men who did have organization. No, they were grouped according to who their lord was, the man they rented land from or paid tribute directly to. So as you see, knowing a bit about Irish law allows you to know a bit about the events that shaped Irish history." He has their attention now so he continues, "There were two major differences between early Irish law and the law of today. One was that a social order existed, from slaves to kings, and each social position was assigned an ‘honor price’ or personal worth. The other was the laws basis on the group or derbfine, rather than the individual."

"I don’t really understand what a derbfine is," quietly remarks Aoife.

Aedh bends down and reaches out to her. "Hold out your hand," he says. She stretches it towards him and he places it palm up in his. Pointing to the end of her index finger, he mentions, "this represents you. The next segment up on your index finger represents your father, the next segment up your grandfather, and finally we reach your palm," Aedh’s finger rests in her palm for a moment, "this represents your grandfather. Everyone who could trace their line back to a common grandfather was in the same derbfine."

Enna tosses a small chip of wood which he’s been playing with across the wooden floor and remarks, "I don’t see how this derbfine is important if I kill somebody or steal something."

Leaning back again, Aedh’s his face brightens. "That’s where the beauty of the system came in and this example, by the way, shows how both the idea of honor price and derbfine were important in law. You see, Enna, if you killed someone then you had to pay "eric fee", a fine based on the severity of the crime and the honor price of the one you killed. Killing a king was very expensive indeed for he had a high honor price, though even killing a slave would set you back a good amount. If you could pay the fine, then you’re right, the derbfine need not be involved, but rarely could anyone afford the eric for killing another, it was too high. Therefore, your derbfine had to help you pay. Even the fine for stealing was relatively high. By taking a cow, for example, you must pay back five."

"So I’d have to give up my own money because Enna killed someone, simply because I’m related?" asks Donal incredulously.

"Well, you’d have the option to. You see, if your derbfine didn’t want to pay for the killing, then they would pay a much smaller fine and cast Enna out of the group. At this point one of three things would happen, either a rich noble would purchase him as a slave by paying the eric, the derbfine of the victim would keep him as a slave themselves, or the derbfine of the victim would kill him. Every derbfine would therefore put great pressure on their members to obey the law and its doubtful repeat offenders were common; the criminal’s own relatives would watch them. Because of the concept of derbfine, the Irish had no need for a police force as the cultures on the Continent did."

Aedh lifts his Guinness one last time and finishes the contents. After licking the froth from his lips, he mentions, "think about what a difference having a law based on honor price and the derbfine would mean. We’ll talk about this more the next time I come."

Standing up, Aedh takes his cap from the table, then shouts mischievously into the kitchen, "Well Mor, if there’s talk of me visiting your house when your husbands not home, I suppose the talk will center on you. Funny thing for a man to be off on a Sunday just when the Seanchie stops by...unless his wife has it all arranged." Aedh quickly walks towards and then out the door to avoid Mor as she rushes from the kitchen.

"Now your getting a bit fresh, Aedh MacCrimthain," she shouts smartly, but the small upturned edges of her mouth give her away. Turning back to her children she remarks, "Wave good-bye to Aedh now or he may reduce your honor price."

The information on laws related in this tale comes from "A Guide to Early Irish Law" by Fergus Kelly


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