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Brehon Laws.

(Dlithe na mBreithiuin)


Read about The Brehon Laws From 'A Concise History of Ireland' by P W Joyce

The Brehon Laws were ancient laws of Ireland and are the oldest surviving legal system in Europe, they are said to date to 714 BC, the name comes from the Irish 'Breitheamh' a judge. The laws were very sophisticated and complex, the result of modifications made during the many years they had been in use.

Particularly noteworthy is the position accorded to women in the Brehon Laws, women were considered equal to men in all things, they were protected by the law in many ways and could hold office in any profession. There must be many millions of women in the world today, who would envy the freedom of choice afforded to Irish women over two thousand years ago. (See women in early Ireland.)

It is recorded that the first codification of the laws was begun in 438, at the instigation of the High King Lohaire's who appointed St Patrick to oversee the process, which was not completed until 441. Until then the laws had been handed down orally. These Irish laws are probably the most important documents of their kind in western Europe by reason of their extent, archaism and of the tradition they preserve.

The Brehon Laws are particular in prescribing the number of tales a Filidh must know, the meters he must learn and the works he must be examined on in the course of twelve years study. The Filidh was both honored and feared in ancient Irish society and seems something akin to a Brahmin. These laws were in use up until the seventeenth century when they were successfully suppressed, by the English.

Every three years at the festival of Tara (Feis Temhrach) lawyers and administrators gathered to revise and consider the laws in the light of an ever changing society.

With the coming of Christianity the laws were modified somewhat to suit the Christian ethos. The Norman invasion in the late 1100's led ultimately to the laws being suppressed under The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, the Brehon laws were largely adhered to in areas of Ireland outside Norman control up until 1607 when the Gaelic earls were defeated and fled to the continent.

The laws covered many subjects, one stated that if a man wanted to build a water mill, he had the right to cut a race to his mill across a neighbours land. The land was acquired by compulsory order and the mill owner paid the land owner compensation as defined by the law.

See also water power in Ireland.