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
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.