The Brehon Laws of Ireland c. 250

The Brehon Laws of Ireland
The Brehon Laws of Ireland

The Brehon Laws of Ireland, which have governed Ireland for almost 1,200 years, were described by noted legal historian and lawyer Sir Henry Maine as “a really extraordinary corpus of archaic law, extraordinarily pure from its inception.” The code was made up of the rendered decisions of Brehons, who acted as arbitrators when conflicts based on customary law arose.

They were “legislators, teachers of the customary law of the nation, expositors, interpreters, and keepers of legal traditions,” according to legal expert Josiah H. Blackmore II. Prior to the widespread invention of writing, the laws evolved over ages and were passed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. The regulations were written in rhythmic poetry to aid memory and consistency (verse is less adaptable to change than prose). Around 250, during King Cormac’s reign, the first written versions of the rules and their compilation into a code appeared. St. Patrick commissioned nine men two centuries later to modify the Brehon regulations to bring them into line with Christian philosophy. Their efforts resulted in the Senchas Már (“Great Book of Irish Law”) in 441, a revised recodification that lasted until the sixteenth century, when English law completely replaced it.

According to an article in the Law Society Journal about Irish law, “honorable action was the hallmark of the Brehon rules…. Everyone recognized the law as the law of the country once it was published, and it was implicitly followed thereafter.” The basis of the laws was compensation for wrongs, and any wrong—a tort, breach of contract, or blatant crime—was referred to as an offense, for which the remedy was payment of a mulct in an amount established by the Brehon, plus the Brehon’s fee. Brehons’ decisions were not enforced by any officials. Distraint, on the other hand, allowed for the confiscation of the judgment debtor’s property while the mulct was being paid. “Brehon rulings were unstoppable in implementation because the full strength of public opinion was behind them,” writes Hugh A. Carney in a 1930s article in the Law Society Journal. “The only option to get around the law was to flee.”

King Cormac mac Airt (c. 227–266), St. Patrick (c. 400–c. 450)


The Irish Copyright War (561).


The Brehon Laws of Ireland

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)