Brehon Law

Gabh mo chomhairle a mheic mhín,
gan roghairbhe, gan ghleic nglóir,
lean slighe raghlan na riar,
adhradh ciall id chridhe is cóir.

Take my advice, gentle youth,
without undue acrimony, without petulance of speech;
follow the very clear stipulated path,
adherence to resolutions in your heart is what is right.Giolla na Naomh mac Duinn Shléibhe Mhic Aodhagáin (d. 1309, brehon to the King of Connacht, ancestor to the MacEgans of Redwood). Translation Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, 1989.
The Mac Egans were a prominent bardic family in their day, and they were one of only seven Irish families to practice the ancient Brehon Law. Of these seven, five served just one ruling family, one served five senior lords, and members of the Mac Egan clan served as the chief advisors to all of the remaining thirteen lords and chieftains. The position of the "Brehon" was one of great importance. They served as a kind of first minister for their master, functioning as his chief advisors on legal matters as well as those of a more general nature. In addition, they served as ambassadors and negotiators, brokering deals and treaties between the feudal lords of medieval Ireland. As such, they were widely respected and were treated as neutrals in any conflicts. There is only one medieval record of a Brehon being killed by an Irish chief, and even that was a case of mistaken identity. Finally, the Brehons sat in judgement on the Brehon courts, which ran in conflict with the English Common Law system which was theoretically the one and only legal system. These courts were usually held outdoors so as to allow the maximum number of people to observe the proceedings, and the vast majority of cases were settled by the imposition of fines, irrelevant of the charges [Mac Hale, Conor, Annals of the Clan Egan (C. Mac Hale, Enniscrone, Sligo, 1990), pp. 13-14]. Harsher penalties were only imposed in the exceptional cases wherein the victim or the victim's family deemed a fine to be insufficient punishment and demanded retribution. The Brehons received a fee for their services, and this was one of the main sources of contention for English officials.
Brehon families only came to prominence after 1200, and it is widely believed that this was due to the need for mediation between the native inhabitants of Ireland and the recent Anglo-Norman invaders [Ibid., p. 8]. There was a high demand for the Brehons again following the demise of numerous Anglo-Norman families and the return of large amounts of lands to their original Gaelic tenants. One of Brehon Law's more unique features was the custom of Gavelkind. Because concubines had a legal status under Brehon Law, all illegitimate children had an entitlement to their father's inheritance. However, this was not completely unprecedented in Europe. This legal practice was known as "Bastard Feudalism" in many countries, and William the Conqueror himself had been an illegitimate heir. What was unique about Gavelkind was that all male heirs were entitled to an equal share of their father's inheritance. The custom under English Common Law was known as "primogeniture", wherein the bulk of the inheritance would automatically be passed to the oldest male heir. The only exception under Brehon Law came if the deceased had been a chieftain. In this case, there were a certain number of estates and possessions associated with the chieftainship, and these would go undivided to the next chief, chosen in an election. The remaining estate of the dead chieftain would be divided amongst his heirs following the normal custom. This process was condemned by the English Judiciary in 1606, and two years later the process of electing successors, known as "Tanistry"", was also condemned [Ibid., p. 15]. Under the Brehon Laws for inheritance, women were excluded completely, and were even unable to inherit in the event that their father died without leaving an male heirs. In spite of English hostility, the Brehon Law system played a vital role in the administration of Ireland. The English Common Law system relied, and continues to rely on precedent in order to make rulings. It was therefore extremely difficult for the original English settlers to govern Ireland without any reference to the native system of law which had preceded them. As late as 1612, the Constable of Dublin Castle was consulting Brehon manuscripts to determine land boundaries, whilst in 1606, the Lord Chancellor himself summoned a senior Brehon lawyer to resolve a legal dispute [Ibid., pp. 18-19].
As well as practising Brehon Law, the Brehon families such as the Mac Egans were also responsible for its teaching. They established a school of history and law at Redwood Castle, principally to keep alive the native legal traditions which dated back through many centuries. The studies of history and law were almost inseparable [Ibid., p. 9], and in many ways the Brehon Law system was just as dependant on precedent as the English Common Law system which replaced it. There are many important works associated with this castle and the Mac Egans, and from a legal perspective the most important is the Senchus Már (Literally - "Great Knowledge"). It is a collection of Brehon Laws, some of which date back to the seventh century, and it was probably commissioned for the school here at Redwood. Amongst its scribes were Lucas O'Dalláin and Aedh Mac Egan, and it was acquired by the famous genealogist and historian Duald Mac Firbis, a former student of this school. It dealt with the Brehon Laws in four sections:
  1. Validity of contracts, social status, subdivisions of the fine or sept, duties and rights of fiefs and lords.
  2. Honour price, the rights of women, bees, mill ponds, pledges, theft.
  3. Vassalage and contractual rights and duties of different social orders.
  4. The Heptads - material from different areas of law, arranged in groups of seven [Ibid., pp.58-9]
It is the oldest surviving Brehon Law manuscript and can today be viewed in the library of Trinity College Dublin.

Examples of Brehon Law and the duties of Brehon Lawyers

  • Gavelkind - All male heirs were entitled to an equal share of their father's estate, even illegitimate children. All women were excluded from the right to inherit, even in the event that no male heirs were alive. This custom was contrasted with the English and continental tradition of "primogeniture", wherein the majority of an inheritance would always go to the oldest male heir. In addition, the English system also granted a widow one third of her husband's estate.
  • Each territory had a chief with a tanaiste who was his elected heir apparent. Each Irish sept of lineage also had a chief, termed the ceann fine (head of his name). Each position had an amount of land and a number of structures which were exempt from the normal rules of Gavelkind, and so passed on undivided to the dead man's successor.
  • Under Brehon Law it was surprisingly easy to gain a divorce. One valid basis for divorce was if the bride and groom had become the godparents to the same child less than a year before their marriage. The logic behind this law has never been determined, but such loopholes were widely used to exploit the complex laws on inheritance.
  • Brehon Lawyers sat as judges over open-air courts, which allowed the maximum possible number of people to observe proceedings. They received a fee for their services, and this often upset the English administration in Ireland, which claimed the monopoly over matters of law and order.
  • Brehon lawyers were valued for their detailed knowledge of ancient Irish laws and customs, and so were often summoned by their masters to help resolve disputes over land or property. There are even records of English officials making use of the Brehons and their manuscripts.
  • The oldest account of Brehon Law can be found in The Senchus Már, written for the Mac Egans in the first half of the thirteenth century. Some of its laws date back to the seventh century. It can now be viewed in the library of Trinity College Dublin.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Egan, J.J and Egan, J.,
History of the Clan Egan: the birds of the forest of wisdom
(Irish American Cultural Institute: University Microfilms International, 1979)
Egan, M.J.S. and Egan, L. (eds.),
The Speckled Booklet of the Mac Egans, No. 1
(Castlebar, 1985)
Gleeson, D.F., 'The Last Lords of Ormond: Cromwellian Plantation, Prelude and Aftermath' in
The Countrie of the Three O'Kennedies, Murphy, D. (ed)
(Nenagh, 2001)
Mac Hale, Conor,
Annals of the Clan Egan
(C. Mac Hale, Enniscrone, Sligo, 1990)
Nicholls, K.W., "Gaelic landownership in Tipperary in the light of surviving Irish deeds" in
Nolan, W. (ed.), Tipperary: History and Society
Ni Dhonnchadha, M., "Address to a Student of Law", in
Ó Corráin, D., Breatnach, L. and McCone, K.Sages (eds.), Saints and Storytellers: Celtic Studies in Honour of Professor James Carney
(Maynooth, 1989)
Tierney, Andrew,
Redwood Castle (2006)
Not in print but available through Redwood Castle, Lorrha, Nenagh, County Tipperary at a nominal price of €4

Surviving manuscripts from the Mac Egan schools of Ballymacegan (Redwood), Duniry and Park:

Royal Irish Academy
1223, D.IV.2 Written at Kilcormic in Offaly 15th C
1230, The Leabhar Breac, Murchadh Riabhach O'Cuindlis 1408-1411
1237, D.I.1 Conor Mac Egan
1243, Law Duniry 1475-1577
E.IV.4, Genealogy
D.I.3, Genealogy of 1644 written by Pilib O'Duigenan for Seán Mac Egan
536, Book of Ballymote 1384 and later
1225, Book of Uí Maine 1394 and later contains Mac Egan genealogy
1233, Leabhar Donn 15th C contains Mac Egan genealogy
British Library
Eg. 88, O'Davoren’s law Glossary 1569
Eg. 139, Seán O’Neachtain poems to Fr. Pól Mac Egan 1707
Eg. 181, owned by Fr Donnchadh Mac Egan in 1709
Add. Ms. 4783, Law ms. Signed by Tadhg Mac Egan late 15th C
Royal Library Stockholm
Vit. Eng. II, Judgement of Eolus O’Mulconry and Cairbre Mac Egan, 1587
Trinity College Dublin
1316, Senchus Már 1350 Lucas O’Dalláin, Aedh Mac Egan, Cairbre & others
1317, Glossaries Flann
1318, The Yellow Book of Lecan part written at Park in 1408
1337, 14th/15th C written at Park in 1464
1336, 15th C -1577 Seán, Cairbre, Aodhagáin Mac Egan
1363, 15th/16th C Cosnamhach Baethgalach Finn of Ormond, Saerbrethach
1387, Laws
1433, Laws, Book of Aicill, Fergus Mac Egan, before 1442
Sourced From:
Mac Hale, Conor,
Annals of the Clan Egan
(C. Mac Hale, Enniscrone, Sligo, 1990), pp. 62-3
Daniel Flynn
Student at the School of History, Trinity College Dublin

Also in History:

Redwood Castle, Lorrha, Co. Tipperary
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