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The Irish For: While Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages - Ireland's Brehon laws were relatively enlightened

Satire (Áer) was taken as seriously as physical assault in old Ireland and a range of satirical offences were deemed to warrant compensation, including ‘coining a nickname that sticks’, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir.

Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

IN 1266 IN Fontenay-aux-Roses in France, a pig was put on trial and condemned to death by hanging.

The widespread recording of this event was a harbinger of changing times, a moment when a widespread practice was finally noticed and remarked upon as being weird.

Criminal trials for animals (sparrows condemned to death for singing in church, horses charged with bestiality while their human paramours got off scot-free) were not uncommon during that phase of European history known as the Dark Ages.

It was during this time that Ireland acquired its reputation as ‘the island of saints and scholars’, its geographical isolation providing some measure of protection from the merciless plagues and violent turmoil sweeping across the continent that erased generations of learning there. This age of (relative) enlightenment was also the period of Brehon Law.

Although sometimes imagined as an era of druids and pagan rituals and Celtic warrior princesses, this would not be correct.

The surviving Brehon Law texts date from centuries after St Patrick and are clearly informed by canon law.

Similarly, claims that Brehon Law was extremely progressive need to be taken with a gráinne salainn – this opinion was more of a criticism of pre-divorce referendum 20th century Ireland than a sincere applauding of the medieval system.

Having said that, the Brehon system did give women access to divorce for a range of grounds, operated a child-centred system of family law and tended to avoid the death penalty. Here are some terms for legal concepts from the Brehon era.

Breitheamh:  This is the Irish word for a judge and the origin of the word Brehon.

Duinetháide: Secret murder or literally ‘the theft of a person’.

This referred to murders where the killer either concealed the deceased and/or denied the crime – a far more serious offence than merely taking a life in open combat.

As with modern law, there were degrees of severity for the taking of human life but these tended to reflect the impact on the surviving family members rather than guessing the intent of the killer.

Bardamháil: Bishop O’Brien’s 18th-century dictionary includes an entry for this word, which means ‘addicted to satires or lampoons’.

Satire (Áer): This was taken as seriously as physical assault in old Ireland and a range of satirical offences were deemed to warrant compensation, including “coining a nickname that sticks”.

Imscarad: This is the word for divorce in the Brehon era (the modern term is colscaradh).

A wife was entitled to a divorce from her husband for a range of shortcomings – bad breath, getting too fat to make love, tricking her into marriage using sorcery, composing a satire about her and so on.

Bóaire: Literally a ‘cow chief’, this means a prosperous farmer, someone who’d find themselves in the middle rankings of Brehon society.

Men could be ranked from a mug (a slave) to a rí ruirech (supreme king) – this rank decided their honour price, which was used as a benchmark for calculating the severity of punishment due to someone who wronged them.

Aitheach Fortha: Being a king came with great privilege but could put you in a conundrum if you had been naughty: you were obliged to see that justice was served, but could not possibly condescend to be put on trial and sentenced as this would compromise your regal mystique and integrity.

That’s where an aitheach fortha could come in handy- this means a ‘substitute churl’ and means a useful idiot who is appointed to stand trial on the king’s behalf.

Ainces: This is an act which is not justifiable in itself but is committed in pursuit of a justifiable, necessary objective. For example, the property of another person destroyed in the pursuit of their well-deserved slaying could be deemed an ainces.

If you are interested in finding out more about Brehon Law, I cannot recommend A Guide To Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly highly enough.

Darach’s new book, ‘Craic Baby: Dispatches From A Rising Language’ is published by Head of Zeus and available in bookshops now.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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