dragonhelmuk's Reviews > A Guide to Early Irish Law

A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
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Feb 01, 12

Read in February, 2012

Ultimately I’m afraid I found this book to be essentially mind-numbingly boring: I still found some big surprises inside; it’s just that all the details of the laws are well known now. It is very surprising that this book was written in 1988 though, it still reads like it is very up to date, which I suppose highlights how groundbreaking it was in its day. I liked the focus on laws about women, and the interpretation of how the laws would have worked in the real world. Also the contrast between land entry and distraint and other alternatives were really well explained. I wish there was a bit more on wild animals, and possibly on the illumination which irish law has for the early sagas, but the book was probably weighty and full of information enough as it was.


{fines used rather than punishment which was rare}
P214 The authors of the Old Irish law-texts seem to envisage that payment can atone for almost any crime. In this respect Irish law contrasts with many other early law-codes, where death or mutiliation is the normal punishment for a wide range of offences. The capacity of a murderer or other criminal to pay for his offence was one of the features of Irish law which English officials and observers found repugnant, and there were many attempts to legislate against it. For example, an act of Henry VII orders ‘that no person take any money or amnedes for the death or murder of his frende or kynsman, other than the kynges law will.’

{such very late mss. Even compared to hywel dda in welsh!)
P225 – The manuscripts in which the Irish law-texts are found date mainly from the 14th-16th centuries A.D., but the linguistic evidence shows that many of these texts were originaaally wwwritten in the 7th-8th centuries. Because of the long gap between the date of composition and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript most law texts show some signs of scribal corruption.

{late survivals or just a new wave of primitivism?}
P261 – According to Fiants of Elizabeth, dated 1591 and 1602 a brehowne named Patrick MacEgan of Correbeg alias Balle mcKeagen, Co. Longford, was appointed seneschal ‘with license to prosecute and punish by all means malefactors, rebels, vagabonds, rymors, Irish harpers, idle men and women and other unprofitable members.’BBoethius MacClancy (Baothghalach mac Flannchadha) served the crown as high sheriff of Clare, and was a member of the parliament of 1585. When he died in 1598, the Annals of the Four Masters describe him as ‘a man fluent in Latin, irish and English’...
In Scotland it seems that some memory of the native lawyers persisted longer than in Ireland. Writing in 1937, John Cameron states tha the site of the house of the chief of the Clan Morrison was brieve (=Gaelic britheamh) or hereditary judge of Lewis, and held land in respect of this office. There are also a number of Scottish place-names containing the element britheamh...

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