Saturday, 16 February 2013

Brehon Law

By Andrew St. Ledger
The Brehon law system is reputedly the second oldest recorded law system after Sanskrit.  The Gaelic society which produced this body of law maintained an oral tradition for at least one thousand years.  With the influence of the early Coptic Christian monastic sects which came to Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries came the first writing.  The monks were fascinated by the Brehon law and transcribed from the poets called “Na Filidh” who held the law in their heart literally; these poets would recite the law in four line stanzas, having learnt the law after a long initiation period.  As new cases occurred new poems were added to the body of law ensuring the law was in synch with ever-changing life.
Brehon law is a natural law system based on the sustainable principle of common sense, this system was assimilated easily into the early Christian Gaelic order and continued to be used long after the introduction of English common law after the Norman and English invasions.  The law survived into the seventeenth century in remote parts of Ireland.  Common law was established in the thirteenth century after the Magna Carta was signed by some Irish chieftains who, after signing, reverted back to their own superior law system, “any thing for a quiet life”.

C8th Irish Legal Manuscript
Common law is based on precedent, and international law is based on common law, and Brehon law has precedence over both by virtue of the fact fifty ancient law texts survive, as manuscripts copied from seventh and eight century originals.  These copies were made between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries at which point the Old Gaelic order finally collapsed after the battle of Kinsale.  The Gaelic leadership consisting of kings, chieftains, herbalists, poets, scholars and soldiers agreed after defeat at Kinsale to leave Ireland.  This is known as the “Flight of the Earls”.  In exchange for relocation and no more resistance they were promised that their now leaderless, vulnerable, people would be spared by the crown forces.
It is recorded as soon as the Gaelic ships were out of sight, the whole-scale slaughter of the remaining Gaels commenced and with it the final annihilation of the primeval woodlands of Ireland which had been the bedrock of the Gaelic order for so long.  The context for the sophisticated Brehon laws was removed.
Common law places material objects (property, goods, manmade objects, profits, etc) over and above living entities.  Brehon law places people, life and nature before property.  From common law we have the example of property being nine tenths of the law, which explains how stolen property is hard to retrieve.  Now we see how common law was used to legalise stolen property for the English crown.  Under the Gaelic order there was no personal property; the most people could say was WE own this land.  Like many earth based peoples the concept of land ownership was alien; the tribe were caretakers of the land.  The Brehon laws ensured that the uses of the land were sustainable, which is why we can learn so much from this wise system of natural law today as we struggle to come to grips with the massive environmental and social degradation witnessed today.
As more and more people become aware that we are an integral part of the environment and not separate from it, we are in it and it is in us, it becomes clearer than ever that our human rights to clean air, water, access to the natural world, spiritual fulfilment and economic sustenance via native natural forests, which are the recognised lynchpin for biodiversity restoration, cannot be protected by common/international law.
There is a need to urgently re-examine how the Brehon laws, although dormant due to historic circumstances, can help us today to safeguard the future for the generations of unborn.  Make no mistake about it Brehon law is a living, breathing, vibrant law system of huge significance for this island and the world.  As well as holding precedence over common law/international law, it is my understanding Indigenous people in North and South America have used aspects of Brehon law as an example of earth based peoples principles to regain territories lost to common/international law.  They related to the Brehon laws as the nearest law system they could identify with, and the courts were forced to allow Brehon law into the arguments as it was written down four or five centuries before common law, and therefore had precedent.
International copyright law is derived solely from Brehon law from a famous recorded case from the sixth century involving a dispute between two monks.  One monk said Colmcille had copied an illustrated manuscript created by another monk, called Finian.  The case was resolved using the Brehon law and the judgement maintained as the original manuscript was created on vellum (a natural material) the Brehon poets decided in favour of compensation to Finian, as they stated to every cow its calf, to each manuscript a copy with compensation to the creator.  This judgement has not been bettered to this day.
It would appear the reason for Brehon laws amazing longevity and continued use was the simple fact that it worked and it was built on respect for life allied to common sense ensuring the conditions upon which all life depends were respected and therefore maintained.

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