Irish Brehon: a legal system

I continually hear that the nation-state government must exist to provide security and justice. This in spite of the fact that we can find no example of real justice coming from the state; and precious little security. There are examples of the private production of law and my favorite example is Brehon, or Early Irish law which arose during the Irish anarchy of old. I have written about the Irish anarchy here and here.


Brehon, the Irish legal system lasted until the mid 1600s and was a fully developed system prior to any invasion by other peoples. Those invasions only weakened the system, and certainly did not improve it any. It is thought that the legal system dates back to perhaps 2,300 BC. The laws were concerned with property rights, contracts, inheritance, and so forth. The code formed a body of civil, criminal, and military law which regulated the various strata of Irish society from the leaders down to the lowest member of the land.

There were many rules. They concerned all aspects of life that might come into dispute, even down to the relationship of foster parents and foster children. The various industries, farming, trade, waterways, property management and so forth were regulated.

This legal code survived, it is thought, for about three millennia and that is testament to the sense of honor of the people; after all, the law was the people’s law. The law’s authority came from the acceptance and moral strength of the people who were governed by the Brehon Code. In ancient Ireland an individual’s word was his bond. We can find testimony to the moral power of the Brehon code throughout all we know of ancient Ireland.

Some of the unique features of early Brehon Law, compared to our modern law, included recognition of personal responsibility scaled to ones position in society, the priority of individuals over property, equal rights between genders, environmental concern and lack of capital punishment. Most importantly, it was a system that required restitution for wrong rather than punishment. The effectiveness of the body of law is reflected in the great respect given it by its citizens. The law was so revered and honored by the people that there were neither courts needed nor police forces required to enforce it. ~ Michael Ragan

In that portion of the Brehon Code corresponding to what is now known as criminal law, the various offenses such as murder, manslaughter, assaults, wounding, thefts, willful damage are specified with the amount of compensation for the guilty party to pay the injured. The amount of compensation is laid down in detail for almost every possible variety of injury one could imagine.

Since the law arose out of the people themselves through their experiences and real legal cases, the law could not be changed without public approval. It took a majority of “free people” in a public assembly of the people to change any portion of the code. This was a law supported by the people because it was their law. It was not ruler made law handed down from on top but rather it was people made law. This is real “democracy”.

All polices were decided at an annual meeting of one of the competing tuaths. The tuatha were voluntary associations and each one had a “king” elected by the individual tuatha who could be voted out at any assembly.  But law enforcement was not a function of the king in the Irish tuath, rather it was dependent on each party in a suit to provide themselves with sureties who would guarantee that the monetary judgment of the Brehon’s court would be honored. There was an elaborate system of surety-ship which formed the basis of the entire legal system. Hence, a man’s character, reputation, and property were highly important in this society. Honor was highly valued since the honorable would follow the code. The Brehons were essentially arbitrators rather than judges and the system was essentially non-violent with restitution rather than revenge being the goal of the system.

The durability of the Brehon legal system is amazing given that it dates back perhaps 3,000 years. Why was the code so durable? It had to be the people themselves. Irish literature shows a great respect for the code and its administration. There was no trace of state-administered justice but rather justice administered by the people themselves. Imagine no police, no state courts, no prisons, no bailiffs, and no wardens. This was justice provided by the “private sector” and property rights were protected in a jealous manner.

And what do we take away from this example after all? We can easily see that there is no need for the nation-State and its brutal, controlling, warlike force to have a legal system to provide for justice. In fact, we see that justice itself is impeded by the nation state and its ruling elitist class who makes “law” to dominate the masses. We can see that even in a society cursed with a state government the people would be far better off if they could keep the justice system out of the hands of the brutal and lawless rulers.

The idea of common law systems is one we need to resurrect.

1 thought on “Irish Brehon: a legal system

  1. Pingback: Irish Brehon: a legal system | On the Mark | Racine Unified School District

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