Brehon Law Symposium

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Friday 12 - Sunday 14 January 2001:
Brehon Law Symposium

'Moving forward into our Brehon past'

Education Centre, Law School Law Society of Ireland - Blackhall Place - Dublin 7


THE HON. MR. RONAN KEANE, CHIEF JUSTICE, Supreme Court of Ireland. Publications include: Law of local government in the Republic of Ireland, Walsh's planning and development law (2nd edition), Company law in the Republic of Ireland, Equity and the law of trusts in the Republic of Ireland.

MORGAN LLYWELYN, Chairman of the Irish Writers' Union. Author of many books, including Bard, The Last Prince of Ireland, Grania, Lion of Ireland, The Horse Goddess, FinnMcCool and Red Branch.

FERGUS KELLY, School of Celtic Studies. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Author of, A Guide to Early Irish Law, (1988) and Early Irish Farming, (1997).

NEIL MCLEOD, School of Law. Murdoch University, Australia. Author of Early Irish Contract Law, (Sydney, 1992).

DÁIBHI Ó'CRÓINÍN, Department of History. University College Galway,. Author of Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200 (1995).

DONNCHADH Ó'CORRÁIN, University College Cork. Director of CELT. Editor of Peritia. Author of Ireland Before the Normans (1972) (2nd Ed 2000).

JIM Ó'CALLAGHAN, National Gallery of Ireland. Presentation on The Marriage of Strongbow and Eva, by Daniel Maclise (1854).

JACK ANDERSON, Department of Law. University of Limerick. Editor of University of Limerick Law Review.

IVANA BACIK, Trinity College Dublin. Department of Law. Editor of Irish Criminal Law Journal. Co-author of Abortion and the Law: An Irish Perspective (1997) and Crime and Poverty in Ireland (1998).

MUIREANN NÍ BHROLCHÁIN, Department of Old and Middle Irish, Saint Patrick's College, Maynooth. Author of Maol Íosa Ó Brolcháin (An Sagart, Má Nuad) 1986.

"Irish law is the oldest, most original, and most extensive of Medieval European legal systems. It is a unique legal inheritance, an independent indigenous system of advanced jurisprudence that was fully evolved by the eighth century. It is also far less well known than it deserves." Donnchadh Ó Corráin - Director of CELT, Corpus of Electronic Texts


This symposium is presented by Vincent Salafia J.D., of the Brehon Law Project and facilitated by the Law School of the Law Society of Ireland, at Blackhall Place, Dublin. The program will match members of the Irish legal, literary and historical communities with the general public, in an examination of early Irish law, popularly known as Brehon law. Discussion will focus on the survival of Brehon law, from its earliest beginnings in pre-history, through maturation in the eighth century, extinction in the seventeenth century, right up to present day projects, such as CELT.

CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts)

Most of the Brehon laws survive on vellum manuscript. These were collected and published in the Corpus Iuris Hibernici, published in 1978 by D.A. Binchy. Many have never been translated, and some translations are no longer considered reliable. Efforts to digitise and translate these are taking place under the CELT Project at University College Cork. A searchable digital edition will enhance translation efforts taking place in institutions such as Trinity College and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). For example, Liam Breatnach at Trinity is creating an index to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici, while Gerald Manning is translating the status text Miadshlechta, at DIAS. A central aim of this conference is to publicize and discuss these efforts.


Presentation will be in traditional as well as digital/multi-media format. Art and music, such as uilleann pipes, digital performance art and a slide-show of the enormous painting, The Marriage of Strongbow and Eva (Daniel Maclise,1854) will be mixed with legal and historical discussion. Speakers will present short lectures, dialogue, with long question and answer sessions following.

Saturday will open with an in-depth introduction to Brehon law, by Neil McLeod, followed by a description of the legal profession in early Irish law, by Fergus Kelly. The Hon. Mr. Ronan Keane, Chief Justice, will focus on a 1934 Supreme Court case that traced the legal history of Ireland in deciding the ownership rights to the fishery at Ballyshannon. Other speakers will focus on specific areas of law, such as women, election and sports. Morgan Llywelyn will discuss the use of Brehon law in her historical novels. Restorative justice will also be a major topic, as the Law Reform Commission is about to release a recently completed report on future changes in the way juveniles are treated, and have studied the Brehon laws in this regard.

Sunday will begin with an ecumenical service at Christ Church Cathedral, remembering all those who helped to preserve the laws, through the centuries. The relationship between law and spirituality in both ancient and modern Ireland, will the topic of the service. Speakers will convene in Presidents Hall, for a full panel discussion on the future of Brehon law studies. In the afternoon, the symposium will finish at Trinity College, and a tour of the Book of Kells.


'Moving forward into our Brehon past'

We have a historic tradition of adopting children and while modern law only dates back to the Adoption Act, 1952, our tradition of taking responsibility for abandoned or orphaned children, or sharing in the upbringing of children, where the family resources are already fully stretched, goes back to the Red Branch Knights and the Fianna. While these ideas may be radical now, I have no doubt they will soon be seen as the next step in the development of our social structures; a step forward into our Brehon past. The Adoption Bill, is a worthwhile and progressive development of our current statutes. It raises little new thinking but confirms conventional wisdom and, as such, is of significant value.

- C. Glynn. Seanad Debates - Official Report 12-3-98. Dáil Éireann.

Brehon law was practiced in Ireland for over 1,000 years, maturing by the eighth century. After the 12th century it co-existed with the common law system of England, but was extinguished as an operating system in the early seventeenth century, by the Case of Tanistry, Dav. 29, 80 Eng. Rep. 516 (K.B. 1608). Yet, miraculously, the native Irish laws have survived in various ways. Most importantly, the vellum manuscripts provide us with a mass of primary material, which we are trying to access through use of technology and breakthroughs in language studies. But there are other scattered legacies all around us, including case law, parliamentary debate and the Revolutionary Dáil Courts (1919-1923) were an example of the importance of the legal tradition to many of our great statesmen. The challenge of pulling together these legacies, was aptly addressed by the late Eamon Kennedy, while Irish Ambassador to Paris, in a radio interview with Jean Markle in 1972:

The invasions in Ireland's history effectively prevented the development of an integrated Gaelic civilization in Celtic Ireland. On the other hand, these invasions have never been absolute … consequently we have two traditions in Ireland, two civilizations, two languages, two sets of laws. It is the aim of our policy to try to reintegrate and reunify the two traditions of the past. (Markle, Jean. Women of the Celts (1972) page 29).

Sadly, Dr. Kennedy passed away in New York, December 12. Evidence that his spirit will live on is found in the same edition of the Irish Times that printed his obituary on December 23, 2000. John O'Donohue, poet, philosopher and priest, in a article, called Forgotten Springs, commented on the search for spiritual meaning in contemporary Ireland.. The 19th-century Romanisation of Irish religion has served us very poorly. We need a more courageous re-presentation of the deeper archaic layers of pre-Christian and Christian mythologies, which have forged and sustained our spiritual consciousness. At a darker level, revisionism has expurged the pain from Irish history; in this time of driven desire we need vital connection with this "dangerous memory". He noted that, "tradition is to the community what memory is to the individual." The 'dangerous memory' he speaks of has in many ways been locked away in the Brehon codes. That the law was considered dangerous may be one reason why we have never been able to read them in full.


The famous Case of Tanistry, Dav. 29, 80 Eng. Rep. 516 (K.B. 1608) has been cited in recent years in a number of important decisions dealing with indigenous rights in both North America and Australia: Mabo and others v Queensland (No.2) (1992) 175 Commonwealth Law Reports 1 (Full Court of the High Court of Australia); R v Van der Peet [1996] 2 SCR 507 (Supreme Court of Canada, per McLauchlin J dissenting). Brehon law is still used today in some fisheries cases and was examined in this context by the Supreme Court of Ireland in (R) Moore v. Attorney General 44 I.R. (1934). Historians such as Eóin MacNeill and D.A. Binchy gave expert testimony in this case. References to Brehon law, such as the decisions of Cormac Mac Airt, were apparently found in judges handbooks in Ireland, even up until the 1960s. [See Dunphy v. Bryan, 97 ITLR 4, (1967)].

At one stage I thought that it might be in point to consider whether any guidance on these matters should be afforded by the Brehon laws, which were operative in this country for so any centuries. There is appropriate material in An Senchus Mor, Vol. IV, and in a work known as Duala, compiled by Cormac MacArt and others, to which I had not access, but to which reference is made in the handbook. For various reasons those early laws have been so long inoperative that it would be wrong to throw them into the scale against the common law even if I were not bound by higher authority to follow the common law. It is to be hoped, however, that they will be carefully studied when we embark upon law reform. Id at 7.


The 1965 Succession Act has modifications of the common law, reflecting Brehon law principles, which are discussed in contemporary parliamentary debate. In recent years Brehon law has been cited in debate of bills concerning adoption, care for the handicapped and limitations on damages. For example, Mary Hanafin TD, debating the National Sports Council of Ireland Bill (1998), made the following statements: Brehon law did not recognise the concept of negligence. A modern day Fionn MacCumhaill running through the woods would be more likely to sue the local authority for twigs sticking in his feet rather than picking them up with his toes. The law of negligence is out of control and needs to be corralled before we are completely fleeced. - Dáil Éireann Debates 3-12-98. In fact, Brehon law did recognise the concept of negligence.


Brehon law was admissible in the Arbitration Courts, which were the dream-child of Arthur Griffith. These evolved into the Revolutionary Dáil Courts, 1919-1923. Many of the leaders of the Revolution, such as James Connolly and Laurence Ginnell were Brehon law scholars, and deeply influenced by them. Douglas Hyde, wrote about them for the Catholic Encyclopaedia, where he concluded:

Duald Mac Firbis, the celebrated antiquary, who died in 1670, mentions that even in his own day he had known Irish chieftains who governed their clans according to "the words of Fithal and the Royal Precepts", that is according to the books of the Brehon Law. Amongst the many bitter injustices inflicted upon Ireland and the Irish by the English conquest none has had more cruel or more far-reaching effects than the abrogation of the Brehon law relating to land-tenure and division of property.


Friday January 12th and Saturday January 13th 2001 Law Society of Ireland Law School, Blackhall Place, Dublin 7

FRIDAY, 12th January

6:00 PM: Reception. Education Centre

6:30 PM: Opening Ceremony

Music/Video Presentation Various

Welcome Maura Butler, Law Society of Ireland & Director of Educational Centre

Opening Address To be announced

Brehon Law Project Vincent Salafia, J.D. Director.

CELT Project Donnchadh Ó Corráin, CELT Director .


9:00 PM: Concert TBA

SATURDAY, 13th January Law Society Law School

9:00 AM. Lecture Theatre - Education Centre

Neil McLeod - Murdoch Univ. Introduction to Brehon Law

Fergus Kelly, DIAS The Early Irish Legal Profession DISCUSSION

10:45 BREAK

11:15 LectureTheatre. Education Centre

The Hon. Mr. Ronan Keane Moore v Attorney General 44 I.R. (1934) -Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín , NUI Galway Tanistry

The Hon. Mrs. Mary Kotsonouris Revolutionary Dáil Courts (1919-1923) (To be confirmed) DISCUSSION

1:00 LUNCH: The National Museum, Collin's Barracks.

2:00 Lecture Theatre Education Centre

Morgan Llywelyn Brehon law in historical fiction

The Hon. Mr. David G. Morgan Restorative Justice Report (To be confirmed) Jack Anderson, UL Sport and Brehon Law


3:45 BREAK

4:15 The Marriage of Princess Aoife of Leinster and Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke.

Slide presentation of close-ups of the painting by Daniel Maclise (1854) by Jim O'Callaghan of the National Gallery of Ireland. Panel discussion afterwards.

9:00 Traditional music session. Chief O'Neill's pub.

SUNDAY 14th January Christchurch & President's Hall

9:00 Remembrance Service - Christ Church.

Ecumenical service remembering all those who helped preserve the laws through the ages, including: Saint Patrick, Saint Laurence O'Toole, Charles Vallancey, Eugene O'Curry, John O'Donovan, Laurence Ginnell, D.A. Binchy, Eamon de Valera, Douglas Hyde, etc. Choir and organ music.

10:00 Tour - Christchurch Tombs and Catacombs.

Christchurch displays the heart of St. Laurence O'Toole, Archbishop of Dublin, who negotiated the first treaty on behalf of Ireland, the Treaty of Windsor, between Rory O'Connor and Henry II in 1172.

The cathedral also contains Stongbow's Tomb, (though not the original) which was important community object in Dublin for centuries. Legal contracts were sealed by a handshake over the tomb of Strongbow.

BRUNCH 11:00 - 12:30 The National Museum of Ireland. Collin's Barracks.

12:30 President's Hall. Law Society of Ireland. Blackhall Place.

Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin Women in Early Irish Law

William Binchy, TCD Law D.A. Binchy (To be confirmed)

Ivana Bacik, TCD Law & Brehon Law School -Burren College Brian Sheridan (To be confirmed)


2:15 BREAK

2:45- General Panel Discussion. A panel, containing most of the speakers, will convene, and address the issue of development of the study of Brehon law over the next twenty years. Possibilities include creation of a Commission, much like the Royal Commission of the Nineteenth Century that was established to oversee translation of the law tracts.

4:00 - 5:00 TOUR - Trinity College Library and Book of Kells


Tickets are £75 for the three days. Student tickets are available for £40. Ticket includes: - Saturday Lunch - Sunday Brunch - Booklet. - Admission to Trinity tour.

Places are limited, so please book ahead.

Tickets can be obtained from:

Vincent Salafia, JD Director Brehon Law Project 14 Palmerston Place Dublin, 7 (087) 996-3098

Maura Butler Co-ordinating Solicitor Law Society of Ireland Blackhall Place Dublin 7 (01) 672-4802

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