Telling people that I was spending a week studying Brehon Law at the National Library of Ireland got some curious looks, even from the Irish. I learned, in asking just about anyone with whom I got to converse what they knew of the subject, that those who were younger than 35 hadn’t heard of it and those who were over 35 learned about it in school. That actually makes sense because the biggest flurry of attention the Law received was from 1860 to 1900.
The Brehon Law system was the process of community care that was built into the nature of Irish cultural interactions from before the first century AD. The first attempt to crush it seriously came with the Norman invasion in the 1100’s. But its worth was experienced and recognized and so it hung on until Henry VIII really brought the hammer down with English rule in the 1500’s. The Brehon Law was buried and Irish, as a language, culture and people, was outlawed, denied and dominated. Then, around 1853 John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry, two of the most brilliant of Irish scholars at that time, gave themselves over to the translation of the Senchus Mor (“the Great Knowledge”), the largest volume of the collected community wisdom that was the Brehon Law. It was like someone said, “You know, we used to have this great thing. We need to make sure it doesn’t get lost.”
So, they went at it, translated the full text, the little glosses people put in between the paragraphs and the big additions others wrote into the margins. After some 10-15 years they moved to publish it because both were old men. In fact, they died within 6 months of each other just as it was coming out. What that meant was they weren’t able to go back and make corrections in their earliest work from what they learned or had figured out by the time they got to the end. At this point theirs is still the work people go back to in discovering the worth of this material.
Kind of interesting… but why spend time looking at this stuff?
Let’s consider bees… I got the chance to chat the law over with a young scholar, Kevin Flanagan in a Costa in Cork. He shared with me a set of laws he discovered regarding beekeeping. If you decided to raise bees, to set up a group of hives, you had to acknowledge that your bees were trespassing on the property of your neighbors as they went off to find flowers. So, it was determined that you were in debt to your five closest neighbors in the creation of the honey in your hives. You were obligated then to do two things, to give them a regulated portion of your honey each year for five years and then to give them a full hive after the fifth year. Then you were free of any further payment (but you knew your neighbors).
The core of this trespass/debit/obligation is relationship. You acknowledge that you do not live independent of your neighbor. Their life had a direct connection to yours and you were required to participate in life with them, at a minimum financially and yet also in celebrating the growth of your harvest over years.
This is what captures me… we’re talking about how flowers work, how bees work, how humans work, how life works and how to keep a community in communication with each other in every facet. You know, if you’re that conscious of the intricacy of life, you’re also aware of how it extends in all directions… Ever wonder why “spirals” were such a part of Celtic art?