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by Vincent Salafia

Celtic Legal Poem

INTRODUCTION

The poem below was found at the end of an ancient Irish legal, entitled Crith Gablach, dated around the seventh century. In many ways it speaks for itself, and the primary purpose of this essay is to perform a simple act of conveyance. It rests here, shrouded in the original mystique of its birth and the reader may come to his or her own conclusions as to meaning and importance. The reader is reminded that the real veil covering these words is not the passage of time, or some ancient indeology, but rather our own 'learning' and assumption. The observations that follow are not a line by line dissection but rather an expression of simple appreciation. However, the simple miracle of it's very existence today must be placed beside the tragic story of it's arrival here, where most of you will be reading it for the first time. The poem, and it's story raise a number of questions that reach out of the past and fasten themselves on our very assumptions of all it is to be Irish and indeed human.

 

Celtic Legal Poem


An Early Legal Poem. Translated by D.A. Binchy
   
1.
Ma be ri rofesser, If thou be a king thou shouldst know
2.
recht flatho,  the prerogative of a ruler,
3.
 fothuth iar miad,     refection according to rank,
4.
mesbada slog   contentions of hostings,
5.
sabaid cuirmthige, sticks quarrels in an alehouse
6.
cuir mescae; contracts made in drunkenness;
7.
mess tire, valuations of lands,
8.
tomus forrag, measurement by poles;
9.
 foberta diri, augmentations of a penalty,
10.
dithle mesraid;  larceny of tree-fruit;
11.
mormain mrugrechto: the great substance of land-law:
12.
mrogad coicrich. marking out fresh boundaries.
13.
cor cualne, planting stakes
14.
corus rinde, the law as to points of stakes,
15.
ranh eter comorbu, partition among co-heirs
16.
comaithig do garmaim summoning of neighbors,
17.
gaill comlainn, stone pillars of contest
18.
caithigthi astado fighters who fasten title
19.
anagraitto rig, from a king,
20.
righ comairge;  the extent of protection;
21.
corus co sesser: right of the fine up to the sixth man:
22.
setaib seilb. in movables of land.
23.
Slan cach comaithches Valid is every neighbor-law
24.
cuirther gallaib, that is contracted by pledges,
25.
gelltar smachtaib miach. and secured by fines consisting of sacks.
26.
Mo laugu Greater or smaller
27.
log ndire.  is the value of penalties.
28.
Dire n-aurbai The penalty for breaching a boundary
29.
o dartaid co dairt from a bull-calf to a heifer-calf
30.
dochum colpthaige from that to a yearling beast
31.
co coic seotu cingith. up to five seoit it extends.
32.
Cia annsom fidbeime  What are the most oppressive cases of tree-cutting
33.
fiachaib bacth? for which fools are mulcted?
34.
Briugid caille, The hospitallers of the forest,
35.
coll eidnech. the ivied hazel.
36.
Esnill bes dithernam A danger from which there is no escape
37.
dire fidnemid nair.  is the penalty for felling the sacred tree.
38.
Ni bie fidnemid Thou shalt not cut a sacred tree and
39.
 fiachaib secht n-airech, escape with fines for the seven noble trees
40.
ara teora bu on account of the fine of three cows
41.
inna bunbeim bis. that is fixed for cutting its stem.
42.
Biit alaili secht There are others, seven
43.
setlaib losae. atoned for in seoit due for undergrowth.
44.
Laumur ar dochondaib Let me venture for the benefit of the immature
45.
dildi cailli: to state the immune things of the forest:
46.
cairi fulocht benar,  a single cauldron's cooking wood that is cut,
47.
bas chnoe foisce a handful of ripe nuts
48.
 frisna laim i saith soi. to which one stratches not his hand in satiety.
49.
Slanem de Freest of all
50.
dithgus dithli. is the right of removal.
51.
Dire ndaro, The penalty for the oak,
52.
dire a gabal mar, the penalty for lobbing its larger limbs,
53.
mess beobethad; with its life-sustaining mast;
54.
bunbem n-ibair the stem-cutting of the yew;
55.
 inonn cumbe cuilinn,  the same penalty for cutting the holly tree.
56.
Annsom de Most oppressive of all
57.
dire secht n-aithlech is the penalty of the seven commoners of the forest
58.
asa mbi bo: for each of which there is a cow of payment:
59.
bunbeim beithe, the stem cutting of the birch,
60.
baegal fernae, the peril of the alder,
61.
fube sailech; the undermining of the willow,
62.
dluind airriu aithgein declare restitution for them,
63.
anog sciath the maiming of the whitethorn
64.
sceo draigin; and of the blackthorn;
65.
dringid co fedo forball,   its restitution extends to the undergrowth of the wood,
66.
forball ratho, the undergrowth of fern,
67.
raited, aine, of bog-myrtle, of reeds,
68.
acht a ndilse do flaithib. save that these are free to lords.
69.
Fothlac, tothlae, Stealthy penetration, stealthy intrusion,
70.
tan, an, driving to and fro,
71.
aircsiu, arach  looking on idly, tethering
72.
attrab, follscud, squatting, burning,
73.
fuillechtae iadad;  blocking tracks;
74.
airlem en, overleaping by birds,
75.
oss, eisrechtae, deer and pet animals,
76.
airlim con, overleaping by dogs,
77.
caithchi bech, trespass by bees;
78.
biit i trenaib dire in thirds are payable in penalties
79.
ton-accomoing tairgille; which the preliminary pledge comprehends;
80.
taurrana, tairsce, driving forward, traversing,
81.
taulberna tar rout, sudden breeeches across the road,
82.
ruriud tar selba. stampeding across holdings.
83.
samsil trachta. similarly over strands.
84.
Tomus airchinne Measurement of the fore-end
85.
co n-aurchur flescaich, with a cast by a stripling,
86.
forsciu mrugrechto, supervising the observance of land-law,
87.
mrogad cocrich, marking out fresh boundaries,
88.
caithche tigradus,  final responsibility for trespass.
89.
Tairgget smachta Let fines be forthcoming
90.
iar cintaib coicthi on the fifth day after the offenses
91.
a coir comaithech. according to the law of neighbors.
92.
Cid ag con-ranna fri et? What single ox shares liability with the drove?
93.
Cid airlimm n-oenoirec? What overleaping by a piglet shares liability with the herds?
94.
Cis tana di-chiallatar What are the drivings carried out negligently
95.
dona segar tigrathus? for which final responsibility is not enforced?
96.
Cis tuarrana foichlithi What are the concealed drivings forward
97.
forsna soi fogeltath? on which grazing-expense does not fall?
98.
Cis formenn dichmaire What are the unauthorized stalkings
99.
do-sliat dilsi?  which deserve immunity?
100.
Cis dithle di threbaib What are the larcenties from houses
101.
nad tuillet dire?  which shall not entail penalty?
   

Celtic Legal Poem

The corpus of ancient Irish law, known as the Brehon laws, have never been read by modern people, despite the fact that they were rediscovered a century and a half ago. It represents all that remains of an immensely complex and progressive legal system that functioned in Ireland for a period of at least 1,000 years, until it's annihilation in the mid-seventeenth century. This signified the complete conquest of Ireland by England. Finally, there is a movement underway to bring the laws out of the shadows. While many have been lost forever, the publication of the Corpus Iuris Hibernici, in 1978, by Professor D.A. Binchy, collected the contents of the all the vellum legal manuscripts (dating from seventh to twelfth centuries) still in existence.

The CELT Project (Corpus of Electronic Texts), underway at University College Cork, Ireland, is in the process of scanning, indexing and making the laws available on the internet for complete dissemination and translation. It is a monumental task. The laws are written, with their accompanying glosses and commentaries, in Old, Middle and Early Modern Irish. The corpus contains upwards of two million words, with only a handful of qualified scholars to do the work of translation. The biggest problem, however, seems to be funding, with the Irish Government and people largely unaware or unconcerned with the plight of the laws and CELT struggling to find funding to even compensate one scholar. This exercise is an attempt to put the issue in perspective and fathom why.

For centuries, scholars have discredited the Brehon laws as bad law and bad literature, a seemingly unwanted reminder of both Golden and Dark Ages, unbearable in either instance. Since their rediscovery and partial publication around the turn of the century, many have indeed praised them. Yet, no one wanted to 'own' them, with each literary, legal, historic, political or religious camp formulating reasons as to why they do not belong in their domain. Thus, they fell through the cracks. The last ten years have been witness to revived interest in the laws. Yet, the problem of definition remains, more controversial than ever. If they are law, why are they not studied and practiced as such. If literature, why don't they appear in any literary collections or degree programs? If politically relevant, why is it that the founders of the Republic of Ireland in 1921 did not reclaim them, instead of reaffirming the English common law system? Today, they are tossed around Irish parliamentary debate as legendary precedent for proposed legislation, without even knowing what they say. What is the legal effect of this? Is it somehow a final unofficial recognition of the true common law heritage of Ireland. If so, why doesn't the Irish government allocate money to their translation and publication, and officially reincorporate them in some form?

 

Celtic Legal Poem

TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION
LAW
LITERATURE
LEGEND
RESTORATION

Celtic Legal Poem

 


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Copyright 1999, 2000