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A lot of things have been said about Celtic Law, from that it in fact did not exist and the stronger one was right, over that it developed from a matriarchal system, that it was a matriarchal system (please note that matriarchal is a legal term - it defines inheritance) up to that it was a very complex and definitely better system than most of todays legal systems. All of this is, to a certain extent, right, but the greater part of it is wrong.
What I will try to do now is give a short summary of how Celtic Law really functioned, which things were regulated by law, how the laws looked and how legal problems were solved. Once again, I will start this with looking on the sources that have come down on us.



      Fixing a date for the hearing
      Choosing the "proper path of judgment" by the plaintiff's advocate
      The giving of security (a/rach)
      Pleading (tacrae)
      Counter-pleading (frecrae)
      Judgment (breth)
      Announcement (forus)
      Conclusion (forbae)


      Overswearing (fortach)
      Denial by oath (di/thech, di/thach)
      Oaths on behalf of others (airthech)
      Compurgatory oath (imthach)
      Repudiation (fretech)
      False oath (e/thech)
      Female oath (bannoi/ll)


      Written evidence
      Indirect evidence
      Inadmissible evidence
      Female evidence
      False witnesses


      Duel (ro/e)




        The pit





      Recovery of legal rights








Mainly, we have two groups of sources that are of utmost importance to our understanding of Celtic Law. The first one of these is the Irish legal tradition. Mainly written down by Christian monks of the 7th to 10th century AD (though some texts were written even later) these law texts, the bulk of which exists in an edition by D.A.Binchy (Corpus Iuris Hibernici, from now on shortened as CIH), though sometimes severely influenced by Christian motives, perhaps give us the most complete legal codex that had developed separately from Roman Law in Europe that has come down on us. The main part of the Irish law texts is called the Senchas Mar. These texts essentially give us a good view at how the law might have looked before the Roman conquering in most of Europe.
The second one of those is the Welsh legal tradition. First set down in about the 12th century AD it is definitely a good deal later put into writing than Irish law, and, maybe because of this, shows a lot more of foreign influences in the law already, starting with influences of Roman law and going over Christian to Anglo-Saxon and early Norman influences. Still, the basic system of the law and the great bulk of actual laws still very closely parallel similar Irish laws. The Welsh law has been taken down as the Law of Hywel Dda as a single complex. In comparison with the Irish law it is very well possible to filter out common Celtic concepts in the law.
Additionally to those primary sources, which do give us actual law texts, we have some other sources as well that may tell us something about actual use of the law and allow us to try to reconstruct a picture of how old Celtic law might have looked.
First, there are the Irish and Welsh tales, which do, even though not often, also tell about judicial processes. These can tell us how the laws were actually executed (in difference to the law texts themselves that tell how the laws should be executed).
Second, there are the historical sources about Wales and Ireland, which also tell us about how the laws were actually executed.
Third, there are the ancient historical sources which let us, once in a while, glimpse at "customs" that can be explained by or are even exactly paralleled with later, Irish and Welsh legal proscriptions.
This can then be compared to other systems by Comparative IE Studies, Comparative Linguistics and comparative Legal Studies to provide explanation models and fill in existing blanks with possible reconstructions.
These are the sources which are basically available to us when trying to study Celtic legal systems, even though once in a while it might also be possible that archaeology provides us with a hint or two at legal specialties.



The Irish Law texts, often also called Brehon Laws, Brehon being the anglicized term for the Irish "Brithem" (agent noun for ir. breth "judgment", literal translation for brithem therefore is "maker of judgments"), the Irish term for lawyer, are the most extensive documents for Celtic Law that have come down on us. They were written down by the Christian monks, the earliest texts probably dating from the late 6th and early 7th century AD, and therefore were partly influenced by a Christian mindset. Still, they do seem to reflect the "old" prechristian laws very closely in most aspects, and the basics of the legal procedures is definite indigenous.


Before I start my summary I will give a short literature list, as there exist excellent sources for Irish Law which are also relatively easily available. Many laws exist in translation into English and therefore you can study them yourselves if you like.

Fergus KELLY, A Guide to Early Irish Law. Early Irish Law Series 3, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies 1988 (2nd reprint 1995). ISBN 0-901282-95-2

Translations and editions of original texts (sometimes with comments):

Thomas CHARLES-EDWARDS and Fergus KELLY, BECHBRETHA: An Old Irish law-tract on Bee-Keeping. (Edition and Translation) Early Irish Law Series 1, DIAS 1983.

Liam BREATNACH, URAICECHT NA RI/AR: The Poetic Grades in Early Irish Law. (Edition and Translation) Early Irish Law Series 2, DIAS 1987, ISBN 0-901282-89-8

Fergus KELLY, AUDACHT MORAINN (Edition and Translation). DIAS 1976.

Neil McLEOD, Early Irish Contract Law. Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 1, University of Sidney 1995. ISBN 0-86758-623-0 (Edition and Translation of DI ASTUD CHOR)

Additionally there exist numerous translations in various journals for Celtic Studies.

Finally, there is the complete edition of all Irish Law texts known until approx. 1978:

D.A. BINCHY, CORPUS IURIS HIBERICI (Vol.I-VI), DIAS 1978.(only Edition, no translation)



Before we take a look at what laws existed and how they look, we have to take a short look at the very basics of law. As far as we can say, the basic regional unit was the tribe (tu/ath), and this seems also to have been the basic legal unit, as Irish Law distinguishes between the deorad ("outsider") and the aurrad ("Person of legal standing within the tu/ath). Basically, it seems as if the outsider has no legal rights in the tu/ath and can be killed, maimed or acted with in any manner without these acts being considered as legal offences if there exists no treaty between the tu/ath the outsider came from and the one in which he is killed, maimed, etc.... Only if a treaty exist between the two tribes in question such a person can have a legal standing at all.


The second important basics of Irish Law was rank. Simply said, the higher your Rank, the more legal standing you do have. As such, "an offence against a person of higher rank entails a greater penalty than the same offence against a person of lower rank. Similarly, the oath of a person of higher rank automatically outweighs that of a person of lower rank." (KELLY 1988, p.7). The measure of a person's status is his honour price or lo/g n-enech (literally "the price of his face"), which has to be paid for any mayor offence like murder, satire, serious injury etc. Offences which do not touch the victims honour - like minor damage to property or animal trespass, incurs lesser fines. A person's capacity to perform most legal acts is directly linked to this honour-price. He can only make a contract to the value of his honour-price, he can't be surety for any greater amount, and his oath is only worth his honour-price if a Compurgatory oath is required. I will deal more detailed with rank in "Social Structures - a short summary".


Another basic element in the legal system is kinship. I will make a more detailed survey of kinship in "Social Structures - a short summary", but some words are necessary here too. Basically, the kingroup referred to most often in the law texts is the derbfine ("true kin"), which consists of all descendents through the male line from a common great-grandfather. This group has considerable legal rights in over its individual members. Each kin-group has its own kin-land (called "fintiu"), for which every legally competent adult male has some responsibility. This land can be sold only with consent of the kin, and provided that a man has successfully fulfilled his obligations towards his kin he can annul contracts of other members of the kin if he thinks they are detrimental to the kin.
On the other hand, the kin is legally responsible and liable for offences committed by its members - a kinsman can be distrained if the offender cannot fulfill his legal obligations. Of course, the kin can reclaim all losses due to such distraints from the original offender, who can be ejected from kin if he fails to satisfy the claims of his kin - an act by which the offender looses all his legal rights.
If a member of the kin is illegally killed, his or her kinsmen get a share of the e/raic (body-fine), and if the culprit fails to pay the kinsmen are expected to prosecute a blood-feud against him.
Especially abhorred is the act of slaying a member of ones kin "fingal". A kin-slayer forfeits his share of the kin-land, but is still liable to pay for offences by other kin-members.
The head of the kin is known as the a/gae fine or cenn (sometimes conn) fine. He is chosen from among the kin (probably by election) on the basis of superior wealth, rank and good sense, and acts and speaks for his kin at public occasions.


Even though kinship is determined by the paternal line primarily, maternal kin also plays some role. On marriage a woman does not completely sever her connections with her own kin. The maternal kin is also required to take part in a blood-feud if a child of one of its daughters is killed and the culprit doesn't pay, gets a part of the e/raic of such slain children and has to intervene if such a child's fosterage is improperly carried out.



Basically, there exist three categories of persons in Irish Law. The first and most important one is the category of "nemed", meaning more or less "noble, privileged" (literally "sacred"), consisting of the actual nobility and some of the craftsmen. The next one is the category of the freemen, consisting of the remaining craftsmen and the farmers, and finally there are the unfree. I will take a look at the laws in regard to all of those ranks in descending order.


To the rank of "nemed" belong, basically, five categories of persons, being: the king, the nobles, the hospitallers, the clerics and the poets. Additionally some texts speak of "doer nemed" ("base nemed") people which includes the physician, the judge, blacksmith, coppersmith, harpist, carpenter and other craftsmen as the lower part of the nemed rank, but it is clear that those ranks did not enjoy all the privileges of the abovementioned five groups of persons.
Nemed rank confers some privileges. E.g., the property of a nemed cannot be distrained (legal term to be explained later) in the usual manner, instead it has first to be fasted against him. He is also immune from some legal obligations. However, also a nemed person doesn't stand entirely above the law. As an example, an absconder from law (for instance somebody who didn't pay the fines due to him as covered earlier) cannot find refuge with a nemed, however high the rank of this nemed might be.


There are some differing categories of kings, which I will cover in the Social Structures treatment more detailed. Basically this differences depend on how many tu/atha are under the control of such a king, and the honour-price of a king can thereby vary between 7 and 14 cumals (legal term which will be explained later). There are certain legal requirements for a king, not fulfilling any of these can result in a reduction or even loss of his honour-price and, accordingly, his status. These requirements are:


This requirement covers pretty much of the betterknown requirements for a king which frequently appear in the epics. Into this category fall such restrictions as not working with mallet, spade or axe, always be accompanied by a proper retinue, not defaulting from ones oath, being able to enforce ones right, of course making correct judgments but also cowardice in battle (a wound in the neck when fleeing from a battle reduces his rank to that of commoner except when breaking through the enemies lines and being wounded in the neck then), physical disfigurement and breaking ones geisi. The well known expected result for a breach of the kings justice is the rebellion of earth against the king: If he breaches it there will be infertility and bad natural conditions and political instability.


seems not to be part of a kings rights according to Early Irish Law. However, a king can issue an ordinance (rechtgae) in times of emergency.


Obviously most law-enforcement was done through an elaborate system of suretyship, pledging and distraint (all explained later), so the king was not directly involved in the usual law-enforcement procedures. However, in case of emergency ordinances (rechtgae, see above) and in legal problems extending over the borders of one tu/ath the king was required to enforce the law on behalf of his subjects.


Obviously a king was required at least to be present in more important law cases (along with the bishop and chief poet) and to approve judgments made in such cases, if not having to judge in such cases himself. It also seems that if a judge refuses to swear in support of his judgment, the case is referred to the king, so the king seems to function as the final institution in law cases that cannot be decided by lesser judges.


Of course the king has to observe the law as any other member of the tu/ath. However, if for any reason a legal claim arises against the king the king may be represented by a "substitute churl" (aithech fortha), a man of low rank dependent on the king which can be legally distrained without affecting the honour of the king. If the king has no such substitute churl, the plaintiff can still distrain the king, but only through a very special procedure.


Basically the rights of a lord are mainly to his clients, as they make up his status. A lord must have a certain number of clients to be a lord at all, the lowest level being the so-called aire de/so (literally "lord of vassalry") which has 5 free and 5 base clients (free and base clientship will be explained later).
However, a lord has to be fair against his clients, he looses his honour if not fulfilling his obligations towards his clients, and may also loose his honour-price for various offenses including refusal of hospitality, sheltering a fugitive from the law, tolerating satire, eating food known to be stolen, and betraying his honour.
Additionally there exist relatively detailed descriptions of what he has to own additionally to having the required number of clients, up to the size of his house and number of beds in it.
Additionally a lord can have dependants of unfree rank (in contrast to the clients which are freemen) This includes the fuidir (semifree tenant, who cannot make a legal contract without permission of his lord and has to fulfill any task the lord chooses to assign him to (in difference to clients which have a fixed set of tasks to fulfill). The fuidir has to be maintained by the lord who also has to pay for any offences, but may himself collect any penalties due to offences against the fuidir. However, the fuidir may leave his lords property if he leaves behind no liabilities or debts and surrenders 2/3 of the produce of his husbandry to his former lord. Then there is the bithach (literally "cottier, one who lives in a hut") which is usually equated with fuidir, the distinction between the ranks being unclear. Finally there is the senchle/ihte, which is a bothach or fuidir whose forebears have occupied the same land for at least three generations. Senchle/ithe literally means "ancient dwelling". Such a person is not a slave, but is bound to the land and cannot renounce his tenancy. If the land changes owner, so does the senchle/ithe.


All householders are to some extent under obligation to provide hospitality to any freeman in Irish Law. However, for a hospitaller this obligation is said to be limitless (KELLY 1988, 36). He has to provide hospitality to everyone, as often he may come, and not keep an account against anybody who comes. A hospitaller stays of this rank until he refuses hospitality. "The office of briugu seems to have been one by which a wealthy man of non-noble birth could acquire high rank" (KELLY 1988, 36).


There's nothing much to say about the Clerics apart that they had to be a man of the Church and fulfill the expected duties. Else than that an additional fine is entailed by any serious offence against clerics or church property.
Where the church acted as a lord (i.e. as a landowner or by having clients) all laws relating to lords and clients were to be obeyed by both parties as if the church were a lord.


The only lay professional who had full nemed status were the poets, whose main function it obviously was to praise and satirize. According to the text Bretha Nemed a poet derives his status from three skills: "imbas forosna" (encompassing knowledge which illuminates), "teinm la/eda" (breaking of marrow?) and "di/chetal di chennaub" (chanting from heads?) (KELLY 1988, 44).
The main right of a poet was that for every poem commissioned by a patron he received a fee (du/as) depending on his rank and the nature of the composition. He is however expected to produce quality, if he doesn't he looses his nemed status. If the poet is not paid he has the right to satirize his patron.
Irish law recognizes two kinds of poets, the fili and - inferior in status and accomplishment - the bard, who receives only half the honourprice of a fili of the same rank.


It seems to have been possible for women to become a full-fledged poet. It seems, however, that this was regarded as unusual, maybe only taking place when a poet had no sons and one of his daughters showed aptitude for his profession.


Into this category fall all the freemen and all craftsmen which are not specifically noted under nemed rank as well as lawyers, physicians and druids. Basically, all those persons have independent legal ability, they can make contracts, give pledges or function as sureties for matters that are not above their honour-price. Some of these can also come together to make legal dealings up to the sum of their honour-prices (usually in case of swearing in court together, called compurgation). Additionally, those of doernemed rank usually have some legal abilities or privileges according to their profession.


The craftsmen, and here I include also the lawyers, physicians and druids have some additional legal privileges coming from their profession. These mainly fix the sums due to them if they carry out their job (as the 1/12 of the legal claim that goes to the lawyer or the feeding due to a physician that cares for a wounded or sick person), and adversely set the rules for what they have to pay as a penalty if they commit any error in making their job (as the judge pronouncing a false judgment).


in the household of a king or lord are treated separately here because they have an independent legal capacity of some kind (although the full extent as to how much independent legal capacity they had is not exactly known), but their honour-price (and thereby the fines and penalties for offenses against them) are fractures (usually one-half) of the honour-price of their lord.


Finally we have the group of legally incompetent persons (also called "senseless", ir. ba/eth or e/conn). These persons have no independent legal capacity and therefore cannot make a contract without authorization of their legal guardian, they cannot carry out distraint, act as witnesses or sureties or give pledges. However, some of them have some limited legal capacity of their own, especially the woman and the son of a living father.


Even though women have no independent legal right usually there are some exceptions to this rule, most of concerning marriage and divorce. A woman had always some limited influence on the joint property she shared with her husband and, depending on her status in marriage, full influence on her own property if she had one, with the only limitation that the husband could at any time renounce any contract she had made which he considered detrimental to their joint household, a capacity that a wife had in regard to contracts made by her husband as well.
Generally, the honour-price of a primary woman (c/etmuinter) is half that of her husband, concubines (all further women) are rated usually at half of that of a primary woman. However, concubines may choose if they want to be under the legal rule of kin, husband or sons. A primary wife is usually expected to be of the same social rank as her husband.
Wife's had to be bought more or less in Irish law by giving a bride-price (coibche) to the father of which the bride gets a share. In contrast to most other early legal system, Irish law does not seem to care about bridal virginity, even though there are some hints that virginity was expected in case of the chief wife.
Divorce was permitted for many reasons, and depending, depending on the kind of marriage and on who was the one "legally responsible" for the breaking of the marriage received less or even nothing from of the joint property. Separation without fines or penalty is also possible.
Additionally a woman has legal capacity in regard to "her" property, she can give a plead on behalf of another from it (i.e. her embroidery needle, work-bag or dress) and can also function as a witness in case of problems in regard to her household or women's jobs like weaving.
Offences by women were cared for by her legal guide, who had to pay any debt or penalties, while any debts or penalties for offences against her would have to be paid to her legal guide.


If a man has no sons his daughters can inherit a lifetime interest in his land, which installs her with every legal capacity a man would have. In case she marries a landless men or stranger, the legal roles in marriage are reversed: she pays the fines for him and makes the decisions for their joint-household. However, upon her death, the property is not inherited to her husband or sons, but reverts to her own kin.


An adult son who's father is still alive usually has no legal capacity of his own. However, he can annul any contracts of his father that would damage or diminish his future inheritance, as long as he fulfills his duties as a son (i.e. doesn't leave the land of his father without being given leave, obeys his orders, etc....


Children under the age of 14 have no legal responsibilities and no legal capacity. Between 14 and 20 boys/young men acquire some legal capacity if they inherit land, but this is limited to a certain extent. Conversely, the rank of a man above 20 who has not yet inherited stays limited to that same amount. Offences by and against children are usually dealt with by the father or the kin.
The rearing of children is usually the responsibility of both parents, except when the child was conceived through wrongdoing on the part of the father, in which case he alone is responsible. Usually children would be sent away on fosterage while still very young. Fosterage is a legal contract considered beneficent for both parties. During fosterage, the foster)father is fully responsible (legally) for any offences committed by the foster-child.


Any offences committed by or against insane persons is dealt with by their legal guardian. They have no independent legal capacity at all. However, exploitation of an insane person is against the law.


Some physical disabilities may also limit legal capacities of a person (i.e. such a person cannot be king, or somebody infertile may not marry). Mocking somebody for a physical disability incurs a heavy fine.


Basically, a slave has no legal rights at all.



The main items of property mentioned in the laws are land, buildings, livestock, domestic and farm utensils, weapons, clothes and ornaments. (KELLY 1988, 99).


Land is probably the most important kind of property in Irish law at all, as someone owning no land cannot be legally independent. The basic unit of land usually mentioned in the law texts is called a "cumal", a legal term that literally means "female slave" but came to be used as a legal unit for different purposes as in this case. Such a cumal of land probably had the size of about 13.85 hectares, and had a value of between 8 dry cows for bogland and 24 milch cows for best arable land.
Most of the farmland seems to have been "fintiu" (kin-land), which was divided between all adult male kinmembers to be farmed. Every one of these farms as an individual, but some control about what he does with this land remains with the kin, e.g. he can't sell it or parts of it without permission of the kin.
If somebody has acquired further land (because of successful farming or success in a profession or whatever reason else, as long it is legally acquired and not kinland of his own kin), he may dispose of it according to his wishes much easier. Still, the kin retains a right to a certain share of it (2/3rds to 1/3 rd depending on why the owner could acquire it), which becomes part of the kinland at his death.
A certain part of the territory of each tuath is attached to the function of kingship, it becomes the property of each king when he becomes king.
The land owned by a man is usually inherited by his sons, the process of dividing taking place in the way that the youngest son divides the holdings in equal parts, and then the eldest has the first choice, the second eldest the second, and so on. Every son from a legal (i.e. approved by the kin) marriage has a right to get his share from this, so sons from second wife's and concubines do inherit as much as those of the primary wife do. Sons of illegal or unusual marriages (e.g. if a banchomarbae marries a man from a foreign country) usually don't inherit, or at the best get a smaller share than "legal" children.
In some cases kinland may also be redistributed amongst the kin, giving a greater share to a more prolific branch of the kin from a less prolific with large holdings. However, a minimum of land worth 14 cumals (the requirements of property for a bo/aire) would still go to any heir and only what remained after that would be redistributed to other groups of the kin. Female inheritance of land only was possible in case that there were no sons of the deceased. Under certain conditions, adoption could also qualify somebody for inheritance of land.
Cooperative farming between neighbors was usual in case of such farmers who had only little property, the most common form of this is co-ploughing, but also joint-herding was common. Such cooperation's were to be bound by contracts (contracts will be explained in detail later).
Additionally, there existed some other rights on land. Private ownership of land is something very important in Irish Law, being extended even to mines and fishing-rights, but still there were some "common" rights on land, such as collecting enough wood to make a fire, a quick dip of a fishing net into a stream, collecting a handful of hazel-nuts if one is hungry etc., as long as one is a person of legal standing. Probably there were also some limited rights to hunt on someone's land, however, the owner of the land in any case got a share of everything hunted on his land, with the share greater if he had not given permission to the hunter.
Additionally to this, landholders had more expressed rights on the properties of their immediate neighbors. If necessary, he can cut a mill-race through the neighbors land, provided he pays compensation for the value of the land. Where there was no other access, he was allowed drive his cattle, if properly supervised, across his neighbors land. Even the problem of the fruit of a neighbors tree falling on one's land is regulated.
Doing damage to the land of somebody else is considered as an offence, be it made by a person or by domestic animals. In the case this happens, the offender (the owner in case of animals) has to pay a fine.


There are a number of laws that treat buildings and damage to them. First, a certain of ones house and a certain number of ones buildings is required for certain social strata of society. The typical bo/aire, for instance, has a dwelling-house of at least 27 feet diameter, and outhouse of 15 feet, a kiln, a barn, a pig-sty, a calf-pen and a sheep-pen.
Damage to any part of the house brings about a heavy penalty, starting with such offences as crossing a man's courtyard without his permission, or opening the door of his house or looking into it unbidden. There are also detailed fines for damage to any part of the house, regulations that tell with how much damage to the door-post of the front or back-door has to be compensated, and so on.


As with the other kinds of property already mentioned, there are also some minimum requirements in moveable property to keep up a certain social status. As such, we have a very complete description of what was expected to be in the possession of a bo/aire, starting from the tools for agriculture, over his animals, to his and his wife's clothing. Especially noted were some parts of the equipment, like ornaments, weapons, clothing and vessels which were usually used as pledges (for pledges see later).
Moveable property could be transferred in a number of ways, but almost all of these are contracts. However, a few words should be said here on Irish currency. Through all the law texts, a very complex system of currency is used, basically because there was no "fixed" currency in the way of coins in Ireland before the 11th century AD, the law texts however were mainly taken down in this period where more than one currency system existed. However, as in fact all offences against the law can be compensated through payment of fines, currency units are frequently used throughout the texts.


As already noted elsewhere, the basic meaning of Cumal was "female slave". It is, however, in the law texts most often used as a unit of value. It can be assumed that originally it were really female slaves that had to be given, but in the time the texts were written down we can be pretty sure that this was no longer in practice, but instead a payment of the equivalent value in other currency was made.


Cattle probably was the main kind of currency used, and is also the predominant kind of currency used in the law texts. The basic unit here is the milch cow (lulgach or bo/ mlicht), usually accompanied by her calf. 2/3rds of her value is the in-calf cow (bo/ inla/eg), the three year-old dry heifer (samaisc) is half the value of the milch cow, the two year-old heifer (colpthach) 1/3rd, the yearling heiifer (dairt) 1/4th and finally the yearling bullock (dartaid) at 1/8th. Below this, values are given in sheep, fleeces or sacks of grain.

(Silver) OUNCE

Even though coins as currency seem to have been rare, two terms have been taken over from Latin to the Irish currency system: ungae (from Latin uncia "ounce") which is made up from 24 screpul (from Latin scripulus "scruple").SE/T

Usually used as the unit for honour-prices below the level of kings, se/t (treasure, jewel, valuable) is also used in fines.


The usual relation between those currencies seem to have been:1 cumal = 3 milch cows = 3 ounces of silver = 6 se/ts. However, there also exist some texts that have slight variations of these relations, and some even have strong deviances like in Ca/in Aicillne, where the relation of 1 cumal = 20 sets is given.


Movable property of course can get lost. Basically Irish laws deal with lost property in a way that the closer it is found to the home of the one who lost it, the smaller is the share of the one who finds it. The share of the finder is increased if the item is found in a frequented or likely place. The finder of lost property had to proclaim his find throughout the territory.
If property is deposited (by whatever means and whatever reason) on the land of somebody else, the owner of this land is entitled to "autsad" (storage-fee?). The same principle is applied in Bechbretha, where the owner of a land on which a swarm of known origin settles is entitled to ownership of the bees or a share of their produce.



Contract Law is one of the most important parts of Irish Law (in my eyes THE most important). So to say, everything that one does that goes beyond farming for his own needs has to be bound by contracts. The primary text on Early Irish Contract Law, Di Astud Chor, has been edited and translated lately by Neil McLeod and published in the Sidney Series for Celtic Studies 1, 1995.


Basically, it can be assumed that the most common legal act in early Irish society was the verbal contract or "cor be/l" (lit. putting of lips), often only referred to as "cor". Contracts were seen as the exchange of "fe/ich" (obligations). The parties involved in a contract were called "fe/chem". The obligation accepted by each contracting party is to render "folud" (consideration" to the other. The acceptance of this obligation in turn creates an entitlement ("dliged") to the counter-consideration ("frithfolud") promised by the other party (McLEOD 1995, 14).
Basic regulation in regard to a contract is that a person cannot make a contract independently for an amount greater than his honour-price. If he still wants to make such a contract he must get permission from his kin. Equally, witnesses and sureties can only secure contracts up to their honour price (or parts of contracts up to their honour-price) (KELLY 1988, 158).
For a formal contract there were certain legal requirements:


For a contract to become formal it was necessary to appoint some witnesses who were specifically charged to note and preserve in their memories the terms of the contract. The technical term for such a contractual witness was "roach", though usually the term for eye-witness, "fi/adu" is used in the law texts. In church law these witnesses were often replaced through written evidence.


Each party in a contract usually had to bring a surety for their part of the deal. The sureties fulfilled the role of enforcers of the contract, in two ways. First, sureties usually were of higher social standing than the contracting party, so they were more vulnerable to disgrace if the contract wasn't fulfilled by the party they secured. Second, they were in a better position to ensure the adherence to the contract than the other party to it. Usually the surety was a superior to the person making a contract, be it the father for his son, the lord for his clients, the abbot for his monmastic subordinates.
There were three basic types of surety. The first is the "naidm" or "macc", the "enforcing surety", which promised his honour that the party that had invoked him as a surety would not default from the contract. If it still did, he had to distrain (see for distraint later) the defaulter and, in addition, was entitled to his honour-price from the defaulter. The second type of surety is the "ra/th", the "paying surety". The paying surety guaranteed that he would make good from his own resources the debts of his party, if it defaulted and the naidm failed to enforce payment. In such cases, however, the ra/th was also entitled to his honour-price and to recover, with interest, the amount he had paid to satisfy the claims of the creditor. (McLEOD 1995, 17). The third type of surety was the "aitire", the "hostage-surety", who was most probably invoked in cases where the status of involved persons was so high that enforcing them would have shown as problematic or in cases where contracts were made to avoid blood-feuds, and in case of sick-maintenance. If in this case the party of the hostage surety defaulted, he had to submit himself to the aggravated party. The defaulter then had 10 days to ransom the hostage, after which the liberty and life of the hostage were forfeit. The hostage could redeem himself with paying the corp-dire (Body-price) for a human body in Irish Law (7 cumals), which he of course then was entitled to recover from the defaulter, who remained liable to the contract as well.
Contracts without a naidm and a ra/th were generally considered unenforceable.


However, in case that somebody invoked "the men of heaven and the gospel of Christ", i.e. gives an spiritual oath, the contract is also valid.


There were certain formulae with which contracts were made, and probably a handshake was also part of the binding of a contract.


However, the contracting parties had a certain period in which they could cancel the contract. This time is the until the sunset on the day the contract was made (and later seems to have been extended on a 24-hour period). Once this time has elapsed the contract becomes binding unless it has some defect capable of grounding rescission.


There are some situations which make a contract invalid. Under these fall for instance contracts made under duress, in fear, or drunken (in the last case however this doesn't apply to co-ploughing agreements, which are fully valid even when made while drunk). Also the earlier contracts take precedence over later ones.
If a contract contains a fault which could not be reasonably detected by the disadvantaged party, the contract can be rescinded or adjusted.
Also certain people cannot make independent contracts of their own, like minors, lunatics, slaves, captives or aliens, so any contract with them is invalid.
Additionally, in close social relationships, e.g. husband-wife, father-(grown-up) son, abbot-monk, some additional regulations and limitations exist on the ability of a person to make legal contracts. Basically in those cases, the superior can cancel out almost any contract of his inferior (i.e. the father of his son, husband of wife , ...), while the inferior can only cancel out such contracts of his superior that could be detrimental to itself (so if the father wants to sell all his land, the son can object, as this will diminish his social status upon inheriting, as we already know that Social Status depends in part on the land possessed).


An important part in contract procedure is fulfilled by pledges ("gell"). A pledge is an object of value delivered by its owner for a fixed period into the custody of another (KELLY 1988, 164). Basically, a pledge shows the willingness of a person to meet the other's claim in a certain amount of time, or to submit the case to arbitration where it is disputed. Usually, the pledge is an object closely associated with the life of the one who gives it, so a champion would pledge his weapon, a farmer one of his tools, a noble a precious brooch and similar. Only a kink, a church dignitary or a lord may pledge objects of gold.
Pledges may already be given before any offence has taken place. E.g. it was expected from neighboring farmers to exchange fore-pledges ("argyle") to show their willingness to at least submit cases of injury of animals and especially animal trespass (explained later) to arbitration.
As well as giving pledges on ones own behalf, a person may give a pledge on behalf of another. In this case, he is entitled to receive an interest ("fuillem") as long as the intem is out of his possession. In case the pledged item becomes forfeit, the interest is increased and a heavy compensation has to be paid to the former owner.



Additionally to the mentioned legal rights and obligations there were a number of actions considered as legal offences.



The most serious offence against another person is to kill it. However, in difference to many other legal systems, killing was not punished by making the offender subject to the same fate as his victim, but the law allowed the killer to atone for his crime by payment.

As it seems, this payment was made up of two basic types of fine and had usually to be paid to the victim's kin.

The first type of fine is the fixed penalty for homicide, which amounts to 7 cumals for every freeman, irrespective of rank. It is generally called "e/raic" (in later Old Irish replaced by "cro/"). This goes to the victim's derbfine, apart from the enforcer's third (trian tobaig) which may be deduced if it is necessary for payment to be enforced by a lord or other person of power. (KELLY 1988, 126)

The second kind of fine is based on the honour-price ("lo/g n-enech") of the victim's kin. Every member of the victim's kin get's a certain fraction of his honour-price, starting with his full honour price if it is a very close relative of him (i.e. father, mother, sons, daughters, brothers & sisters), half of it if one step away (Paternal uncle/maternal aunt), down to one seventh for the killing of foster brother or foster) father. It is clear from that that killing could be extremely expensive if the victim was of high rank.

If for whatever reason the payment isn't made, the victim's kin can hold the killer captive and do anything with him what's to their liking, from selling him into slavery to putting him to death. If the killer escapes and his kin doesn't pay the fines, the victim's kin is obliged to carry out a blood-feud to exact vengeance (dii/gal) on behalf of the victim. If the victim was a lord of any kind, his base-clients must join the vengeance-party.

FINGAL (Kin-slaying)

It is clear from the above that in case of kinslaying the above system of atonement by payment doesn't work (as the kin would have to compensate itself). Additionally, it can't be avenged by other members of the kin as they then would commit fingal themselves if they put the killer to death.

So the usual punishment for this act is that the offender is thrown out of the kin and thereby looses all legal rights. He more or less becomes a non-person.


Secret killing is basically the same offence as simple killing, but in this case the murderer either conceals the body, leaves it in the wilderness or fails to acknowledge his crime. As in most early societies, this is considered as a more serious crime than normal slaying, and therefore, if found guilty, the offender has to pay twice the normal amount for killing.


Irish laws recognizes some forms of killings that do not entail a penalty, and therefore have to be considered "legal" killings. This ranges from killing in a battle over to kill a thief while caught in the act of stealing to killing an unransomed captive (cimbid) who may be killed by the individual or kin he wronged. It is also allowed to kill in self-defense (although that's a somewhat complex matter).


For injuries there also has to be paid compensation, varying according to how severe the injury was and if there stay any lasting blemishes. If a person is not fully recovered after nine days, a physician judges if the person will ever recover at all. If not, the offender has to pay the severe penalty for "cro/lige ba/is" (blood-lying of death), more than the usual penalty for killing. However, this fee frees him of any further obligations, may the victim now die or recover.


If the victim is not fully recovered after the nine days, but the physician believes that he will recover, the offender must take him on "folog n-othrusa" (sick-maintenance, often referred to simply as "othrus"). This entails bringing the injured person to the house of a third party and nursing him at the culprit's expense until he is cured. Sick-maintenance is considered a formal contract and therefore has to be bound with pledges and sureties.

Additionally, a lot of provisions are made as to what is required for sick-maintenance, form how many persons the victim may take with him as his retinue, if he is allowed to one, up to how much food he and his retinue have to get while being on sick-maintenance.

However, even in the time of the writing of the law texts, this practice was about to be replaced by payment instead of sick-maintenance, as this practice doubtlessly was cumbersome for all involved parties.


Under certain circumstances, injuries are also not illegal and no penalty has to be paid for such injuries. Included in this list are bloodshed by a competent physician during authorized surgery, or by children during a game (as long as no foul play is involved, by opponents in a duel and so on.


Irish Law discerns two kinds of rape ("forcor" and "sleth"), even though for both the same penalties apply. Forcor hereby refers to forcible rape, while sleth covers all kinds of situations where a woman is subjected to intercourse without her consent.

Whatever the kind of rape was, the rapist must pay the honour-price of the victim's superior (usually father, husband, son or guardian), and the full e/raic if the victim was a girl in marriageable age, a chief wife or a nun that has not renounced the veil, half that for any other kind of woman. If the victim becomes pregnant as a result of the rape, the rapist is fully responsible for rearing the child.

However, there are some cases where rape incurs no penalty, whatever kind it may be. In most cases this applies where the woman raped was promiscuous or adulterous, such as prostitutes or a married woman that agrees to meet another man. However, it the woman conceals the rape, there is also no penalty for it. If the rape happens in a town or settlement, the woman is obliged to call for help, but not so if the assault is made in the wilderness.


Her full honour-price must be paid to a woman kissed against her will. If her dress is raised, she also has to be compensated (even though we do not know how as this is not stated). AN assailant has to pay ten ounces of silver fro touching a woman or putting his hand inside her girdle and seven cumals and three ounces for putting his hand under her dress to defile her.


For satirizing a person ("a/erad - to strike" or "rindad - to cut") the penalty was the payment of the victim's full honour-price. This included a wide range of verbal assaults, like mocking a person's appearance, coining a nickname which sticks or composing or repeating a satire. Even mocking a person's defect by gesture may make a person guilty of satire. Also if a person is satirized after death, the full honour-price, as if he were still alive, is paid to his kin.

However, a satire may be legal, and was used as a legal instrument, as it was one of the pressures, especially against peoples of high rank, to obey the law. If a person, especially kings and nobles, tolerates a satire, he looses his honour-price. As such, if the satire was illegal he had to extract compensation from the offender, if not he had to give a pledge that he would pay whichever fines he owed.

In case of satire the satire could also be publicly retracted by composing a praise-poem. Such an act would cancel the original satire.


Hospitality was considered as a duty of every freeman. Thus, to refuse somebody food and shelter where it is due makes the offender guilty of the offence of "esa/in" (lit."driving away", also termed "etech", refusal) and requires a compensation appropriate to the injured party's rank. The only exceptions to this practice are the ranks of fer midboth and o/caire, which had due to their lacking of property only to provide hospitality to their lord as set in their clientship contract.

On the other hand, in some cases, hospitality has to be refused. A known criminal must not be fed or protected.

If a person indirectly causes another to refuse hospitality (for instance if not returning borrowed food in due time), he must himself pay the honour-price of the embarrassed host.


One of the important principles of Irish Law was the right of a freeman to give legal protection ("sna/dud", also "turtugud") for a certain period of time to another person of equal or lower rank. To kill or injure a person under protection is to commit the crime of "di/guin" (violation of protection), for which the offender has to pay the protector's honour-price additionally to any other fines payable due to his deed.

Additionally, any freeman was also felt to exercise permanent protection over his own house and its environs, known as "maigen di/gona". This usually covered the area he had fenced as his courtyard. If a person was killed or injured inside this area, this action made the culprit guilty of di/guin against the householder. However, it is illegal to give protection to various categories of absconder, e.g. a runaway wife or slave, a fugitive killer, an absconder from his kindred etc. (KELLY 1988, 141).


Of course, the laws do not only care about offences against the person, but also for offences against a person's property. There's a wide range of texts dealing with damage done to grass, crops, trees, breaking of fences up to erecting of a building on another's land.


Probably one of the most common legal problem in ancient Ireland was that of Animal trespass. The text "Bretha Comaithchesa" (judgements of neighborhood) deals extensively with such situations. It is recommended by this text that neighbors give fore-pledges to each other to lessen the chances of disputes arising from such instances. Of course, a landowner cannot claim for any damage done to his property by his neighbor's animals, if he has his land inadequately fenced. The four legal types of fences therefore are described in detail in Bretha Comaithchesa.
If it, however, happens that a man has his land adequately fenced and still an animal of his neighbor gets on his land (by breaking through the fence in whatever way), the general principle of the law is to relate the amount of compensation to the amount of damage done. Following from this, the penalty when cattle breaks into a meadow is twice as much as if it breaks in moorland. Similarly, grazing-trespass is more severely penalized in winter, when grass is scare, than in summer, where it exists in abundance.
Additionally, certain kinds of animal trespass may be specially penalized. E.g. if pigs do not only eat the grass but also root up the ground, their owner has to lend alternative land until the damage to the field has been restored. As well there are special penalties if a dog defecates on the land of a neighbor.
If there is malice or neglect on part of the owner of the trespassing animal, the penalty is greater, as then this is considered as "human trespass" (duine-chaithig) rather than animal trespass (rop-chaithig). This also applies where a farmer drives his cattle onto his neighbor's land, or deliberately breaks down a fence. This also applies if the farmer lets his animals trespass across three or four holdings. Similarly, trespass by night involves twice the penalty than by day, because "cattle should be locked up in an enclosure by night" (KELLY 1988, 143).
Animals that cannot be reasonably restraint by fences, like bulling bulls, cows in heat and similar induce no penalties. Cutting trees is considered as human trespass if it happens on another one's land.


Basically the same principle applies here as it does with trespass: The penalty is in relation to the damage done. Additionally, if buildings are used without the consent of the owner, a like penalty applies.
Exception to this rule are damage to a person's mill which is used illegally, in this case the honour-price of the owner has to be paid additionally to restoration of the damage.
As most buildings in the time of the law texts were built from wood, there seem to have been special considerations about arson. However, the text on this, "Bretha Forloiscthe" (judgements of arson) has not come down on us, so its contents can only be glimpsed at from a few surviving commentaries. Apparently, the text distinguished between fires caused by neglect and such set deliberately, and laid down the fines for the burning of various buildings and for causing death or injuries to people or animals inside. Nonetheless, a king is entitled to perpetrate arson on his royal circuits if his subjects have evaded their duties towards him. (KELLY 1988, 145).


Little is known from the surviving Irish law texts on damage to moveable property, but it can be assumed from what we know that a restitution had to be paid which equaled the worth of the damaged object, as it is in Welsh law. No fines had to be paid if the damage was done to precious objects, as the owner was expected to keep them safe.
More attention is devoted to the damage of livestock in the Irish laws. Here the same principle applies as in case of animal trespass. Additionally, there existed a separate text on dogs, "Conslechta" in which injuries by and to dogs were treated, but of this only a few quotations and commentaries have survived.


Once again, the main text on that matter,"Bretha im Gata" (judgements of theft), is missing. We can, however, guess at what stood in that text from various other texts. The basic principle is, that if you steal something, you have to give back twice the amount of the stolen good, except when the stealing involved large livestock, where four times to five times the amount stolen had to be returned.
Additionally, if you stole something from the property of a third person (so if something belonging to A but lent to B), additionally the honour-price of the person from which's land the item was stolen has to be paid, one third of which goes to the person to which the item belonged, two thirds to the person from which's land it was stolen.
As far as we can guess from other texts, there was also distinguished between theft by stealth (gat) and theft with violence (brat). If this paralleled the Welsh law, where theft by stealth induced a higher fine than one with violence is not known.
Additionally, the place from which a good was stolen was taken into consideration. The rule is, the further it is from the house, the less penalty has to be paid.
However, some cases of "theft" were allowed to any freeman, such as taking something from a burning building, from a corpse on a battlefield, scrap metal from a forge, the sweepings of a treshing-floor and similar waste.
The sale of stolen goods is included in the list of invalid contracts, and the man who receives these goods is considered a "fer medo/ngaite" (man of middle theft), but only if he knows that the goods are stolen. If a thief brings stolen items into the house of somebody, he must pay half of the honour-price of the householder, if he brings it only into the airlise (the enclosed area around the house), he has to pay one seventh.
Stolen goods may not be reclaimed if they crossed the border as part of the recompense for the violation of a treaty.
A habitual thief looses all his rights in society. If he has to be punished, the usual punishment is hanging.


There are a number of situations in which liability for an offence may be reduced or even cancelled.


Even though usually offences entail a penalty, there are certain cases where there is no liability for the offender, as the offence happened accidentally. As such, no compensation can be claimed if one gets hurt when getting to close to a working craftsmen, or in any case where the person or thing damaged was knowingly exposed to a dangerous situation. As such, no penalty can be claimed if a person is injured by horses during an "o/enach" (feast), or boys injured during play (like hurling).
(A special note for our weapon-training fans: "However, if a boy is injured in the more dangerous 'fi/anchluichi', "paramilitary games", such as spearthrowing or hurling rocks, the culprit's kin must apparently provide sick-maintenance" [KELLY 1988, 151])
Normally, the owner of an animal is responsible for any damage it does, there are however some cases in which this doesn't apply and the damage is considered being an accident.


"Anfis" (ignorance) may halve the penalty for an offence, such as in cases of illegal distraint, or killing a clerical student whose status was not known to the killer. It sometimes may even cancel out any penalty. For instance, a lord eating stolen food in ignorance is not committing any crime.
Ordinary, if an offence is committed, the injured party must take the appropriate measures against the culprit. If he fails to do so within a fixed period. If not, the case "dies from negligence", but ignorance of any damage done can expand this time limit.


Here the legal principle seems to be "an offence committed through negligence entails only restitution" (CIH 2195.12-3). However, in some cases negligence requires more than restitution, e.g. when driving somebody else's cattle. If an injury or death is caused by negligence, this may halve the penalty.


A penalty for an offence may be cancelled if it is committed under mental or physical stress. As such, the jealous first wife is legally entitled to inflict injury on her husband's second wife under certain circumstances (KELLY 1988, 153), but also herbs for an invalid or a morsel of food desired by a pregnant woman can be taken without penalty.


There is no hint that damage or injury are treated more lenient when committed under drunkenness. However, contracts made when either party was drunk are usually invalid, except for contracts of joint ploughing, clientship or in regard to the law of neighbourship.


Usually his legal guardian is responsible for the deeds of an insane person. However, some things like injuries caused by missiles thrown by an insane person are treated as accidents and therefore no compensation is due.


A person who is witness of an offence may be guilty of "aircsiu" or "forcsiu" (both meaning "looking-on"). There are quite a number of cases where this can happen. Additionally, there are a number of cases where an onlooker may become an accessory to a crime. This entails various penalties, starting with the full penalty for the one who instigates a crime, accompanies the criminal and exults in it when it is done, down to one quarter of the fine for the original crime for somebody looking on but not trying to stop a crime. Of course, everyone trying to stop a crime as well as persons of which was not expected that they could stop it like clergy, women, children and persons of unsound mind would not have to pay any penalties. Additionally, every informer who betrays a criminal undertaking, even though he may himself have been involved, is free from liability.
A person who provides hospitality or protection to a known criminal is also regarded as an accessory.


Usually, a men's personal offences die with him and do not pass on to his heirs. However, if a man dies while committing an offence, his heirs are liable to pay the fines for this one offence.
If a man is hostage-surety (aitire), his responsibilities do not pass on to his heirs. However, if he has been paying-surety (ra/th), liabilities which he has incurred through his suretyship do pass on to his heirs in the derbfine (KELLY 1988, 157). Such liabilities and debts on a person's property do not become settled until the fourth generation.
Heirs, however, are not entitled to things loaned out while the owner died.



After having dealt with the prescriptions the laws make, we will now proceed to actual legal procedure. So to say, what happens, if one of the aforementioned laws is violated?


Basically, legal procedure in Ireland was not directly a matter of public administration, which was, in the times the laws were written down, still in an embryonic stage. As such, it was required of the wronged individual or his kin to take care of his legal rights by himself in most of the cases. To do this, he usually has to proceed along a legally defined path to set his claims.
In case of contract law this usually was made by declaring the pledge of the other side as forfeit, thereby forcing the other side either to loose their honour or to settle the claims in court. However, in cases where no pledges had been given there were other methods required if the offending party did not fulfill the claims of the claimant and the whole case had to be brought in front of a court.
The most common form of stating ones claims and thereby initiating a lawcase is distraint, i.e. usually carrying away a certain number of animals, most often cattle, equivalent to the worth of the claim, from the offender (or in some cases from a substitute from him). It is described in great detail in "Di Chetharslicht Athgaba/la" (on the four sections of distraint). The text describes the normal procedure in which distraint has to take place.
Firstly, and this is in fact the initiation of the lawcase, the plaintiff has to give formal notice (airfo/cre or apad) to the defendant that he intends to distrain him. Having done this, there is a delay (anad) of one to five days in which the defendant is given time to react, either by fulfilling his obligations to the claimant (in case of a violated contract), paying whatever fines are due or giving a pledge to signify his readiness to come to terms.
If the defendant fails to react in time, the plaintiff is entitled to enter the land of the defendant and carry off animals to the value of the amount under dispute (to/chsal). This must be made in the early morning in the presence of an "aigne" (advocate). Those animals are to be put in a secure "pound" which may belong to the plaintiff or to somebody else. Any injuries to the animals while in this pound are in the responsibility of the plaintiff.
Now another delay starts to run, called "di/thim" (delay in a pound), probably of the same length as the original delay. If now the defendant settles the claim, he gets his animals back and nothing else happens.
If the defendant however fails to react once again, the final stage of distraint starts. From the end of the second delay on, the animals start to become forfeit, a process known as "lobad" (lit. decay) or "athgaba/l i/ar fut" (distraint with a stay). On the first day, animals in the worth of 5 se/ts become forfeit, from that on, animals in the worth of 3 se/ts per day, until none remains. Once an animal has become forfeit, it cannot be recovered by the defendant, who however can still settle the claims at any time during this "decay", by paying the balance of the amount owed and a fee for the plaintiff's expenses for feeding the cattle while in the pound, thereby regaining all the animals still left over.
There also exists a special form of distraint, called "athgaba/l inmleguin", whereby a surrogate for the defendant is distrained, probably usually a member of the same kin-group as the defendant, even though he might also be a ra/th (surety) that had guaranteed a contract that the defendant has broken. In case of distraint of a surrogate, the period of notification is doubled and the surrogate has to be formally informed for which offence he is being distraint, where they will be impounded, and the identity of a "fethem" (legal representative for the plaintiff). In case of the surrogate being a kinsmen of the defendant, regulation of how he could get back his distrained animals or equivalents therefore would be an internal matter in the kin, if he is a ra/th, he would be entitled to clame back double the amount distrained plus his honour-price from the defendant (and could himself then distrain the defendant for that, if necessary).
In certain cases distraint can also take a ritualized for. E.g. a smith can be distrained by binding a white ribbon across his anvil, thereby "magically" prohibiting him from working on it.
The above described procedures basically work against anyone of less than full nemed rank. In case the person to be distrained is somebody of full nemed rank, special actions have to be taken:


If the defendant is of full nemed rank, the claimant has to fast (troscud) against him to pressurize him to justice. The fast takes place outside the nemed's house and, at least according to later commentaries, only last from sundown to sunrise (thereby the claimant misses the main evening meal) for a certain period, rather than to death or settlement. If fasting takes place, the nemed must guarantee to concede to justice by either appointing a surety or giving a pledge. If he eats during the fast, he must pay twice the amount originally owed. If he holds out against a justified and properly conducted fast, he looses his status and all his legal rights.


A person of nemed rank may have a so-called "aithech fortha" (substitute churl). In case he has, the plaintiff must distrain this substitute churl instead of the nemed himself, if he does still distrain the nemed himself he has to pay the fine for illegal distraint.


There are certain restrictions on the practice of distraint. Various circumstances, like the death of a family member, can allow a postponement, certain animals may not be distrained (like cows that have just calved). Of course, the reason for such postponements have to be genuine and proven by witnesses.
If the claimant does not respect a legal postponement, or distrains animals which he would not be allowed to, or distrains on a holy day or in defiance of the protection (turtugud) of a third party or in some other cases, he is guilty of illegal distraint. The fine for illegal distraint is 5 se/ts.
As there are many and difficult considerations to be made in case of a distraint, and formal procedures are to be followed, it is important to have a professional lawyer (aigne) who carries out the distraint on behalf of the claimant. This lawyer gets one third of the amount distraint as payment.


Legal entry is the procedure to lay claim to a certain piece of land. It is also a very formalized procedure, which is detailed in the text "Din Techtugad" (on legal entry).
The procedure is the following. As a first step, the claimant enters the land, holding two horses, accompanied by a witness and sureties. He immediately withdraws again after this "ce/ttellach" (first entry). The person currently occupying the land may now submit the dispute to arbitration for a period of five days.
If the occupant didn't react, the claimant now enters the land again, ten days after the first entry, accompanied by four horses which are unjoked (and therefore free to graze), two witnesses and sureties, once again withdrawing immediately. This is the so-called "tellach medo/nach" (middle entry). Once again, the current occupant can submit the cause to arbitration, this time he has a three day period.
Twenty days after the original entry, if the current occupant still hasn't reacted, the claimant makes the "tellach de/idenach" (final entry), this time accompanied by eight horses which he may feed and stable, and three witnesses. If now the occupant is willing to submit the case to a judge, the claimant is granted "speedy arbitration", meaning that the case will be heard on the next possible day. If however the current occupant still fails to submit to arbitration, the claimant acquires legal ownership of the disputed property (KELLY 1988, 187). He now has to spend a night on it, kindle a fire, and tend his animals on it.


The procedure for female entry is basically identical to the usual procedure, only that the periods are shortened to 4/8/10/16 days for the respective entries / reactions of current occupants and that the horses are replaced by ewes, and on the final entry, a kneading trough and a sieve for baking have to be brought with her.


It is of course illegal to make such an entry into property to which one has no right. However, also false numbers of animals or other failures in the procedure make the entry illegal. Illegal entry is severely fined and noted, together with illegal distraint and illegal dueling as the three occasions when the Fe/ni (freemen of full legal capacity) prosecute illegality.



To initiate a lawcase at all, the victim (or a relative of him) has to publicly indicate that an offence has been committed, and to take legal action has to hire an advocate to plead on his behalf. Has a lawcase been formally initiated in that way, a court hearing has to take place. This is a formalized action, divided in eight stages which will be described in the following.

Fixing a date for the hearing

This is the first stage in the court procedure. From what we can deduce from some texts, it was probably set to the fifth day after the announcement, with the defendant giving a pledge that he will attend on the third day.

Choosing the "proper path of judgements" by the plaintiff's advocate

There exist five different paths, being fi/r (truth), dliged (entitlement), cert (justice), te/chtae (propriety) and coir n-athchomairc (proper enquiry), which set some specific procedures and bonds for the further process. If the advocate chooses the wrong path or changes it during the process, he has to pay a fine of a cow, the case, however, seems not to be affected by this failure. The five paths do deal with different kinds of offences mainly.

The giving of security (a/rach)

Now, before anything else happens both parties in the lawcase must be bound by either a pledge or a surety that they will abide to the judgements. Which kind of security has to be given hereby depends on the paths chosen above.

Pleading (tacrae)

The pleading takes place in front of one or more judges, in a court (airecht). The more complicated the case, the more judges would be required. The place for this can either be a judge's house or, in case that numerous witnesses, supporters and similar would be involved, an open air location was chosen, probably at a regular site. In front of the court both parties now make their pleading, probably also involving the hearing of witnesses and sureties.

Counter-pleading (frecrae)

The next step is the counter-pleading, in which both advocates try to rebut the other party's case. This also may involve the hearing of witnesses and sureties.

Judgements (breth)

After both parties have commenced their pleading and counter-pleading, the judges make a judgements.

Announcement (forus)

After the judge(s) have come to a decision, the judgements is announced, probably also including an exposition on what basis the judge(s) have come to their judgements.

Conclusion (forbae)

Finally, the case is concluded. This probably involved some ceremonies, and it is likely that also the putting into effect off the judgements was part of this stage.


It is possible to reconstruct the makeup of a court (probably only one for more important cases, in less important ones the dignitaries being mentioned in the following would probably be replaced by lesser ranking dignitaries) from the law texts.

In the center of the court are the judges, in "the court itself (airecht fodesin). At the back of the court (cu/l-airecht) sit the king, the bishop and the chief poet (although these probably could also be replaced by lord, priest and lord's poet, and some of them probably could be missing as well). To the one side of the court, in the "sidecourt" (ta/eb-airecht) sit the historians, overkings, hostages and ra/th- and aitire-sureties. Opposite to this is the socalled "court apart" (airecht fo leith), where naidm- and rath-sureties, witnesses and sureties to contracts (maic cor mbe/l) sit. In front of the court (opposite to the back-court) is the waiting court, where the plaintiff and the defendant (together referred as fe/chemain) and their respective advocates sit.


One of the most important elements of actual court procedure was the swearing of oaths, it was more or less the way how cases were decided.

Overswearing (fortach)

If a case is not clear, and both sides swear to a fact or bring witnesses that swear, the oath of the person of higher rank automatically overrides the oath of one of lesser rank.

Denial by oath (di/thech, di/thach)

By swearing an oath one can "swear away" accusations raised against him.

Oaths on behalf of others (airthech)

Oaths can also be sworn on behalf of other persons, functioning as a complete substitute. So did for instance some saints swear on behalf of their whole people.

Compurgatory oath (imthach)

This practice is one of the most important practices in Celtic law, as it allows each party in a lawcase to back up the value of one's oath with the oaths of other persons to overswear the other party. Each additional person swearing on behalf of one of the parties can add a value up to the worth of his honour-price to the value of the original oath. The party who finally has the higher total honour-price overswears the other one. Such compurgatory oaths only back up the swearing of the principal swearer, in contrast to the airthech which is a complete substitute.

Repudiation (fretech)

If a husband wants to repudiate his wife (ore vice-versa), or a kingroup any of his members, but also by a debtor who has fulfilled his debt and renounces any further claim by his creditor uses this kind of oath.

False oath (e/thech)

A person who swears a false oath is not entitled to give testimony about anyone (KELLY 1988, 201).

Female oath (bannoi/ll)

Usually, a woman's oath is invalid. However, in some special cases a woman's oath is valid, and in some cases even cannot be countersworn (as in the case of a woman in danger of death at childbirth naming the father of the child).


A witness normally has to support his evidence by oath. He normally can only give evidence to something he has seen or heard. Evidence by a single witness is usually also considered invalid, at least two witnesses are needed in a lawcase. There are some exceptions to this rule, as that one trustworthy witness is preferred against two untrustworthy. Any freeman can usually give evidence of up to his honour-price.

Written evidence

Although probably rare prior to Christianity, written evidence is considered an "immoveable rock" which overswears any number of witnesses.

Indirect evidence

Although usually only direct evidence is useable in court, sometimes also indirect evidence may be used. Most of this consists of incriminating behavior on the part of the one suspected of an offence. This includes elements like the breaking of an alibi he has given or showing obvious signs of nervousness if confronted with the case. However, indirect evidence is not of itself conclusive, there have to be other things as well (such as a known criminal history) to give them enough weight to be considered enough to be used to judge against the suspected person.

Inadmissible evidence

Some categories of persons cannot give evidence, whatever they may have seen. This includes a wide variety of persons, starting with slaves over prostitutes and robbers up to senile persons. Other witnesses are only excluded for certain cases, like the man who is courting cannot give evidence in a case involving the family of the woman he loves and similar. Also, a man cannot give evidence if it would bring advantage to himself. As well is hearsay evidence excluded.

Female evidence

Once again, females are usually banned from giving evidence in lawcase, but there are exceptions to the rule. As such, females may give evidence in case of female entry, or in case of a female witness who accompanies a woman on sick-maintenance, or in case of sexual problems in a marriage, where the woman is examined by a female witness.

False witnesses

A person who gives false witness (gu/ fi/adnaise) or false testimony (gu/thestas) looses his honour-price.


It might happen that in a lawcase there are no witnesses, or that the oaths on both sides are evenly balanced.


Lots were mainly used in cases of unwitnessed offences of domestic animals, like if an animal was killed in a jointly owner herd, and in cases of division of land between heirs which could come to no other result.


Another way to decide such things are ordeals, which contain some form of violence. The most frequent of ordeals in Irish law seems to be the "proof of the cauldron" (fi/r coiri), where the suspect has to put his hand into a cauldron of boiling water, and if the hand shows signs of scalding afterwards is thought as guilty. However, there were definitely a number of different kinds of ordeals.

Duel (ro/e)

The formal duel is an accepted ordeal in old Irish law. However, the terms of such a duel must be agreed beforehand and confirmed by sureties from both parties, or is considered invalid. A duel cannot be used to resolve every legal dispute, but only such like bringing a son in a kingroup, contesting about ownership of a holding, about false accusation and similar. Normally, if one party doesn't appear to the duel, it's case is considered to be lost unless there are reasons for postponement. Wounds inflicted in legal duels are not actionable, and duels have not to be fought to death. Even minor setbacks can be taken to indicate that justice is on the side of the other combatant. These includes things like falling down or dropping ones weapon accidentally.



According to the law texts, there are different ways of possible punishment in Irish Law, of which, however, one is the preferred one, namely payment of fines. The other possibilities are slavery or putting to death or other physical punishment or declaring somebody an outlaw, but these seem to have been only resorted to when the preferred form was not executable.


We already have seen that the primary method of punishment in Irish law was paying a fine, and this is what we can expect to have been the usual way of atonement for a crime. References to payment have been made all over the last mails, and as such I will not say any more on it.


As already noted, these methods were usually only used in case that the culprit was unwilling or unable to pay. The decision which method of punishment should be applied to the non-paying culprit seems to have been completely the choice of the wronged party, the victim if still living, or his relatives in case not.


Seemingly this was the second best possibility in most cases. Even though usually treated equally with death penalty in the law texts, the material worth of a slave seems to have made it more likely that the victim of the crime or his relatives would have sold the culprit into slavery rather than kill him.


Generally, Canon Law seems to have preferred death penalty in cases where the honour-price of the offender was lower than the penalty, and it additionally made the relatives of the offender liable for the fine. However, secular law seems to have employed the death penalty only as an alternative to payment or enslavement.


The most common form of executing an offender seems to have been hanging (crochad) from a gibbet (gabul). It is given as a possible punishment for wounding or death.

The pit

One of the more obscure forms of death penalty is the pit (go/la). It seems as if in this case the condemned person, presumably in chains - is left to die of starvation and exposure in a pit.


The third form of execution recognized by Irish Law is slaying (guin), probably by sword, spear or axe. It is also referred to as cro/ (lit. bloody death). (KELLY 1988, 219).


This refers to a punishment where the offender is set adrift on the sea (and usually taken into servitude upon being washed ashore). It is only rarely mentioned in the law texts. It seems to have been one of the preferred methods to deal with serious offences by women. It is possible that this kind of punishment was introduced only after the advent of Christianity. If a such punished criminal is washed back to the shore of his own people, it depends what his crime was as to how he is treated. If it was only a minor offence, he is returned to his former status. If the offence was serious, he seems to have been condemned to serve as an unfree peasant.


Some form of punishments do appear in Ireland exclusively in Canon Law (Church Law). They do not appear in any secular Law texts, so we have to assume that they did not appear in the Law prior to the advent of Christianity.


In difference to many other law texts, mutilation does not seem to have been a suitable punishment in Irish law. The first recorded mutilation as a punishment for a crime is from 1224, where a robber had cut his hands and feet of. Of the Old Irish Law texts none mentions mutilation, only Ca/in Adomna/in (a Canon Lawtext) lays down a twofold punishment which includes mutilation (cutting off of the left foot and the right hand) as the first part, the second part however is putting the culprit to death.


Also a punishment very often used in many early law texts, especially as a punishment for slaves, flogging also appears only in Canon Lawtext in Ireland. There is, however, no reference to it in the Secular Old Irish Lawtext.


A person may be deprived of his or her legal rights for a wide range of offences. This kind of punishment appears in case of theft, for example, but also in case of "absconders" (e/lu/daig), i.e. persons that failed to fulfill their duties against society. The usual course of action taken by someone who is outlawed is to leave the territory of his tribe and become an exile (deorad). As far as we can say this was a banishment for life, there is no instance for any fixed period for the banishment, after which the culprit would be allowed to return.

Recovery of legal rights

However, outlawry is not necessarily permanent. If the outlawed person later can atone for the crime - either by payment or otherwise - he can recover his rights in society.


With this, the treatment of Irish Law is finished. We will next proceed to Welsh Law, where, however, only the mayor similarities and differences to Irish Law will be shown. Consider everything not mentioned in the treatment of Welsh Law to either be not mentioned in the Welsh Lawtext or treated roughly similar to the equivalent Irish regulations.



Welsh Law has been, in the form it has come down on us, taken down in the first half of the 10th century AD in a single codex authorized by one of the more successful independent Welsh rulers, King Hywel Dda mab Cadell (Hywel the Good, son of Cadell), at least that is what history claims. However, most of the laws included in Cyfraith Hywel, the "Laws of Hywel", were not made by Hywel, but were rather a compilation and unification of the old Welsh laws as interpreted by the professional Welsh lawyers, called ynad or brawdwr. The real role of Hywel probably was that he was responsible for the first written legal codex in Wales, which according to legend, happened at the Abbey in Whitland (btw, I have been to Whitland recently, they have a little Hywel Dda presentation center which is definitely NOT worth visiting) at a jurists conference under Hywel.

One of the most significant differences to Irish Law is that Welsh Law has been taken down much later, and that it already shows strong influences of early medieval Anglo-Saxon laws. While the basic concepts of law are almost equal to Irish Law, some specifics are quite different.


The main sources for the Welsh Laws are the Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, the "White Book of Rhydderch" and the "LLyfr y Damweiniau", and some "smaller" works, all dating from the 13th to 16th century.
A translation of the Laws of Hywel is also available and recommendable, which also includes a literature list for further readings. it is: D.Jenkins: The Law of Hywel Dda. Law texts from medieval Wales. Welsh Classics, Gomer 1986 (2nd ed. 1990), ISBN 0 86383 277 6.


The Laws of Hywel are separated in three parts, the first of which is the Laws of Court, the second the Laws of the Country and the third the Justices' Test Book.


Here we see the strongest differences to Irish Law. In Hywel's Laws there are detailed Laws in regard to the King's Court, which show strong influence from the Anglo-Saxon Laws.

First is dealt with the honour-price, "sarhaed" in Welsh, of king and queen. Then comes a series of laws regarding the rights and duties of members of a royal court, starting with the heir-apparent, the Edling. Here we already see the influence of Anglo-Saxon Laws, as the legal term used is "Edling", derived from the Anglo-Saxon "aetheling" in contrast to the original Welsh "gwrthrychiad", the "heir-apparent", a term more or less paralleled in Irish "ta/naise".

In between the order of the court is laid out, how many people are allowed to be seated and where which person is allowed to sit. The order of the court is as follows: the king, next to him the cynghellor, then the host, then the edling, then the chief falconer and finally the physician, while on the other side sit the priest of the household, the usher, the court justice and finally the court smith. On the lower hand of the hall sits the Captain of the household, with the bard of the household at one side of him. Finally the chief groom and the chief huntsman sit across the screen from king and priest.

Then the rights and duties of the rest of the Court are detailed, starting with the king's officers, which are, in descending order in regard to rank: The Captain of the Household, the Priest of the Household, the Steward, the Chief Falconer, the Court Justice, the Chamberlain, the Bard of the Household, the Usher, the Chief Huntsman, the Mead-brewer, the Physician, the Butler, the Doorkeeper, the Cook and the Candleman.

Then come the queen's officers, once again with rights and duties, starting with the Queen's Steward, then the Queen's Priest, the Queen's Chief Groom, the Queen's Chamberlain, the Queen's Handmaid, the Queen's Doorkeeper, the Queen's Cook and the Queen's Candleman.

Additionally to the above officers, which are considered "court officers", are another some, which are in court as well, but are not considered "court officers". These are also detailed, with their rights and duties. They are the Groom of the Rein, The Footholder, the Dung Maer, the Serjeant, the Porter, the Watchman, the Bakeress, the Court Smith, the Pencerdd and finally the Laundress. As such, Court Positions, the rights and duties of Court officials and the general details of Court we have from Welsh Law are much more detailed than anything we have from Irish Law. All in all, the Welsh Court looks a lot more like medieval courts than anything we have from Ireland, definitely a result from the later date and the stronger Anglo-Saxon influence on the Welsh Laws.

Also, the increased importance of the King and his Court in Welsh Law becomes apparent wehn we look at certain privileges of the King and his Court, which go a good deal beyond everything we know from Irish Law, and which probably also constitute the most important difference between Welsh and Irish Law. For instance, in stark contrast to Irish law, where penalties due because of illegal acts and following judgements in court were payable only to the victim or his kindred, in Welsh law most offences against the Law not only invoke a penalty payable to the injured party but also a penalty payable to the king, which in most cases would be much more than the actual penalty paid to the offended party.

The rights of the king and his court were also increased in other fields of law. For instance, Welsh Law allows the king and his Court to ride through a field without having to pay compensation either for the violation of the property or any damage caused. Also, some animals are considered to be "king's game" and may only be hunted by the king or his court officials. All of this strongly shows the influence of a more "medievalised" society in Wales at the time when the laws were taken down, with very immediate and strong Anglo-Saxon influences.


With this part we come back to solid Celtic Law. Even though the rights and privileges of the Court are part of this part to some extent, too, we here find clear parallels to Irish Laws.

The Laws of the Country include the Laws of Women (more or less marriage and divorce), the validity of oaths, injury to animals, surety (w. "Mach") and contracts (w. briduw, amod), church protection, land law (inheriting, acquiring and reclaiming, sharing, Women and Land), laws on aliens, then again come some royal rights and finally family law. All of those laws, with the exception of the part on royal rights, but even parts of these, are very similar to the comparable Irish regulations in those fields. Variations exist only at the level of detail.


The third part deals with legal procedure and punishments for offences against life, health or property. It contains regulations in regard to homicide, theft, fire, the value of wild and tame animals, the value of trees, houses and equipment, the value of the human body and parts of it (for compensation of damage), contains regulations on joint ploughing and finally on corn damage. All of those regulations also parallel the Irish Laws in the respective areas, thereby giving us a good basis for finding out "common Celtic" legal elements.


Having finished Welsh Law, we now turn to the last part, Old Celtic Law.



This is probably the hardest part of the whole series, as, in fact, almost nothing from old Celtic Law has come down on us.


The sources for old Celtic Law are limited to a mere few short notices in (mainly) Caesar, a handful of Celtiberian and Gaulish inscriptions and a few hints in names and titles that have come down on us either via archaeological remains (like pottery inscriptions) or, too, are found in the historians.

Probably the most direct hints at old Celtic Law, apart from the famous Caesar quote about the druids in their function as judges "In all public and private quarrels the priests alone judge and decide. They fix punishments and rewards, where crimes or murder have been committed or boundary and inheritance disputes arise. If a private person or persons fail toespect their decision they can exclude the men involved (where need be, the whole tribe) from public worship. This is for them the worst punishment imaginable. Thos thus excommunicated count as godless criminals; all men must avoid them and eschew any talk with them, lest the infection be passed on. If they try to get in touch with them, they forfeit justice and honour."(Caesar, De Bello Gallico VI, 13.5) is another passage in the description of Gaul, "When a man marries, he adds to the dowry that his wife brings with her a portion of his own property estimated to be of equal value. A joint account is kept of the whole amount, and the profits which it earns are put aside, whoever survives the other gets the whole property and the profits that were put aside." (Caesar, DBG VI, 19.1-2) and the first Botorrita Inscription, a relatively long Celtiberian inscription dealing with the possessions of a temple, as translated by Meid (Archaeolingua Series Minor 5):"Concerning the 'hilly' region of Tocoit- and Sarnicios it has been thus decreed as non-permitted: Neither is it permitted to put (things) upon, nor is it permitted to perform work, nor is it permitted to cause damage by destruction. And whoever wishes to perform such things should take ... cut up (coined?) silver, that is 100 units, to deposit at (the temple of) Tocoit-. And whosoever wishes to construct a cow-shed, a corral (), a walled enclosure or a shelter should buid ('cut out') a way (of access). If he cuts out (earth) for the purpose of construction, he shall remove these (materials) within three days (?) out of the enclosure; into the territory of Neitos he shall transport them. For whom they sow arable land, to him - when they cut the crops, when the custaicos brings in the crops, whatever (howmuchever) he should cut outside or inside (the enclosure) - of these he shall give the amounts constituting the tithe.In this inner area neither ancios nor esancios (neither enclosed nor open land) outside of (or apart from) the land adjacent to Sarnicios shall be harvested by the people of Acaina. Who wishes to utilize pasture land or arable land at Tocoit-, shall give the dekameta (the tithe). This, at the cult feast of Tocoit- and Sarnicios, we proclaim, truly and holily, (namely I), Ablu Ubocum, the regens of the council (and the following persons), (list of names).".

Apart from these longer notes, the rest is limited to short sentences or even single words, which however give as titles of magistrates sometimes from which certain functions (which had to had somne sort of legal background) can be derived, like the street-controller or the silver-controller.

Therefore, most elements of old Celtic Law are at best reconstructable from the Irish and Welsh Laws and their similarities, especially where those similarities are on a linguistic basis that shows that the terms for certain legal things were derived from a common Gaulish word. Such things can be found, for instance, in the terms for co-ploughing and for distraint.


To reconstruct an actual law system from those few hints is, of course, only possible in its roughest basics, and only where texts like the ones quoted are available we can take a short glimpse at (maybe only short-timed and temporal) details.

What we can say with some certainty is that the basics of contract law are not too dissimilar to the Irish ones (as far as can be deduced from the few hints). Also we can assume that things similar to clientship contracts with tithes for the right to use land and maybe also other lent property, with the basic concept similar to the Irish one, although maybe strongly differing in the details. Even though Caesar notes that thief's, murderers and similar criminals were sometimes punished by killing them as sacrifices to the gods, obviously the more typical punishment for severe crimes was, also according to Caesar, the exclusion from the religious ceremonies (and with that, most probably, from the tribe and family as well). From the trial of Orgetorix, of which Caesar tells us in the beginning of his DBG, we can guess that, in court, oaths not dissimilar to the parallel Irish and Welsh practices were part of the legal procedure, and probably payment of a penalty was a common punishment. The status of nobles, according to Caesar, depended on how many clients they had, again quite similar to the Irish customs in this regard. Additionally we know about a number of magistrates with quite specific functions (like the street-controller mentioned above), who probably had some legal function - perhaps to control the quality of the streets in case of accidents or to prevent such. Other features like the palisades found in the oppida, but also on lowland settlements tell us that probably the rights of trespass were limited, again a system like the Irish one is quite probable. The legal function of an enclosed territory is also quite obvious from the Botorrita inscription.

Altogether we can, for the Old Celtic Law System, reconstruct parts law code that are, even though we know no details, sufficiently similar to the Irish and Welsh systems that we can assume that those parts which we have no hints about were roughly similar as well. Most probably the legal texts in the Old Celtic Law System had, in certain points, other priorities than the Irish and Welsh ones, and had somewhat differing solutions for one or the other problem, but were similar in the basic system. Maybe for instance there were stronger monetary elements in the Old Celtic Law System. But the law was there, and a class of learned judges and lawyers worked together with a secular authority to execute it.

This article originally appeared as a multi-part message on If you want you may distribute it freely as long as it is not used for commercial purposes and you include the email-address of the author ( for responses.
This message is part of a series that have been and will be published on the Celtic culture mailing list ( The titles of the series which already exist are:
Celtic Religion - what information do we really have (7 part message, also available as a single .txt file)
Celtic Law - a short summary (this one)
in print:
Celtic Social Structures - a short summary


From: Raimund KARL (
Subject: Celtic Law - a short summary - Part 1 - 12
Date: Sun, 15 Dec 1996 14:32:32 - Tue, 21 Oct 1997 14:03:56


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