Brehon Law


Law in ancient Ireland was comprised of the decisions of the judges, or Brehons, who interpreted a body

of oral tradition that went back two hundred years or more BC and began to be codified in the first

century AD.  The law emphasized compensation for harm done rather than corporal punishment or incarceration.  Although there was a hierarchical structure to society in Gaelic Ireland, the law was more egalitarian than found elsewhere and Irish women enjoyed rights and privileges more akin to our modern



A woman could hold title to property and, upon marrying, could continue to hold her property separately.  She must give her consent to a marriage and no dowry was required of her family, rather the groom had

to give the bride’s family land, livestock, or gold.   She could also divorce her husband on various grounds

and property accumulated during the marriage would then be divided according to each spouse’s

contribution to the household.  If a woman craved a particular food during pregnancy and her husband

did not provide it, the husband was required to pay a fine. 


As with women, the elderly were afforded protections.  The family of an old person had to provide that person with food, shelter, and firewood.  The family was also required to bathe the elderly person.  The

sick came in for their share of protections as well.  When a patient was recovering in the house of a

physician, “no fools, drunks, or female scolds” were allowed entry.  No bad news was to be brought to the patient and no grunting pigs or barking dogs were allowed outside the house.  Malpractice was even addressed.  If through “carelessness, neglect, or gross want of skill” a wound worsens, the physician must return the fee paid and if he has injured the patient, he must pay a fine.

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