The Brehon Laws

The Brehon Laws relates to the laws used in the ancient Irish legal system. It was used throughout Ireland prior to the Norman Invasion of 1169, and continued to be used in Ireland for hundreds of years after, although eventually was replaced entirely by English law.

(It is important to note that since Irish Independence in 1921, the Republic of Ireland now once again has it’s own laws, while in Northern Ireland a mixture of British and Northern Irish law is used.)

The Brehon Laws were very detailed, so detailed in fact, that every king had an ollamh at his dun – which is best described as a legal advisor. Ollamh’s would study the law and memorise it so that they could help the king come to a decision when disputes were brought before him.

The legal system is actually very modern and focuses on compensating the victim. Who the victim is, their rank, and how the crime has impacted their earning ability are all considered and the Brehon laws attempted to be fair.

For example, the theft of a spindle from a poor widow would incur a higher fine compared to the theft of a spindle from a princess – as in this case the loss of a spindle would significantly impact the ability of the widow to maintain her standard of living compared to a high-ranking member of a royal family.

In another example a King who is having stone carried to build a castle has only the same right of way to a road as a milliner who is carrying materials to build his mill.

However, on the flip side, the fine incurred for murdering a king or high ranking noble was far higher than any other freeman or woman.

I’m not going to go into all the classifications of society, or all of the laws – that can wait for another day. Instead, I’m going to go through some of the more interesting laws that existed at the time.

Women and marriage

There are several interesting laws that relate specifically to women

Of course marriage is one of the most important areas.

Firstly it would be considered a crime for anyone to harm an unmarried women in such a way as to prevent/damage her chances of a marriage. It was therefore considered a great crime to cut a woman’s hair – as in ancient Ireland, long hair was a sign of beauty.

There were three different types of marriage a woman could enter into:

  • A first lawful wife
  • A lawful adaltrach wife (a second wife of lower rank)
  • An adaltrach wife of abduction

An example of the latter was the abduction of Queen Derbforgaill O’Rourke by King Dermot MacMurrough. He kept Derbforgaill with him for around one year. Whether or not she wanted to go is not recorded, however the fact she was returned perhaps lends itself to the theory that her abduction was done to humiliate King Tiernan.

The fact that King Dermot MacMurrough did not pay the honour price to King Tiernan for the kidnapping of Derbforgaill was the catalyst for the Norman Invasion.

The honour price in this case was judged to be 100 ounces of gold.


There were also laws around divorce.

When I mention this to friends, many are surprised. The Ireland featured in literature/media features a Christian Ireland, a devout Catholic land, where divorce was impossible.

This was not always the case, and indeed from reading the Brehon laws, it seems plausible to assume that divorce was common, and in fact, a wide range of reasons existed for both the husband and wife to do so.

Here are some of the reasons why a woman could divorce her husband:

  • If he was bad in bed
  • If he refused to sleep in her bed i.e. “if he spurned her”
  • If he hit her and left a blemish

A man could divorce his wife on almost any grounds – if she was deemed to have disgraced him in some way. However, as per the laws, divorce settlements were required. The woman was allowed to take away all she had brought into the marriage as well as a portion of what she had contributed or made during the marriage.

While many scholars point to the fact women were better treated in Ireland that in other countries, as the laws here set out, Ireland was a patriarchal society. Queens who were deemed to have been in the “wrong” were often sent to nunneries while the kings remarried – as was the case with Derbforgaill O’Rourke who I mentioned above. Another queen called Orlaith, a sister to Brian Boru, was beheaded for being found in her step-son’s bed. Her husband did not lose his kingship over this, even though as per the laws, the murder of a queen was a criminal offence.


Health and recovery was another area that had a vast array of laws, though how some of them could be judged is another thing, as many of these disputes would occur between family members. However, it is thought that mistreated family members could use these laws to ensure better treatment going forward.

Here are a few examples.

No fools, drunks or female scolds are allowed inside when a patient is healing. No bad news is to be brought and no talking across the bed. No grunts of pigs or barking of dogs should be permitted outside.

The with-holding of food from a pregnant woman was a serious crime-as this was deemed to harm both the women and the unborn child.

However if a woman was not pregnant she was expected to give more food to her husband that to herself.

Older people were to be looked after by their families and were to be bathed at least once every twenty days.

Women and men who were deemed to be deranged or mentally unwell also had specific rights. They could not be forced to marry and if a woman who was of unsound mind had a child, it was the father’s responsibility to bring the child up.


Bees were very special in ancient Ireland as honey was one of the only sources of sugar. They were used in breads, ales, and also was used to make wax – which in turn was used for candles; another luxury.

A beekeeper was obliged to give a portion of his honey to his neighbours, as it was logical to assume that the bees he kept collected pollen from his neighbour’s land.

So important was the art of beekeeping that a ecclesiastical law text written in the 8th century listed it as one of the few activities which the church permitted on Sundays.

I hope you enjoyed reading this today!

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Shauna Lawless is an author and her upcoming series is a historical fantasy set in 10th century, Ireland. The first book, The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, is now available to pre-order.

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