Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

(Early Irish Law series vol. VIII)

Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
ISBN 9781855002418

Reviewed by Catherine Swift

Dr Catherine Swift teaches medieval studies at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

A quiet revolution has been happening in early Irish law and Fergus Kelly has been one of its leaders. Until the publication of the Corpus Iuris Hibernici by D.A. Binchy in 1978, vernacular law was seen as obscure, abstruse and, in some ill-defined sense, prehistoric. In her introductory chapter to Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven’s A history of medieval Ireland (1968), for example, Kathleen Hughes of Cambridge wrote: ‘The early Irish law tracts, with their traditional corpus of law, reveal a non-classical, heroic society which must go back in its essentials to the pre-Christian period’. Kathleen Hughes herself did much to popularise early Irish history, and she followed this with a discussion of Irish society drawn from the law tracts Críth Gablach and Míadslectae as mediated through the writings of Daniel Binchy. The fact remains, however, that historians of the day largely avoided dealing with Irish law.

Since then, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies has brought out its ground-breaking Early Irish Law series. The MacEgan legal treatise is the eighth of these and the fifth volume involving Fergus Kelly. The format will be familiar to readers of the series: an introduction identifying the historical and legal context, a normalised text with translation, a diplomatic transcription, an extensive set of notes discussing the precise translation of specific words and phrases, and a detailed glossary with bibliography and index. A particularly useful section is the linguistic introduction, with its extensive though succinct discussion of grammatical characteristics of Early Modern Irish. This determination to encourage scholarship by providing technical assistance is an intrinsic characteristic of Fergus Kelly’s writing; in 1979 he provided a similar summary of Early Old Irish characteristics for Ludwig Bieler’s edition of the Patrician texts in the Book of Armagh.

The legal treatise edited here is linked to Giolla na Naomh Mac Aodhagáin, identified in the text itself as ardollamh an fhéineachais (‘chief expert of Irish law’) and elsewhere as ollamh Connacht agus Érenn (‘chief expert of Connacht and of Ireland’). Giolla na Naomh is the first jurist of the family to be noted in the annals (p. 6), though his relatives were prominent in legal and textual studies subsequently, and he died alongside his king, Áed Ó Conchobhair, in an internecine battle in northern Leitrim in 1309. It is not clear whether the treatise was authored by him or represents notes based on his teaching compiled by a student (p. 39), though Kelly favours the former. It ‘is presented in an informal hurried style with an evident concern to pack in as much information as possible’ (p. 29), and Kelly identifies it as ‘a series of bearradha or extracts which have been put together as a unitary composition to provide the student with an overall view of the law-texts’ (p. 5). Unlike those who were careful to distinguish the Old Irish canon in large minuscule from Middle Irish interlinear glosses and commentary in smaller script, the treatise author presents his modernised summary as a single unit and dispenses with glosses altogether (p. 31). Interestingly, he describes this as rendering his material i bhfionnGhaodhailg (‘into clear Irish’) a cruadhchorp Ghaodhailge (‘from the hard text of Irish’).

Despite this modernisation, the treatise has much to offer students of early medieval Ireland. Section 31–12 deals with sárughadh and is identified with offences against a king’s honour, ranging from soiling his clothes to attacking dependants or guests at his assembly or women in general and robbery on the road. Nineteen examples occur in the Annals of Ulster between 746 and 1179, including 789: Sarugad Bachlu Isu ocus minn Pátraicc la Donnchad oc Raith Airthir ar oenach (‘dishonouring of the staff of Jesus and relics of Patrick by Donnchad son of Domnall at Ráíth Airthir at an assembly’). Historians have always understood this to mean an attack on Armagh rather than an insult against his host. Similarly, this provides the legal context for the famous statement in Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh summing up Brian Boru’s reign: ‘a lone woman came from Tory in the north of Ireland to Clíodhna in the south, carrying a ring of gold on a horse-rod ocus ni fuair a slad na a saruccadh do dhenamh (‘she was neither robbed nor insulted’).

It is as a witness to high medieval Gaelic society, however, that the treatise will be of most interest to readers. The text contains a small number of Anglo-Norman loanwords, baránta (‘guarantor’), finné (‘jury’) and seineascal (‘seneschal’) (p. 41), but it also describes social classes and customs which had evolved from those described in Old Irish texts. Examples include 821: ‘single women to whom one goes of their own volition courting or sharing a bed’. The idea that aristocratic women had the freedom to make their own choices is very much in keeping with the high medieval Toruigheacht Diarmaid agus Gráinne, in which Cormac mac Airt, as father, refers Finn’s marriage request to Gráinne herself. Equally, the category in 18 and 212 of fir aga mbia buailte (‘men who own cattle or milking enclosures’) as lordly grades suggests a form of large-scale agricultural commerce which is not well attested in earlier periods.

If the treatise was written to clarify difficult material and encourage further study in Giolla na Naomh’s day by an ardollamh an fhéineachais, Professor Kelly has clearly inherited his mantle.


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