The Senchus Mór

From the synopsis just given of the work already done by the Brehon Law Commission, it will be seen that the Senchus Mór, or Grand Old Law, occupies the first and largest part of it. That ancient work was designed to be a comprehensive and more or less codified embodiment of the laws which were of universal obligation over the whole country before the arrival of St. Patrick. Outside it such special rules as occasion demanded were made or sanctioned by local assemblies, but all were so framed as to harmonise with and be subject to the general law as set forth in the Senchus Mór. This is a great collection, not of statutes, proclamations, or commands of any sort, but of laws already known and observed from time immemorial; call them rules or customs if you will, but having the force of laws, authoritatively set forth in this work, partly by way of direct statements or propositions, partly by way of judicial decisions in actual cases. The work contains nothing of the harsh, peremptory, imperative style of early Roman law. The writers do not say, Go, do this, or Go, do that, or If a man does so and so, let him be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock. No; they do not enact anything. Pursuing the more gentle course of the later Roman lawyers, they state what the law is, support the statement with the decisions of the wisest Brehons, and then leave the law to prevail suo vigore. They explain that the men of Erinn having considered the matter in times past decided that it was best it should be so, and that nobles, chiefs and tribes have loyally observed these laws. Any alteration really desired could be effected, according to its scope, either in the local assembly or in the national assembly. Being Plebiscita in the very best sense, not emanating from the mouth of a tyrant but from the wisest heads of the nation, it followed as a natural consequence that these laws were obeyed and venerated as the spirit by which the nation ought to be ruled. There was therefore no occasion for the imperative, none for coercion. It was needless to force people to do that which they took pride in doing. Besides, the laws having been made by the nation itself were, of course, designed to promote and secure its wellbeing and happiness, and were therefore broadly just and generally found favourable to every good purpose.

One of the Gaelic commentators says of the contents of the Senchus Mór, ‘In the Senchus Mór were promulgated the four laws, namely—(1) the law of fosterage; (2) the law relating to free tenants and the law relating to base tenants; (3) the law of social relationship; (4) the binding of all by their verbal contracts; for the world would be in a state of confusion if verbal contracts were not binding.’ This is a very inadequate presentation of the contents of the work. The most important branch of law dealt with in the work is wholly omitted from this enumeration, and those mentioned are given neither in the order of their arrangement nor in that of their importance. But the commentary goes on: ‘The binding of all to their good and bad contracts prevents the lawlessness of the world. Except the five contracts which are dissolved by the Feini, even though they be perfected—(1) The contract of a labourer without his chief; (2) the contract of a monk without his abbot; (3) the contract of the son of a living father without the father; (4) the contract of a fool or mad woman; (5) the contract of a woman without her husband.’ ‘In it was established the dire-fine of each one according to his dignity; for the world was at an equality until the Senchus Mór was established.’ These few quotations give an idea of the nature of the commentaries and of the scope of the Senchus Mór proper.

The Senchus Mór was, according to the introduction to it, compiled at the suggestion and under the supervision of St. Patrick in the time of King Laeghaire (Leary), when Theodosius was Ard-Ríg of the world. The same introduction places St. Patrick’s arrival in the ninth year of the reign of Theodosius as Ard-Ríg of the world, and in the fourth year of the reign of Laeghaire as Ard-Ríg of Erinn. Theodosius the Second is the emperor meant. While a mere child he succeeded his father Arcadius as Emperor of the East in A.D. 407. On the death of his uncle Honorius in 423, he became Emperor of the West also, and thus Ard-Ríg or monarch of the world. Nine years after this date was 432, which is also the date of the arrival of St. Patrick according to the Four Masters and other Irish authorities. Theodosius did not continue Emperor of the West during those nine years, but voluntarily resigned that position to Valentinian the Third and confined himself to the East again. However, as the East and West were long ruled as two parts of one empire rather than as two distinct empires, the same laws being promulgated simultaneously in both, the partial and friendly abdication of Theodosius may well have escaped the notice or comprehension of Irishmen in those times. In the commentary it is stated that at the end of nine years after the arrival of St. Patrick the Senchus Mór was completed. That would be A.D. 441. In the Annals of the Four Masters it is said, ‘The age of Christ 438. The tenth year of Laeghaire. The Senchus Mór and Feineachus of Ireland were purified and written.’ The work must have extended over several years, and those from 438 to 441 appear the most probable.

The laws, being wholly the production of pagans, needed some modification to reconcile them with the requirements of Christianity. St. Patrick having during seven or eight years of missionary work all over the country, as well as in the previous years of his bondage, learned in what respects the laws conflicted with his teaching and thwarted his efforts, desired, as well for the material welfare of the people as for the success of his mission, to have the laws amended. The most permanently and universally effective way in which this could be done was to have a simultaneous collection and revision of the laws decreed by a great assembly of the nation, and then to take care that the work should be actually performed by men imbued with the Christian spirit. Accordingly, ‘He requested the men of Erinn to come to one place to hold a conference with him. When they came to the conference the Gospel of Christ was preached to them all. . . . And when they saw Laeghaire and his druids overcome by the great science and miracles wrought in the presence of the men of Erinn, they bowed down in obedience to the will of God and Patrick, in the presence of every chief in Erinn. It was then that Dubhthach (pronounced Dhoovah) was ordered to exhibit the judgments and all the poetry (literature) of Erinn, and every law which prevailed amongst the men of Erinn, through the law of nature, and the law of seers, and in the judgments of the island of Erinn, and in the poets. Now the judgments of true nature which the Holy Spirit had spoken through the mouths of the brehons and just poets of the men of Erinn from the first occupation of the island down to the reception of the faith were all exhibited by Dubhthach to Patrick. What did not clash with the Word of God in the written law and in the New Testament, and with the consciences of believers, was confirmed in the laws of the brehons by the ecclesiastics and the chief men of Erinn; for the law of nature was quite right, except the faith and its obligations, and the harmony of the Church and the people. And this is the Senchus Mór.’ Yes, such is the Senchus Mór, a name which it is said to have received not from the magnitude of the work but from the greatness of the number and nobility of the assembly by which it was sanctioned. This latter statement, however, is rendered doubtful by the existence of a Senchus Beg. (Mór—Great. Beg—Little. Senchus is pronounced nearly Shankus).

It will be observed that the account just quoted treats the laws in the plainest possible terms as preexisting, and neither as freshly enacted nor as imported. In another place the introduction is equally explicit on this point. Some of the commentaries written centuries later, when Christian zeal was greater than critical acumen or historical accuracy, attributed the origin of the laws to the influence of Cai, an imagined contemporary of Moses, who had learned the law of Moses before coming from the East. Of course this myth deserves no consideration. Cai is only another word for ollamh, or sage. In other late commentaries, and also in other writings in which reference is made to the laws, so much importance is, by a pious exaggeration, attached to what Saint Patrick had done that the Senchus Mór itself is called the Cáin Phadraig, or Patrick’s law. The abandonment of paganism may have caused the discontinuance of some particular species of actions, and hence some omissions from the statement of the laws; the introduction and enthusiastic adoption of Christianity profoundly affected the moral and religious life of the people, producing eventually new causes and new law; some rules of Canon Law, or rather Church Law, introduced for ecclesiastical purposes, were quite novel and therefore striking, and the Christian spirit breathed through the whole law was important; but the actual changes were few, and substantially the laws remained the same as they had existed for centuries before.

The number of the authors of the Senchus Mór is preserved in one of the alternative names given to it in the introduction and in some of the commentaries. In the introduction it is said, ‘Nofis therefore is the name of the book, that is the knowledge of nine persons.’ And again it says, ‘Nine persons were appointed to arrange this book, namely, Patrick and Benen and Cairnech, three bishops; Laeghaire and Corc and Daire, three kings; Rossa mac Trechim, a Doctor of Bearla Feini, Dubhthach, a Doctor of Bearla Feini and a Poet, and Fergus the Poet.’ Benen, Latinised Benignus, was Saint Patrick’s favourite disciple, and afterwards became a bishop and a saint. He was a Munsterman by birth, but was residing at Duleek at the time of Saint Patrick’s arrival. Cairnech, who is said to have been a native of Cornwall, was also a follower of Saint Patrick. He, too, became a bishop and a saint, and is honoured as such in both the Irish and the English calendars. Laeghaire, as already stated, was ard-ríg at Tara, and was a son of Niall the Great, known also as Niall of the Nine Hostages, who in his time had overrun Britain and Gaul in much the same fashion as the Danes of a later period overran those countries. It is believed that Laeghaire did not become a Christian. If he remained an infidel he must have been a very tolerant one, for the principal officers of his court appear to have become Christian like the rest of the nation; he gave his sanction to the convening of the assembly which ordered the preparation of the Senchus Mór, every facility for carrying out the work, and in no way opposed the modifications suggested by Saint Patrick; nor does he appear to have raised any obstacle to the propagation of Christianity. He died at Tara, and was buried in one of the mounds there, standing and fully armed, facing the south. Corc was the King of Munster and resided at Cashel. He also is said to have remained a pagan. He died in battle. Daire was the sub-king of a portion of Ulster, and chiefly from the fact that he afterwards gave the site of Armagh to Saint Patrick to found his see, it is inferred that he must have become a Christian.

Of the nine nominal authors, the remaining three were the learned men who really did the work. They were men specially qualified from the legal and national point of view, all three being eminent in all the learning of the time; and specially qualified from Saint Patrick’s particular point of view, all being converts to Christianity. For Saint Patrick’s missionary method was first to make a bold attempt to convert the learned and powerful. Besides their personal qualifications, those three men being specially chosen on this solemn occasion for the performance of a task of the greatest national importance, they were assiduously provided with whatever manuscript or other material of the kind existed, and given every possible assistance in the performance of the undertaking. Dubhthach mac ua Lugair was at once the chief brehon and chief bard of the nation, a position to be reached only by means of the highest legal and literary attainments. He was a man celebrated for centuries after, on what grounds scholars still have some means of judging, for several fragments of his poetry are still extant, in the libraries of the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, and in some libraries on the Continent. A later Gaelic commentator on the Senchus Mór says, ‘Dubhthach mac ua Lugair put a thread of poetry around it for Patrick.’

It was usual to state in ancient Irish manuscript books the Name of the Author, the Time of writing, the Place of writing, and the Occasion, Cause, or Object of writing. It was in accordance with this custom that the introduction to the Senchus Mór gave the information just noticed; and it goes on to tell in the following words where the compilers sojourned at the different seasons of the year while the work proceeded:—‘The place of the Senchus Mór was Temhair in the summer and in the autumn, on account of its cleanness and pleasantness during those seasons; and Rath-guthaird, where the stone of Saint Patrick is at this day in Glenn-na-Mbodhur, near Nith nemonnach, was the place during the winter and spring, on account of the nearness of its firewood and its water, and on account of its warmth in the time of winter’s cold.’ Temhair, genitive Teamhrac, pronounced Tara, is now so called [Gaelic words are frequently adapted to English in the genitive, speakers of modern English being generally ignorant of true declension]. Glennavohur has been satisfactorily identified as a lovely sheltered glen near Nobber, in Meath. A small stream called the Nith flows through it, and in this stream still stands the stone called Saint Patrick’s stone.

The manuscripts of the Senchus Mór now existing are four in number:—

  1. A comparatively full copy among the manuscripts of Trinity College, Dublin.
  2. An extensive fragment in the British Museum.
  3. A large fragment in Trinity College, Dublin.
  4. Another large fragment in Trinity College, Dublin.

All these manuscripts were translated by Dr. O’Donovan, and afterwards collated in consultation with O’Curry and other Gaelic scholars, breaks and obscure passages in one being made up and illustrated respectively from the others, and everything done to render the translation as perfect as possible.

No credit whatsoever is due to Trinity College as an institution for the preservation of the legal or other ancient documents now stored there. When it was dangerous to preserve them, they were preserved by Irish peasants in spite of the danger, in spite of the system of government which created the danger and of which Trinity College was a part and an instrument; and it was only when Ireland’s darkest age, which Trinity College had heralded, was coming to an end, that most of those ancient documents reached their present resting-place.

Some English critics have raised various objections against the possibility of the Senchus Mór having been compiled under the supervision of Saint Patrick, as, for instance, that he had enough to do besides, that he could not have been a member of the Irish national assembly, and so on. Personally, I do not think these shallow objections deserve any notice; but whoever cares to know how little of substance there is in them should read Dr. Hancock’s comments thereon. He shows them to be evidence of either ignorance or want of due consideration. He might have added that they are, in some instances, evidence of the old English animus which would, if possible, deny the existence of the Senchus Mór itself, and in fact does so by representing that Ireland was wholly without law until English law was introduced. Many generations of English children have been deliberately taught this falsehood at school, and when they have grown up the fact that a thing is respectable and Irish is quite sufficient proof for them that it does not exist at all. It is the very existence of the Senchus Mór and of our beautiful illuminated manuscripts that confounds such people, and therefore irritates them. Knowing that themselves cannot err, they feel that the facts are perverse and have got wrong somehow. They would willingly lavish money digging for such things in the débris of Greece or in the sands of Egypt, but if told of its existence in Ireland they duly shrug their shoulders and proceed to doubt and criticise instead of taking the trouble to learn. A similar modification and codification of laws took place in Gaul about a quarter of a century earlier than in Ireland; and we have already observed that more than a century and a half later Saint Augustine had the scraps of Saxon laws that existed in Kent collected, arranged, and modified.

I find it stated that after the laws had been collected and revised by the Committee of Nine, they did not ipso facto take effect in their altered state until sanctioned by the national assembly. No authority is given for this statement, nor have I met with any in the Senchus Mór itself. But since without a positive national ratification and acceptance, although the changes effected were not such as could be called revolutionary, they might be disputed in some quarter. As nothing of this sort appears to have occurred, and as the universal acceptance and stability of the alterations were essential to the success of Saint Patrick’s work, there is little doubt that he took the obvious precaution of having the alterations sanctioned in the most formal and effectual manner then known, namely, by a great assembly. Whether the second assembly was a special one of an unusual character like the first, or the ordinary Feis of Tara, there is no record to show.