The seventh century in Ireland is considered to be a time of enlightenment. Many people flocked to Irish centers of learning from all over Europe. At this time, the laws governing the provinces of Ireland were set down in writing. These were the Laws of Fenechus, or free land tillers. These more popularly became known as Brehon laws from the word for judge, breitheamh. Brehon law is the oldest and most extensive law system of medieval Europe. These surprisingly modern laws set Ireland apart from the rest of Europe.
Where the rest of Europe was wrestling with trial by ordeal or trial by combat, Brehon law set out a complex system of fines. A dalaigh, or advocate of the court, gathered and assessed evidence to see if a case was warranted. The role is similar to a modern French juge d’instruction. Then a Brehon as judge decided the case based on that evidence. The law was divided between the criminal code of Senchus Mor and the civil code of Lebor Acaill. The highest degree of study was ollamh, still the Irish word for professor, and varying degrees below that. Every three years, scholars and leaders would come together at the Feis Temhrach, or Festival of Tara, to adjust laws to keep up with changes in society.
A major part of the law was how leadership was determined. The law of primogeniture was not practiced in Ireland. However, the basis of society was kinship. A ruler was the most qualified candidate chosen by a conclave of the family made up of three generations from a common ancestor. This method of choosing a leader was similar to the Saxon witan. If a ruler did not govern well, the same family conclave could impeach that ruler and choose another.
Brehon laws were incredibly enlightened on the role of women as well. Women had their pick of occupations. There were famous women poets, warriors, judges and leaders. Brig Briugaid, Aine Ingine Iugaire and Dari were all famous judges from the this time period. Women could own property and were awarded a portion of the marital assets upon divorce. Women were also protected by law against sexual harassment and rape. This was extremely unusual for this time.
Brehon law remained important in Irish society until the time of the Tudors and subsequent conquests by England. Irish writings, laws and language was brutally suppressed. English language, customs and common law was favored. After the famous Flight of the Earls in 1607, they were replaced with English lords who made this change permanent. Books of Brehon laws were destroyed or hidden, and by the 18th century to even possess a book of Brehon law was punishable. It resurfaced again in 1865 at the insistence of Charles Graves, a professor at Trinity College. Between 1865 and 1901, seven books were found and translated and thankfully these enlightened ideas did not disappear.
Sources available on request