On attempting to delve into Ireland’s past, one of the frustrating things that any amateur historian collides with very quickly is the dearth of primary historical record. Society before English rule was very much into its oral tradition, and while I’m sure a great many things were recorded in some more permanent fashion, at least by interested third parties, unfortunately whatever there may have been seems largely to have been lost. As citizens growing up and learning here, our taught history curriculum tends to flash tantalising glimpses of truly amazing things in our past before we are introduced to the Norman Invasion, from which point on our historical diet consists largely of failed rebellions, famine and misfortune.
One consequence of this is that we, as a general population, tend not to know about what sort of people we were when we were not fleeing famine or trying to fight against occupation or being sent “to hell or to Connaught”. How we divided our land, organised our affairs, how the power structures worked, how disputes were resolved – all this is not transparent to the average schoolgoer, though any who were interested in Irish myths and legends might have picked up some ideas. I mention this because I’ve been trying to piece together ideas of how we as Irish people have related to the landscape we live in through our history. Those rather amateur investigations will be another stream through this blog, as I certainly am in no expert position to say much right now.
It astonishes me that more attention is not paid then to the surviving texts we do have. Long before the Norman invasion and indeed at least partially beyond it, Ireland had its own system of law known as the Brehon law. It is considered by some to be probably the oldest known European example of a sophisticated legal system. It survived in some form until the 17th century and was so pervasive there were numerous harsh measures put in place at various intervals to help stamp it out. It was developed from customs that society passed on orally from one generation to the next.
The administrator/judge/arbitrator roll up sort of role was held by brithem. Their job was to interpret the law rather than to expand it, and to ensure it was passed on. There are some little bits about this system that I think we get to feel a little smug about, I’ve always liked that there was more than usual recognition of gender equality for example, a subject maybe for another day. For now the appeal of the Brehon laws is as an indicator of the Irish attitude towards the natural world.
Some base line things to be aware of before we begin. Irish people, in the period adherence to the Brehon law was strongest, were *obsessed* with cattle. It is quite difficult to overstate this. If you wanted to be seen as a wealthy, powerful individual it was all about the cows. Next, Brehon law catalogued offences and penalties, in great detail. Offences were things you paid for, quite literally, you were fined. Murder or injure someone? Pay an éiric, which was a heavy fine according to a predetermined scale.
The people the law was for were very much a product of their agrarian lifestyle and their self-sufficient agricultural economy based on barter exchange. Complicated tribal relationships and inter familial alliances were the norm. And, as I mentioned, it was all passed on orally, largely through poetic verse. The first written accounts, from where we get the sections and fragments that survive, were recorded by Christian scholars from about the 7th century. The extent of fragmentation is a little bewildering, but I believe the best preserved collection is the Senchas Már. That consists of about fifty law texts, arranged in three groups. Ah yes, third thing; as well as cows Irish people loved their triads and heptads. The laws deal with all kinds of things, family structure, marriage and divorce, fosterage, hostages, societal norms, honor prices and so on. Throughout there are Na Sechtae, or the Heptads, where relevant hierarchies are laid out, ranked in groups of 7 from most to least valuable, for example, the seven grades in the church, teh seven ranks of poet, the seven kings who are not entitled to honor-price, and so on. Cows, fines as punishment, sevens and threes.
In terms of my interest in how they dealt with living in their landscape with one another and especially with a focus on forestry and trees, I’m working my way through the Middle Third having discovered truly excellent papers by Professor Fergus Kelly The Middle Third includes the Bretha Comaithchesa, or Judgements of Neighborhood, which deals with trespass by domestic animals, fencing obligations, compensation for loss or damage of trees and vegetation ranked by importance, and so on. Also in the Middle is the Bechbretha, or Bee-judgements, which are *cool* and foreign to our modern notion of trespass as they outline a scale of payments a beekeeper is liable to make depending on how their bees travel and gather nectar on other people’s land. Coibnes Uisci Thairidne, or Kinship of Conducted Water,” contains the rules for accessing/transporting water for a mill across a neighbour’s land.
I was thrilled to find Professor Kelly’s “Trees in early Ireland” in the Irish Forestry: some time ago and discover that there were specific Brehon laws dealing with trees. Inherent in the law is the understanding that certain trees and shrubby vegetation were important to society, and communities needed to have these kinds of assets protected from unlawful damage such as branch-cutting, barking or base-cutting. As I mentioned early punishment for transgressions was by fine, in this case called a díre, paid for with livestock. The more important the tree, the heavier the cost.
There were four classes of tree, roughly mirroring classes in early Irish society. These were the airig fedo (‘nobles of the wood’), the aithig fedo (‘commoners of the wood’), the fodla fedo (‘lower divisions of the wood’) and the losa fedo (‘bushes of the wood’).
In each of the four classes is a Heptad, ranking the seven trees/bushes from highest to lowest ranking. The value of tree depending on its ranking, which was worked out based on its economic importance – how mature it was, how useful wood or fruit was and so on.
The penalties were graded on a scale corresponding to the class of tree damaged and how the damage was done. Four types of damage are listed, felling, cutting off at the base, fork cutting and branch cutting. The díre for felling one of the top class (nobles of the wood) was two milch cows and a three year old heifer.
I’m going to quit this soon while I’m ahead (my tea addiction needs feeding) but my intention, having outlined all that, is to start pulling together posts about each entry on the four Heptads, with a general introduction, relevant photos, memories and observations and whatever interesting little bits and pieces I can find to include. These will be mixed up in the general blog roll so I’ll have to tag them all together into a page as I get further along, but for now allow me to introduce you to trees and shrubs in the four classes of trees, as defined by Brehon Law.
Highest ranked – Airig Fedo (Nobles)
- Oak (or in Irish Dair)
- Hazel (Coll)
- Holly (Cuileann)
- Yew (Ibar)
- Ash (Uinnius)
- Scots pine (Ochthach)
- Crab Apple (Aball)
2 – Aithig Fedo (Commoners)
- Alder (Fern)
- Willow (Sail)
- Hawthorn (Scé)
- Rowan (Caorthann)
- Birch (Beithe)
- Elm (Lem)
- Cherry (Idath)
3 – Fodla Fedo (Lower Divisions)
- Blackthorn (Draigen)
- Elder (Trom)
- Spindle (Feoras)
- Whitebeam (Findcholl)
- Arbutus (Caithne)
- Aspen (Crithach)
- Juniper (Crann Fir)
4 – Losa Fedo (Bushes)
- Bracken (Raith)
- Bog Myrtle (Rait)
- Furze (Aiten)
- Bramble (Drís)
- Heather (Fróech)
- Broom (Gilcach)
- Wild Rose (Spín)
My tea is calling to me, I will have to return to this some other time..