A Letter from Ireland:
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The Brehon Families of Ireland – Is Your Surname Here?

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Céad Míle Failte wherever you are – from County Cork. The weather has broken a bit today – lots of cloud around, but still nice and warm. Hope it’s good wherever you are.

Have you ever had a “run-in” with the law where you live? Just last week we got our first 2 “penalty points” on our driving licence. I know – that makes us fugitive outlaws! But that’s what we want to talk about today – the use of law (and the brehon families) in Gaelic Ireland. For well over a thousand years, Gaelic Ireland was governed by “Brehon Law” until eventually outlawed in the 1600s (imagine – outlawing a set of laws!) Today, we are beginning to realise what a sophisticated and fair system it was – and a revealing insight into ancient Irish society.

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The Old Round Tower in Killala, County Mayo.

The laws themselves evolved from the customs of a tribalised society with no central authority – and the name “Brehon” or judge, comes from the judges who carried and advised on the law. Many of these judges and advocates came from specific hereditary Gaelic families – and were granted a very high standing in Irish society.

In Each Kingdom.

Each Gaelic kingdom (there were between 100 and 150 kingdoms, or “Tuatha” at any one time) appointed an official judge. Their job was to advise the king on all legal decisions to be made. He received a payment for his work – usually one twelfth of any award that was made. However, he was also responsible for any mistake made – and had to pay a fine for a bad judgement.

How do you think that would go down today?

The Great Celtic Cross at Downpatrick

The Great Celtic Cross at Downpatrick

Remember, there was NO central government in Gaelic Ireland to create laws – it was a society of tribes and smaller kingdoms. So, the laws were built over time through popular acceptance by the people as a whole. The laws WERE the customs of the people – put into spoken law by the Brehons – and were based on hundreds of years of development and social acceptance.

The Gaelic Family.

There are two things we need to remind ourselves of before we look at the administration of law – the idea of “family and kin” and the unit of currency (and punishment fines!)

When we talk about “Family” today – we often mean our immediate parents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughter, nephews and nieces at the most. Back in Gaelic times it was a little different. This is reflected clearly through the laws.

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Saint Brendan looks out to sea at Fenit, County Kerry.

A family was four generations descended from a common great-grandfather. This was defined as true kin. The kin was responsible for any member who got into trouble – they were expected to support one another and were often had to collectively pay a fine or debt that was incurred by one of their members.

The Celts in early Ireland did not make coins – but cows were used as a unit of value for trading, fining and asserting social status. Even land was measured in terms of the amount of cows it could maintain. The basic unit of “currency” was a milk cow accompanied by her calf. Coinage was not introduced into Ireland until the arrival of the Vikings.

Crimes and Punishment.

The king was not responsible for punishing any criminal act but it was left to the injured party to demand compensation. If there was a dispute between the parties, it was referred to a Brehon. And this is a key point – the customary laws were enacted by private individuals against others, and the use of a Brehon was considered important only in dispute resolution.

Carrigafoyle Castle, County Kerry

Cows grazing near Carrigafoyle Castle, County Kerry.

So, what were these typical punishments and fines?

Here are some examples from around 700 AD:

  • Causing a mark (bruise) on someone else: 2 cows and one seventh of the victims “honour” price. This was moved up to 2 and a half cows and a quarter of the victims honour price when blood was involved.
  • When the victim died, the kin could seek 21 cows and the victims full honour price. There was no capital punishment for homicide in ancient Ireland – it was up to the victims kin to gain compensation.

So, you are probably wondering what we mean by “honour” price?

What’s your Honour Price?

The “honour price” really illustrated just how hieriarchial Ancient Irish society was – but also just how socially mobile individuals could be.

Basically, a person’s place in society was determined by their material wealth. As their circumstances changed, their rank could go up – or down! The “honour price” tracked where you were on the social ladder – from king to lords to professionals like hierarchal and Poets, to craftsmen and wealthy farmers – all the way down to commoner (and below!)

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On the Hill of Tara, County Meath

The desire to maintain your honour price was probably the strongest incentive to stay within the law – no matter what your rank. Here are a few ways that individuals could lose their honour price:

  • A lord could lose his honour price for refusing hospitality (still a mortal sin in Irish families), sheltering a fugitive, tolerating satire (!) or eating food that was known to be stolen.
  • A poet could lose his honour price by overcharging.
  • A hierarchal could lose his honour price if he committed a serious breach of duty.
  • A king could lose his honour price if he showed cowardice in battle.

It must be said that ancient Irish society was not a caste society – but one in which social rank could be changed – which resulted constant attempts to protect or improve power.

This was the world that the Brehon laws reflected and tried to protect and enhance – overseen by a cohort of Brehons (or judges).

If you want to read more about the Brehon Laws and the Gaelic society that they reflected – I highly recommend “The Lost Laws of Ireland” by Catherine Duggan.

The Brehon Families of Ireland.

So, who were the “Brehon” families of Ireland? As you may have guessed – different traditions and professions often ran over generations in particular families. The following were families that provided many generations of Brehons to serve the various kingdoms of Ireland (I’ve put the county in to give a location – but many of these counties were not in existence at the time of the Brehons):

  • Egan of Galway and Tipperary (also ran Brehon schools)
  • Forbes of Mayo
  • Keenan of Fermanagh
  • Coffey of Longford and Westmeath
  • Donnellan of Galway
  • Davoren of Clare (also ran Brehon schools)
  • Breslin of Fermanagh
  • Hussey of Fermanagh
  • Agnew of Antrim
  • Foy of Fermanagh
  • Courneen of Leitrim
  • Corcoran of Fermanagh
  • Cloonan of Galway
  • Gilsenen of Tyrone
  • Caffrey of Fermanagh
  • Clancy of Clare and Tipperary (also ran Brehon schools)
  • Folan of Galway

Is one of your family surnames here? Do leave a comment below and let me know – or if you have any more questions about the Brehon laws and families of Ireland. I’m sure this is a subject that we’ll come back to in the future.

Remember – if you think one of your friends or family would be interested in this article – do forward it to them!

I’ll see you next week! : )

Slán, Mike…

  • Kathleen Casey Golka says:

    As always,
    your letter so informative! Thanks for a great read.
    Kathleen Golka
    SC. USA

  • Catherine Gregory says:

    Mike,
    There was so much to wrap my brain around in this letter that I needed time to think about how I could reply. Brehons before the Vikings – indeed!

    The surname Caffrey is one of mine. However, all of the records of my great great grandfather show that he was born in Crossmolina in County Mayo in 1833. That is as far back as I can go at this point. Thus the struggle to grasp the gap between that point in time and the pre-Viking era Ireland. Could he have been of the same family to whom you refer from Fermanagh? Or is that too much of a stretch?

    Catherine
    NJ USA

  • Jane Fasone says:

    Great letter. Can you recommend a good book on the History of Ireland?

  • Darlene White says:

    I wonder the Brehon laws were enacted here in the USA today, how many cows would appear in the accused’s garden? It might make people think wice before throwing a punch!

  • Janet McKee says:

    So interesting. I must read more on this time in Irish history.

  • Eileen Ball says:

    Love this article. In so many ways I wish we could
    restore common sense in our society. If professions were
    held accountable for their mistakes would we be further
    advanced as a society or more barbaric because no one
    would try anything new. We will never know.

    I am a descendent of the Foy family. I have only traced
    family to the early 1800’s in Sligo. Is it the same line-I
    suspect I will never know- I have 200 years+ to research
    where the records are hard to find and connect.

    Thank you for the weekly enlightenment on Ireland’s
    history.

  • Chuck Real says:

    Well done, Mike. What a great outline of the Brehon laws and their place in early Irish society. Would it be that such simplicity could prevail in today’s world. And especially that which deals with accessing a fine against judges who fail to use what was essentially common sense.

  • Pearl says:

    Hi can you tell me where did the name. Eustace. Come from is it Irish as my husband name is Eustace but does not know his Irish background as he was put in a orphanace in Wisconsin but a gene test says his father was Irish. Thanks

  • Mary Schleifer says:

    My Mom’s family name (Keenan) made the list! Although I apparently have an aunt and uncle who live in Mayo (Clare Morris). Neither parent or grandparents would talk about the past. My mother’s cousin has done some research but hasn’t found much. Frustrating. I really enjoy your weekly letters, miss going to Ireland this year.

  • Bev Littig says:

    Wow, great info Mike. I have Egans on my Paternal grandmothers side. She married a Cleary who was from Fermanagh. They lived in Troy NY. Forbes is my maiden name and from what I find on my grandfather’s side he was from Scotland. Unfortunately I cannot find any info on his arrival or his parents.

  • Irene Place says:

    My great-grandmother’s name was Honora Egan, so who knows, she may be related to the Egan’s of Galway and Tipperary!

  • Nancy Burley says:

    My late husbands great grandfather was an Agnew. I have little information only that he was born in Ireland, married Jane Hawthorn in New York, lived in Newburgh NY and raised 16 children. I’ve been interested in finding out more about where he came from in Ireland and this seems to be a start!

  • Mist Neff says:

    I have a few Hussey’s in my tree from the 1300’s. Not sure the time frame you are looking for. However, my tree says they were from England. If they cam from Ireland or went to Ireland, I am unsure yet. All I know is I am 17% Irish and 63% British lol

  • Sheila Wall says:

    Hi:

    What exactly do you mean by “media pack” and “partner” as well as “sponsor.”

    Thanks,
    Sheila Wall

  • Richard A. Costigan says:

    Costigan’s from St. John’s Newfoundland Canada.
    trying to make the step to Ireland…
    My fifth Great Grandfather Vincent Costigan, County Tipperary, Ireland, b. 1790 Ireland d. 1844 Harbor Main NFLD.
    Any help would be helpful…

  • Madeleine says:

    Hi, you didn’ t mention Leinster or Wexford, Am I right in thinking the Doran or O’ Doran were among the Brehon lawyers in Leinster

  • Karen says:

    I just joined and I can hardly wait to get the newsletters ! I have Sheehan…Corbett…East….Figg….and Donahue in my family tree. I have tracked the Corbett and Sheehan families to Boherbue . ..but lose them past the 1840’s. Would love to hear from any possible cousins !
    Karen
    Kentucky US A

  • Robaird O'Breaslain says:

    Nice read. As a Breslin I get s great kick out of listening to people tell me my name isn’t very Irish. I should direct them to pages like this.

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