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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

ONE of St. Patrick’s greatest works was his reform and ratification of the ancient Brehon Laws as embodied in the great compilation known as the Senchus Mor, or Great Antiquity. His labours in this respect claim special attention, for the Brehon Code prevailed in the greater part of Ireland down to the year A.D. 1600, and even still its influence is felt in the feelings and habits of the people. The laws of a nation necessarily exercise a great and permanent influence in forming the mind and character of the people; nor can the provisions of the Brehon Code be safely ignored even now by those whose duty it is to legislate for Ireland.

As explained before, the Brehon Code which St. Patrick found in Ireland, owed its existence mainly to three sources—first, to decisions of the ancient judges (of whom the most distinguished was Sen, son of Aighe), given in accordance with the principles of natural justice, and handed down by tradition; secondly, to the enactments of the Triennial Parliament, known as the Great Feis of Tara; thirdly, to the customary laws, which grew up in the course of ages, and regulated the social relations of the people, according to the principles of a patriarchal society, of which the hereditary chief was the head. This great Code naturally contained many provisions that regulated the druidical rights, privileges, and worship, all of which had to be expunged. The Irish, too, were a passionate and warlike race, who rarely forgave injuries or insults, until they were atoned for according to a strict law of retaliation, which was by no means in accordance with the mild and forgiving spirit of the Gospel. In so far as the Brehon Code was founded on this principle, it was necessary for St. Patrick to abolish or amend its provisions. Moreover, the new Church claimed its own rights and privileges, for which it was important to secure formal legal sanction, and have it embodied in the great Code of the Nation. This was of itself a difficult and important task.

During the pre-Christian period in Ireland the customary laws by which the Celtic tribes were governed were formulated in brief sententious rhymes, which were transmitted, at first orally, and afterwards, it seems, in writing, by each generation of poets to their successors. Up to the first century of the Christian era the poets had thus not only the custody of the laws, but also the exclusive right of expounding them and of pronouncing judgments. Even when the king undertook to adjudicate, the file, or poet, was his official assessor, and the king was guided by his advice in administering justice. The poets were exceedingly jealous of this great privilege, and lest outsiders might acquire a knowledge of law they preserved the archaic legal formulæ with the greatest secrecy and tenacity. So that at the time of the birth of Christ the language of the lawyers was quite unintelligible, even to the chiefs and princes of the kingdom.

This was very strikingly shown in the reign of Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ulster, about that period, on the occasion of a legal discussion between two rival poet-judges, which took place in the presence of the king and his nobles. The rival claimants for the gown of the poet-judge were so learned and obscure in the language which they used, that neither the king himself nor any of his courtiers could understand the strange and mystic language in which they conducted the discussion. Thereupon the men of Erin resolved to put an end to this system of esoteric learning, and so it was ordained by the king and his nobles that thenceforward the office of judge should not be confined to the poets alone, but should be open to all who duly qualified themselves by acquiring the learning requisite for the office of Brehon or Judge of Erin.

It was, however, in the third century of the Christian era, during the reign of Cormac Mac Art, that the Brehon Code seems to have been first digested and reduced to writing. Cormac, son of Art, and grandson of Conn the Hundred Fighter, reigned from A.D. 227 to 267, and was, perhaps, the greatest and most celebrated of the old Milesian kings. During his long reign of forty years the arts of war and peace flourished greatly throughout all the kingdom. He was the first king who established a standing army for the protection of his kingdom—they were the celebrated Feini, whose exploits under their great leader, Finn, the son of Cumhal, are so celebrated in the romantic stories of Ireland. By their aid he curbed the power of the provincial kings during his reign, although after his death the dissensions among the Fenians themselves led to the bloody fight of Gavra, and greatly weakened the military strength of the kingdom. It was Cormac, too, who first introduced water mills for grinding corn into Ireland. He built the great Rath of Tara, which still bears his name, and also the Great Hall of Banquets called the Teach Midchuarta, in which the National Triennial Assembly was celebrated by him with great splendour and magnificence. The site of that splendid hall can still be traced on the Hill of Tara, and actual measurements made on the spot by Dr. Petrie prove beyond doubt the accuracy of the statements made regarding all its arrangements in an ancient Irish poem copied into the Book of Leinster—a work written so far back as the twelfth century. Many writers attribute the founding of the Feis of Tara to the pre-historic times of Ollamh Fodhla; but if the Feis of Tara dates back so far, it seems to have fallen into disuse, and to have been re-established by Cormac with more than its ancient splendour.

This National Assembly of the men of Erin met every three years for a week, at November Day, for the three-fold purpose of enacting laws, of verifying the chronicles of Erin, and of causing them to be transcribed, when thus verified, into the Saltair of Tara, which was the official record, now unfortunately lost, of the entire kingdom, and was always kept in the custody of the High King at Tara. Cormac was himself a great jurist and scholar, and the authorship of the greater part of the Book of Aicill contained amongst the Brehon Laws is in that work itself attributed to the pen of Cormac, who wrote it after he had retired from the affairs of state to enjoy quiet in his old age. We may fairly assume, then, that the pagan Code of the ancient Laws of Ireland was reduced to written form in the reign of Cormac Mac Art, and from his time remained almost unchanged until the conversion of the kingdom by St. Patrick. It was then that the ancient tracts now published by the Brehon Law Commission were subjected to a new revision, and again formally sanctioned as the great code of the Irish nation. How it was brought about we are told in the ancient introduction prefixed to the Senchus Mor itself, and it is a most interesting and undoubtedly authentic narrative.

This Senchus Mor is the principal of all the Brehon Law treatises, and, according to the old Celtic custom, the place and time of its composition are first of all stated. The place of the Senchus was Tara ‘in the summer and autumn, on account of its cleanness and pleasantness during these seasons.’ But during the winter and spring the revisers adjourned their sessions to ‘Rath-guthaird, where the stone of Patrick is at this day in Glenn-na-mbodhur, near Nithnemonnach, on account of the nearness of its firewood and its water, and on account of its warmth in the winter’s cold.’ These indications point to one of the large raths on the banks of the River Nith, quite close to the village of Nobber, in Meath, where ‘Patrick’s Stone’ is still pointed out, and marked on the Ordnance Map. It was to the north of Tara, close to wood and water, and well sheltered from the bitter wintry winds to which Tara was so much exposed from its elevated situation.

The time of composition was the reign of Laeghaire, the son of Niall, King of Erin, and Theodosius was monarch of the world at the time. The exact date of the composition of the Senchus Mor is not fixed in the Introduction to that venerable record, but the Four Masters fix the period: The age of Christ 438. The tenth year of Laeghaire the Senchus and the Feinechus were purified and written. So also the Chronicon Scotorum tells us that in 438 the Senchus Mor was written—the year in which Auxilius, Secundinus, and Iserninus were sent to aid Patrick in preaching to the Irish. The work, however, really occupied three years, from 438 to 441, and was not, we may assume, formally promulgated until the Feis of Tara.






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