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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The Introduction then tells us the cause why the Senchus was written, and the persons who were engaged in its composition. The cause was to bring the laws of Erin and the Gospel preached by Patrick into harmony; for it was found that, as in the case of murder, so in many other laws also, the Brehon code was not in accordance with the Gospel preached by Patrick, and hence Laeghaire said, “It is necessary for you, O men of Erin, that every other law should be settled and arranged by us as well as this.” “It is better to do so,” said Patrick; whereupon King Laeghaire appointed the first Brehon Law Commission, consisting of nine persons, to whom was entrusted by the men of Erin the task of revising and purifying all the laws of the kingdom. The Commission consisted of Patrick and Benen and Cairnech, three bishops; Laeghaire and Corc and Daire, three kings; Rossa and Dubthach and Fergus, three poet-judges.

Benen was, it appears, secretary to the Commission. He was the favourite disciple of Patrick, a skilful scribe, and a sweet singer, and afterwards became assistant bishop to Patrick in the See of Armagh. Cairnech was the patron saint of Tuilen, now Dulane in Meath, and is said to have been a native of Cornwall. He died about the year 470.

Laeghaire was, of course, the High King of Tara, Corc was King of Munster, and Daire was the King of Ulster of that name who gave the site of Armagh to Patrick for his cathedral church.

Of the poets, Dubthach was the celebrated Dubthach Mac ua Lugair, who rose up to do honour to St. Patrick at Tara on the occasion of his first visit to King Laeghaire’s court, and afterwards became one of his earliest and most influential converts. Rossa Mac Trichem was also a poet, but his speciality was that, like Dubthach, he was an Ollave or doctor of the Bearla Feini, which was the ancient technical dialect of the lawyers. Fergus is simply described as a poet, one of the bardic order, which was too numerous and too influential not to be represented on this Commission.

When the Commission was thus duly constituted, Dubthach, the royal chronicler and poet of Tara, was ordered by the king to exhibit ‘the judgments and all the poetry of Erin and every law which prevailed amongst the men of Erin through the law of nature and the law of the seers, and in the judgments of the island of Erin and in the poets.’ This was the ancient code existing in its rudimentary form from time immemorial, afterwards perfected and arranged by the poets and the judges, and sanctioned at various times in the Feis of Tara. Then Dubthach, in obedience to the king’s, command, exhibited to Patrick and to his associates ‘all the judgments of true nature, which the Holy Ghost had spoken through the mouths of the Brehons and the just poets of the men of Erin, from the first occupation of the island down to the preaching of the faith.’ Whatever clashed with the truths of the Gospel was rejected, or purified to bring it into harmony with the Christian law; but ‘what did not clash with the word of God in the written law and in the New Testament and with the consciences of the believers was confirmed in the Brehon laws by Patrick and by the ecclesiastics and by the chieftains of Erin.’ Hence the new code was called the Cain Patraic, or Patrick’s Law, and ‘was written in a book which is the Senchus Mor, and no human Brehon of the Gaedhil is able to abrogate anything that is in the Senchus Mor.’

Such was the origin of this famous code, as set forth in the preface to the work itself, and corroborated by the text of the volume. This preface or introduction is not, indeed, so old as the text, but even in its present form it bears intrinsic evidence that it was written more than one thousand years ago. It is true that various objections have been raised to this account of the recension and codification of our ancient laws as set forth in the Introduction to the Senchus. These difficulties, however, are mostly chronological, and are found to disappear on closer examination.

It has been urged, for instance, that St. Benignus could not have been old enough to act on this Commission in A.D. 438, seeing that he was merely a boy when baptised by St. Patrick in A.D. 432. The answer is simple. In 438 he would have been at least a youth of twenty-one, and as we know from other sources that he was an accomplished scholar and the favourite disciple of St. Patrick, he is just the person whom the Saint would naturally select to act as secretary to the Commission, and in this way he would, of course, be set down as one of its members.

Then, again, it is said that King Corc could not have been then alive, since we read that his grandson Ængus Mac Natfraich was baptised by St. Patrick when the latter visited Munster. But as Ængus was quite a youth when baptised by St. Patrick, about A.D. 445, and only came to the throne in A.D. 453, according to Keating, there is nothing to prevent his grandfather being alive and King of Munster from 438 to 441.

Another alleged anachronism has arisen from confounding St. Cairnech of Dulane, who flourished in the fifth century and was a contemporary of St. Patrick, with St. Cairnech of Druim Lighean, who died about the year 530. There is no ground, therefore, for not accepting the deliberate opinion of our two greatest Celtic scholars, O’Donovan and O’Curry, who most carefully examined this question, that these objections against the alleged origin of the Senchus are not well founded, and that ‘there is no reason to doubt the statement that the nine authors of the Senchus Mor were contemporaries and were all alive at the time when the work is said to have been composed.’ Neither, we may add, is there any solid reason to doubt the fact of their joint authorship of this great compilation in the sense already explained, so that in the Senchus we have a most venerable and most authentic memorial of the laws and institutes of ancient Ireland, dating in its substance from pre-Christian times, and merely digested and purified by the historic Commission presided over by our national Apostle.

The text of the laws is beyond doubt very ancient. O’Donovan believed that both the text and the poem of Dubthach Mac Ua Lugair, quoted in the Introduction to the Senchus, are the genuine production of the age of St. Patrick. It may be said that O’Curry was of the same opinion, and Todd, a most competent critic, thought that portions of the text of the Senchus are of a very high antiquity, and that even the more recent portions cannot be of later date than the ninth or tenth century. Petrie, too, observes that the Senchus is frequently quoted in Cormac’s Glossary to explain the meaning of certain terms; and Cormac’s Glossary, if not, as some think, the work of the king-bishop himself, was certainly composed not later than a century after his death. And Graves, the late Protestant Bishop of Limerick, has pointed out that portions of the text of the Senchus are in regular Irish verse—a fact which of itself goes far to corroborate the statement made in the Introduction, that the original text was really the work of the bards, and that it was merely arranged and purified in the time of St. Patrick by Dubthach and his brother poets, who ‘put a thread of poetry round the Senchus for St. Patrick,’ as it is quaintly expressed in the Introduction to that work.

The commentary and glosses are, of course, of more recent composition, for they represent accretions to the original text made by different writers at different times, and belonging to different schools of law. But the same original and authoritative text is recognised by them all, with only these minor variations that must have inevitably arisen from the mistakes of commentators and copyists. For the antiquarian, however, as well as for the historian, even these commentaries, by various hands and of various dates, will be full of interest and instruction, embodying as they do unconscious references or allusions to the manners and customs of so many various times and localities.

The Brehon Laws were, however, never codified or reduced to a system deduced from first principles. The very nature of their growth, arising from the social needs of the time, forbids this idea. We have them, so to speak, in their historical, not in their scientific, development. They were written, too, for men perfectly familiar, not only with the manners and customs of the times, but also with all the fundamental principles and the daily practice of the Brehon Code. And hence we find so many things and terms left unexplained in the text and the commentary, which nevertheless were perfectly familiar to the law students of those days.

This is one of the great difficulties in dealing with the Brehon Laws. Not only is the language technical and archaic in the highest degree, but the very life and civilization, of which it was the expression, have completely passed away. We are living in an entirely different world, and we have lost beyond hope of recovery the key to the interpretation of these laws, which perished with the Brehons of the seventeenth century. ‘The key for expounding both the text and the gloss was, so late as the reign of Charles the First, possessed by the Mac Egans, who kept the law school in Tipperary, and I dread,’ says C. O’Conor of Belanagar, ‘that since that time it has been lost.’

This also explains why it is that so many terms were left untranslated by eminent scholars like O’Donovan and O’Curry. They were no longer terms living in the language, and there was no glossary to explain them. The complete and careful study of the laws themselves could alone furnish the key—a task which they did not live to accomplish. Even still the latest editor can only guess at the meaning of many of the words.

But all these things go to prove the undoubted authenticity of these ancient laws. The language itself is the best proof that they are what they claim to be, the ancient laws of Erin handed down at first by oral tradition from immemorial times, and afterwards collected and purified by the authors, who have transmitted them in their present shape to our day. The language of the text is not the middle, nor even the old Irish—it is something older still, manifestly bringing us back to pre-Christian times, and still showing fragments of the ancient rhymes in which it was handed down by the poet-judges from generation to generation, even before the art of writing was introduced into Erin.

It has been confidently said by many writers that it was St. Patrick who first introduced the use of letters into Ireland. As if, forsooth, during the centuries that the Romans were in Britain and Gaul no tincture of their civilization could cross our narrow seas, at a time, too, when many exiles from Ireland were forced to spend years in these countries, and great kings like Cathair Mor and Cormac Mac Art had foreign soldiers in their service, and held frequent intercourse, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with these countries.






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