CCIV20120 Law & Society in Early Ireland

Academic Year 2023/2024

Early Irish law ('Brehon law') was first recorded in the 7th century CE and survived as a living tradition until the 17th century. It has the earliest and most copious textual tradition written in a vernacular language (i.e. not Latin or Greek) in Europe. The surviving law texts provide a highly valuable window to observe the culture, society and even bee-keeping and divorce arrangement in medieval Ireland. Students will not only learn of this rich and interesting legal tradition, but also understand the details of a society very different from ours. This module is an excellent complement to majors in Celtic Civilisation, Irish, History and Law.

The first part of the module examines the sources from which we know about early Irish law, including manuscripts, major compilations of law, layers of texts and families of legal scholars in late medieval Ireland.

The second part deals with the contents of early Irish law. We will cover the main categories such as law of persons, law of property, injury and compensation, legal procedures, etc. While explaining the legal institutions we will observe how they reflect social practices such as contracts, neighbourhood, farming techniques and gender relationship.

The third and final part focusses on the interaction between law, literature and politics. We will question whether one can firmly distinguish between law and literature, and trace how law was used to promote political claims and cultural identity.

Students will be assessed by a short in-class test and two essays during the module.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

1. familiarity with the legal tradition in medieval Ireland (c. 700 - 1700 CE).
2. basic knowledge of the textual sources of early Irish law and aspects of the society regulated by legal institutions.
3. deeper understanding of how early Irish society functioned in everyday life.

Indicative Module Content:

Week 1 Introduction
Week 1 The social and political environment
Week 2 The history of early Irish law texts
Week 2 Judges and jurists
Week 3 Types of law texts
Week 3 Legal manuscripts, their format, contents, characteristics
Week 4 late medieval legal families
Week 4 The later fate of early Irish law
Week 5 Main features of dispute settlement in early Ireland
Week 5 1st discussion and research-skill
Week 6 Law of status: Críth Gablach (I)
Week 6 Law of status: Críth Gablach (II)
Week 7 Marriage
Week 7 children
Week 8 Status of women
Week 8 kinship structure
Week 9 Law of contract
Week 9 Law of tort
Week 10 Sick-maintenance and medicine
Week 10 Living with your neighbours
Week 11 Bechbretha (This may be cancelled because of the Easter holiday)
Week 11 Procedures
Week 12 Law and literature
Week 12 summary and 2nd discussion

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours
Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning






Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
Learning will mostly take the form of structured lectures, supported by group discussion and on-line resources 
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade In Module Component Repeat Offered
Continuous Assessment: Brightspace quizzes on the lecture contents and general participation in in-class discussions. Throughout the Trimester n/a Graded No


Essay: on one of three topics (<2000 words). Week 12 n/a Graded No


Portfolio: 1. in-class discussion in Week 5 where you formulate the research question
2. a formative report on Padlet (by Week 10)
3. an essay (1000-1500 word, end of term)
Throughout the Trimester n/a Graded No


Presentation: Students are asked to record a video presentation for less than 5 minutes on Padlet on a given topic. Week 7 n/a Graded No



Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Autumn No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment
• Group/class feedback, post-assessment

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Not yet recorded.

Ahlqvist, Anders, and Pamela O’Neill, eds. Medieval Irish Law: Text and Context. Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 12. Sydney: The University of Sydney, 2013.
Binchy, D. A. The Linguistic and Historical Value of the Irish Law Tracts. Proceedings of the British Academy 29. London: H. Milford, 1943.
Binchy, D. A. ‘The Date and Provenance of Uraicecht Becc’. Ériu 18 (1958): 44–54.
Binchy, D. A. ‘Distraint in Irish Law’. Celtica 10 (1973): 22–71.
Breatnach, Liam. ‘Canon Law and Secular Law in Early Ireland: The Significance of Bretha Nemed’. Peritia 3 (1984): 439–59.
Breatnach, Liam. ‘Lawyers in Early Ireland’. In Brehons, Serjeants and Attorneys: Studies in the History of the Irish Legal Profession, edited by Daire Hogan and W. N. Osborough, 1–13. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1990.
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Breatnach, Liam. ‘Law and Literature in Early Mediaeval Ireland’. In L’Irlanda e Gli Irlandesi Nell’alto Medioevo: Spoleto, 16-21, 215–38. Spoleto: Presso la Sede della Fondazione, 2010.
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Breatnach, Liam. ‘The Glossing of the Early Irish Law Tracts’. In Grammatica, Gramadach and Gramadeg: Vernacular Grammar and Grammarians in Medieval Ireland and Wales, edited by Deborah Hayden and Paul Russell, 113–32. Studies in the History of the Language Science 125. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2016.
Carey, John. ‘An Edition of the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már’. Ériu 45 (1994): 1–32.
Charles-Edwards, T. M. ‘Early Irish Law’. In Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí (Ed.), A New History of Ireland, Vol. 1, Prehistoric & Early Medieval Ireland, 331–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Davies, Wendy. ‘Charter-Writing and Its Uses in Early Medieval Celtic Societies’. In Pryce, Huw (Ed.), Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies, 99–112. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Gerriets, Marilyn. ‘The King as Judge in Early Ireland’. Celtica 20 (1988): 29–52.
Kelly, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law. Early Irish Law Series 3. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988.
Kelly, Fergus. Early Irish Farming. Early Irish Law Series, v. 4. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997.
Kelly, Fergus. ‘Texts and Transmissions: The Law-Texts’. In Ireland and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: Texts and Transmissions = Irland Und Europa Im Früheren Mittelalteren: Texte Und Überlieferung, edited by Próinséas Ní Chatháin and Michael Richter, 230–42. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002.
Ó Corráin, Donnchadh. ‘Marriage in Early Ireland’. In Marriage in Ireland, edited by Art Cosgrove, 5–24. Dublin: College Press, 1985.
Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, Liam Breatnach, and Aidan Breen. ‘The Laws of the Irish’. Peritia 3 (1984): 382–438.
Patterson, Nerys. ‘Brehon Law in Late Medieval Ireland: “Antiquarian and Obsolete” or “Traditional and Functional”?’ Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 17 (1989): 43–63.
Qiu, Fangzhe. ‘Narratives in Early Irish Law: A Typological Study’. In Medieval Irish Law: Texts and Contexts, edited by Anders Ahlqvist and Pamela O’Neill, 111–41. Sydney: The University of Sydney, 2013.
Qiu, Fangzhe. ‘Manuscript Contexts of Early Irish Law Tracts: A Case Study on Uraicecht Becc’. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 35 (2015): 150–71.
Sharpe, Richard. ‘Dispute Settlement in Medieval Ireland: A Preliminary Inquiry’. In Davies, Wendy and Paul Fouracre Eds., The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe, 169–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Name Role
Dr Jaqueline Bemmer Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Assoc Professor Fangzhe Qiu Lecturer / Co-Lecturer