Cheerful old friends having fun and drinking draft beer in pub


Ireland the Land of a Thousand Welcomes!

Ireland is affectionately termed the land of a thousand welcomes.  It is reflected in the phrase “céad míle fáilte” one hundred thousand welcomes.  So why are the Irish so welcoming?  The answer lies in our cultural past. Under the Brehon laws of ancient Ireland it was once against the law to refuse hospitality to others.  A refusal amounted to an offense of “esáin” “driving away”.  As a result, hospitality was culturally ingrained and legally enforced. Strangers must be welcomed into a home as guests. Therefore, every homestead was liable to receive a knock from a passing traveler.  The householder was obligated to provide hot water, a hot meal, clean bed and fireside entertainment to the visitor.

There were sensible reasons for this custom. Travel was encouraged as everyone could be assured of safe travels around the island.  This resulted in exchanges of ideas and the facilitation of trade. Good relationships were forged between foreign “túatha” or clans. These customs are still apparent today in Irish culture from the switching on of a kettle to make a pot of tea on arrival of a guest to our general open and friendly demeanor.

Background on the Brehon Laws

The Brehon laws were the justice system used in Ireland from Celtic times to the 17th century.  The laws were poly-centric meaning “with the people”.  Laws rested with the people.  Kings could not make laws and there was no state controlled legal system.  There was no one to enforce the laws in the form of sheriffs or prisons.

So how could such a system work you might ask?  The answer lay in the simple fact that they were laws “of” the people not “on” the people.  Therefore, people did not fear the law and it was incorporated into all aspects of their daily lives in the form of norms or customs.

The fundamental difference in the Brehon laws and the laws of today is that the Brehon laws were designed to compensate an injured party not punish them.  The laws sought to find a “failing” in the system of brotherly kindness and honor.  Unfortunately these laws, which worked well for  Irish society, were stamped out by the Penal laws enforced by the British Crown in the 17th century.

Click here for pre-17th century influenced art.

As mentioned, there were no laws enforced by a king or third party state.  The Brehon laws developed from customs which had been passed on orally from one generation to the next. There were two main types of law: the “cáin” law, which referred to major laws, universal principals which applied to the country as a whole.  The “urradhus” laws were local laws.

The laws were kept by a professional class in society knows as the Brithem which became anglicized into the term “Brehon”.  However, the laws were not created by the Brehons, they were simply administrators of the laws, and unlike judges of today, they had no authority to enforce their judgments, their role was more of wise-men who were consulted for advice.

In many respects Brehon law was quite progressive, a system well ahead of its time. It recognized equal rights between the genders and showed concern for the environment. In criminal law, offenses and penalties were defined in great detail. Restitution rather than punishment was prescribed for wrongdoing. Animals were used as currency with fixed values set down in law and given in payment for goods and services and for settling fines.

The Brehons didn’t seem to have any trouble getting their decisions accepted and the absence of either a court system or a police force suggests that people had strong respect for the law.  In conclusion, it may be suggested that perhaps we have much to learn from our ancient ancestors.

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