As my husband and I drove through the Irish county side, the rainy mist drew back from time to time to reveal startling glimpses of Ireland’s past. I can well believe the legends of those who have stepped into that temporal mist, never to return. In some very important ways, the past is still very much alive in Ireland. Stony ruins and oral lore share equal social commerce with internet cafes and university libraries. And yet, an exploration into Ireland’s unique history of law, religion and society reveals a world in many ways far more progressive than the future it would know.
6th-7th century saints such as Aidan of Lindisfarne, Brendan (the Navigator) of Clonfert, Brigit of Kildare, Gobnait of Ballyvourney, Colum Cille (Columba) of Iona and Hilda of Whitby founded religious communities built as much from Irish pre-history as from Irish stone. They lived at a time when all that had gone before was only just beginning to be entered into written form. Transitioning from “pre-history” to “history”, law and doctrine as well as their interpretation and application had been until then a matter of oral tradition.
However, Christianity was a tradition of the book, as was its religious ancestor of Judaism. Consequently, carvings and illuminations of early Irish saints frequently depict them as either holding a book or as writing in one. Not coincidentally, the first written Irish appeared in the fifth century, around the same time as the initial Christianization of Ireland. Called Ogham script, written Irish is formed of a series of grooves carved on the corner edge of a shaped stone. Each combination of grooves represents a different letter of the Latin alphabet, and a number of Ogham stones have been found in both Ireland and Wales.
Being long before the printing press, the only way to acquire an early Christian book was to hand-copy it. In fact, it is said that the first instance of copyright law can be traced to Colum Cille (St. Columba).
As the story goes, Colum Cille was known to be an avid copyist and illuminator. His former teacher and friend, Finnian, had just returned from Rome with a highly-desirable copy of Jerome’s Latin translation of the bible created some 100 years earlier. Though Finnian was agreeable to Colum Cille studying the book, he clearly did not want Colum Cille to copy it.
Finnian’s resistance seems to have been in part because the commentaries and later illuminations apparently included some gnostic interpretations and symbolism considered to be out of step with the emerging orthodoxy. Perhaps religious leaders in Rome thought it just as well to have the valuable but challenging manuscript removed from the country. At any rate, the bible went with Finnian to Ireland, and Colum Cille wanted a copy of it.
Refusing to be thwarted by Finnian’s reserve, Colum Cille copied the manuscript surreptitiously at night. Employing the practice of creating text pages from vellum (specially prepared calf skin), Colum Cille applied his art until the manuscript was fully copied. However, his secret was eventually outed, and an outraged Finnian took Colum Cille to legal arbitration in the court of Diarmaid, the High King of Ireland. Finnian argued that the book was his property and that copying it was a violation of his rights.
Colum Cille’s counter argument is said to have included something of the following:
Learned men like us, who have received a new heritage of knowledge through books, have an obligation to spread that knowledge, by copying and distributing those books far and wide. It is wrong to hide such knowledge away or to attempt to extinguish the divine things that books contain. I acted for the good of society in general.
King Diarmaid ultimately forced Colum Cille to return the copy to Finnian with the conclusion that, “Arbitrators have always described the copy of a book as a child-book. This implies that someone who owns the parent-book also owns the child-book. To every parent its child, to every cow its calf. The child-book belongs to Finnian.”
In making his ruling, Diarmaid applied an ancient oral code of legal tradition now known as Brehon Law. Within Irish culture throughout the Iron Age, Brehon Law reflected an ancient and existing social equality of gender that placed women at the head of any profession and able to hold Clan leadership equally with men. Though reflective of highly localized needs and practices, Brehon Law was the guiding force in Ireland for all relationships between individuals, social and moral. To orally agree to a social contract was binding to one’s personal honor. Any breach of contract could be seen as a mark not only against an individual but of an entire clan.
Finally, Brehon Law was a tradition formed over hundreds of years by the people to serve the people. It was memorized and applied by professional arbitrators (both male and female) who studied the law for many years before being examined to become a Brehon (a combination of being a walking oral law library and legal representative). The highest level Brehons were considered to have rank equal to the High King – be that Brehon a man or a woman.
“6th Century Ireland, A Living History of Equality”
From the mists of Ireland’s history emerges an early tradition of law and social conduct based on personal honor, a quality about which little is spoken or commonly culturally transmitted in our time. In the global economy and politic in which we currently find ourselves, a little old-fashioned integrity called “honor” could go a long way.
It certainly couldn’t hurt.