Brehon Law and Rent (Bryant, 1913)

1.631. Sophie Bryant, The Genius of the Gael: A Study in Celtic Psychology and its Manifestations, (London and Leipsic: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913), pp.163-66. BL 012354.g.16

Extract from Sophie Bryant, The Genius of the Gael (1913), on the concept of rent in Brehon Law.

In this passage from Bryant’s chapter on the ‘Evolution of Social Institutions under the Ancient Gael’, in the course of a description of Irish society under Brehon law in pre-Norman times, she gives an insight not only into concepts of rent, but also into the position of the “tribeless and homeless” stranger in relation to tenancy.

¶¶The common tribesman was the peasant head of the family, enjoying freely the use of the tribal land. The tribesman might fall into debt, make a contract with the chief of his tribe — or some other person of weight — by which he borrowed cattle for his use in agriculture, and undertook to pay interest in service, homage and material goods. This is the origin of rent in Ireland, and probably in other European countries as well. Elsewhere, it was the beginning of feudalism. The peculiarity of Ireland lies in the fact that the Brehon land law was developed side by side with the conditions leading to feudalism, to check and regulate them at every turn. Thus, as the needy peasant found it necessary to “take stock” from his chief and become a tenant, the law-loving intellect of the Gael stepped in and regulated with the utmost exactness the rent which tenants were to pay their lords. Hence the difference between the Irish idea of land tenure and the idea in all other European countries where landlordism still exists. The idea of a judicial rent is as old in Ireland as the institution of rent itself. Even the chief of the tribe was not excepted from the dominion of law: the king’s rents were regulated as well as those of all the others.
¶¶The law also made provision for the termination of a tenancy. After rent and homage had been rendered for seven years, the tenant became entitled to the stock if the chief died; and, if the tenant died, his heirs were partially, though not wholly, relieved from their obligation. Thus the law aimed not only at regulating the relations between landlord and tenant, but at the prevention of permanency in the servile relationship. Clearly, the tendency throughout is to conserve the ancient tribal idea of a community of freemen by limiting the power of the strong to make contracts with the weak. Contrast this with the unchecked degeneration of tribalism in mediæval Europe.
¶¶The Irish law tracts give us, in the fuidir class, the true prototype of the nineteenth-century Irish tenant. Strangers, tribeless and homeless, needed not only land to settle upon and perhaps a little capital to start with, but also the protection of a claim on some society. The chief no doubt had, in early times, access to the waste lands of the tribe, and on these it was easy for him to settle strangers who came to him. Thus the fuidir would enter into a free contract with the lord, by which he obtained leave to settle on the land and was secured in the protection of his lord, who thenceforth stood to him in the relation of family, i.e., was bail and witness for him in the tribal courts. On the other hand, he would agree to pay the lord a rent, and the law left the two perfectly free to agree on that rent as best they might. The lord might accept the fuidir’s offer or let him go; the tenant was free to pay or go. The rent of a fuidir is definitely distinguished in the great law tract, the “Seanchus Mor” from the fair rent paid by one of the tribe, as a “rack-rent from a person of stranger tribe.” So to be a tribesman was to have the protection of the law, and to be a stranger was to be left to the lord’s goodwill, public opinion and the natural law of demand and supply.