Law of Distraining (Ginnell, 1896)

1.744. Laurence Ginnell, The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1894), pp. 158-59, 161-62. BL 2228.aa.3

Extracts from Laurence Ginnell, The Brehon Laws (1894), on the Brehon Law of Distraining.

The complaint issued by the final word of ‘Telemachus’ may be usefully looked at in the context of the Law of Distraining, “the most extensive and important part of the whole Brehon Code.”  In introducing the term athgabhail, translated as ‘distress’, Ginnell explains that it means “the resumption or recovery of either property or right of which one has been deprived”:

What was meant for a definition in the Gaelic is translated thus — “It is called Athgabhail, because through it advantage is obtained after disadvantage, property after the absence of property, possession after non-possession, truth after untruth, legality after illegality, justice after injustice, lawful possession after unlawful possession, right after wrong, order after disorder. Athgabhail is a general name for every security by which one recovers his right. Athgabhail is that which renders good to the good, which renders evil to the evil, which takes the guilty for his guilt” . . . Whoever had any claim or complaint against another, either summoned that other or, by distraining, obliged that other to summon him before a brehon, who decided which party was in fault, and assessed the amount that person should pay to the other.

Given that Stephen does not eat on the 16th of June after his breakfast inside the Martello Tower, together with his determination not to step inside it again (1.739-40), Ginnell goes on to explain that one method of distraining was distraint by fasting:

Generally a person before proceeding to distrain was bound to give certain notices. . . . If the defendant was a chieftain, a flaith, a brehon, a bard, or a bishop, the plaintiff was obliged to fast upon him in addition. “Notice precedes every distress in the case of the inferior grades, except it be by persons of distinction or upon persons of distinction; fasting precedes distress in their case.” The Troscead, or fasting upon one, consisted in going to his house and waiting at his door a certain time without food. . . . Distress by way of fasting, now so strange to us because so long obsolete, was clearly designed in the interests of honesty and of the poor as against the mighty.

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