Senchus Mor (Ginnell, 1894)

1. 218-20, passim. Laurence Ginnell, The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1894), pp. 26-27. BL 2228.aa.3

Extract from Laurence Ginnell, The Brehon Laws (1894), on the Senchus Mōr.

At various points in ‘Telemachus’ and elsewhere in Ulysses, the young ‘bard’ Stephen resorts to the terms of Brehon as opposed to British law. That he should do so in a rather studied fashion is not altogether surprising: serious research on Brehon law had begun only recently, but was very much in the air. The Brehon Law Commission was appointed in 1852 and by 1894, when Ginnell published his book, had published four volumes of the Ancient Laws of Ireland, with another in the press. This passage provides a relevant context for Stephen: it is Ginnell’s account of the Senchus Mōr, the greatest collection of ancient Irish laws, emphasising its difference from Roman law and, by implication, from those European legal systems which derived from the Roman model:

From the synopsis just given of the work already done by the Brehon Law Commission, it will be seen that the Senchus Mōr, or Grand Old Law, occupies the first and largest part of it. That ancient work was designed to be a comprehensive and more or less codified embodiment of the laws which were of universal obligation over the whole country before the arrival of St. Patrick. Outside it such special rules as occasion demanded were made or sanctioned by local assemblies, but all were so framed as to harmonise with and be subject to the general law as set forth in the Senchus Mōr. This is a great collection, not of statutes, proclamations, or commands of any sort, but of laws already known and observed from time immemorial; call them rules or customs if you will, but having the force of laws, authoritatively set forth in this work, partly by way of direct statements or propositions, partly by way of judicial decisions in actual cases. The work contains nothing of the harsh, peremptory, imperative style of early Roman law. The writers do not say, Go, do this, or Go, do that, or If a man does so and so, let him be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock. No; they do not enact anything. Pursuing the more gentle course of the later Roman lawyers, they state what the law is, support the statement with the decisions of the wisest Brehons, and then leave the law to prevail suo vigore. They explain that the men of Erinn having considered the matter in times past decided that it was best it should be so, and that nobles, chiefs and tribes have loyally observed these laws. Any alteration really desired could be effected, according to its scope, either in the local assembly or in the national assembly. Being Plebiscita in the very best sense, not emanating from the mouth of a tyrant but from the wisest heads of the nation, it followed as a natural consequence that these laws were obeyed and venerated as the spirit by which the nation ought to be ruled. There was therefore no occasion for the imperative, none for coercion. It was needless to force people to do that which they took pride in doing. Besides, the laws having been made by the nation itself were, of course, designed to promote and secure its wellbeing and happiness and were therefore broadly just and generally found favourable to every good purpose.