Brehon Law had some special and unusual requirements for the care of an injured person.  The victim was entitled to peace and quiet.  The law specifically stated:  “No games are played in the house.  No children are chastised.  Neither women nor men exchange blows.  No dogs are set fighting in his presence or in the neighborhood outside.  No brawls are made.  No cry of victory is raised, nor shouts in playing games.  No pigs squeal.  No yell or scream is raised”.

Brehon Law provided that if someone caused injury to another, he was responsible to take care of the injured party until he recovered.  This was called sick maintenance and was required only where the injury was unlawful and involved a payment of legal compensation, which we would call personal injury.   Although this system was already outmoded by the eighth century, it is important because it provides a glimpse of a much earlier time in Irish society.

As always in Brehon Law, the rules were very detailed.  The victim was cared for at home for nine days and attended by a doctor.  If he survived the nine days and still required care, he was removed from his home and taken to the home of a third party where he was nursed back to health at the expense of the wrongdoer and under very strict legal and physical conditions. The wrongdoer was required to remove his victim “without negligence, without indifference, together with [providing] a man for his duties.  If he does not remove [him] when bloodshed is inflicted, he pays [the appropriate] penalties”. Pledges were exchanged between the culprit and the injured man’s kin, and a surety guaranteed that the wrongdoer’s obligations would be met.

The house must have four openings so the invalid could be seen from every side.  The invalid was entitled to a plentiful supply of water, and every patient was to be fed according to the directions of the physician who attended him.  The basic fare was two properly baked loaves every day.  He also got an unlimited amount of celery because of its healing properties.  Salt meats were to be given to a member of the nobility, but only patients of the highest ranks could claim to be supplied with ale. 

This system proved to be burdensome and unwieldy.   Eventually it became obsolete and a single payment was substituted.  As a text written in the eighth century stated, “Sick maintenance does not exist today at the present time, but rather a fee for [appropriate to] his worthy qualities [is paid] to each according to his rank, including [compensation for] leech’s fee and the ale and refection, and also the fee for blemish, hurt, or loss of limb”.

The rules of sick maintenance demonstrate the practical and humane approach of the Brehon Laws and are an example how the law changed and developed over time.

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Tags: Brehon, History of Ireland

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Comment by Irish Cultural Society of GC on October 29, 2014 at 7:06pm

Catherine Duggan reminds us that we learn to be responsible human beings if the structure we live in is humane.  The Brehon Laws are built upon the fond belief that if we ask people to accept everyone as our neighbors we will respond positively.  Thank you, Catherine Duggan, for showing us the wisdom of the ages, and that much of that wisdom is part of our Irish heritage.

John Walsh    


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