Early Irish society was hierarchical and divided into numerous ranks. A person’s rank was determined by his material wealth. As a person’s fortunes changed, his rank in society could also change. The class system was not rigid. Every freeman was ranked, but rank was not determined by birth. Instead, a person’s status in society was determined by his honor price. Everyone had an “honor price”.
The honor price had several functions in society and in law. First, it was an assessment of his dignity, or “face”. Honor price was called lóg n-enech literally “the price of his face". In the old Irish language, “honor” and “face” are the same word; to make someone red in the face was synonymous with ‘offense against honor’. Among the free classes honor price was a man's most jealously guarded possession, more precious than life. One of the most stringent punishments for an offence was the loss of one’s honor price. Loss of honor price meant loss of social status and a decrease in rank. It was to be avoided at all cost.
Secondly, a person’s honor price represented his or her present status in the community. It was directly related to his material wealth. The assessment of a person's property, that is, its character and value, including land, personal property, and clients, was vital to assess his honor price, and the honor price was an essential part of the Irish system of justice. It was symbolically represented by appropriate dress, equipment, manners, size of retinue and reputation.
Finally, the amount of compensation for any wrong depended on the amount of a person’s honor price. The honor price was the payment due to any free man if his honor or rights were injured by another person. The honor price fluctuated according to a man's fortunes, and this was important because compensation for wrongs was directly related to it. Consequently, the honor price was the most important element in the legal status of every freeman. Native Irish law never subscribed to the principle of all citizens being equal before the law. Thus an offense against a person of high rank entailed a greater penalty than the same offense against a person of lower rank.
If a person injured someone, a penalty was imposed. When the penalty imposed was a fine, the fine was determined according to the level of the offense. On the other hand, if the penalty imposed was the payment of a portion of the injured person’s honor price, it was according to the rank and quality of the person to whom it was paid. Thus, the requirement of the payment of a person’s honor price was a more serious penalty than a fine. At a later stage of development, fixed penalties for specific crimes were established and enforced equally regardless of the rank of the victim.
Catherine Duggan is an attorney and the author of "The Lost Laws of Ireland, How The Brehon Laws Shaped Early Ireland."