Most of the brehon laws that survive were written down in the eighth century. The system continued in use until the seventeenth century but must have changed considerably over such a long period of time as well as varying to some extent from place to place.
The laws reveal a society different from our own. A woman was required to be under the legal protection of a male: her father, husband, brother, son or kin. Her protector acted legally for her and received compensation for crimes against her. According to one text, female evidence was considered dishonest, only to be accepted in certain circumstances.
Brehon law legislated for three kinds of marriage, according to the amount of property brought to the union by the spouses.
A chief wife or cétmuinter was married according to one of the three kinds of contract above but there was legislation dealing with six other types of sexual union and a man might have concubines or mistresses, especially if he wanted many sons. There was no status of illegitimacy and sons of both kinds of union had equal rights, though their mothers did not have equal status.
Children were normally the responsibility of both parents and the father had to take responsibility if the mother was unable to do so or if the child was conceived through his wrongdoing. Children could be sent into fosterage at an early age and often remained with their foster families until their mid teens.
A husband had grounds for divorce if his wife was unfaithful, a thief, attempted abortion, brought shame on his honour, smothered her child or was 'without milk through sickness.' A wife had grounds for divorce if her husband was unfaithful, failed to provide support, spread false stories about her, was impotent, obese, homosexual, sterile, gravely indiscreet about the marriage or in holy orders. In case of infertility, both spouses might 'go away' to 'seek a child'.
Society was graded according to social class and a woman's honour price was half that of an equivalent man. Slaves, male and female, were at the bottom of the social pyramid and one of the units of currency was cumal, meaning 'slave girl.' Probably slaves were once traded but cumal came to mean an amount equivalent to three milch cows - there was no coinage as yet. Slave girls did such work as grinding corn, cooking and feeding animals for their owners.
Some powerful monasteries actually contributed to early Irish law. Adomnán, abbot of Iona, had a law called Cáin Adomnáin, enacted at Birr in 697 AD and guaranteed by ninety powerful rulers and clerics. It forbade the use of women in warfare and imposed fines for offences against women. Among the offences mentioned are physical violence of several kinds, rape, making a woman pregnant by stealth without contract, different kinds of sexual harassment and causing embarrassment to a woman by accusing her of unchastity or denying her offspring.
If it be forcible rape of a girl, half of seven cumals for it. If it be a hand [touching] against her or on her belt, ten ounces for it. If it be the knocking a woman down with intention to injure, one cumal and seven ounces for it. If it be [putting] a hand under her clothing to dishonour her, one cumal and three ounces for it ... If a woman has been made pregnant through fornication, without contract, without property, without bride-price, without betrothal, full fines for it.
Women murderers, poisoners or burners were to be placed in a boat with one paddle and a bowl of gruel and set adrift, but a man who killed a woman was to have his right hand and left foot cut off before death.
The church constantly promoted celibacy for monks and nuns and preached chastity for others. There were many recorded breaches of the rules of celibacy among the clergy, while divorce continued to be practised, at least amongst the Gaelic aristocracy, right down to the seventeenth century, in spite of constant warnings and condemnations.
Women seem to have gained more independence gradually under the brehon laws during the early Christian period and even gained more control over property.
|However, by the beginning of the eighth century, the original legal incapacity of women was long on the way out and ... women were able to exercise extensive rights within marriage.
Donncha Ó Corráin in Margaret Mac Curtain & Donncha Ó Corráin, Women in Irish History, Dublin, 1978, p. 9.
The introduction of English common law to Ireland, begun by the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, brought many changes for women. Both brehon law and common law had advantages for women and men in certain circumstances and both systems had disadvantages also.