In pre-Christian Irish society, Brehons, or judges, laid down the law. This early body of law is now recognised as probably the oldest known European example of a sophisticated legal system. The Brehon law survived relatively intact right through the Early Christian period and on to the arrival of the Normans. The waves of forced settlement that followed meant that this legal system’s days were numbered, although it did survive in part right up to the seventeenth- century.
The Brehon laws were originally composed in poetic verse and memorised by the Brehons. As time went by, these laws were written down by Christian scholars. Today, texts like the eighth-century Bretha Comaithchesa (or ‘Laws of the Neighbourhood’) prove just how advanced the Brehon legal system was for its time.
Brehon law was the law of a pastoral people, whose economics were based on a self-sufficient agricultural economy regulated by tribal and family relationships and where wealth was measured in terms of cattle ownership. There were no units of money and barter was the main form of exchange.
It should come as no surprise therefore that there were specific Brehon laws dealing with trees and other flora. Under these laws, certain trees and shrubs were protected because of their importance to the community. Penalties were imposed for any unlawful damage such as branch-cutting, barking or base-cutting.
There were four classes of tree, roughly mirroring classes in early Irish society. These were the airig fedo (‘nobles of the wood’), the aithig fedo (‘commoners of the wood’), the fodla fedo (‘lower divisions of the wood’) and the losa fedo (‘bushes of the wood’). Which group a tree belonged to depended on its economic importance, usually related to its fruit, timber or size when fully grown.
The díre or penalty for an offence was a fine in the form of livestock. The penalties were graded according to the class of tree harmed and the form of damage inflicted. The díre for felling one of the nobles of the wood was two and a half milk cows, while the penalty for cutting down one of the commoners of the wood was one milk cow, and so on.
The most valuable class of seven is described as the “lords of the wood” (airig fedo).
- Dair ‘oak’ (Quercus robur, Quercus petraea)
- Coil ‘hazel’ (Corylus avellana)
- Cuilenn ‘holly’ (Ilex aquifolium)
- Ibar ‘yew’ (Taxus baccata)
- Uinnius ‘ ash’ (Fraxinus excelsior)
- Ochtach ‘Scots pine’ (Pinus sylvestris)
- Aball ‘ wild apple-tree’ (Malus pumila)
For any offence against one of the lords of the wood, the culprit must pay a penalty-fine (díre) equivalent to two milch cows and a three-year-old heifer. In addition, if the injury he has inflicted is merely branch-cutting, he must pay compensation (aithgin) of a year-ling heifer; if it is fork-cutting, a two-year-old heifer is due, and if base-cutting, a milch cow.
The seven trees of lesser value which are distinguished in the text are the “commoners of the wood” (aithig jhedo). The penalty-fine for damage to any of these trees is a milch cow. In addition the culprit must pay compensation. There is some inconsistency in the different versions, but it seems likely that the original text required the payment of another milch cow as compensation for base-cutting, a yearling heifer for fork-cutting, and a sheep for branch-cutting. If the tree is completely extirpated (aurbe), a payment of two milch cows and a three-year-old heifer is due.
- Fern ‘alder’ (Alnus glutinosa)
- Sail ‘willow, sally’ (Salix caprea, Salix cinerea, etc.)
- Sce ‘whitethorn, hawthorn’ (Crataegus monogyna)
- Caerthann ‘rowan, mountain ash’ (Sorbus aucuparia)
- Beithe ‘birch’ (Betula pubescens, Betula pendula)
- Lem ‘ elm’ (Ulmus glabra)
- Idath ‘ wild cherry (?)’ (Prunus avium)
For the complete list of classes, trees and shrubs, see Trees in Early Ireland by Fergus Kelly, the Augustine Henry Memorial Lecture, 11th of March, 1999, Royal Dublin Society.