by Daniel Hawkins
When you think of Ireland, what comes to mind? Shamrocks? Guinness? How about anarchy?
Maybe you’ve learned about old Eire, but most of us don’t hear anything beyond the Potato Famine or the War of Independence. Not to say that these weren’t important events, but it’s frustrating to see that yet again, anarchy is forgotten by history, despite its amazing success. The particular form of Anarchism that thrived there was one that still baffles many today: Brehon Law.
“Law?” says our familiar skeptic, “Isn’t ‘law’ the opposite of Anarchism?”
As in part I of this series, the answer is yes and no. As many Anarchists like to say, “’Anarchy’ doesn’t mean ‘no rules,’ it means ‘no rulers.’” Brehon was a type of Polycentric Law. To those unfamiliar with the term, Polycentric Law is based upon the idea that sometimes people will disagree, but that doesn’t mean the State should have a monopoly on justice. Instead, competing “courts” arbitrate disputes. The rulings are compensatory—meaning that instead of chopping off a thief’s hand or throwing him in a pit of snakes, he simply has to pay some value for the stolen goods. So, instead of laws (as we think of them) these courts follow rules or principles – values put forward by society and the market (e.g., “stealing is bad,” “killing is also bad”). Still sound a bit fuzzy, or even insane? I hope the brilliant and beautiful Ireland will shed some light.
Centuries ago, the Celts inhabited the Emerald Isle. Of their various customs, the Celts prized property, reputation, and freedom. It would be dishonest to say that ancient Irish society wasn’t hierarchical or primitive. It was. But, it was their hand-to-mouth existence and their rituals that, like most tribes, kept Celtic communities together. A patchwork of clans and provinces, Irish society managed to elevate every individual to a level where society worked like a well-oiled machine. From its inception, Ireland was unique. Though its history is steeped in blood, beneath that kettle burns a fire of liberty that no power has ever managed to put out.
It’s worth noting that the Romans never invaded Ireland. This meant that unlike the other conquered nations, the Irish were never taxed by Rome, militarized by Rome, or—most importantly—subject to Rome’s complex penal codes. Though historians ignorantly assume that non-Roman “barbarians” were…well, barbaric, this is a half-truth. The very ideas of the Irish were completely different from their neighbors. I personally think that the ability to solve social problems without relying on a violent and larcenous monopoly is a miraculous advancement.
When two parties in Ireland had a dispute, they would just take it to their local Brehon. The Brehons were educated elders who acted as judges. But, unlike judges, Brehons didn’t expand on the law or impose sentences. Instead, they interpreted and preserved the traditions. The exact laws that the Brehons passed down were changed, written, and re-written as time went on, so historians still debate on specifics. But, what we do know is that Ireland was surprisingly progressive. Capital punishment was non-existent. Women could divorce and were entitled to a portion of the estate. Nobles held the same legal status as shepherds. Even the courts were impartial. When a Brehon delivered an unjust ruling, it was not uncommon for him to forfeit his fees and other wealth, and in these cases, he would lose his standing within the community. If an agreement could not be reached, the opposing parties would bring their case on appeal to another Brehon. While participating in the process, the parties would also attempt to mediate outside of court, as they do today. Though Hollywood likes depicting barbarians as simplistic cavemen, equity was an ideal that the Irish held very dear. And, while it may confuse people today, this was all done without any government officials of any kind.
“But,” we hear the skeptic yet again, “after the Brehons passed a ruling, who enforced it? What kept some thief or killer from just refusing?”
This is a fair question. From my first reading of Polycentric theory, I asked the same thing. It seems simple, but the answer is more complex.
While many libertarians advocate for private enforcement agencies (which, I have to say, I also advocate for), Ireland didn’t have them. To see how law was enforced, we have to take a few things into account: First, while the Irish generally operated a free market, there was little room for complex pricing mechanisms or insurance agencies. Secondly, the community was the heart of Irish life. Thus, we see enforcement being a social responsibility. If a guilty man refused to give restitution, he was cast out by the community – an exercise of their right to free association. On the occasion that he was even permitted to live within a village, the people would not give shelter to him, and certainly wouldn’t trade with him. The man would then be faced with paying up, finding another Brehon to go to, or living alone in the wilderness. If a non-payer still insisted on living at home, the victim would starve himself/herself publicly (probably originating the hunger strike). If an accused party believed he or she was innocent, there were a number of avenues to appeal to the community and to the courts. Though compassion was important to the Irish, to continually aid a non-payer was not taken lightly. To do so would be to tarnish one’s honor and reputation by giving blessing to wrongdoing. While we may never know the exact methods and accounts of every dispute, we can still see that even without police to speak of, the Irish got along fine.
Even after the introduction of Catholicism, Brehon survived. When the Roman Empire fell, Brehon survived. Even through war after war with neighboring England, Brehon survived. The innovative, free-spirited Irish continued to cope with changes while preserving their anarchic traditions. It wasn’t until the English finally conquered the island in the 1600s that Brehon was finally abolished.
“Ha! I knew it! It failed. The power of monarchy trumped ‘Polycentric Law,’ and their system fell. Yeah, it sounded like it worked for a while, but who’s to say that’s proof? How do we know Ireland wasn’t just an isolated incident?”
Well, Skeptic, again, you are mostly correct. Brehon fell at the hands of a bloodthirsty empire with the tools of taxes and indoctrination. But, is that to say Brehon can’t work? If the Irish did it, why not try it? It wasn’t a static system, frozen in time. If anything, Brehon should be noted for its ability to adapt to people’s needs. It fostered cooperation andcompetition, compassion and justice, community and individual. For people who want to escape the vicious and corrupt Police State, this is one of many solutions.
If you’re still not convinced, don’t worry, there’s more. Polycentric Law didn’t end with the Celts. More alternatives to the violent monopoly known as the State can be found far away—across oceans and deserts—where two unlike societies challenged authority: Iceland and Africa.
- Never Been Tried? Part I: Moresnet
- Never Been Tried? Part III: Fire and Ice
- Never Been Tried? Part IV: In The Beginning
- Never Been Tried? Part V: Anarchy in the U.S.A.?
- Never Been Tried? Part VI: The Living Anti-Nation