Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Brehon Definition:

Judges in ancient and medieval Ireland.

In Irish legal history, just as the Irish common law was being set to writing, circa 250, a distinct class of citizens were recognized as judges, experts in the local customs and laws and able to render fair decision.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"Brehon law is the usual term for Irish native law, as administered in Ireland down to almost the middle of the seventeenth century, and in fact amongst the native Irish until the final consummation of the English conquest. It derives its name from the Irish word breitheamh (pronounced brehoon or brehon) which means a judge."

Hayden and Moonan write:

"Judges were called brehons. To become a brehon a person had to go through a regular, well-defined course of training. The brehons were a very influential class of men, and those attached to chiefs had free lands for their maintenance. Those not so attached lived simply on the fees of their profession."

Brehons decided on the level of damages one had to pay for personal injuries or crimes.

D'Alton writes:

"... the source from which most of the (Brehon law) came was the decisions of famous Brehons, for the laws of Ancient Ireland were for the most part judge-made laws.

"To know all the laws enacted, to remember the various local customs, to appreciate the worth of judicial decisions, and to decide according to justice and law required much training, and we find that before one could attain to the rank of Brehon and decide with a Brehon's authority, he must have had a legal training of twenty years.

"There was at least one Brehon in each clan whose position was official and who had a grant of land provided by virtue of his office. After a time, the office passed from father to son but the son, like his father, should have the necessary training.

"There were also non-official Brehons who lived by their fees...."

When Irish leaders such as Cormac Mac Art and St. Patrick began to set to writing, compile Irish law, their publications became known as Brehon Laws or the Code of Brehon.


  • D'Alton, E. A., History of Ireland (Dublin: Gresham Publishing, 1912), page 28.
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, The Brehon Code of Ireland
  • Hayden, M. and Moonan, G., A Short History of the Irish People (Dublin: Talbot Press Limited, 1921)
  • Joyce, P. W., A Concise History of Ireland (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1905)

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