Bee Judgments

Last evening, while I was harvesting my small crop of lavender blooms, I was delighted to see a number of busy buzzing visitors to my garden – even more now since the honeybee is fast becoming an endangered species.  I let the bees collect their harvest before I clipped the blooms.

Bees were especially important to the Gaels – so much so that they devoted an entire law tract to the subject of beekeeping.  Bechbretha, or Bee Judgments, is believed to have first been set down in the seventh century, but the only complete copy still in existence was begun sometime in the fourteenth century.  The tract deals with ownership rights of hives and swarms, compensation for harm caused by bee stings, among other things.  Here’s a sample from the tract, first in Old Irish, followed by an English translation:

Fer in-étet saithe nadbi lais co finnathar maigin i suidigetar:  trian do thír frisa suidigetar, trian do fiur doda-etet, trian do lestur oa n-élat bes bunadach doib.  The man who follows a swarm which is not his and who finds the place where they settle:  a third [goes] to the holding where they settle, a third to the man who tracks them, a third to [the owner of] the hive from which they escape and which is their original home. (Charles-Edwards & Kelly, p.78-79)

Sounds reasonable.  Honey, after all, was a hot commodity since it was one of the few sources of sweeteners besides berries and other fruits.  Beeswax for candles was also highly prized.  It burned cleaner and smelled a whole lot better than tallow candles.  Monasteries practiced beekeeping on a large scale since great quantities of beeswax were needed for candle making.  For the tasty and useful products they create, bees were valuable possessions and garnered much respect….except from one man.

Because of an unfortunate accident, he became known as Congal Caech (Congal the Blind).  He claimed he was blinded as a result of a bee-sting and he demanded compensation from the owner of the hive.  His case is mentioned in the Bechbretha and given some importance since Congal was King of the Ulaid (a confederation of tribes in what is now Ulster).  Unfortunately, the beekeeper was Domnall mac Aedo meic Ainmirech, King of the Uí Néill (a northwestern tribe) and High King of Ireland.  For his suffering, Congal was awarded a hive – an unsatisfactory verdict, as you can imagine.  The Ulaid demanded that the eye of Domnall’s son be put out as fair compensation, but this alternative verdict was denied by the judges.  Once simply did not mess with the Uí Néill or make such demands of the High King.  Congal, of course, was furious.  He clashed with the Uí Néill in the Battle of Mag Rath in 637 and was slain for his trouble.

Fergus Kelly’s modern commentary on this case gives an interesting sidebar:  “According to modern beekeepers, the human eye-closing reflex is so fast that a bee’s sting would be unlikely to penetrate to the cornea.  To lose the sight of an eye from a bee-sting would therefore be a most unusual accident.”  (p. 239).

Mmmm…this might be one for Mythbusters!


Charles-Edwards, T. & Kelly, F. (eds).  (1983).  Bechbretha.  Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Kelly, F.  (1995).  A guide to early Irish law.  Dublin:  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

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4 Responses to Bee Judgments

  1. Leslie says:

    It would be wonderful if now days we could be compensated for being stung by a bee!

    Back in ancient Ireland, did only the nobility get to eat honey or did the common folk also have access to honey. Did they eat it throughout the year or only on special occasions?

    About your cat, Neo. Would he have been out of place in ancient Ireland or were there cats around to get the mice and “juicy” flies?

    So many questions. I can’t wait for the next installment. More than that, I look forward to the book being published!

    Could I ask that you include “how to pronounce” for those difficult Gaelic names? Thanks.

    • Kerry Ross says:

      Why, yes, Leslie, there were domestic cats in ancient Ireland. According to Fergus Kelly, some glossed quotations survive from a lost law tract known as CATSLECTA, or “Cat-Sections.” We’ll assume that the title refers to sections of the law text which deal with the keeping of cats, or cat transgressions, rather than “pieces” of cats! I wonder if there was a fine payment to compensate the owner of a beloved rug ruined by the upchucking of furballs?

      There’s also a poem from the 8th or 9th century written in Irish in the margin of CODEX S. PAULI at the Monastery of Carinthia. Here’s an excerpt:

      I and my white Pangur
      Each has his special art;
      His mind is set on hunting mice
      Mine is on my special craft….

      He is joyous with swift jumping
      When a mouse sticks in his sharp claw,
      And I too am joyous when I have grasped
      The elusive but well loved problem.
      — based on translations by Whitley Stokes, John Strachan, and Kuno Meyer

      Kelly, F. (1995). A GUIDE TO EARLY IRISH LAW. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, p. 275
      Hoagland, K. (ed.). (1981). 1000 YEARS OF IRISH POETRY. Old Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Company, p. 26-27.

  2. Shirley says:

    Bee Judgements is so easy to read. It flows well, leaving the reader (me) wanting more. I agree that pronounciation of names is a problem. When I read, I usually skip over pronounciation of difficult words in my mind, but reading aloud in a class would be difficult. I don’t like history, but this book is tempting me. Forge on, O Ross!!

  3. Pingback: Sweet Irish History | Irish Fireside

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