The second installment of Peter Berresford Eliis's two-part feature on the life and work of Sophie Bryant, Irish feminist, educationalist and nationalist
SOPHIE BRYANT'S book, Liberty, Order and Law Under Native Irish Rule (1923) was my first conscious reading and understanding of the principles of the ancient Irish law system that had finally been abolished by the English conquests of Ireland in the late 16th and early 17th century.
It was a detailed work of nearly 400 pages examining the basis of the ancient Irish law system, the Laws of the Fénechus, which we popularly know as the Brehon Law, devised from the Irish word breaitheamh, a judge. Sophie, in this remarkable and pioneering study, went into the principals of the law - explaining that which marked it out from most other western systems of the time.
As far back as the earliest surviving texts from the 7th and 8th Centuries, the Brehon laws demonstrated principles to which Europe has only slowly come round to in modern times. It was a system not merely of punishment of the wrongdoer but compensation for the victim and rehabilitation for the transgressor.
Sophie examined the basic aspects of the law system, civil both and criminal. As a youth I was amazed to read that ancient Ireland had a national health system and free hospitals for the ailing poor. That workers injured "in the pursuit of unjustifiable profits" had their hospital bills and family expenses paid for by their employers as well as receiving compensation. That there were even laws prohibiting unqualified doctors from practising.
Women as well as men could divorce on equitable terms. Women remained in possession of all the property that they brought into the marriage, and, if they divorced or were divorced, were entitled to half of the wealth, which accrued during the marriage. That's a concept that only recently came into English law. There were laws against sexual harassment and rape. A woman was protected against rape by her even her husband. Similarly, she was protected from physical violence from her husband.
One could naively utter the cry - where did we go so wrong? But, then, the answer is obvious.
Sophie's analysis of the rights of women, quoting the sources in law, was fascinating; women as property owners, their rights in marriage, their right to pursue the professions, their roles as judges, lawyers, doctors, and even as rulers… though there is only one example of a female 'High King' there were many local rulers and war leaders who were women. It seemed idyllic and almost impossible. But one can't deny the law texts backed by the historic texts.
In the volume of tributes to Sophie, published by the North London Collegiate School in December, 1922, I have to say that I was struck by a contribution by Professor Charles Oldham of University College, Dublin. He said that he awaited its publication with misgivings. It seems curious that he started to criticise the book before it was published.
He had already expressed his opinion that Sophie's other book The Genius of the Gael was "too favourable" to the Gaels of Ireland, of which, he emphatically pointed out that he was not one. Professor Oldham seems to be disguising a certain prejudice by assuming an academic mantle. He was out of step with most reviewers, such as the Irish Independent, September, 1913. Without seeing the new work, he says he believes that "Mrs Bryant has stepped in where the experts still fear to tread…"
He assumed that her book would be merely a rewriting from the six volumes The Ancient Laws of Ireland, published by a commission between 1865-1901. That was a pioneering effort but by the time the last of those volumes had been published, scholars like Professor Patrick Weston Joyce were updating and amending the texts and translations, which, admittedly, were not without faults.
In 1903 Patrick Weston Joyce, one of the greatest experts on early Irish society had published his A Social History of Ancient Ireland in two volumes. This remains a unique study, which has not been bettered in its entirety and scope. In fact, it was this work that was James Connolly's source for making his remarks about the ancient Irish system.
In 1919, as the fair weather nationalists saw Connolly's socialism as dangerous, it had to be criticised. But Connolly was still regarded in the public's mind as a martyred hero. Professor Eoin MacNeill made an attack on his source, P.W. Joyce. MacNeill attacked in the arrogant fashion of the 'trust me, I am a scholar' school without dealing with the sources cited by Joyce. MacNeill gave no sources, only his opinion.
But why should Professor Oldham assume that someone of Sophie's abilities and with her circle of academic contacts in this field would not know about the pitfalls of the study she was engaged in and that she would rely on this one source to make her interpretations from?
Professor Oldham was certainly not qualified to judge this area of study. He was a professor of economics and commerce at UCD between 1917-1926. By comparison, Sophie had studied Middle Irish texts many years before with Dr Joyce. Her book acknowledges Dr Joyce and many other experts, ranging from Eugene O'Curry, John Donovan even Eoin MacNeill.
What made this book important for Sophie to produce? Realising that Ireland was about to remerge as a self-governing state, Sophie wrote in her Foreword:
"It has also been written throughout in the hope that it might prove to be of interest - perhaps even of service - to my countrymen and countrywomen in the work of social reorganisation which lies before them, and to which so many of them have already put their hand."
What did she mean by that? In fact, Sophie became one of a group of intellectuals, scholars and lawyers, who believed that when Ireland achieved its independence, it should return to the spirit of the Brehon Law system rather than simply accept English Statute and Common Law in its entirety. English law, as I have said, had been enforced on the country during the 17th century, in the wake of the Irish defeat at Kinsale.
It was in 1605 that Sir Arthur Chichester, the new English Lord Deputy in Ireland, issued a proclamation "discontinuing and abolishing forever. those odious customs" and, indeed, a Royal proclamation was issued in 1613 putting the entire country under English Statute and Common Law and forbidding all forms of Irish cultural express, language, law and custom.
Now, by returning to Brehon Law, the idea was not as crass as going back to the codified system that existed at the time it was prohibited. What was meant was that the lawmakers, and those responsible for developing a new Irish state constitution, should return to the spirit of those laws - to the ideas of compensation and rehabilitation instead of mere punishment of the wrongdoer without thought for the victims, the idea of the equality of women, the rejection of feudal rights and similar concepts still prevalent in the early 20th century English law.
One of the fascinating things is that it was at a meeting of the Irish Literary Society, to which she and many other Irish intellectuals belonged, that the idea had first been mooted by Laurence Ginnell from Westmeath, four years younger than Sophie. He was a barrister, called to the Irish and English Bars, and became a Member of Parliament for the Irish Party and was active in the House of Commons between 1906 and 1918 to the extent that he was known as 'The Member for Ireland'.
He was so moved by the events of 1916 that he left the Irish Party, joined Sinn Féin and was elected in the general election of 1918, supporting the Unilateral Declaration of Independence and taking his seat in the first Dáil. He retained his seat until his death in 1923, the year after Sophie's own death. He wrote several works such as Land and Liberty, examining the legal aspects of the Irish colonial relationship to England.
Ginnell, in 1893, delivered a lecture to this Irish Literary Society about the Brehon Law system. The following year he produced the first popular book on the laws The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, published by T. Fisher Unwin. Ginnell acknowledges in the opening of his book that it had its origin during an ILS talk. His aim was to put information within the reach of all who desire some knowledge of the laws… But he admitted that trying to encapsulate the law system in a single volume was like trying to put a gallon of liquid into a pint bottle.
However, Ginnell's work was seen as a major introduction to the subject by no less a person than the great Irish scholar Dr Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League, who was became president of Ireland under the 1937 constitution. Hyde was also a friend of Sophie.
It was the work of Ginnell that led Sophie into that circle of intellectuals who wished to revive the morality of the old law system in a modern independent Ireland. It seems that when Sophie was visiting Dublin to give her lectures, Ginnell was instrumental in introducing her to another advocate of that idea - James Creed Meredith. Meredith was a Quaker, born from a family of Dublin lawyers, who had graduated in law from University College, Dublin. He was a barrister, a polymath, a Doctor of literature as well as law, who produced the standard translation from German of Emanuel Kant 's philosophical work Critique of Judgment, published by Oxford University Press and still in print today. He also wrote one novel and a successful play.
A pacifist but a republican, he was an early advocate of proportional representation and member of the Irish Proportional Representation Society. He was a founder member of the United Irish League along with fellow pacifist and writer Sheehy-Skeffington, the painter Dermod O'Brien, William O'Brien MP and Michael Davitt. Sophie was also an active member of the United Irish League.
Meredith had campaigned with the writer AE (George Russell) and Sir Horace Plunkett for the establishment of the Irish Convention in 1917 in an attempt to find a way round the Unionist stonewall against self-government.
Following the Sinn Féin landslide election victory of 1918 and the unilateral declaration of independence, the Dáil appointed Meredith to chair a committee of lawyers to draw up a constitution for the newly declared republic. In June, 1920, the Dáil also established a system of courts of justice to replace the English colonial court system. Meredith was appointed president of the new Irish Supreme Court.
It was while he was hearing an appeal on a case of women's rights, a deserted wife and child, seeking compensation or support from her husband, that Meredith pronounced that English Law was retrograde in this matter and that he would give his judgement in accordance with the spirit of Brehon Law. He awarded the woman compensation and thus became the last known Irish judge to make an appeal to the ancient Irish law system. Sophie must have been cheering when she heard the news.
With the Treaty, the civil war and collapse of the republic, the newly established Free State did not abandon Meredith's talents. He was appointed to the High Court and, at the same time, in 1924, he was elected to the senate of the National University of Ireland, a position he held until his death in 1942. He was asked by the League of Nations to oversee the Saar Valley Plebiscite on the French/German frontier. And in 1937 he was returned to the Supreme Court of Ireland.
It was probably Meredith that Sophie had in mind when she wrote:
"In the work of regeneration for the future that lies before the Irish people, a more widely and diffused and accurate knowledge of the old Irish customs should be of great value, as an inspiring motive force, in recreating gradually, under native rule - by the national organisations of the modern composite Irish nation - the old delight in the sanctity of contracts and equitable law which is expressed in the pages of the Senchus Mór and the other Irish law tracts."
In my estimation, her posthumous book was her most important contribution to enlightening people about Ireland's ancient culture.
Let me return you to that mystery with which I started out in my first article. The mystery of how Sophie came to be lost on the hills near Mont Blanc for two weeks at the height of summer and in an area she knew well. How her body was found near a well-worn pathway in undulating, though hilly, farming country.
For the facts of this I have to pay thanks to the intercession of a friend of mine Dr Andrew Broadbent, who was in Chamonix in 2005 and managed to obtain for me a copy of Sophie's death certificate from the Hotel de Ville. But, curiously, that certificate carried no medical details of the cause of death. Just the basic fact of finding the body and that she was dead.
The Freeman's Journal (August 30, 1922) thought they had the full story when they published 'Brilliant Irishwoman's Sad Fate'. They reported she had been taking a short cut along a mule track, and collapsed traversing a difficult gully and died of exhaustion:
"It is supposed that she was about to bathe her feet in a pool nearby when she had a seizure. Unable to walk any further, she lay down and at nightfall pulled her skirt over her head. In this positions she was discovered by guides."
The reporter adds that:
"Her death was apparently due to congestion of the brain. Her shoes, hat and handbag were found a short distance from the body."
However, a more sinister interpretation was hinted at when, a month later, in The Freeman's Journal of 22 September 1922, stated:
"A report that her handbag containing money and some jewellery was missing deepens the mystery of the death of Dr Sophie Bryant …. When discovered she was taken off her shoes and had been bathing her feet in a wayside stream to relieve a badly sprained ankle. The police are now endeavouring to find out whether she was molested and the valuables stolen or whether they were taken after her death by some person who found the body and failed to report the discovery."
I regret that we have to end with the unsolved mystery but let us hope that further research can resolve it.
There is a Celtic Cross that was raised to Sophie's memory at Chamonix where she set out on her last journey, which is twenty kilometres west of La Jorasse where her body was found. Sophie Bryant is one of those forgotten but influential Irish women, feminists, progressive radicals who sought the independence of Ireland.
Her book The Genius of the Gael, 1913, which, especially today, I find gives me some hope for the Ireland's future:
"Before the first Norman set his foot upon Irish soil, the Irish nation had achieved a spiritual reality - a grip on the eternal truth of real civilisation - that could not be annulled. It had fused all elements of the prehistoric and older historic stock, it had assimilated the Danish settlers, it did in time absorb the Normans and the train that followed them. Then came the long dark centuries during which, to all outward seeming, the Irish nation suffered shipwreck and was destroyed. But the ideals of Irish civilisation were never destroyed, and worked like leaven in the superincumbent alien mass. The seed of life - the spiritual Ireland - grew secretly through all those darkened times. Now it has grown to fuller manifestation than ever before, and stands forth tall and strong in the field of the world, with the alien elements once more grafted into it. This is the triumph of Irish nationality; it is the triumph of the Celtic spirit in history: conquering nothing, it wins by consent. The spiritual Ireland was too real to die - too true to human type. Out of long tradition it arises and renews its strength, using now in the wider circles of the world its gift of drawing out the fine humanity of others, which in practice is the essence of the genius of the Gael."
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Peter Berresford Ellis