Commemorations of St.Patrick and his influence on Ireland have to be taken with both an appreciation for history and for legend, as they often crisscross, esp. in the depiction of a historic national figure. Even the identity of the Patrick we know, like the shamrock, may be made up of more than a single component. See the Wikipedia entry on the theory of the "Two Patricks", supported by most modern studies of Saint Patrick.The historical Patrick might have to share credit for some accomplishments with Palladius,a deacon from Gaul.
A mix of the two also seems to be the case with the connection of St. Patrick with the ancient Brehon Laws that pre-dated Patrick and continued in altered form,long after. These Laws were all-inclusive of civil, military and criminal law. They regulated social action from the ruler down to the slave and established their rights and privileges.
Some accounts say that St. Patrick had a direct role in Christianizing and codifying the Brehon Laws :
These ancient Irish laws have come to be called The Brehon Laws from the Irish term "Brehon" which was applied to the official lawgiver. They were transmitted orally and with extreme accuracy from generation to generation by a special class of professional jurists called Brithem (judge in early Gaelic). These laws are of great antiquity and may antedate the coming of the Celts to Ireland. St. Patrick is credited with codifying these laws in the 5th Century. His efforts fill five volumes and are known as the Senchus Mor. its ordinances are named C'ain Padraic after St. Patrick.
From : The Brehon Laws
by Loretta Wilson, Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area
Or as a writer on Brehon Law at the web site www.triskelle.eu puts it :
… It is written in the Annals of the Four Masters that under Ard Rí Laeghaire the Brehon Law was put to vellum in the year 438 CE. This however is far from the truth, which is remarkable because this source is considered rather reliable. What really happened was that Laeghaire participated in a commission, supervised by Saint Patrick, that revised the Brehon Law to suit Christian principles. It took the commission of nine men three years of hard labour to produce a completely revised edition of the Brehon Law. Without a doubt Saint Patrick left his marks on this manuscript which became known as the Senchus Mór In fact the Senchus Mór was known for some time as Cain Patrick, or Patrick's Law. Unfortunately the original manuscript is lost somewhere down the curvy road of history and all that's left are copies of certain passages and marginal notes made by the copier. …
However,as the auhor Michael Ragan,publisher of “Leaves”,A Journal of Ancient Irish Spirituality and Philosophy,states :
… In the case of the Senchus Mor, often referred to as the Patrick's Law, the opening section relates that it was written under Patrick's supervision with 8 others in conference. Of these, two were Bishop's, three were Kings, one a Poet and one a bona fide Brehon. Based on Patrick's supposed involvement, the date for the compilation is given in many references as around 461 CE, as early as 438 in others. However, on the basis of linguistic analysis, the true date for the writing of the text is the early 8th century and its place of writing in the northern midlands. Apparently, the real author(s) were trying to apply legitimacy to their work by crediting it to the long dead Patrick. …
Perhaps Patricks’s effect on the existing legal culture of the early Irish was more directly carried out by the work of the monasteries over a prolonged period of time. But obviously, his great missionary work made those subsequent efforts possible. He indeed, deserves a measure of the credit !
In addition to St. Patrick, we should also commemorate,the amazing level of egalitarianism and popular support that charecterized this evolving body of law that lasted from long before Christ’s birth to the 17th Century. Author, Michael Ragan, puts it this way:
… The durability of the Law is astounding. Existing in Ireland long before the common era, it remained the favored system by Irish and Norman alike until the 17the century and the reign of Queen Elizabeth. This in spite of the fact that English writers were always strong in their condemnation of the Brehon law and a number of acts of parliament were taken against it. Parliament even went so far as to declare it an act of treason for English settlers to use it. In defiance of such bans, English settlers who lived outside the pale adopted Irish custom, manner of dress and even the law, all of which they became as attached to as the Irish themselves.
The reason for the durability of the Brehon law was the people themselves. The entire existing body of literature of Ireland shows the great respect the Irish people held for justice and law, and an abhorrence for unjust decisions. As late as the beginning of the 17th century, Sir John Davies, the Attorney General for James I stated "…there is no nation of people under the sunne that doth love equall and indifferent justice better than the Irish…"
Happy Saint Patrick's Day !