Tuesday, March 14, 2006

LONDON — Someday soon, it’s finally going to be OK — or at least legal — in the Republic of Ireland to stir sheep dung into your coffee, to own a suit of armor if you are Jewish or to marry an Irish person if you are English.

Likewise, it no longer will be illegal to burn witches at the stake or to entertain crowds with tiger fights. If you are a suspected thief or murderer, you no longer will risk being thrown into deep water tied to a millstone.

These are among the thousands of outdated laws, some dating back 1,000 years, that technically still are in force in Ireland.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s government says it is starting a drive to abolish these bizarre statutes, about 2,300 in all, that were enacted between 1100 and 1800. Much of that legislation, Mr. Ahern told journalists, “is now redundant and isn’t really of any practical use.”

Such as that law about dumping sheep dung into coffee. Actually, that was a trick used by unscrupulous dealers to pad out their sacks of coffee. But oncethe laws are changed, there no longer will be anything to stop a citizen from spicing up a cup of coffee with sheep droppings, save, perhaps, good taste.

Another act, passed in 1181, when times were more anti-Semitic, makes it illegal for Jewish people to own armor. There’s been a law since 1366 forbidding the English from marrying Irish people. For that matter, a law passed six years earlier makes provisions “against people associating with the Irish, using their language or sending children to be nursed among them.”

Also headed for history’s garbage can is the Tippling Act of 1735, which bars a pub operator from chasing a customer for any money owed for drinks given on credit — which possibly explains why pub owners to this day are loath to let their boozers run up tabs at the bar.

Mr. Ahern describes the cleaning out of Ireland’s statute book as the “single largest body of legislation to be repealed in this way in the history of the [Irish] State.”

Over the centuries, the prime minister said, “governments tend to add to the statute book, but not to take away from it.”

“There is a large volume of legislation that predates the foundation of the Irish state,” he said.

The business about burning witches, for instance, is a bit outdated, because there really are not that many witches around these days.

That also applies to the law that allows suspected thieves and murderers to be subjected to the “ordeal of water,” in which they are tied to a millstone or other heavy weight and tossed into deep water — the theory being that those who sink are guilty.

In the days when this trial was a standard practice, not being guilty was something of a rarity.

Because many of the laws were enacted by lawmakers in old British colonial parliaments, the Irish themselves came off somewhat the worse. One act, of 1310, provides that “only those of the English nation [are] to be received into religious orders” — rather tough for a nation of Roman Catholics.

“There is a touch of shrugging off the last vestiges of the colonial rule here,” Tom Garvin, a professor at University College Dublin told the Times of London newspaper. “The English tried to make the Irish conform to their way of life.”

When the overhaul of the Irish statute book is complete, only about 200 of the estimated 2,300 laws enacted between 1100 and 1800 are to be retained — and these will be re-enacted, and written down, in a more modern form.

Not likely to survive the cut is a statute of 1285 known as the first “Police Act.” That set up a Corps of Watchmen, with a single task: to arrest “suspicious strangers” — presumably even English ones.

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