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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: October 2013

15 - The Recovery of Stolen Property: Notes on Legal Procedure in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man


A good deal of general information on the law relating to theft is to be found in the surviving Old Irish legal material from the seventh to the ninth centuries AD. The main law text on this topic is Bretha im Gatta ‘judgements about thefts’, though it is incomplete, owing to the loss of a page in the manuscript. Material on theft is also present in a number of other Old Irish law texts, such as Críth Gablach, Bechbretha and Bretha Cairdi.

The earlier material in Irish contains little specific information on the legal mechanisms for the recovery of stolen property. However, this aspect of the law of theft is touched on in more detail in a Treatise by Giolla na Naomh Mac Aodhagáin, chief judge of Connacht (ardollamh Connacht), whose death in 1309 is recorded in the annals. One passage which deals with the tracking of stolen cattle has been edited and translated by W. N. Osborough in an article entitled ‘The Irish Custom of Tracts’, published in the Irish Jurist. The general principle is that if the cattle can be tracked – presumably by the owner accompanied by witnesses – to a particular place, the inhabitants of that place must pay for the theft (íoc na gaide), unless they can show that the track continues in another direction, i.e. ‘to put the track of the theft from them’ (lorg na gaide do chur díobh).