Mad laws axed from the Statute Book

Irish Daily Star

On Sunday 18 December 2005, while the rest of the country battled the pre-Christmas crowds to buy last minute presents, President Mary McAleese signed a law to finally end the 700 year old legal obligation that every citizen of Ireland should own a bow and arrow and practice archery.

In autographing the Statute Law Revision (Pre-1922) Act 2005, the President consigned to history almost 100 obscure and outdated “enactments of former Parliaments of Ireland, England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom” passed by the English Parliaments before Independence.

The obscure clause on archery was one of the requirements of the Statute of Winchester of 1285, in which King Edward I (Longshanks of Braveheart fame) “commanded that every man have in his house arms for keeping the peace” and should be “sworn to arms according to the amount of his lands and of his chattels.”

And a later king passed a Maximum Wage bill in 1351 after the Black Death decimated the workforces in England and Ireland.

The shortage of workers pushed up wages, leading to the Statute of Labourers in 1351, which compained about “the malice of servants, which were idle, and not willing to serve after the pestilence, without taking excessive wages.”

Also due for the chop was the Pillory Abolition Act of 1816.

“Pillory was a punishment where a person was locked in stocks with his or her head and hands sticking through holes, and turnips or whatever else people could spare were thrown at him or her,” Mary O’Rourke explained in a recent the Senate debate.

“Perhaps it would be good to still have that practice. One could have a great time sticking one’s enemies into the stocks and throwing whatever one wanted at them.”

Pillorying was a punishment often applied to perjurers who took false oaths in court, so its final abolition at a time when Tribunal reports criticise witnesses for lying and dishonest evidence may come as a relief to many in modern Ireland.

Other obsolete laws dealt with the regulation of children who worked as chimney-sweeps. And the Adulteration of Coffee Act imposed a £20 fine on “evil disposed persons who have at the time or soon after the roasting of coffee made use of water, grease, butter or such like materials, whereby the same is rendered unwholesome and greatly increased in weight.”

And the Adulteration of Tea Act was passed in 1776, two years after the Boston Tea Party which triggered the American revolution.

The move to scrap the laws came after a review by the Attorney General of all legislation enacted between 1235 and the formation of the State in 1922.

“When it comes to the Statute Book we tend to add and never subtract,” a spokesman for the Attorney General said.

“We discovered 500 Acts still in force from the period 1235 to 1922.”

However, the 2005 law was not the first time the Oireachtas has taken a swing at cleaning up the Irish law book.

An 1983 law spelled the end of several infamous decrees, among them Poynings’ Law, passed during the reign of Henry VII.

The 600 year old statute applied English laws to Ireland, and stopped the Irish parliament from passing any law of its own without permission from the King of England, a veto which hampered the Irish bid for independence for centuries.

And Sir Edward Poyning also declared that the Irish parliament could only meet if the English government gave permission.

The 1983 Act also abolished the notorious Statutes of Kilkenny, an early attempt to stop Anglo-Norman settlers becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

As well as banning intermarriage with the Irish, the use of the Irish language and Irish dress, the draconian measure proscribed “the plays which men call horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen, to the weakening, of the defence of the said land.”

Instead, the government ordered its subjects to learn archery, lancing “and other gentlemanlike games, whereby the Irish enemies may be the better checked by the liege people and commons of these parts.”

Strict fines and threats of prison were imposed on anyone who defied these race laws.

Civil servants in the Attorney General’s office are still working on plans for the overhaul of Irish laws, and estimate that up to 400 old laws could be scrapped when their work is completed.

“Within my lifetime, I was intrigued that the utterance of the phrase ‘Crom abú’, the war cry of the Ormonde Butlers, was a capital offence,” David Norris told the Seanad last year.

“They were the traditional enemies of my Gaelic Irish family on my mother’s side. Has that law been excised or have I, in the precincts of Parliament, committed a capital offence?” he wondered.