2023 Summer/Winter School – Reimagining Civic Environmental Stewardship for Local Communities: Advancing EarlyBrehon Law as the Basis for Irish Biocultural Rights

Date and Time: FRIDAY 15 September 2023, 5pm-6.30pm CEST



This lecture explores the theme ‘Transition, transformation and rights of nature’ and provides a novel insight into the relationship between biocultural rights and traditional environmental knowledge found in early legal systems and societies. The environmental considerations of Brehon law, Ireland’s ancient legal framework, will serve to propose an expansive view of biocultural rights of local communities and the cultural and spiritual relationship they hold with their ecosystems and natural resources, inextricably linked to their human dignity. The Old-Irish tree list of the eighth-century legal text Bretha Comaithchesa (‘Judgements of Neighbourhood’)
established a hierarchy of value pertaining to trees, alongside a range of penalties associated with damage caused to these species. Under this ‘more favorable’ interpretation, Brehon law arguably expresses traditional environmental knowledge, values, and practices that could be given new value as collective rights under Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity and Targets 1 and 3 of the Global Biodiversity Framework.

Whilst one could not transplant a historic legal framework into modern-day society, this lecture explores how we could use insights from the traditional environmental knowledge and considerations of ancient Irish law to strengthen our approach to rights-based environmental protection, and the potential for this to be replicated in other European jurisdictions.

Firstly, participants will be given a brief overview of Brehon law before discussing the legal characteristics of the Old-Irish tree list. Following this, normative alignments will be drawn between the tree list and the mythological stories and spiritual practices of the time, demonstrating the legal, social, and cultural value that was bestowed upon trees. Secondly, an overview will be given of the notion of biocultural rights in literature, international law, and case law, before discussing the legal foundations and potential impacts of recognising biocultural rights in addition to exploring their strengths and shortcomings. Finally, this lecture will conclude with reflections on how biocultural rights could be a useful instrument for communities, and particularly Irish communities, to reassume their role as stewards of their local ecosystems with which they bear a significant cultural link, where their historic interrelationship with nature is recognised and traditional knowledge can also be advanced to further their protection.


Niamh Guiry, PhD Researcher, University College Cork School of Law
Julián Suárez, PhD Candidate, University College Cork School of Law


Giulia Sajeva, ‘Environmentally conditioned human rights: A good idea?’ in Daniel P. Corrigan and Markku Oksanen (eds), Rights of Nature: A Re-examination (1 edn, Routledge 2021) 85-100.

Colombian Constitutional Court, Judgment T-622/16 (10 November 2016), paras 5.11-5.37, 9.28-9.32.

Convention on Biological Biodiversity (entered into force 29 December 1993) article 8(j) Kunming-Montréal Global Diversity Framework (Decision CBD/COP/DEC/15/4 Adopted 19 December 2022), s H(1) targets 1 and 3.

Fergus Kelly, ‘Trees in early Ireland’ (1990) Irish Forestry 39, available at: https://www.forestryfocus.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Trees-in-Early-Ireland.pdf