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Comhairle Siochana - A Pagan Court?

By Janval

Published Beltane 2000

"Rule One; People will always find something to disagree over." That's what my athair baiste (gods father) told me as he poured another cup. "Take this coffee for example; the coffee grower will always want more cash for his crop, the consumer will always want to pay less. Both are 'right' from their own standpoint and financial concerns." He mused thoughtfully for a while before continuing, "The primary role of the Comhairle Siochana (Gaelic for Council or Counsel of Peace) is to bring council and counsel to a situation before it flares from disagreement into antagonism and unwise action." He swirled the last grounds.

"Rule Two. Nine times out of ten, by the time someone's thought to call Comhairle Siochana someone will have done or said something daft. And peace or counsel is usually the last thing they want. Someone's usually baying for blood and shouting for 'Justice' - their version of it, of course."

"Rule Three" he grinned, "No one likes the person who judges against them. No matter how 'fair' or 'right' the arbitration is. But better they be arguing with you, than with each other."

In the modern 'pagan' world where the individual is all, the Celtic traditions are to some extent recidivist - they emphasise relationships, the importance of the social grouping, the survival of a way of life, and an ethical viewpoint. Each of these brings conflict - be it internal or external. To us, the individual is to some extent, defined by role rather than by gender or any other characteristic. And roles can change, just as situations, understanding, relationships or decisions can alter given time and circumstance. The roles of the Fair Witness run from merely being a sounding board - an impartial ear; to a notary; to a 'Magistrate' or, in a Council or Counsel of Peace, a 'Judge'. They act as the mirror, reflecting actions, conscience or the 'Fitness of Things' according to what is presented before them: plus the weight of the ethics of the clan or tradition they represent. And we hold that acceptance of the sociocentric role system is explicit in the agreement of 'Initiation' or adoption.

It used to be that Council (Comhairle) was the time and place for each member of the clan or tradition to have their say on the running of the group. To make the joint decision on when festivals would be marked, Weddings celebrated, adoptions honoured and finally, disputes settled. Now, people only seem to remember this ritual function when something has gone wrong. It is merely a tool of a form of judiciary, a version of the 'Crown Court'. A shadow of its former self.

From early in our civilised past 'rules' about codes of conduct, what was and was not considered to be 'accepted behaviour' were initially Hearth Based, being the 'Rules of the House' by which each individual were enabled to interact with as little conflict as possible. As time has moved, theses were extended to the 'Rules of the Clan' through tribe to nation. Law, become to some extent, standardised as, for the most part, humans do agree on what is considered 'desirable' and 'non-desirable' behaviour. The rules regarding theft, 'criminal' and 'civil' offences, the taking of life, ownership of property and land, etc, are pretty similar the world over. Eventually they became enshrined in the judicial system we have today - to which we advocate adherence, though we might work to change the odd law for various reasons.

As we are, as any inhabitant of the UK, bound to the current Laws of the Land as it were, is there still a place for the Fair Witness and 'Comhairle' system within an increasingly egocentric society?

Within the various modern Celtic traditions, some form of Comhairle Siochana cannot help but exist. It is, after all, inherent in the system for the reasons stated above - as an administration and judicial system where an inclusive gathering of that grouping make decisions affecting it and its members. In 'criminal' matters relating to or affected by the 'outside world' it does not replace the national judiciary system but acts as an adjunct to it. While each Clan is autonomous, because of the nature of Celtic social groupings what is considered 'de fidur' or 'outlaw' in one group is equally considered outlaw in the others. This means that an individual cannot merely move from one clan to another to avoid the repercussions of their actions. Banished from one, banished from all. Equally, if someone is adopted as a member of a clan, that adoption is recognised by the others and is considered exclusive (it is impossible to be a member of more than one clan simultaneously). 'Outsiders' can reasonably call upon some roles and individuals for their expertise, namely those of Healer or Fair Witness and for those skills that would normally be considered 'tradable commodities'.

'Publicly' it would appear, from my own experience, that some aspects of Comhairle Siochana or an equivalent have recently become desirable. The secular laws of our society have no provision for matters of a religious nature and no workable position in small, exclusive groupings as seen at open 'pagan' camps. And many of us would be loath to see regular recourse to the national system at such events. There are times however, when disputes of one nature or another arise at such gatherings and mediation is required. This is usually when the acceptable codes of conduct at that particular event have not been sufficiently made explicit and felt to be enforceable by the group as a whole. Or when for some reason, the organiser of the event does not feel confident enough in their role to be able to unify the group to enforce the given codes.

The occasional lack of confidence of an event organiser is hardly surprising. Over the past decade especially, the behavioural standards at public 'pagan' gatherings have noticeably slipped to an exceptionally low level. Where litter would have been inconceivable, we now see bottles thrown onto fires, discarded in hedgerows or broken deliberately. Where consideration for others was the norm, we now see individuals riding rough-shod over drumming curfews, letting children run unsupervised in environmentally dangerous situations (farms for example). Where co-operation for mutual benefit was a unifying code, we now see 'me first' and 'I want'. Where attendance at such gatherings were considered a privilege, we see the seedier sides of commercialism and hear 'It's my right'. And where a temporary tribal community used to exist for these events where everyone took a vested interest in all running smoothly, we now see people turning away from the harassed organiser with 'It's not my problem' written all over their faces. I haven't personally heard of incidences of theft, but I would not now be surprised.

What then is the role of the Fair Witness? Approachability. Impartiality. Objectivity. Sometimes as the 'fall-guy'. The one on whose shoulders the responsibility of being an 'organiser', 'spoil-sport', 'dictator' or 'nanny', either voluntarily or upon demand. Occasionally as the person required to voice what others are thinking but not expressing. At other moments, they are called on either to merely lend support to a cause or individual, act as witness to a wedding or other event, or be a version of the 'Magistrate' or Justice of the Peace. Some people simply ask us to arrange a situation where others can meet in private for whatever purpose and from which we are excluded. Or we may act as 'Honest Brokers' through which already estranged people may communicate.

What is the sphere of influence? Realistically speaking, outside the tradition only as much as the involved parties agree, and the role allows. It is required that the boundaries are set before the Fair Witness 'gets on with the job' as it were. Within the tradition, no one is 'above' or beyond the system or the 'laws' of the system. I can and have been called to account at a Comhairle as a 'witness', notary, 'defendant' or whatever, as readily as anyone else.

In a Comhairle Siochana situation, be it private or public, where mediation or arbitration is required, it is required practice to formally ask if the parties involved agree to the Comhairle to you as the Fair Witness and agree to abide by any decision made. Upon that agreement, the process can be set in motion.

Can anyone be a Fair Witness? Technically, yes. The role is conferred not requested, in as much as those people who tend to act in this manner are recognised as being willing and able to be impartial, objective and honest. Within my tradition individuals are 'Called to the Sword' and its oaths as a result of displaying over many years the qualities we deem to be essential to the role. There is no bar to gender, age or magical/religious ability - though obviously a thorough understanding of the 'Laws' are a requisite. Equally, those who become or are found to be unfit to hold the office can be removed from it.

Are the decisions 'enforceable'? By agreeing to the process those who call upon the skills of the Fair Witness do, on their honour, agree to uphold the decisions. Anyone who reneges on the agreements is considered to be breaking their oaths and their honour. And as honour is valued, it is not in their favour to do so. The codes are supposed to be in place for everyone's benefit, and it is deemed 'dishonourable' to try and use them for personal gain. There is a strong dislike for those who 'abide by the Law but do murder on its spirit'.

What about those who do not recognise the role or system? Fair Witness and Comhairle Siochana are NOT designed to act as 'pagan' police - if people do not want to use the system or us, then fine. It is primarily a traditional role that has on occasion been called upon by people who wish to use its facility. Other traditions have their versions, which may be equally accessible on request, and some individuals are asked to perform the role without the perhaps archaic terminology, background or history. And as mentioned earlier, our roles go much further than merely facilitating the resolution of disputes. Fortunately, for our worldview and levels of personal cynicism, the happier duties where we are called to serve outnumber the 'distasteful' ones.

Peace to your Hearth.