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Food, Fuel and Free Hostels.

Irish History.

Reprinted from A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland.

By P W Joyce.

Honey | Vegetables and Fruit | Fuel and Light | Free Public Hostels | Corn and its preparations


6. Corn and its preparations.

It will be seen in chapter xix., sect. 2, of this book, that all the various kinds of grain cultivated at the present day were in use in ancient Ireland. Corn was ground and sifted into coarse and fine, i.e. into meal and flour, which were commonly kept in chests.

The staple food of the great mass of the people was porridge or, as it is now called in Ireland, stirabout, made of meal (Irish min), generally oatmeal. It was eaten with honey, butter, or milk, as an annlann or condiment. The common Irish word for stirabout was, and still is, leite, gen. leitenn [letthe, letthen]; but in the Brehon Laws and elsewhere it is often called gruss.

The Senchus Mór annotator, laying down the regulations for the food of children in fosterage, mentions three kinds of leite or stirabout: --of oatmeal, wheatmeal, and barleymeal: that made from oatmeal being the most general. Wheat-meal stirabout was considered the best: that of barleymeal was inferior to the others. For the rich classes, stirabout was often made on new milk: if sheep's milk, so much the better, as this was looked upon as a delicacy: it was eaten with honey, fresh butter, or new milk. For the poorer classes stirabout was made on water or buttermilk, and eaten with sour milk or salt butter.

All the various kinds of meal and flour were baked into cakes or loaves of different shapes. The usual word for a cake was bairgen, now pronounced borreen: hence borreen-brack, 'speckled cake' (speckled with currants and raisins), eaten on November eve, now often written barn-brack.

Flour was usually mixed with water to make dough: but bread made of flour and milk was also much in use. Honey was often kneaded up with cakes as a delicacy: and occasionally the roe of a salmon was similarly used. Wheaten bread was considered the best, as at present: barley-bread was poor. Yeast, or barm, or leaven was used both in baking and in brewing.

The several utensils used in making and baking bread are set forth in the Senchus Mór; and baking and the implements employed therein are always spoken of as specially pertaining to women. The woman had a criathar [criher] or sieve for separating the fine part of the flour from the coarse, which was done on each particular occasion just before baking. Having made the flour into dough (Irish taos), she worked it into cakes on a losat [losset] or kneading-trough, a shallow wooden trough, such as we see used for making cakes at the present day.

7. Honey.

Before entering on the consideration of honey as food, it will be proper to make a few observations on the management of bees by the ancient Irish. From the earliest times Ireland was noted for its abundance of honey. Giraldus expresses the curious opinion that honey would be still more abundant all over Ireland if the bee-swarms were not checked by the bitter and poisonous yews with which the woods abounded.

The management of bees was universally understood; and every comfortable householder kept hives in his garden. Wild bees, too, swarmed everywhere --much more plentifully than at present, on account of the extent of woodland. Before cane-sugar came into general use--sixteenth century--the bee industry was considered so important that a special section of the Brehon Laws is devoted to it. The Irish name for a bee is bech: a swarm is called saithe [saeha]. The hive was known by various names, but the term now universally in use is corcog. Hives stocked with bees were sometimes given as part of a tribute to a king.

The Brehon Law tract on "Bee-judgments," of which the printed Irish text occupies twenty pages, enters into much detail concerning the rights of the various parties concerned, to swarms, hives, nests, and honey: of which a few examples are given here. If a man found a swarm in the faithche [faha], or green surrounding and belonging to a house: one-fourth of the produce to the end of a year was due to the finder, the remaining three -fourths to the owner of the house.

If he found them in a tree growing in a faithche or green: one-half produce for a year to the finder: the rest to the owner. If they were found in land which was not a green: one-third to the finder and two-thirds to the owner of the land. If found in waste land not belonging to an individual, but the common property of the tribe, bees and honey belonged to the finder, except one-ninth to the chief of the tribe.

As the bees owned by an individual gathered their honey from the surrounding district, the owners of the four adjacent farms were entitled to a certain small proportion of the honey: and after the third year each was entitled to a swarm. If bees belonging to one man swarmed on the land of another, the produce was divided in certain proportions between the two.

It is mentioned in "Bee-judgments" that a sheet was sometimes spread out that a swarm might alight and rest on it: as is often done now. At the time of gathering the honey the bees were smothered.

A mixture of milk and honey was sometimes drunk; a mixture of lard and honey was usual as a condiment. Honey was sometimes brought to table pure, and sometimes in the comb. Often at meals each person had placed before him on the table a little dish, sometimes of silver, filled with honey; and each morsel whether of meat, fish, or bread was dipped into it before being conveyed to the mouth.

Stirabout was very generally eaten in the same way with honey as a delicacy. Honey was used to baste meat while roasting, as well as salmon while broiling. In one of the old tales we read that Ailill and Maive, king and queen of Connaught, had a salmon broiled for the young chief, Fraech, which was basted with honey that had been "well made by their daughter, the Princess Findabair": from which again we learn that the highest persons sometimes employed themselves in preparing honey. It has been already stated that honey was the chief ingredient in mead; and it is probable that it was used in greater quantity in this way than in any other.

8. Vegetables and Fruit.

Table vegetables of various kinds were cultivated in an enclosure called lúbgort [loo-ort], i.e. 'herb-garden ' or kitchen-garden: from lúb, 'an herb,' and gort, a fenced-in cultivated plot. The manner in which the kitchen-garden is mentioned in literature of all kinds shows that it was a common appanage to a homestead.

Cabbage of some kind was an important food-herb among the early Irish, so that it is often mentioned in old authorities. Its Irish name was braisech [brasshagh], borrowed probably from the Latin brassica. Among the vegetables cultivated in kitchen-gardens and used at table were leeks and onions. "Mac Conglinne's Vision" mentions the leek by one of its Irish names lus, and the onion by the name cainnenn.

Lus is now the general word for leek, and was often used in this special sense in old writings: but lus primarily means an herb in general. A leek had a more specific name, folt-chep (folt, 'hair'; "hair-onion": chep or cep, corresponding with Lat. cepa, 'an onion'). Garlic appears to have been a pretty common condiment, and the same word cainnenn was often applied to it.

Wild garlic, called in Irish creamh [crav or craff] was often used as a pot-herb, but I find no evidence that it was cultivated. The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used.

Tap-rooted plants were designated by the general term meacon [mackan], with qualifying terms to denote the different kinds: but meacon used by itself means a parsnip or a carrot. Both these vegetables were cultivated in kitchen-gardens, and are often mentioned in old writings.

Good watercress (biror) was prized and eaten raw as a salad or annlann, as at present. It is often spoken of in connexion with brooklime, which is called fothlacht [fullaght], and which was also eaten. Poor people sometimes ate a pottage made of the tender tops of nettles, as I have seen them do in my own day in time of scarcity: but they mixed a little oatmeal with it when they could get it.

The sea-plant called in Irish duilesc, and in English dillesk, dulse, dulsk, or dilse, growing on sea-rocks, was formerly much used as an article of food, that is, as an accompaniment. According to the Brehon Law, seaside arable land was enhanced in value by having rocks on its sea-border producing this plant, and there was a penalty for consuming the dillesk belonging to another without leave. Dillesk is still used; and you may see it in Dublin hawked about in baskets by women: it is dry, and people eat it in small quantities raw, like salad.

Though there is not much direct mention in old Irish literature of the management of fruit-trees, various detached passages show that they were much valued and carefully cultivated. The apple (ubhall, pron. ooal) appears to have been as much cultivated and used in old times as at the present. Apples, when gathered, were hoarded up to preserve them as long as possible: they were generally eaten uncooked.

The hazel-nut was much used for food. This is plainly indicated by the high value set on both tree and fruit, of which we meet with innumerable instances in tales, poems, and other old records, in such expressions as "Cruachan of the fair hazels": "Derry-na-nath, on which fair-nutted hazels are constantly found." Abundance of hazel-nuts was a mark of a prosperous and plenteous season.

Among the blessings a good king brought on the land was plenty of hazel-nuts:--"O'Berga [the chief] for whom the hazels stoop" [with the weight of their fruit]: "Each hazel is rich from [the worthiness of] the hero." From such references and quotations it may be inferred that hazel-nuts were regarded as an important article of human food.

The sloe-tree or blackthorn was called droigheann [dree-an], which generally takes a diminutive form droigheannan [dreenan]: hence dreenan-donn (donn, 'brown') is a common name for the blackthorn, even among English-speaking people. The sloe is called áirne [awrna]. That sloes were used as food, or as an annlann or condiment, and that the sloe bush was cultivated, is evident from the manner in which both are mentioned in Irish literature. Strawberries (sing. sub, pl. suba: pron. soo, sooa) are often mentioned as dainties.

We are told in the Book of Rights that one of the prerogatives of the king of Erin was to have the heath-fruit (fraechmes) of Slieve Golry in Longford brought to him. The fraechmes was no doubt the whortleberry (called whorts or hurts in Munster), as is indicated by the fact that the whortleberry is now called fraechóg and fraechán, two diminutives of the same word fraech, heath.

Most Dublin people have seen women with baskets of "fraughans," as they call them, for sale, picked on the neighbouring mountains; and they are now made into jam. The passage referred to shows that fraughans were eaten in old times even by kings. Beechmast and oakmast were greatly valued for feeding pigs, which were kept in droves among the woods. The general name for mast was mes or mess. On one occasion the badb [bauv] or war-witch, predicting evils for Ireland, included among them "woods without masts."

9. Fuel and Light.

Fuel.--As the country abounded in forests, thickets, and brakes, the most common fuel for domestic use was wood. Firewood or "firebote" was called connadh [conna]. A bundle of firewood was called a brossna, a word found in the oldest authorities and used to this day all over Ireland, even by the English-speaking people, as meaning a bundle of withered branches, or of heath, for fuel.

Peat or turf was much used as fuel. The Senchus Mór speaks of the cutting of turf from a bank (port) and carting it home when dry; and mentions a penalty for stealing it. It is recorded in the Annals that Ragallach, king of Connaught in the middle of the seventh century, having exasperated some men who were cutting turf in a bog, they fell on him and killed him with their sharp ruams or turf-spades.

The whole bog was the "commons" property of the finè or group of related families: but a single turf-bank might belong for the time to an individual. The word ruam, used above, was a general word for any spade. At the present day the sharp spade used in cutting turf is designated by the special name of sleaghan [pron. slaan, the aa long like the a in star]. This word is a diminutive of sleagh [sla], a 'spear.'

Metal-workers used wood charcoal; for neither plain wood nor peat afforded sufficient heat to melt or weld. Charcoal made from birch afforded the highest degree of heat then available; and was used for fusing the metals known at that time. Allusions to the use of charcoal--which in Irish is designated gual or cual--are met with in all sorts of Irish literature. The remains of some of the old pits in which charcoal was made are still recognisable. I know one in which the soil is mixed up and quite black with quantities of charcoal-fragments and dust. We do not know if pit-coal was used in Ireland in very early times.

Flint and steel with tinder were used for striking and kindling fire. The whole kindling-gear--flint, steel, and tinder--was carried in the girdle-pocket, so as to be ready to hand; and accordingly, fire struck in this way was called teine-creasa [tinne-crassa], 'fire of the crios, or girdle.'

Tinder was, and is, commonly called sponc [spunk], which is obviously the same as the Latin spongia, English sponge. Spunk or tinder was sometimes made from the dried leaves of the coltsfoot, so that this plant is now always called sponc: but in recent times it was more usually made of coarse brown paper steeped in a solution of nitre and dried.

Light.--In the better class of houses dipped candles were commonly used. The usual Irish word for a candle is cainnel, which seems borrowed from the Latin candela: but there is also an old native word for it--innlis. There are numerous references to candles in ancient Irish authorities. The Senchus Mór mentions candles of "eight fists" (about forty inches) in length, made by [repeated] dipping of peeled rushes in melted tallow or meat grease: from which we learn that the wicks of candles were sometimes made of peeled rushes: but other kinds of wicks were used.

As bees were so abundant, beeswax (Irish ceir, pron. cair), as might be expected, was turned to account. Beeswax candles were in use at some early period in the houses of the rich; and beeswax, "found in square masses, and also in the form of candles, has been discovered under circumstances which leave no doubt as to the great antiquity of such articles." Several specimens of this ancient wax are in the National Museum, Dublin.

Although, in very early times, candles were sometimes held in the hands of slaves, they were more commonly placed on candlesticks. The ancient Irish word for a candlestick is caindelbra, modern Irish coinnleoir [conlore], both of which are modified forms of the Latin candelabra. The Senchus Mór notices a caindelbra as a usual article in a house. The ancient Latin Hymn of Secundinus makes mention of a light placed on a candelabrum: and in the description of the Banqueting-House of Tara in the Book of Leinster it is stated that there were seven caindelbra in it.

It was usual to keep a richainnell [reehannel], or 'king-candle' (ri, 'a king'), or royal candle, of enormous size, with a great bushy wick, burning at night in presence of a king: in the palace it was placed high over his head; during war it blazed outside his tent-door; and on night-marches it was borne before him. This custom is mentioned very often in the records. The Four Masters, in the passage already quoted, p. 27, supra, describe the "king-candle" kept burning at night before Shane O'Neill's tent (A.D. 1557) as "a huge torch thicker than a man's body": a passage which shows moreover that this custom continued till the sixteenth century.

The poorer classes commonly used a rush-light, i.e. a single rush peeled (leaving one little film of rind the whole length to keep it together) and soaked in grease, but not formed into a candle by repeated dippings. It gave a poor light and burned down very quickly; and it was known by two names, adann and itharna [ey-an: ih'arna].

Oil lamps of various kinds were used; and we find them frequently mentioned in the oldest records under two names--lespaire [les-pe-re] and laucharnn or locharnn. Luacharnn occurs several times in the eighth-century Glosses of Zeuss, as the equivalent of lampas and lucerna, which shows the remote time in which lamps and lanterns were used in Ireland. Some were made of bronze: some of clay. A rude unglazed earthenware lamp, shallow, and with a snout to support a wick, was found some time ago among prehistoric remains near Portstewart.

10. Free Public Hostels.

This seems a proper place to give some information regarding the provision made for lodging and entertaining travellers and officials. Hospitality and generosity were virtues highly esteemed in ancient Ireland; in the old Christian writings indeed they are everywhere praised and inculcated as religious duties; and in the secular literature they are equally prominent. The higher the rank of the person the more was expected from him, and a king should be lavish without limit.

If by any accident a person found himself unable to discharge the due rites of hospitality, it was supposed that his face became suffused with a ruice [rucke] or blush--a blush of honourable shame. The brewy, or head of a hostel, took care to have "the snout of a rooting hog"--meaning he had plenty of pork--"to prevent his face-blush." If anyone through the fault of another ran short of provisions when visitors came, so that he had reason to feel ashamed of his scanty table, the defaulter had to pay him as compensation what was called a "blush-fine." As illustrating what was expected of the higher ranks, the Brehon Law lays down that "the chieftain grades are bound to entertain [a guest] without asking any questions"--i.e. questions as to his name, or business, or where he was bound for, and the like. Once the guest had partaken of food in a house, his host was bound to abstain from offering him any violence or disrespect under any circumstances. Bede's testimony as to the hospitality of the Irish has been already quoted.

This universal admiration for hospitality found its outward expression in the establishment, all over the country, of public hostels for the free lodging and entertainment of all who chose to claim them. At the head of each was an officer called a brugh-fer or brugaid [broo-fer, brewy], a public hospitaller or hosteller, who was held in high honour. He was bound to keep an open house for the reception of certain functionaries--king, bishop, poet, judge, &c. --who were privileged to claim for themselves and their attendants free entertainment when on their circuits: and also for the reception of strangers. He had a tract of land and other large allowances to defray the expenses of his house; and he should have at least one hundred of each kind of cattle, one hundred labourers, and corresponding provision for feeding and lodging guests.

In order to be at all times ready to receive visitors, a brewy was bound to have three kinds of meat cooked and ready to be served up to all who came; three kinds of raw meat ready for cooking; besides animals ready for killing. In one of the law tracts a brewy is quaintly described as "a man of three snouts":--viz. the snout of a live hog rooting in the fields to prevent the blushes of his face; the snout of a dead hog on the hooks cooking; and the pointed snout of a plough: meaning that he had plenty of live animals and of meat cooked and uncooked, with a plough and all other tillage appliances.

He was also "a man of three sacks":--for he had always in his house a sack of malt for brewing ale; a sack of salt for curing cattle-joints; and a sack of charcoal for the irons; this last referring to the continual use of iron-shod agricultural implements calling for frequent repair and renewal. We are told also that his kitchen-fire should be kept perpetually alight, and that his caldron should never be taken off the fire, and should always be kept full of joints boiling for guests.

There should be a number of open roads leading to the house of a brewy, so that it might be readily accessible: and on each road a man should be stationed to make sure that no traveller should pass by without calling to be entertained; besides which a light was to be kept burning on the faithche [faha] or lawn at night to guide travellers from a distance. The brewy was a magistrate, and was empowered to deliver judgment on certain cases that were brought before him to his house.

We have already seen (p. 19) that a court was held in his house for the election of the chief of the tribe. Keating says that there were ninety brugaids in Connaught, ninety in Ulster, ninety-three in Leinster, and a hundred and thirty in Munster, all with open houses; and though it is not necessary to accept these numbers as strictly accurate, they indicate at least that the houses of hospitality were very numerous. The house of a brewy answered all the purposes of the modern hotel or inn, but with the important distinction, that guests were lodged and entertained with bed and board, free of charge.

There was another sort of public victualler called biatach or biadhtach [beetagh], who was also bound to entertain travellers, and the chief's soldiers whenever they came that way. In order to enable the biatagh to dispense hospitality, he held a tract of arable land free of rent, called a ballybetagh, equal to about 1000 of our present English acres, with a much larger extent of waste land. The distinction between a brewy and a betagh is not very clear, and at any rate there was probably little substantial difference between them.

The Irish missionaries carried this fine custom to the Continent in early ages, as they did many others; for we are told, on the best authority, that before the ninth century they established hostels, chiefly for the use of pilgrims on their way to Rome, some in Germany, but most in France, as lying in the direct route to the Eternal City.


Read about life on Irish farms in later periods.