How They Ate Drank Feasted And Entertained
Dinner, the principal meal of the day, was taken late in the afternoon;
and there was commonly a light repast or luncheon, called 'Middle-meal,'
between breakfast and dinner. It was the custom to have better food on
Sundays and church festivals than on the other days.
Among the higher classes great care was taken to seat family and guests at
table in the order of rank; and any departure from the established usage
was sure to lead to quarrels. The king was always attended at banquets by
his subordinate kings, and by other lords and chiefs. Those on his
immediate right and left had to sit at a respectful distance. While King
Cormac Mac Art sat at dinner, fifty military guards remained standing near
The manner of arranging the banquets at Tara was generally followed at
other royal entertainments. The Banquet-hall here was a long building,
with tables arranged along both side-walls. Immediately over the tables
were a number of hooks in the wall at regular intervals to hang the
shields on. Just before the beginning of the feast all persons left the
hall except three:--A Shanachie or historian: a marshal to regulate the
order: and a trumpeter. The king and his subordinate kings having first
taken their places at the head of the table, the professional ollaves sat
down next them. Then the trumpeter blew the first blast, at which the
shield-bearers of the lordly guests (for every chief and king had his
shield-bearer or squire) came round the door and gave their masters'
shields to the marshal, who, under the direction of the shanachie, hung
them on the hooks according to rank, from the highest to the lowest. At
the next blast the guests all walked in leisurely, each taking his seat
under his own shield (which he knew by special marks).
Only one side of the tables was occupied, namely, the side next the wall:
and in order to avoid crowding, the shields were hung at such a distance
that when the guests were seated "no man of them would touch another."
This arrangement at table according to rank was continued in Ireland and
Scotland down to a recent period, as Scott often mentions in his novels;
and it continues still everywhere, though in a less strict form.
At all state banquets particular joints were reserved for certain chiefs,
officials, and professional men, according to rank. A thigh was laid
before a king, and also before an ollave poet; a haunch before a queen; a
leg before a young lord; a head before a charioteer, and so on. A similar
custom existed among the ancient Gauls and also among the Greeks. A
remnant of this old custom lingered on in Scotland and Ireland down to a
period within our own memory. Seventy years ago in some parts of Ireland,
when a farmer killed a bullock or a pig, he always sent the head to the
smith, so that at certain times of the year you might see the smith's
kitchen garnished with forty or fifty heads hanging round the walls.
In the time of the Red Branch Knights, it was the custom to assign the
choicest joint or animal of the whole banquet to the hero who was
acknowledged by general consent to have performed the bravest and greatest
exploit. This piece was called curath-mir, i.e., 'the hero's morsel or
share'; and there were often keen contentions among the Red Branch heroes,
and sometimes fights with bloodshed, for this coveted joint or piece. This
usage, which prevailed among the continental Celts in general, and which
also existed among the Greeks, continued in Ireland to comparatively late
Tables were, as we have seen, used at the great feasts. But at ordinary
meals, high tables, such as we have now, do not seem to have been in
general use. There were small low tables, each used no doubt for two or
more persons. Often there was a little table laid beside each person, on
which his food was placed--the meat on a platter.
Forks are a late invention: of old the fingers were used at eating. In
Ireland, as in England and other countries in those times, each person
held his knife in the right hand, and used the fingers of the left instead
of a fork. The Greeks and Romans had no forks at meals: they used the
fingers only, and were supplied with water to wash their hands after
As early as the eighth or ninth century the Irish of the higher classes
used napkins at table, for which they had a native word lambrat, i.e.,
'hand-cloth.' I suppose the chief use they made of it was to wipe the
left-hand fingers; which was badly needed. It was the custom, both in
monastic communities and in secular life, to take off the shoes or sandals
when sitting down to dinner; which was generally done by an attendant.
The Romans we know had the same custom. The Irish did not sit up at dinner
as we do now; but, like the Romans, they reclined on couches on which the
feet also rested; and this was why the shoes were taken off.
In old times people were quite as fond of intoxicating drinks at dinners
and banquets as they are now. They sometimes drank more than was good for
them too: yet drunkenness was looked upon as reprehensible. At their
feasts they often accompanied their carousing with music and singing.
Besides plain water and milk, the chief drinks were Ale and Mead or
metheglin, which were made at home; and Wine which was imported from
In great houses there were professional cooks, who, while engaged in their
work, wore a linen apron round them from the hips down, and a flat linen
cap on the head. But among ordinary families the women did the cooking.
Meat and fish were cooked by roasting, boiling, or broiling. A spit
(bir), made of iron, was regarded as an important household implement.
But the spits commonly used in roasting, as well as the skewers for
trussing up the joint, were pointed hazel-rods, peeled and made smooth
and white. Meat, and even fish, while roasting, were often basted with
honey or with a mixture of honey and salt.
In the house of every chief and of every brewy (see p. 119 below) there
was at least one bronze Caldron for boiling meat. It was highly valued, as
a most important article in the household; and it was looked upon as the
special property of the chief or head of the house--much in the same way
as his sword and shield. Everywhere we meet with passages reminding us of
the great value set on these caldrons. One of them was regarded as a fit
present for a king. The caldron was supposed to be kept in continual use,
so that food might be always ready for guests whenever they happened to
arrive. Many bronze caldrons have been found from time to time, and are
now preserved in the National Museum, Dublin--several of beautiful
In early ages kitchen utensils were everywhere regarded as important. The
inventory of the jewels of the English King Edward III. gives a list of
his frying-pans, gridirons, spits, etc. There is a curious provision in
the Brehon Law that if any accident occurred to a bystander by the lifting
of the joint out of the boiling caldron, the attendant was liable for
damages unless he gave the warning:--"Take care: here goes the fleshfork
into the caldron!"
Milk was used both fresh and sour: butter was made in a small hand-churn;
and cheese of various kinds was made from curds. There were water-mills
and querns to grind corn, and sieves to separate the ground corn into meal
and flour. The staple food of the great mass of the people was porridge,
or, as it is now called in Ireland, stirabout, made of meal, generally
oatmeal. It was eaten with honey, butter, or milk, as kitchen or
All the various kinds of meal and flour were baked into cakes or loaves of
different shapes. 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 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. Accordingly honey was very plentiful, and was used
with all sorts of dishes. 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. Honey was the chief ingredient in the making
As the country abounded in forests, thickets, and brakes, the most common
Fuel for domestic use was wood: but peat or turf was also much used, cut
from a bank with a slaan or turf-spade as at present. Founders and other
workers in metal used wood-charcoal, of which that made from birch-wood
gave the greatest heat.
Flint and steel with tinder (or spunk) 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 tinne-crassa, 'girdle-fire.'
For Light, dipped candles were used in the better class of houses. Poor
people used dipped rushes, which gave a feeble light and burned out
quickly. In the houses of the rich they used beeswax candles, as indeed we
might expect from the great abundance of bees.
Hospitality and generosity were virtues highly esteemed in ancient
Ireland; in the old Irish 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 hospitable without limit. There
were all over the country Public Hostels for the free lodging and
entertainment of travellers. At the head of each was an officer called a
Brewy or Beetagh, a public hospitaller or hosteller, who was held in
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; 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.
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 was 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 lawn at
night to guide travellers from a distance. To enable him to meet this
great expense and to pay himself into the bargain, a brewy was allowed a
great tract of land free.
Besides the hostels, there were the monasteries, too, where travellers
were also boarded and lodged free for the time. And along with all this
the people were kind and hospitable in their own houses to strangers and
visitors. So we see that travellers were quite as well off then as now:
indeed in one respect much better off: for whereas we have to pay a smart
charge in an inn or hotel, there was in those times a hearty welcome and
no charge at all.
The Irish missionaries carried this fine custom to the Continent in early
ages, as they did many others: for they established free hostels in France
and Germany, in places where there were no monasteries, chiefly for the
use of pilgrims on their way to Rome.