Ancient Law: Ireland, Beer and Mead, Malt and Honey

Ardagh chalice in silver and gold with much knotwork and some gems

The Irish were great ones for writing their laws down, and the many existing law-texts, whole or in fragments,  give us enticing glimpses of how things were done as far back as the eighth century in Ireland.  I have been slowly accumulating modern English translations of ancient Irish law-texts, thanks to the mighty labors of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies School of Celtic Studies.  The detail is incredible.  There’s quite a lot on brewing – and who was owed how much malt or honey as their right as the local landowner.   Privileges of rank, agricultural practices, the role and rights of women are all well documented.  (Most of what I thought I learned about ancient Irish ways reading science fiction and fantasy was utter hogwash.)

These are snippets from  lectures on law-text translations that were given  in 1873 at the Catholic University of Ireland, and printed in Dublin.  I have not (yet)  found any counter-discussion that the quality of translation was not good.  I suppose we should take the discussions with a grain of salt (or I must, until I catch up  and see what more current scholars have discovered).  I’ll limit this (mostly) to the translations.

I don’t speak Old Irish, and there are an awful lot of textual problems.  I’ve tried not to change anything and have only Made in 8th c Ireland or Scotlandremoved what were clearly characters inserted when a sentence crossed pages or was otherwise obviously extra.  This also means I can’t guarantee I’ve got the names, titles, and word references right, and the online text has issues.  My comments are in [ ] brackets.

I would mightily like to get my hands on an article by Daniel A. Binchy, “Brewing in Eighty-Century Ireland”, published in 1981 in Studies on Early Ireland: essays in honour of M.V.Duignan.  It’s behind subscription firewalls and mentioned in a whole lot of bibliographies.  If you have access to a copy, will you please share??  I think JSTOR has it.

MALT  As best I can tell, a Flath is a noble landowner, and his tenants owed him portions of their produce – quite specific produce.  Flaths held the privilege of brewing beer, but his tenants were required to bring him malt as part of their due.

RIGHTS AND DUES  The Flath is the man “‘to whom he gave cattle, received his rent in corn, ‘ for he is not entitled to malt until he is a Flath”  Oh, and I love this one:   “He is not a king who has not hostages in locks, and who does not receive his Flatha (tribute) from Flaths.  That is, he is not entitled to be called a king unless he has hostages for the fulfilment of his kingship, or his Ceilsine, i.e. his Daer Aicillne (base tenants), to give him Braich (malt)”.

MEAD The great banquet hall of Tara was called the Tech mid chuarda, the “mead circling house”.  Definitely what I want my home to be of an evening when I’ve got a fire lit and friends over!

AND HONEY  “The great attention paid to the culture of bees, as is proved by the numerous laws and legal decisions concerning them which have come down to us, and the large quantities of honey supplied as rents and tributes to the Kings andother Flaths, show that mead was a general and favourite drink of the ancient Irish; for although, as we have seen from the account of the ” champion’s share ” of Bricrius house, honey was sometimes used in the making of sweetcakes, there can be little doubt that the greater part of the honey produced in ancient times was fermented into mead. This drink is perhaps older than beer ; but, so far as I know, not exciu-[missing text??]  there is no evidence that at any time in Ireland it was the exclusive intoxicating drink of the Irish, or that it was as generally used as beer.”

White Island, 8th cHOSPITALITY  “”A prosperous Flath Brugh cetach lived one time in the beautiful fair kingdom of Connaught, buy nexium usa i.e. Conall Dearg Ua Carra Finn. This was the condition of that Brugad, i.e. he was a prosperous rich man of great wealth,and his house was never found without the three cheers being in it, namely, the cheer of the strainers straining Linn (ale) ; the cheer of the Athachs (properly tenants, but put here for such of them as performed household service) over the Caires (caldrons) cooking for the hosts ; and the cheer ofthe young men (warriors) over the chess board winning games on each other.  Nor was his house found without the three Miachs (sacks), namely, a Miachof Brath (malt) to supply the wayfarers; a Miach of Cndtnecht (wheat) for the Biatad (food-ration) of guests ; and a Miach of salt to improve the taste of all kinds of food”.— Vellum MS. E.I. A., Book of Fermoy, f. 105.”

“The Brugh is here designated a Flath, but it is only by courtesy that the story-teller gives him this title, which the laws never give. The higher class of Brughs, Eoyal Brughs, may have been Flaths by birth, but were not so in virtue of their office, though sometimes complimented with the title of Flath Brugh or lordly Brugh. ”

“The Brughfer must have had the privilege of brewing, in virtue of his functions as public hospitaller, as he was bound to have a vat of ale always ready for the refreshment of a Hig, a bishop, a poet, a judge, or other person, and their respective suites entitled and in to public entertainment. ”

map of the peoples of 8th-9th c Ireland
The Peoples of 8th-9th century Ireland

RIGHTS AND DUES  The Flath is the man “‘to whom he gave cattle, received his rent in corn, ‘ for he is not entitled to malt until he is a Flath”  Oh, and I love this one:   “He is not a king who has not hostages in locks, and who does not receive his Flatha (tribute) from Flaths.  That is, he is not entitled to be called a king unless he has hostages for the fulfilment of his kingship, or his Ceilsine, i.e. his Daer Aicillne (base tenants), to give him Braich (malt)”.

That’s right.  You’re not a King until we have to give you malt. (I’m sure other stuff too, but when I am Queen…)

This bit is scholar’s commentary, not translation: “From the frequent reference to oatmeal and porridge, there Com most generally can be little doubt

that the kind of corn most generally grown,was oats. Barley was also cultivated, not only for making Barley bread, but also for making malt. Frequent mention is also bread, made of wheat, but wheaten bread must have been used almost exclusively by the higher classes. I have not met with Yeast or any direct evidence of the use of leaven or of yeast in early [word?]  making times in Ireland, but I infer from incidental circumstances that the yeast of Ciiirm [I can’t tell whether that word is correct or not], or beer, was used in the making of wheaten bread.  Oatmeal and barleymeal cakes appear to have [?]  Some persons have doubted that barley was at all grown in ancient times in Ireland. There is, however, abundant evidence that it was.”

And this bit was too good not to mention, though I cannot vouch for veracity:  “As in other northern countries, Plants [missing?] beer at first consisted of a simple fermented infusion of the malt. Before the introduction of hops, attempts were made used to flavour the beer with aromatic and bitter astringent plants — oak bark, it is said, among other things, having been employed for this purpose. The Cimbri [Welsh] used the Tamarix Gerraanica, the old Scandinavians the fruit of the sweet gale, Myrica gale, the Cauchi the fruit and twigs of the chaste tree, Vitex agnus castus. In Iceland, where hops do not grow, the yarrow, Achillea millefolium, was used for this purpose, and was even called Vallaimall, or field hops.”

Related Post

3 Comments

    • What a great find! Thank you, Mike. I’ve ordered it – under $20 even with shipping from the UK. But shhh, don’t tell, I might still go find it in the Library of Congress, just because I’ve never been and I live Right Here (and that’s just crazy).

Comments are closed.