For those of you who have always wondered what Ireland was like for the early Christian inhabitants of the place, and let’s face it, we all have at some stage, here’s a slightly distilled version of P.W. Joyce’s excellent introduction to his (1905) “A Smaller Social History of Ireland” available in full on the interweb here.
Above: The vast open plains of Ireland, sort of!
“All over the country there were vast forests, and great and dangerous marshes, quagmires, and bogs, covered with reeds, moss, and grass. But outside forest and bog, there were open plains, valleys, and hillsides, under cultivation and pasturage, and all well populated. The woods and waste places were alive with birds and wild animals of all kinds, and …. there was plenty of game, both large and small, and the rivers and lakes teemed with fish. Sometimes they hunted hares and foxes for mere sport. But they had much grander game: wild boars with long and dangerous tusks, deer in great herds, and wolves that lurked in caves and thick woods. There were the … broad lakes… and they were surrounded with miles of reedy morasses: lakes and marshes tenanted everywhere by vast flocks of cranes, wild geese, wild swans, and other fowl. Kites and golden eagles skimmed over the plains, peering down for prey; and the goshawks, or falcons, used in the old game of hawking, were found in great abundance.
A person traversing those parts of the country that were inhabited found no difficulty in getting from place to place; for there were roads and bridlepaths everywhere, rough indeed … but good enough for the travel and traffic of the time. If the wayfarer did not choose to walk, there were plenty of ox-waggons; and among the higher classes rough springless chariots, drawn by one or two horses. Horse-riding, though sometimes adopted, was not in those times a very general mode of travelling. What with rough conveyances, and with roads and paths often full of ruts, pools, and mire, a journey, whether by walking, driving, or horse-riding, was a slow, laborious, and disagreeable business, and not always free from danger. Rivers were crossed by means of wooden bridges, or by wading at broad shallow fords, or by little ferry-boats, or, as a last resource, by swimming… Fords were, however, generally very easy to find, as the roads and paths usually impinged on them, and in many places lights were kept burning beside them at night.
In the inhabited districts the traveller experienced little difficulty on the score of lodging; for there were open houses of hospitality for the reception of strangers, where bed and food were always ready. If one of these happened not to be within reach, he had only to make his way to the nearest monastery, where he was sure of a warm welcome: and, whether in monastery or hostel, he was entertained free of charge. Failing both, there was small chance of his having to sleep out: for hospitality was everywhere enjoined and practised as a virtue, and there was always a welcome from the family of the first private house he turned into.”
The bits about having to travel by foot or horseback, cross rivers by ford (even if they were easy to find) or by swimming, or traveling by chariot without suspension or heating all sounds a little uncomfortable – and I don’t like the sound of a journey which would not ‘always be free from danger’ – but the open houses of hospitality: where the hostel owner was bound by law to have ‘three kinds of meat ready for cooking’, a bag of malt ready for brewing and animals ready for killing, sounds far more pleasant. These hostels had to have a number of open roads leading to them so that they were accessible and easy to reach – not only that but at each road a man had to be stationed to make sure that no traveller would pass by without ‘calling to be entertained’ and a light was kept burning on the lawn (a faithche) to guide the wandering traveller. According to Joyce “if a hostel owner found himself unable to discharge the due rites of hospitality, it was supposed that his face became suffused with a ruice or blush–a blush of honourable shame”. Joyce estimates that there were several hundred of these hostels in Ireland. Then there were Monasteries, most of which had breweries, so even of the food was a little less sophisticated than at the hostels, at least there was plenty of ale.
Who wouldn’t have been a permanent traveller, or at least up for an extended road trip, no need for a credit card, no need to plan your next destination, the wide open, free, rutted, flooded, miry, laborious and disagreeable road. Surely it would take some circuit before all these generous people would suss you out – then again, Ireland as now, was a small place, beady eyed gossipmongers, peeking through lace curtains (or the Early Christian equivalent – ‘Oh, No! Here’s yerman, the freeloader, he was here eight months ago. Cormac Mac Art told me he spent three days in his place last week, ate three hog snouts, a whole side of venison and drank a whole sack worth of ale – Quick! Put the faithche out and tell the lads on the accessible and open roads leading to our hostel to hide in the great and dangerous quagmire, maybe he’ll just go on up to the Cistercian monks up the road and take advantage of their great generosity, and save us the blush of honourable shame’.
On beer: Joyce refers to an early drinking vessel called the ‘mether’ – could this be the origin of the word ‘mithered’ – etymological analysis welcome!