Ancient Irish Trivia
The heroCu Chulainn defends Ulster in a Joseph Christian Leyendecker illustration of The Cattle Raid of Cooley from Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (1911) by T.W. Rolleston.
What they wore: In fifth century Ireland, everyone most likely wore a tunic called a léine (pronounced “lay-in-ah”), usually made of linen although sometimes wool or silk. The women’s were ankle-length—the men’s were shorter. They were worn with a colorful brat, a rectangular wool cloak fastened with a brooch at the chest or one shoulder. Shoes were leather—women and druids wore them more often than men did.
Trivia: They wore make-up! Women dyed their eyebrows with berry juice and their lips and cheeks with vegetable dyes. They also painted their nails red.
What they ate: Households tended to be self-sufficient, so they raised their own livestock and poultry, as well as growing grains for bread and “pottage” (a thick soup or stew). They also grew beans and various other vegetables, and gathered wild fruits, nuts and greens. They drank ale or milk.
Trivia: In the house of a king or chieftain, the main function of a feast was to give the warriors a chance to brag. A particularly choice bit of meat was called the “hero’s portion,” and warriors would fight over it. Feasts often devolved into drunken brawls.
Festivals: Ashling met her death on the way home from the annual spring festival of Beltine, which took place on May 1. A bonfire was lit to encourage the sun to shine on crops and pastures, and cattle were driven between two fires (or two rows of fire, by some accounts) to protect them from disease. The next major festival would have been Lúnasa, the harvest festival, on August 1. Samhain (pronounced “sau-in”), on November 1, was the start of the New Year. Imbolc celebrated the arrival of spring on February 1.
Trivia: The celebration that took place the night before Samhain, when the boundary thinned between our world and the spirit realm, ended up as our Halloween.
Women: At fourteen, Ashling had just reached marriageable age. She was betrothed to an elderly neighbor, who would have paid a dowry (maybe in cattle) that would have been divided between the bride and her father. Ashling considered this a good match: She knew this neighbor was a nice guy. If he turned out not to be so nice, the law allowed her to divorce him and walk away with all her own property.
Before she married, Ashling was at the beck and call of her father, who would decide her fate for her. After marriage, however, she was her husband’s equal under the law.
Trivia: Women in ancient Ireland were known to be judges, craftspeople, poets, and even warriors. There are tales of women being druids, the priests and soothsayers who were the top power in society.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley: One of the most famous examples of women’s equality in Ireland is The Cattle Raid of Cooley, an epic tale that came into being long before the Irish wrote things down. Ashling would have heard it recited by fireside and after banquets by somebody who’d memorized the whole massive thing, a feat common to societies that had no written language.
The saga starts with “pillow talk” between Queen Medb* of Connaught (a province southwest of Ulster) and her consort, Ailill, lying in bed together. Ailill begins to muse about how lucky Medb was to marry a rich guy like him. She counters that she is plenty rich, thank you very much, and he is the lucky one.
The argument gets heated. Medb and Ailill rise, call the servants, and begin comparing their possessions from bracelets to livestock. Medb finds to her dismay that her husband is one beautiful white bull richer than she is, so she tries to borrow a legendary brown bull from Ulster. When the bull’s owner refuses, she sends an army to take it. The rest of the saga describes the resulting war between Connaught and Ulster, various heroics, and Medb’s eventual defeat.
Trivia: The first scribes to write this epic down were Christian monks, whose views on women’s equality were less liberal than the Celts’. Some historians think the monks fiddled with this and other Irish tales to match their own beliefs. It’s even possible that Medb actually won the war in the original tale. We’ll never know.
The law: In a society without written documents, three of the most important classes were the druids, the poets, and the brehons, or judges. These were the people who memorized what the ancient Irish held dear: their religion, their sagas, and their laws. The law was based on compensation—if your sheep ate a neighbor’s grass, you had to give him the sheep’s wool. The brehon was the one who decided what a crime was worth, and even a king had no say over the matter. If you did something especially bad, like murder someone, your family might be paying off your fine (paid in cattle) for generations.
Trivia: Serious crimes included refusing hospitality to a traveler and making fun of someone in public. Legitimate satire performed by poets, however, was considered a good way to change someone’s behavior—even a king’s.
Note: Most of my information about pre-Christian Ireland came from three great books: In Search of Ancient Ireland, by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton; Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery, and Daily Life of the Pagan Celts, by Joan P. Alcock.
* I’m not sure how to pronounce “Medb” the Old Irish way. I’ve seen “meb-de,” “may-thv,” and “may-v” like the modern Irish name “Maeve.” If you know for sure, drop me an email.