Food and Meals

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Composed from the Book of Kells



SECTION 1. Meals in General.

Letter D
INNER, the principal meal of the day, was called in Irish, prainn, probably a loan-word from the Latin prandium. Hence the refectory of a monastery was called praintech, literally 'dinner-house.' Dinner was taken late in the evening both among the laity and in monasteries. It was usual to have a light meal between breakfast and dinner, corresponding with the modern luncheon. It was called etrud meaning 'middle-meal.' There was a custom among the laity, as well as in the monastic communities, to have better food ,on Sundays and church festivals than on other days. Among the higher classes great care was taken to seat family and guests at table in the order of rank: any departure from the established usage was sure to be resented by the person who was put lower than he should be; and sometimes resulted in serious quarrels or wars.

The king was always attended at banquets by his subordinate kings, and by other lords and chiefs. Those on the immediate right and left of the king had to sit at a respectful distance. At the feasts of Tara, Tailltenn, and Ushnagh, it was the privilege of the king of Oriell to sit next the king of Ireland, but he sat at such a distance that his sword just reached the high king's hand: and to him also belonged the honour of presenting every third drinking-horn brought to the king. According to Kineth O'Hartigan, while King Cormac mac Art sat at dinner, fifty military guards remained standing beside him.

The banquet-hall of Tara 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. One side of the hall was more dignified than the other; and the tables here were for the lords of territories: those at the other side were for the military captains, 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 whose duty it was to sound his trumpet just three times. 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 lords of territories (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 ranks, from the highest to the lowest: and at the second blast the shields of the military commanders were disposed of in like manner. At the third blast the guests all walked in leisurely, each taking his seat under his own shield (which was marked with his special cognisance: see p. 60, supra). In this manner all unseemly disputes or jostling for places were avoided. No man sat opposite another, as only one side of each row of tables was occupied, namely, the side next the wall. Moreover, 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." Similar arrangements were adopted at the banquets of all other royal residences. This rigid adherence to order of priority at table continued in Ireland and Scotland down to a recent period, as Scott often mentions in his novels; and it continues still in a modified and less strict form everywhere.

At all state banquets particular joints were reserved for certain chiefs, officials, and professional men; according to rank. Here is the statement of the commentator on the Senchus Mór:—"A thigh [laarg] for a king and a poet: a chine [croichet] for a literary sage: a leg [colptha] for a young lord: heads for charioteers: a haunch [les] for queens." 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.

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' (mir). There were often keen contentions among the Red Branch heroes, and sometimes fights with bloodshed, for this coveted joint or piece: and some of the best stories of the Tain hinge on contests of this kind. This usage, which prevailed among the continental Celts in general, and which also existed among the Greeks, continued in Ireland to comparatively late times.

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, such as that in the illustration, each used no doubt for two or more persons, who sat or reclined on low couches or seats of some kind at meals.

Small table

FIG. 105. Small Table 28 inches long, 16 inches broad, and 5 inches high: found in a bog, 5 feet under the surface. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Often there was a little table laid beside each person, on which his food was placed —the meat on a platter. According to Giraldus, his countrymen, the Welsh, had no tables at all at their meals: and very probably this was the case in the general run of the houses of the Irish peasantry.

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. Sometimes—as at banquets, and among very high-class people—the carvers cut off great pieces from the joint, which they brought round and put on the platters. But more commonly each person went to the joint, and using his left-hand fingers to catch hold, cut off a piece for himself and brought it to his own platter. Even so late as the sixteenth century this was the custom in England, according to Roberts, who says that dinner was served without knives or forks, but each had his own clasp-knife, and going to the dish, cut off a piece for himself: and he gives this illustrative verse by Alexander Barclay (sixteenth century):—

"If the dish be pleasant, either flesche or fische,
Ten hands at once swarm in the dishe."

When dinner was over—says Roberts, speaking of the English—they removed the grease from their knives by plunging the blade several times into the clay floor. The Greeks and Romans had no forks at meals : they used the fingers only, and were supplied with water to wash their hands after eating.

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, lámbrat, i.e. 'hand-napkin' (lám, 'hand': brat, 'a cloth'). This custom is frequently mentioned in the Irish MSS. of those ages, quoted by Zeuss. I suppose the chief use they made of the napkin was to wipe the left-hand fingers; which was badly needed. They sometimes used dried hides as tablecloths. 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; and we may infer that the Irish, like them, reclined during meals on couches on which the feet also rested.

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