Free Public Hostels

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVII....concluded

10. Free Public Hostels.

This seems a proper place to give some information regarding the provision made for lodging and entertaining travellers and officials. Hospitality and generosity were virtues highly esteemed in ancient Ireland; in the old 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 lavish without limit.

If by any accident a person found himself unable to discharge the due rites of hospitality, it was supposed that his face became suffused with a ruice [rucke] or blush—a blush of honourable shame. The brewy, or head of a hostel, took care to have "the snout of a rooting hog"—meaning he had plenty of pork—"to prevent his face-blush." If anyone through the fault of another ran short of provisions when visitors came, so that he had reason to feel ashamed of his scanty table, the defaulter had to pay him as compensation what was called a "blush-fine." As illustrating what was expected of the higher ranks, the Brehon Law lays down that "the chieftain grades are bound to entertain [a guest] without asking any questions"—i.e. questions as to his name, or business, or where he was bound for, and the like. Once the guest had partaken of food in a house, his host was bound to abstain from offering him any violence or disrespect under any circumstances. Bede's testimony as to the hospitality of the Irish has been already quoted.

This universal admiration for hospitality found its outward expression in the establishment, all over the country, of public hostels for the free lodging and entertainment of all who chose to claim them. At the head of each was an officer called a brugh-fer or brugaid [broo-fer, brewy], a public hospitaller or hosteller, who was held in high honour. He was bound to keep an open house for the reception of certain functionaries—king, bishop, poet, judge, &c. —who were privileged to claim for themselves and their attendants free entertainment when on their circuits: and also for the reception of strangers. He had a tract of land and other large allowances to defray the expenses of his house; and he should have at least one hundred of each kind of cattle, one hundred labourers, and corresponding provision for feeding and lodging guests.

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 to prevent the blushes of his face; 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. He was also "a man of three sacks":—for he had always in his house a sack of malt for brewing ale; a sack of salt for curing cattle-joints; and a sack of charcoal for the irons; this last referring to the continual use of iron-shod agricultural implements calling for frequent repair and renewal. We are told also that his kitchen-fire should be kept perpetually alight, and that his caldron should never be taken off the fire, and should always be kept full of joints boiling for guests. 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 should be 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 faithche [faha] or lawn at night to guide travellers from a distance. The brewy was a magistrate, and was empowered to deliver judgment on certain cases that were brought before him to his house. We have already seen (p. 19) that a court was held in his house for the election of the chief of the tribe. Keating says that there were ninety brugaids in Connaught, ninety in Ulster, ninety-three in Leinster, and a hundred and thirty in Munster, all with open houses; and though it is not necessary to accept these numbers as strictly accurate, they indicate at least that the houses of hospitality were very numerous. The house of a brewy answered all the purposes of the modern hotel or inn, but with the important distinction, that guests were lodged and entertained with bed and board, free of charge.

There was another sort of public victualler called biatach or biadhtach [beetagh], who was also bound to entertain travellers, and the chief's soldiers whenever they came that way. In order to enable the biatagh to dispense hospitality, he held a tract of arable land free of rent, called a ballybetagh, equal to about 1000 of our present English acres, with a much larger extent of waste land. The distinction between a brewy and a betagh is not very clear, and at any rate there was probably little substantial difference between them.

The Irish missionaries carried this fine custom to the Continent in early ages, as they did many others; for we are told, on the best authority, that before the ninth century they established hostels, chiefly for the use of pilgrims on their way to Rome, some in Germany, but most in France, as lying in the direct route to the Eternal City.


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