Vegetables and Fruit

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVII....continued

8. Vegetables and Fruit.

Table vegetables of various kinds were cultivated in an enclosure called lúbgort [loo-ort], i.e. 'herb-garden ' or kitchen-garden: from lúb, 'an herb,' and gort, a fenced-in cultivated plot. The manner in which the kitchen-garden is mentioned in literature of all kinds shows that it was a common appanage to a homestead.

Cabbage of some kind was an important food-herb among the early Irish, so that it is often mentioned in old authorities. Its Irish name was braisech [brasshagh], borrowed probably from the Latin brassica. Among the vegetables cultivated in kitchen-gardens and used at table were leeks and onions. "Mac Conglinne's Vision" mentions the leek by one of its Irish names lus, and the onion by the name cainnenn. Lus is now the general word for leek, and was often used in this special sense in old writings: but lus primarily means an herb in general. A leek had a more specific name, folt-chep (folt, 'hair'; "hair-onion": chep or cep, corresponding with Lat. cepa, 'an onion'). Garlic appears to have been a pretty common condiment, and the same word cainnenn was often applied to it. Wild garlic, called in Irish creamh [crav or craff] was often used as a pot-herb, but I find no evidence that it was cultivated. The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used.

Tap-rooted plants were designated by the general term meacon [mackan], with qualifying terms to denote the different kinds: but meacon used by itself means a parsnip or a carrot. Both these vegetables were cultivated in kitchen-gardens, and are often mentioned in old writings. Good watercress (biror) was prized and eaten raw as a salad or annlann, as at present. It is often spoken of in connexion with brooklime, which is called fothlacht [fullaght], and which was also eaten. Poor people sometimes ate a pottage made of the tender tops of nettles, as I have seen them do in my own day in time of scarcity: but they mixed a little oatmeal with it when they could get it. The sea-plant called in Irish duilesc, and in English dillesk, dulse, dulsk, or dilse, growing on sea-rocks, was formerly much used as an article of food, that is, as an accompaniment. According to the Brehon Law, seaside arable land was enhanced in value by having rocks on its sea-border producing this plant, and there was a penalty for consuming the dillesk belonging to another without leave. Dillesk is still used; and you may see it in Dublin hawked about in baskets by women: it is dry, and people eat it in small quantities raw, like salad.

Though there is not much direct mention in old Irish literature of the management of fruit-trees, various detached passages show that they were much valued and carefully cultivated. The apple (ubhall, pron. ooal) appears to have been as much cultivated and used in old times as at the present. Apples, when gathered, were hoarded up to preserve them as long as possible: they were generally eaten uncooked.

The hazel-nut was much used for food. This is plainly indicated by the high value set on both tree and fruit, of which we meet with innumerable instances in tales, poems, and other old records, in such expressions as "Cruachan of the fair hazels": "Derry-na-nath, on which fair-nutted hazels are constantly found." Abundance of hazel-nuts was a mark of a prosperous and plenteous season. Among the blessings a good king brought on the land was plenty of hazel-nuts:—"O'Berga [the chief] for whom the hazels stoop" [with the weight of their fruit]: "Each hazel is rich from [the worthiness of] the hero." From such references and quotations it may be inferred that hazel-nuts were regarded as an important article of human food.

The sloe-tree or blackthorn was called droigheann [dree-an], which generally takes a diminutive form droigheannan [dreenan]: hence dreenan-donn (donn, 'brown') is a common name for the blackthorn, even among English-speaking people. The sloe is called áirne [awrna]. That sloes were used as food, or as an annlann or condiment, and that the sloe bush was cultivated, is evident from the manner in which both are mentioned in Irish literature. Strawberries (sing. sub, pl. suba: pron. soo, sooa) are often mentioned as dainties.

We are told in the Book of Rights that one of the prerogatives of the king of Erin was to have the heath-fruit (fraechmes) of Slieve Golry in Longford brought to him. The fraechmes was no doubt the whortleberry (called whorts or hurts in Munster), as is indicated by the fact that the whortleberry is now called fraechóg and fraechán, two diminutives of the same word fraech, heath. Most Dublin people have seen women with baskets of "fraughans," as they call them, for sale, picked on the neighbouring mountains; and they are now made into jam. The passage referred to shows that fraughans were eaten in old times even by kings. Beechmast and oakmast were greatly valued for feeding pigs, which were kept in droves among the woods. The general name for mast was mes or mess. On one occasion the badb [bauv] or war-witch, predicting evils for Ireland, included among them "woods without masts."

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