Celtic Design


Fosterage in Ancient Ireland

Laurence Ginnell

Celtic F
OSTERAGE was such an important feature of Irish social life that, although only a custom, elaborate rules relating to it were laid down in the laws; and we cannot omit noticing the subject, however briefly.

Fosterage was the custom of placing children during their minority in charge of other members of the clan. It was usually restricted to members of the fine, which has been described and which chiefly consisted of persons within the fifth degree of kindred; but there was no strict rule on this point. It was practised by all classes, but especially by the wealthy, by chiefs and leading men. It is not clear what, besides the force of habit, was the motive for it; but its practice, whether designed for that end or not, helped materially to strengthen the natural ties of kinship and sympathy which bound the chief and clan or the flaith and sept together. Quite apart from law, the relations arising from fosterage were in popular estimation the most sacred of the whole social system, and a stronger affection oftentimes sprang up between persons standing in those relations than that between immediate relatives by birth.

There were various kinds of fosterage, and minute rules are laid down for all, especially with reference to the mode of treating the children in fosterage according to the position they were intended to fill in after life, the amount payable by the different classes for the different kinds of fosterage, the relations between the child and its foster parents both during the fosterage and after, and various other matters. Foster parents were bound under heavy penalties to teach their foster children or have them taught, whether boys or girls, the branches of knowledge, business, trades, or exercises suited to their rank. During the fosterage the foster father was liable for injuries and offences committed by the foster child, and entitled to compensation for any injury done to the foster child.

A peculiar variety, called literary fosterage, was practised by ollamhs. Ollamhs taught pupils of the ordinary sort in the ordinary way, for payment or for nothing according to circumstances; but they also took a limited number of pupils into a particular kind of fosterage combined with pupilage, adopted them into their families, and so thoroughly imbued them with the spirit of the profession they were about to enter that the original family ties of those pupils became as if they had never existed.

As a rule a child was not sent to fosterage until it was one year old. "There are three periods at which fosterage ends: death, crime, and selection." Selection meant marriage; and the legal age of selection was reached by girls at the end of fourteen years, and by boys at the end of seventeen years. Foster parents who had properly discharged their duties were entitled in old age to be supported by their foster children, if they were in need and had no children of their own.

The law of fosterage seems to search out, ransack, and provide for every domestic possibility. It is perfectly amazing to find so many rules relating to domestic economy, and to contrast the modern absence of rule on such matters. Let me give an illustration. Expounding the cain law of fosterage some worthy ollamh writes in this fashion—"What are their victuals? Leite=stirabout is given to them all; but the flavouring (literally dip) which goes into it is different; namely, salt butter for the sons of the inferior grades, fresh butter for the sons of chieftains, honey for the sons of kings. The food of each continues the same respectively until the end of one year, or three years [according to the kind of fosterage]. Stirabout made of oatmeal on butter-milk or water is given to the sons of the Feini grades, and a bare sufficiency of it merely, and salt butter for flavouring. Stirabout made on new milk is given to the sons of the chieftain grades, and fresh butter for flavouring, and a full sufficiency of it is given to them; and this stirabout is made of barley-meal. Stirabout made on new milk is given to the sons of kings, and it is made of wheaten meal, and honey for flavouring." This passage will convey an idea of the small matters of which the law took cognizance. Skene, the author of Celtic Scotland, says that the word "stirabout" is unknown out of Ireland, and quoting this passage he substitutes the word "porridge."

Celtic Knotwork