Food in Ancient Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XV

Cauldrons are constantly mentioned in the Book of Rights, in a manner which shows that these vessels were in constant use. It was one of the tributes to be presented in due form by the King of Cashel to the King of Tara; and in the will of Cahir Môr, Monarch of Ireland in the second century, fifty copper cauldrons are amongst the items bequeathed to his family. Probably the poorer classes, who could not afford such costly vessels, may have contented themselves with roasting their food exclusively, unless, indeed, they employed the primitive method of casting red hot stones into water when they wished it boiled.

The exact precision which characterizes every legal enactment in ancient Erinn, and which could not have existed in a state of barbarism, is manifested even in the regulations about food. Each member of the chieftain's family had his appointed portion, and there is certainly a quaintness in the parts selected for each. The saoi of literature and the king were to share alike, as we observed when briefly alluding to this subject in the chapter on ancient Tara; their portion was a prime steak. Cooks and trumpeters were specially to be supplied with "cheering mead," it is to be supposed because their occupations required more than ordinary libations; the historian was to have a crooked bone; the hunter, a pig's shoulder: in fact, each person and each office had its special portion assigned [8] to it, and the distinction of ranks and trades affords matter of the greatest interest and of the highest importance to the antiquarian. There can be but little doubt that the custom of Tara was the custom of all the other kings and chieftains, and that it was observed throughout the country in every family rich enough to have dependents. This division of food was continued in the Highlands of Scotland until a late period. Dr. Johnson mentions it, in his Tour in the Hebrides, as then existing. He observes that he had not ascertained the details, except that the smith [9] had the head.

The allowance for each day is also specified. Two cows, and two tinnés, [1] and two pigs was the quantity for dinner. This allowance was for a hundred men. The places which the household were to occupy were also specified; so that while all sat at a common table,[2] there was, nevertheless, a certain distinction of rank. At Tara there were different apartments, called imdas, a word now used in the north of Ireland to denote a couch or bed. The name probably originated in the custom of sleeping in those halls, on the benches which surrounded them, or on the floor near the fire-place. In the ground plan of the banqueting hall at Tara, the house is shown as divided into five parts, which are again divided into others. Each of the two divisions extending along the side wall, is shown as subdivided into twelve imdas, which here mean seats; the central division is represented as containing three fires at equal distances, a vat, and a chandelier.


[8] Assigned.—Petrie's Tara, p. 200.

[9] Smith.—The animals were brought to the smith, who knocked them down with his big hammer: hence, probably, the name of Smithfield for a cattle market. He was an important personage in the olden time. In the Odyssey, as armourer, he ranks with the bard and physician.

[1] Tinnés.—Dr. Petrie does not give the meaning of this word, but Dr. O'Donovan supplies the deficiency in the Book of Rights, where he explains it to mean a salted pig, or in plain English, bacon.

[2] Table.—In the earliest ages of Tara's existence, the household may have been served as they sat on the benches round the hall. The table was at first simply a board: hence we retain the term a hospitable board; a board-room, a room where a board was placed for writing on. The board was carried away after dinner, and the trestles on which it stood, so as to leave room for the evening's amusements.