Seating in Ancient Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XV

Benches were the seats used, even by persons of rank, until a late period. In the French Carlovingian romances, even princes and great barons sat on them. Chairs were comparatively rare, and only used on state occasions, as late as the twelfth century. Wright gives some curious woodcuts of persons conversing together, who are seated on settles, or on seats formed in the walls round the room; such as may still be seen in monastic cloisters and the chapter houses of our old cathedrals. Food which had been roasted was probably handed round to the guests on the spit on which it had been cooked.[3] Such at least was the Anglo-Saxon fashion; and as the Irish had spits, and as forks were an unknown luxury for centuries later, we may presume they were served in a similar manner. The food was varied and abundant, probably none the less wholesome for being free from the Anglo-Norman refinements of cookery, introduced at a later period. For animal diet there were fat beeves, dainty venison, pork, fresh and salted, evidently as favourite a dish with the ancients as with the moderns—except, alas! that in the good old times it was more procurable.

Sheep and goats also varied the fare, with "smaller game," easily procured by chase, or shot down with arrows or sling stones. The land abounded in "milk and honey." Wheat was planted at an early period; and after the introduction of Christianity, every monastic establishment had its mill. There were "good old times" in Ireland unquestionably. Even an English prince mentions "the honey and wheat, the gold and silver," which he found in "fair Innis-fail."

It is probable that land was cultivated then which now lies arid and unreclaimed, for a writer in the Ulster Archaeological Journal mentions having found traces of tillage, when laying out drains in remote unproductive districts, several feet beneath the peaty soil. Dr. O'Donovan also writes in the same journal: "I believe the Irish have had wheat in the more fertile valleys and plains from a most remote period. It is mentioned constantly in the Brehon laws and in our most ancient poems."[4] Nor should we omit to mention fish in the list of edibles. During the summer months, fishing was a favourite and lucrative occupation; and if we are to believe a legend quoted in the Transactions of the Ossianic Society, the Fenians enjoyed a monopoly in the trade, for no man dare take a salmon, "dead or alive," excepting a man in the Fenian ranks; and piscatory squabbles seem to have extended themselves into downright battles between the Northmen and the natives, when there was question of the possession of a weir.[5]


[3] Cooked.—Wright's Domestic Manners, p. 87. The knights in this engraving are using their shields as a substitute for a table. At p. 147 there is an illustration of the method of cooking on a spit; this is turned by a boy. The Irish appear to have had a mechanical arrangement for this purpose some centuries earlier. Bellows, which are now so commonly used in Ireland, and so rare in England, appear to have been a Saxon invention.

[4] Poems.—Ulster Arch. Journal, vol. i. p. 108. It would appear as if corn had been eaten raw, or perhaps partly scorched, at an early period, as was customary in eastern countries. Teeth have been found in crania taken from our ancient tombs, quite worn down by some such process of mastication.

[5] Weir.—Salt appears to have been used also at a very ancient period, though it cannot now be ascertained how it was procured. Perhaps it was obtained from native sources now unknown.