Fosterage and Gossipred

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XV....continued

3. Fosterage.

One of the leading features of Irish social life was fosterage (Irish, altrum), which prevailed from the remotest period. It was practised by persons of all classes, but more especially by those in the higher ranks. The most usual type of fosterage was this:—A man sent his child to be reared and educated in the home and with the family of another member of the tribe, who then became foster-father, and his children the foster-brothers and foster-sisters of the child.

There were two kinds of fosterage—for affection and for payment. In the first there was no fee: in the second the fee varied according to rank. The fosterage fee sometimes consisted of land, but more generally of cattle. For the son of the lowest order of chief, the fee was three cows; and from that upwards to the son of a king, for whom the fee was from eighteen to thirty cows. For girls, as giving more trouble, requiring more care, and as being less able to help the foster-parents in after-life, it was something higher than for boys. The child, during fosterage, was treated in all respects like the children of the house: he worked at some appropriate employment or discharged some suitable function for the benefit of the foster-father: and he had to be educated in a way that suited his station in life: as has been already described. In cases where children were left without parents or guardians, and required protection, the law required that they should be placed in fosterage under suitable persons, at the expense of the tribe.

Fosterage was the closest of all ties between families. The relationship was regarded as something sacred. The foster-children were often more attached to the foster-parents and foster-brothers than to the members of their own family: and cases have occurred where a man has voluntarily laid down his life to save the life of his foster-father or foster-brother. The custom of fosterage existed in Ireland—though in a modified form—-even so late as the seventeenth or eighteenth century; and it was formerly common among the Welsh, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Scandinavians.

Gossipred.—When a man stood sponsor for a child at baptism, he became the child's godfather, and gossip to the parents. Gossipred was regarded —as it is still—as a sort of religious relationship between families, and created mutual obligations of regard and friendship.

After the Anglo-Norman invasion the people of the English colony, from the great lords down, often sent their children to be fostered by the Irish: and, as might be expected, these young persons grew up speaking the Irish language, and thoroughly Irish in every way. Mainly for this reason the two customs of fosterage and gossipred were bitterly denounced by early English writers, most of whom were anxious to keep the two races apart: and we know that the Government passed several stringent laws forbidding them under the penalty of high treason: but these laws were generally disregarded. Gossipred in a modified form exists to this day all over the empire.

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