Irish Drinking Vessels

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVI....continued

4. Domestic Vessels.

The material in most general use for vessels was wood; but there were vessels of gold, silver, bronze, and brass, all of which, however, were expensive. Occasionally, we read of iron being used. There were also vessels of stone: but these were not much in use. Drinking-goblets of glass have been already noticed; and leather vessels for holding liquids will be described in chap. xxii., sect. 5.

Stone drinking cup

FIG. 89. Stone Drinking cup 4 ¾ in. wide across the bowl. Found, buried deep, in the bed of the Shannon (Wilde's Catalogue).

For making wooden vessels beech was oftenest employed: but the best were made of yew. A large proportion of the timber vessels used were made of staves bound by hoops, like those in use at present, indicating skill and accuracy in planing and jointing. In a certain old Irish list of yew-tree vessels, several are mentioned as having grown so old that the hoops at last fell off.

Bronze drinking vessel

FIG. 90. Bronze Drinking-vessel in the National Museum: 7 ¾ inches wide: hammered out and shaped with great skill from one single thin flat piece of metal. Found in a crannoge in County Roscommon. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

A large open hooped tub or vat, with two handles or ears like those of the present day, was called by several names, the most common of which was dabach [dauvagh]. Another name for a tub or trough was lothar [loher]: grains left after brewing, used for feeding pigs, were often kept in a lothar.

A moderately-sized tub with two handles, called a drolmach, was used by women for bringing water. This word is still in use and pronounced drowlagh. The people used a sort of pitcher or hand-vessel called a cilorn [keelorn], having a stuag or circular handle in its side, from which it was also called stuagach, i.e. 'circle handled.'

The Kavanagh Horn

FIG. 91. The "Kavanagh Horn, a Corn, 22 inches along the convex or under side. On a brass plate round the top is this inscription:—"TlGERNANUS O'LAUAN ME FECIT DEO GRACIAS. I. H. S.": which gives the name of the artist Tiernan O'Lavan. This is not a very old specimen. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

A corn [curn] or horn was a drinking-vessel, usually made from a bullock's horn, hollowed out and often highly ornamented with metal-work and gems. Drinking-corns were made at home from cows' or bullocks' horns; but very large ones were imported and much valued.

Ancient Irish vessel

FIG. 92. Ancient Irish vessel, 15 inches high: made out of a single piece of oak. The carving on the side is the Opus Hibernicum or interlaced work. The whole outer surface was originally painted in a kind of dark enamel, portions of which still remain. (From Kilk. Archaeol. Journ.).

These corns were sometimes given as a part of the stipend due from one king to another, as we find by many entries in the Book of Rights, where they are often called curved corns from their shape. Sometimes they were brightly coloured.

The escra was a drinking-goblet: Cormac's Glossary says it was a copper vessel for distributing water; but it was sometimes made of silver. The sons of O'Corra, in the course of their voyage, landed on an island, where a lady came towards them having in one hand a copper cilorn full of food like cheese, and in the other a silver escra. The word lestar was applied to vessels of various kinds, among others to drinking-vessels: it was often used as a generic term for vessels of all kinds, including ships. The beautiful lestar represented in figure 92 was found some years ago, five feet deep in a bog.

The simple word cua, and its derivatives cuad and cuach, all mean 'a cup.' Cuach, which is the common term for 'cup,' is retained in Scotland to this day, and used as an English word in the forms of quaigh and cogue, for a drinking-cup. Ian, gen. ena, means 'a vessel': it is often applied to a small drinking-mug.

Grotesque figure of a man drinking, from the Book of Kells

FIG. 93. Grotesque figure of a man drinking: from the Book of Kells: 7th or 8th century. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

The usual drinking-vessel among the common people, especially at meals and drinking-bouts, was a mether (so called from the drink called mead), made of wood, with two or four handles: it circulated from hand to hand, each passing it to his neighbour after taking a drink. Many of these methers are preserved in museums, of which two are figured next page. People drank from the corners. A sort of hamper or vessel called a rusc [roosk] made of bark-strips on a wicker-work frame, was much used in farmhouses.

Wooden Methers

FIG. 94 & FIG. 95. Wooden Methers. (From Wilde's Catalogue.).

A churn was known by several names—among others cuinneog [quinnoge], which is the present name. The form of churn used among the ancient Irish was that in which the cream or milk is agitated by a dash worked with the hand. For bringing home milk from the milking-place, Adamnan mentions a wooden vessel of such a make that it could be strapped on the back. The lid was kept in its place by a wooden cross-bar (called gercenn) which ran through two holes at opposite sides near the rim.

Pail or bucket made of yew

FIG. 96. Pail or bucket made out of one piece of red deal: 1 foot long. Cover made of yew, pressed into shape when softened. Now in the National Museum. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

In the Tripartite Life, the cup that St. Patrick was drinking out of at Tara, when the druid attempted to poison him, is called ardig, which is a common old word for a drinking-goblet. A ballán seems to have been a simple, cheap, wooden drinking-cup in very general use: in one place, Cormac's Glossary defines it as "a poor man's vessel." Keating applies it to a drinking-cup; and it was sometimes also applied to a milk-pail. In Connaught it is used to designate round holes in rocks usually filled with water: which use modern antiquarians have borrowed, and they now apply "ballaun" to those small cup-like hollows, generally artificial, often found in rocks, and almost always containing water.

Earthenware glazed pitcher, found in a crannog

FIG. 97. Earthernware glazed pitcher, 13 inches high. Found in a crannoge in County Down. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Escann is described in Cormac's Glossary as a vessel for distributing water, derived from esc, 'water,' and "cann, the name of a vessel." This last phrase is interesting as showing the existence in ancient Gaelic of a term for a drinking-vessel identical with the English word can. The word cernin [kerneen] is given in Cormac's Glossary as meaning miass, i.e. a dish on which food is placed at table. Cernin is a diminutive of the simple word cern or cearn, which is used to denote a dish of any kind, for measuring commodities, such as grain. The word miass or mias, given above from Cormac's Glossary, is very commonly used for a platter or dinner dish. Coire, 'a caldron'; cusal; criol; and some other terms, as well as the vessels they denote, will be dealt with elsewhere in this book.

Earthen vessels of various shapes and sizes were in constant use. They were made either on a potter's wheel, or on a mould, or on both. This appears from a curious commentary on the Latin text of a passage in the Psalms, written in the Irish language by an Irishman, in the eighth or ninth century, contained in a manuscript now in Milan. This old writer, evidently taking his illustration from his native country, explains "a potter's wheel" as "a round wheel on which the potters make the vessels, or a round piece of wood about which they [the vessels] are while being made." The "round piece of wood" was the block or mould on which they were first formed roughly, to be afterwards perfected on the wheel.

It will be seen from what precedes that there was in old times in Ireland quite as great a variety of vessels of all kinds, with distinct names, as there is among the people of the present day.

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