Bees and Honey

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVII....continued

7. Honey.

Before entering on the consideration of honey as food, it will be proper to make a few observations on the management of bees by the ancient Irish. From the earliest times Ireland was noted for its abundance of honey. Giraldus expresses the curious opinion that honey would be still more abundant all over Ireland if the bee-swarms were not checked by the bitter and poisonous yews with which the woods abounded.

The management of bees was universally understood; and every comfortable householder kept hives in his garden. Wild bees, too, swarmed everywhere —much more plentifully than at present, on account of the extent of woodland. Before cane-sugar came into general use—sixteenth century—the bee industry was considered so important that a special section of the Brehon Laws is devoted to it. The Irish name for a bee is bech: a swarm is called saithe [saeha]. The hive was known by various names, but the term now universally in use is corcog. Hives stocked with bees wore sometimes given as part of a tribute to a king.

The Brehon Law tract on "Bee-judgments," of which the printed Irish text occupies twenty pages, enters into much detail concerning the rights of the various parties concerned, to swarms, hives, nests, and honey: of which a few examples are given here. If a man found a swarm in the faithche [faha], or green surrounding and belonging to a house: one-fourth of the produce to the end of a year was due to the finder, the remaining three -fourths to the owner of the house. If he found them in a tree growing in a faithche or green: one-half produce for a year to the finder: the rest to the owner. If they were found in land which was not a green: one-third to the finder and two-thirds to the owner of the land. If found in waste land not belonging to an individual, but the common property of the tribe, bees and honey belonged to the finder, except one-ninth to the chief of the tribe. As the bees owned by an individual gathered their honey from the surrounding district, the owners of the four adjacent farms were entitled to a certain small proportion of the honey: and after the third year each was entitled to a swarm. If bees belonging to one man swarmed on the land of another, the produce was divided in certain proportions between the two. It is mentioned in "Bee-judgments" that a sheet was sometimes spread out that a swarm might alight and rest on it: as is often done now. At the time of gathering the honey the bees were smothered.

A mixture of milk and honey was sometimes drunk; a mixture of lard and honey was usual as a condiment. Honey was sometimes brought to table pure, and sometimes in the comb. Often at meals each person had placed before him on the table a little dish, sometimes of silver, filled with honey; and each morsel whether of meat, fish, or bread was dipped into it before being conveyed to the mouth. Stirabout was very generally eaten in the same way with honey as a delicacy. Honey was used to baste meat while roasting, as well as salmon while broiling. In one of the old tales we read that Ailill and Maive, king and queen of Connaught, had a salmon broiled for the young chief, Fraech, which was basted with honey that had been "well made by their daughter, the Princess Findabair": from which again we learn that the highest persons sometimes employed themselves in preparing honey. It has been already stated that honey was the chief ingredient in mead; and it is probable that it was used in greater quantity in this way than in any other.

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