Fuel and Light

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XVII....continued

9. Fuel and Light.

Fuel.—As the country abounded in forests, thickets, and brakes, the most common fuel for domestic use was wood. Firewood or "firebote" was called connadh [conna]. A bundle of firewood was called a brossna, a word found in the oldest authorities and used to this day all over Ireland, even by the English-speaking people, as meaning a bundle of withered branches, or of heath, for fuel.

Peat or turf was much used as fuel. The Senchus Mór speaks of the cutting of turf from a bank (port) and carting it home when dry; and mentions a penalty for stealing it. It is recorded in the Annals that Ragallach, king of Connaught in the middle of the seventh century, having exasperated some men who were cutting turf in a bog, they fell on him and killed him with their sharp ruams or turf-spades. The whole bog was the "commons" property of the finè or group of related families: but a single turf-bank might belong for the time to an individual. The word ruam, used above, was a general word for any spade. At the present day the sharp spade used in cutting turf is designated by the special name of sleaghan [pron. slaan, the aa long like the a in star]. This word is a diminutive of sleagh [sla], a 'spear.'

Metal-workers used wood charcoal; for neither plain wood nor peat afforded sufficient heat to melt or weld. Charcoal made from birch afforded the highest degree of heat then available; and was used for fusing the metals known at that time. Allusions to the use of charcoal—which in Irish is designated gual or cual—are met with in all sorts of Irish literature. The remains of some of the old pits in which charcoal was made are still recognisable. I know one in which the soil is mixed up and quite black with quantities of charcoal-fragments and dust. We do not know if pit-coal was used in Ireland in very early times.

Flint and steel with tinder were used for striking and kindling fire. The whole kindling-gear—flint, steel, and tinder—was carried in the girdle-pocket, so as to be ready to hand; and accordingly, fire struck in this way was called teine-creasa [tinne-crassa], 'fire of the crios, or girdle.'

Tinder was, and is, commonly called sponc [spunk], which is obviously the same as the Latin spongia, English sponge. Spunk or tinder was sometimes made from the dried leaves of the coltsfoot, so that this plant is now always called sponc: but in recent times it was more usually made of coarse brown paper steeped in a solution of nitre and dried.

Light.—In the better class of houses dipped candles were commonly used. The usual Irish word for a candle is cainnel, which seems borrowed from the Latin candela: but there is also an old native word for it—innlis. There are numerous references to candles in ancient Irish authorities. The Senchus Mór mentions candles of "eight fists" (about forty inches) in length, made by [repeated] dipping of peeled rushes in melted tallow or meat grease: from which we learn that the wicks of candles were sometimes made of peeled rushes: but other kinds of wicks were used.

As bees were so abundant, beeswax (Irish ceir, pron. cair), as might be expected, was turned to account. Beeswax candles were in use at some early period in the houses of the rich; and beeswax, "found in square masses, and also in the form of candles, has been discovered under circumstances which leave no doubt as to the great antiquity of such articles." Several specimens of this ancient wax are in the National Museum, Dublin.

Although, in very early times, candles were sometimes held in the hands of slaves, they were more commonly placed on candlesticks. The ancient Irish word for a candlestick is caindelbra, modern Irish coinnleoir [conlore], both of which are modified forms of the Latin candelabra. The Senchus Mór notices a caindelbra as a usual article in a house. The ancient Latin Hymn of Secundinus makes mention of a light placed on a candelabrum: and in the description of the Banqueting-House of Tara in the Book of Leinster it is stated that there were seven caindelbra in it.

It was usual to keep a richainnell [reehannel], or 'king-candle' (ri, 'a king'), or royal candle, of enormous size, with a great bushy wick, burning at night in presence of a king: in the palace it was placed high over his head; during war it blazed outside his tent-door; and on night-marches it was borne before him. This custom is mentioned very often in the records. The Four Masters, in the passage already quoted, p. 27, supra, describe the "king-candle" kept burning at night before Shane O'Neill's tent (A.D. 1557) as "a huge torch thicker than a man's body": a passage which shows moreover that this custom continued till the sixteenth century.

The poorer classes commonly used a rush-light, i.e. a single rush peeled (leaving one little film of rind the whole length to keep it together) and soaked in grease, but not formed into a candle by repeated dippings. It gave a poor light and burned down very quickly; and it was known by two names, adann and itharna [ey-an: ih'arna].

Oil lamps of various kinds were used; and we find them frequently mentioned in the oldest records under two names—lespaire [les-pe-re] and laucharnn or locharnn. Luacharnn occurs several times in the eighth-century Glosses of Zeuss, as the equivalent of lampas and lucerna, which shows the remote time in which lamps and lanterns were used in Ireland. Some were made of bronze: some of clay. A rude unglazed earthenware lamp, shallow, and with a snout to support a wick, was found some time ago among prehistoric remains near Portstewart.

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