Early Irish Ale

We’ve been scouring the Annals of the Four Masters (available online here) for beer references recently. Reading the Annals can be a bit of a chore but there are occasional gems in there. Some of the earlier entries refer to corn and ‘fruitful crops’ and fruit but the first reference to beer we’ve encountered comes with Annal M448.2 where ‘Patrick of the Prayers’ appears with his crew including:

‘The priest Mescan, without evil,
his friend and his brewer’.

Above: A modern day descendant of Mescan

Any right-minded Early Christian Irishman would naturally consider his local brewer to be ‘without evil’, wouldn’t they? Just like our local publican today is doubtless without evil!

And later (The Age of Christ, 527) we misread, subsequently pasted and copied this entry – now not sure whether Muircheartach, who was ‘drowned in wine’, was literally drowned in wine (which would be most unusual) or was just a raving alcoholic who died of over-indulgence or, from our reading, was killed in a fire while completely ‘methered‘. In any case, is Muircheartach the first recorded Irishman to die as a result of alcohol?

After Muircheartach, son of Muireadhach, son of Eoghan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, had been twenty four years in the sovereignty of Ireland, he was burned in the house of Cleiteach, over the Boyne, on the night of Samhain, the first of November, after being drowned in wine.

In some later quatrains, M630.4, we read of the mead drinking men of Meath:

The battle of Cuil Caelain, by Diarmaid, son of Aedh Slaine, where the two sons of Aenghus, son of Colman Mor, namely, Maelumha and Colga, and some others along with them, were slain; of which was said:

The battle of the fair Cuil Caelain,
it was fought on one side with devotedness,
Was gained by Diarmaid, of Deala,
over the mead-drinking men of Meath,

In which the white headed Colgan was pierced,
and Maelumha of great dignity,
Two sons of Aenghus of glorious arms,
the son of fine-shaped, great-voiced Colman.

In M647.2 (The Age of Christ, 631) there’s reference made to the milling and grinding of wheat:

Dunchadh and Conall, two sons of Blathmac, son of Aedh Slaine, were slain by the Leinstermen, in the mill race of the mill of Maelodhran, son of Dima Cron. Marcan and Maelodhran mortally wounded the two; of which Maelodhran said:

O mill!
which grindedst much of wheat,
It was not grinding oats thou wert,
when thou didst grind the seed of Cearbhall.

The grain which the mill has ground
is not oats, but red wheat,
With the scions of the great tree
Maelodhran’s mill was fed.

And, just as an aside, in 648 it rained a shower of blood in Leinster and “butter was there also turned into lumps of gore and blood, so that it was manifest to all in general. The wolf was heard speaking with human voice, which was horrific to all”. But thankfully for Donegal, in 747, three somewhat more pleasant showers fell in Crich Muireadhaigh, in Inis Eoghain – namely, a shower of pure silver, a shower of wheat, and a shower of honey, of which was said:

Three showers at Ard Uillinne, fell,
through God’s love,
from heaven:
A shower of silver, a shower of wheat,
and a shower of honey.

Which surely made up for the bloody, gory butter and blood shower!

In 760 we read of some less than pleasant Leinstermen, who were beaten in the battle of Righ by the men of Breagh, ‘wherein were slain Cucongalt, lord of Rath Inbhir, and Fearghal, son of Ailell, lord of Cinel Ucha. These were the chieftains of the men of Breagh who were routing in that battle: Diarmaid, son of Conaing; Conaing, son of Dunghal; Maelduin, son of Fearghus; and Fogartach, son of Cumascach. Of this was said:

The Leinstermen went on Samhain..

to the house of a good man,
whom they loved not;
They left not the least of drink;
on the brink of the Righ they remained.

In 782 Conn Cetadhach, son of Donnchadh, was slain in the house of Cumalcaich, in Crich Ua nOlcan, by Flann, son of Congalach. Of the death of Conn was said:

A feast was made by Ua Olcain,
which was partaken of in odious ale;
Dregs were given to him by Flann,
so that he bore away his head after his death.

Not sure what the exact circumstances were, but the serving up of ‘odious ale’ and dregs obviously, and justifiably, had severe repercussions.

And, on a related note, Beernut brought this post at Zythophile (‘St. Brigid and the Bathwater’) to our attention. As Zythophile points out, ale was an important part of Irish society: the Crith-Gablach, for example, declared that the “seven occupations in the law of a king” were:

Sunday, at ale drinking, for he is not a lawful flaith [lord] who does not distribute ale every Sunday; Monday, at legislation, for the government of the tribe; Tuesday, at fidchell [a popular Iron Age board game]; Wednesday, seeing greyhounds coursing; Thursday, at the pleasures of love; Friday, at horse-racing; Saturday, at judgment.”

Saturdays and Mondays must have been particularly taxing.

The following jumped out and we were surprised we hadn’t noticed it before in the context of the fulacht:

A record of a fire at the monastry of Clonard… around AD787 speaks of grain stored in ballenio, literally “in a bath”, which seems to mean the grain being soaked as part of the initial processes of malting.

Zythophile suggests that what St. Brigid drew off may have been water from the ballenium where the grain was steeping in the first stage of malt-making. One could take a giant leap and suggest that this was early Irish Sahti!

And for those of you who are following the beer project and the recent letter in Archaeology Ireland, we’ll be commenting on that here shortly.

2 Responses to “Early Irish Ale”

  1. The Beer Nut says:

    For those of us whose newsagents don’t carry Archaeology Ireland, what did the letter say?

  2. mooregroup says:

    I’ll post the full letter tomorrow – don’t have access at the moment – It’s from the Paleoecology Discussion Group and .. well.. I’ll put it up in it’s entirety tomorrow as I can’t quite remember all of it – Billy and I will be sitting down to post a response on Friday!

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