Irish History and Hospitality

Bunratty Castle/ County Clare

The toy, green, double Decker bus on my desk have the Irish words, Cead Mile Failte written across it which means One Hundred Thousand Welcomes. It’s how I feel every time  I travel to Ireland. I love Irish history and Iove that bus!

Ever wonder why the Irish are considered one of the  friendliest  people on the planet? Talk to any  American who has traveled  there or who  have Irish relatives, and see what they tell you about it. Comments I’ve heard are: “they leave their doors open, they get upset if they know you are in the neighborhood and didn’t stop by for tea, if you don’t initiate a conversation while visiting  a pub you are considered rude. I can ‘t get in the last word, everyone knows his neighbors, stop anywhere for directions and you may get invited in for dinner, the bed and breakfast  locals greet us with tea and scones and those flight attendants never stop serving us food!”

In ancient Celtic times, Brehon law mandated hospitality in Ireland and for good reason. It encouraged trade and travel and made alliances between tribes. Everyone, no matter what their social standing was expected to take in a stranger at any time of day or night  They were required to provide a bed, nourishment, and sometimes entertainment, never asking for payment in return. It was considered a privilege and an honor to receive guests and wealth was determined by what one gave, not what one owned.The only people exempt from this law were young children, the very old, and the sick.

Once a traveler was accepted into someone’s household they were protected from any violence or quarrels too. The Irish seemed to have been a trusting lot,. In later history this would prove to be one of their frailties and an easy way for their enemies such as the Normans, Vikings or English to gain control but that’s another story.

In my novel, The Sun Palace, which takes place in 6th century Ireland, the heroine visits a hospitality house called a bruidean. as she travels from what is now West Meath to Donegal to meet the father she never knew.

Bruideans were public houses of welcome, usually placed at major intersections or crossroads all over Ireland. A door was left open facing each road, torches lighting the way, and an appointed official  called a Briugu or brughaid stood in the doorway, ready to welcome any weary traveler. These greeters were of high social standing and had many of the same privileges as a king. They owned large plots of land (actually the land would have been in trust) and enough cattle and crops which kept the bruidean supplied at all times. There were bruideans in Ireland up until the sixteenth century.

Throughout Irish history, Brehon law had specific rules as to what a bruigu was supposed to serve. For example, three uncooked meats and three cooked meats had to be stocked at all times, fattened livestock read to be slaughtered, and a full kettle boiled at the hearth side.

And what would happen if a person was turned away, not fed, not entertained, treated with disrespect? The bards would recite a satire naming the offending person and extreme disgrace would follow. Early manuscripts tell of King Bres who received a humiliating satire that ruined his political career and forced him to flee for his life. Another example is the story of Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen.  One day, having landed with her crew on the shores near Dublin,  Grace approached Howth Castle for lodging and refreshment.  The castle gates were locked and she was told to go away. She was so furious that she kidnapped the son of Christopher St.Lawrence, the lord of Howth Castle who pleaded for his return and offered a hefty ransom which Grace refused, In fact it probably made her more angry. She only returned him when St. Lawrence apologized and agreed to keep his door open to strangers for ever more. To this day Howth Castle is never locked.

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