Sláinte! Land of a Thousand Welcomes

Irish hospitality at Rusheen Lodge, Co. Clare. Photo by Nutan.

By Edythe Preet, Columnist

How the tradition of hospitality to strangers has its roots in an ancient law.


For more than a thousand years Ireland was regulated by the Brehon Laws. Here are a few of my favorite examples. If a person was stung by one of a beekeeper’s bees, the injured party was owed a portion of the hive’s honey. Yum! If a woman’s husband went off wandering and stayed away too long, the marriage could be declared null and void, and the woman could lay claim to all of their mutual property. Sweet. If one man’s bull sired a calf on a neighbor’s cow, the neighbor could keep the calf. How bovine lineage was proved in the days before DNA tracing is beyond me.

Admittedly, not all of the Brehon Code was so equitable. For instance: children of the ruling class received cream and honey with their porridge, while children from less wealthy households went without.

But one Brehon law – hospitality – became so ingrained in Irish culture it is no accident that it has become as synonymous with Ireland as “forty shades of green”. Tourism brochures proclaim: Céad míle fáilte! A thousand welcomes! Many a souvenir tea towel reads: Bid thy guests welcome though they come at any hour.

Under Brehon Law, all households were obliged to provide some measure of oigidecht (hospitality) to travelers, even if unknown, as the root word oigi actually means ‘stranger.’  This hospitality included food, drink, a bed, and entertainment. No prying questions could be asked of the guest, and once hospitality was accepted, the visitor was obliged to refrain from any violence or quarrel in the house. Monetary payment was never expected, but exchanges of traveling tales, poetry, and songs were welcome.

Refusal to offer hospitality was not only a sure road to an embarrassing reputation, it was illegal and a fine could be levied on the offending household. Old Irish literature tells of one nobleman’s fall from grace for having committed that indiscretion. King Bres, who is said to have been half-Fomorian and half-Tuatha de Danaan, ruled for seven years and during that time no one ever received hospitality in his court. When he treated the illustrious poet Cairbre in so rude a manner, the bard composed such a scathing satire about Bres that the king was forced to give up his kingdom and flee to the land of his Fomorian father.

The Brehon Law’s hospitality proviso applied to all whether rich or poor, but to minimize the burden on families each local Ri (chieftain) established bruideans (public houses) within his territory and appointed briugus to administer them. Being a briugu was a position of high honor that brought with it not only prestige and wealth but numerous privileges as well. A bruigu could have as many servants as a king and enjoyed the same protections. A tract of land large enough to keep the bruidean supplied with provisions was entrusted to the briugu’s stewardship and it required excellent management skills.

A typical bruidean sat at a major crossroad. It had doors on all four sides with each being manned around the clock to insure that no one would pass by without receiving an invitation to enter, rest, and be refreshed. Torches lit the location at night so it could not be missed. There were explicit stipulations about the provisions that should be on hand at all times. Three uncooked red meats had to be available for cooking and three cooked meats or meat stews had to be ready to be served. As not only travelers, but also their entire retinues were included in the open door policy, prime livestock had to be available for slaughter should they be needed. A bruidean could have as many as two hundred animals grazing on its land, one hundred beds and one hundred servants.

In his seminal manuscript of 1634, Foras Feasa ar Eirinn (literally Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland but known as History of Ireland), the Irish priest, historian, and poet Seathrun Ceitinn (Geoffrey Keating) traced the history of Ireland from the creation of the world until the 12th-century Norman invasion of the island. In telling of Erin’s hospitality tradition, Keating wrote that at one time there were more than 400 bruideans in Ireland and that six were so large they could be used for asylum in times of war.

Bruideans and the position of briugu existed as part of Irish culture from ancient times through the 16th century. In 1576, one particularly famous (some say infamous) Irish personage was refused hospitality by a nobleman with dire result. The slighted party was Grainne Ni Mhaille. Grace O’Malley. Ireland’s Pirate Queen.

Some accounts say Grace had been to visit Elizabeth, others that she was returning from a trading voyage. Where she had been matters little. When Granuaile and her fleet returned to Ireland, they dropped anchor in Howth Harbor north of Dublin to replenish supplies before sailing around the north coast to their home in County Mayo. Spent from having been many days at sea, and there being no bruidean in the vicinity, Grace hied herself to the nearest castle to request a meal. But the door was locked, and the Lord of Howth refused her entry.

This was a serious violation of the Brehon Law. Furious with the Lord’s disregard of the mandate, Grace stormed back to her ship. Along the way she chanced upon the nobleman’s son, Christopher. Seizing him, Grace took the boy aboard her ship and sailed back to her home on County Mayo’s Clew Bay. When the Lord learned of the abduction, he hurried to Connaught and offered to pay any price for his son’s safe return.

Grace scorned his offer of ransom. Instead, she demanded that in exchange for the boy the gates of Howth Castle would never again be closed to anyone who sought hospitality and a place would forevermore be set at the Lord’s own table just in case a hungry traveler might happen by. For more than four centuries the promise has been faithfully kept.

Any traveler to modern Ireland is bound to find a warm and gracious reception there. From fine 5-star hotels and lovely manor houses to quaint country B&B’s and local pubs, the Irish well deserve their ‘Land of a Thousand Welcomes’ reputation. The Brehon Laws may have receded into the pages of history, but the hospitality to strangers they required has remained an enduring and endearing element of Irish tradition. Sláinte!


Note: Meat, stewed in a cauldron or braised in a black iron pot over a turf fire, would have been perfect bruidean meals as both methods require hours of cooking. Since potatoes were not introduced to Ireland until the late 16th century, when bruideans began to fade from the scene, they do not appear in the following recipes.

Lamb Stew With Barley

2 1⁄2 pounds lamb, cut in small pieces
3     ounces pearl barley
1     large onion, sliced
4     medium carrots, sliced
1     medium turnip or rutabaga, sliced
salt and pepper
2    tablespoons parsley, minced

Place lamb in a large soup pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim off any froth, then add all the ingredients except the parsley. Boil again, then reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for approximately 1 1/2 hours or until meat is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Before serving, garnish thickly with parsley. Makes 4-5 servings.
(Irish Traditional Food – Theodora Fitzgibbon)

Beef Braised With Beer

2     tablespoons olive oil
2     bay leaves
3     pounds stewing beef, cut in chunks
1     large onion, sliced
2     tablespoons flour, seasoned w/ salt & pepper
1⁄2   cup Beer or Guinness
salt and pepper
8    ounces carrots, sliced
1    tablespoon parsley, minced

Ideally this dish is cooked from start to finish in an ovenproof casserole. Heat the oil with the bay leaves. Add the beef and brown quickly. Push aside and add the onion and just soften it. Sprinkle with the flour and let it brown, then add the beer and enough water to barely cover. Season well with salt and pepper, then add the carrots. Bring to a boil, then cover and braise in a 325F degree oven for approximately 1 1/2 hours. Check during cooking to see if the liquid is drying up, and if so add a little more liquid. After cooking for suggested time, check for tenderness, and if necessary continue cooking a little longer. Before serving sprinkle with parsley. Makes 4-5 servings.
(Irish Traditional Food  – Theodora Fitzgibbon)

Brown Soda Bread 

Note: In medieval times, stews were frequently not served in bowls but ladled over thick slabs of bread called ‘trenchers’ that were placed on wood platters.

8     ounces white flour
8     ounces wholemeal flour
1     teaspoon baking soda
3    teaspoons baking powder
2     teaspoons salt
1     egg, beaten
1     pint buttermilk
beaten egg yolk for glaze

Sift together the flour, soda, baking powder and salt. Mix the buttermilk and beaten egg and stir in. Mix, then knead on a floured surface for a few minutes until smooth. Shape by hand into a round flat cake and put on a greased baking sheet. Make a deep cross on the round, brush with beaten egg yolk, and bake in a 375F degree preheated oven for 35-40 minutes.
(Irish Traditional Food – Theodora Fitzgibbon)

This article was originally published in Irish America‘s August / September 2012 issue. ♦

2 Responses to “Sláinte! Land of a Thousand Welcomes”

  1. Aswell as being an illustrious bard in ancient times, Cairbre was also the name of the first lion used by MGM at the start of their movies?

    He was named after Cú Chullain’s charioteer and was born in Dublin zoo in 1927!

  2. Cead mile failte! A thousand Welcomes!
    Céad míle fáilte — a hundred thousand welcomes. You can get the fada by holding the AltGr key on the PC while hitting the vowel.
    Tuatha Dé Danann — the Tribes of the Goddess Dana. Dé means “goddess”, not “of”. “Danann” is the preferred modern spelling.
    My text reappeared, so I’ll try again.

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