Irish hospitality is renowned around the world. You can’t go into someone’s home in Ireland without being offered a cup of tea and something to eat.
But why is this?
If we look at Irish mythology and old folk stories, Irish hospitality is mentioned frequently.
When Bres, of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was High King of all Ireland, he was chased away by his own people because he kept his hall so poorly. Yes, that’s right. His bad ale and meagre food offerings lost him his kingship.
And there was another thing against Bres; he was no way open handed, and the chief men of the Tuatha Dé Danann grumbled against him, for their knives were never greased in his house, and however often they might visit him there was no smell of ale on their breath.Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting men – which is a recounting of the Mythological Cycle of Irish Mythology
In Irish custom at the time, and for thousands of years after, it was expected that anyone who entered your ráth (house) or fort should be fed. Indeed a pauper could enter the house of a king and expect to be given dinner with no questions asked.
This custom led to the building of bruideans by the kings of Ireland. A bruidean – to use a modern term – would be similar to a pub or inn, and they were located at busy crossroads and trade routes throughout Ireland. However, unlike a pub or inn, the food and drink was free. The cost of this, and the upkeep of those who worked in the bruidean, was borne by the King himself – and each king took pride into how well his bruidean was kept.
And this generosity harks back to another Irish tradition:
Your wealth was not demonstrated by how much you owned… but by how much you could afford to give away.
There is an old legend in Ireland about King Guaire of Connaught, also known as Guaire the Hospitable, who was renowned for his generosity.
Another King, jealous of this reputation, decided to test Guaire – and find out once and for all if this famous generosity was sincere.
Not long after, a poor man arrived at King Guaire’s fort and said that he had nothing. King Guaire immediately gave the pauper his golden broach.
The poor man came back the next night, saying that the gift was stolen, and once again he had nothing. King Guaire gave him another gift, this time of a golden girdle.
However, to King Guaire’s surprise, the poor man came back the next day with the same story, and once again King Guaire gave him more of his valuables. In the end, the poor man came back so many times that King Guaire had given away all that he owned.
I’m not sure where this story originated, other than it being retold often in my hearing. However, the story shows how greatly the rules around hospitality were revered in ancient Ireland.
And so – if we were transported back to ancient Ireland – what could we expect to eat at a feast?
Absolutely not potatoes. As much as this has become the Irish traditional dish, it was imported to Ireland from America in the 16th Century.
Popular foods in Ireland before this were pork, lamb, mutton, beef, salmon and trout. Porridge was made from oat, barley, and wheat; and wild berries and vegetables were also cultivated and eaten.
Milk, however, was an important part of the Irish diet and was why such large quantities of cattle were kept. Milk was drank, used for porridge, but also made into cheese and butter.
As a final note, when on his death bed (due to an enchantment from Fand of the Tuatha Dé Danann) the famous Cuchulain was asked to give advice to a young prince on how to govern.
This is some of what he said:
Do not be a frightened man in battle; do not be light-minded, hard to reach, or proud.
Do not be ungentle, or hasty or passionate.
Do not be overcome with the drunkenness of great riches, like a flea who is drowned in the ale of a king’s house.Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne – a retelling of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology
The advice (if you wanted to read it all) is wonderful, and I do think many a leader in today’s world could benefit from reading it.
The last point in particular sums up why Irish hospitality is so important. To lust after riches for riches sake was not something that was held in esteem. Friendship and kindness – to friends and strangers – was much more important.
And that is a tradition that continues today.
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