The Story of Ireland – A Day in the Life of the Brehon Aidan.

This is the only purely fictional chapter in my “Story of Ireland” books, and was written to try and illustrate the manners and customs of the times, like what people wore and what they ate and drank…..

To buy the whole book as a Kindle book, click HERE.

It was a gorgeous morning in high summer.  It was a race day today, with two more fair days to come, and so particular care was required for dressing. More so as there had arrived the previous evening a very famous Bard, and there was to be a great feast. That meant a formal gathering. All in all, unfortunately, it meant very formal clothes. So, a bath. My normal practice was, like most nobles and gentlemen, to bath in the evening, but I had returned home rather late the previous day. So, first a bath.

My house is substantial. It was not always so, as it has taken me many years to reach my present position, Chief Justice to a King well on the way to becoming High King, Brian Mac Cennétig. He later came to be known as Brian Boru, ‘Brian of the Tributes’, referring to the tributes paid by the Monasteries. That was in the future however. For me he was always King Brian. My father too was the Judge, as well as being brother, to Brian’s father Cennétig, and as the Royal family grew more powerful and more prosperous, so did we. Which is why I now live in a house with two stories and eight rooms, all built of timber and wickerwork covered with plaster and limed so that it appears like a huge square block of snow. The bathhouse is just by the door to my bedroom, and the water had been made ready for me when I descended. The bath I enjoyed as I always do, lying and waking up slowly in the hot water with steam filling the room, and finally washing with soap.

Now it was time to get back to the tedious business of dressing to look like a Chief Justice.

The servant boy was standing by my bed as I came in, freshly washed and dried, holding out the silk underwear (an indulgence!). Over that the trews, always almost skin tight for these occasions so difficult to pull on – these I remember were bright blue. And then I resigned myself to the outerwear, praying that it wouldn’t be too hot. A shirt, green and of linen, it being far to warm for wool, and the long surcoat over, which came down to my thighs, and was richly embroidered and expensively died crimson. This crimson dye the women use to produce that colour comes from countless small shell fish from the south coast, and is very laborious to extract, which is why it costs so much, and why we have to wear it if we can afford it! The whole was topped with a silk cloak, coming down to below the knees. I drew the line at one of those flamboyant wool cloaks as being just too hot. Already I resembled the Court Jester, I thought, with those garish coloured stripes on the cloak. A jewelled girdle held all in place, gold threaded shoes graced my feet, I carried long useless gloves in my hands, and thus decorated I called for the barber.

The barber came in. I am sinfully proud of my long blond hair, which reaches down my back to the waist, but I pay for that sin of pride every evening when the hair is dressed. The Barber, a young Gallic slave who came with a shipment of wine from Poitou in Gaul last year, is very good and accomplishes his daily task with much less pain than his predecessor, but it is nevertheless a painful process at least once a week, when it is all combed out and plaited. As it was today. The plaits are secured by two small golden apples cunningly contrived with a pin and beautifully enamelled, and the theme is repeated on my girdle. The hair is half the job, the other half being my beard which is long and forked, and gradually narrowed to two points below. The moustache, likewise, droops and is curled downwards at the end. And thus beautified, I was about to set off when a small lapdog rushed in followed by our two foster daughters, aged 11 and 12 (I think!), Maeve and Maire. They were the children of my colleague in Ulster, Judge to the O’Neil,  and I was beginning to love them almost more than my own. They stood, expectantly, by the door. I realised they were expecting me to ask them what they had learned yesterday, and so I asked them.

“Measures” – this from Maire.

“Elements of law” from Maeve.

“And would you like to tell me about them, now?” I enquired mildly. I have always found children react much better to friendliness than ferocity. “You first, Maire”, I smiled.

“Your foot equals twelve thumbs, twelve feet is a rod, and …. twelve rods long and six rods wide is er… the enclosure?”

“Well done, indeed. But the enclosure is a bit bigger than that. It’s called a tir-cumaile. Maybe tomorrow we can talk about the weights of things? And we can step out a tir-cumaile so you can see how big it is.”

She looked crestfallen. “but… the Fair?”

I’d forgotten. Of course they had three days holiday now, so I laughed and said it could wait until next week, and turned to the older girl.

“And law, Maeve?” She was the more serious one, with the beginnings of a real memory. She might well be a famous Brehon herself one day.

“Law is based on a person’s  position in our clan because richer people have more honour value than poorer ones, so they have a higher honour price.  So the king and the bishop and the great Bard …” she paused, took a deep breath, and went on “and the hospitaller and the Brehon all have the same honour price. They are all nobles. Then there are Non-noble Freemen with property, and then Non-noble Freemen without property, or maybe just a little, and then  the non-free people like slaves. So if someone steals a cow from a Brehon like you his fine is much bigger than if he steals it from a non-noble freeman with just a little property.” At which point she had clearly run out of wind.

“Well done indeed! And do you know what a hospitaller is?”

“He’s the man who keeps the Public Inn where travellers can stay if they are going too far along the road to get there in a day, like…. like going to our home a long way away” she finished.

“Excellent!”, I cried, “that was very good!” Both girls were laughing now, which made the little lapdog dance all round them. “Leave me now, for I have to dress”

“Can we come and listen to the Great Bard tonight?” asked Maeve, as they made to leave.

“Of course you can” I laughed. “But creep in quietly after the grown-ups have finished eating”.

I loved my sessions with those two girls, but now it really was time to leave. My wife greeted me as I emerged in all this finery, and after careful inspection told me that “I would do”. She was attired also in bright silks and with  a headscarf, a long web of linen wreathed round her head in several folds. And thus attired, both ready for the fray, we climbed into our chariot. This was a light one horse chariot, and I drove myself. There isn’t really enough room for a charioteer as well as two passengers, especially dressed as we were, but that very dress made walking impracticable. Besides it was about a mile we had to travel to the High King’s enclosure. Our own enclosure was quite a grand affair, with in addition to our own house, houses for the farmer, the slaves, the cows, the calves, the sheep, the pigs and the horses as well as a kitchen and pantry and a kiln for drying grain. But that of the King was much more grand, built as it was around his Great Hall, big enough to hold a hundred people at least, and that seated around the walls.

First, though, we had to go beyond the Royal Enclosure to the great field where the races were to be held. As a people, we are passionately fond of horse racing, and all our sons are trained in the skills needed. I myself am now too old (and was far too well dressed!) and the High King was too dignified, so we went to join him on the little hillock at the far end. He was, of course, surrounded by a large retinue. I know he disliked it, for he was my first cousin, but custom required it of the High King, and if he was to aspire to that position, he must obey custom. It was that year just 1,000 years from the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Brian was ruler of Munster and Leinster already, and another two years would see him High King. So he was surrounded by a noble, a priest, a sai or doctor, a Bard (today it was our illustrious visitor), a historian, a musician, myself, and three servants – quite a gathering on the platform where we were all seated.

There was already a huge crowd there – there must have been a thousand people. A few nobles who lived nearby had come to join us, and these King Brian greeted courteously. They would bend their knee slightly and place their head on Brian’s chest, after which he would kiss them three times on the cheek, and show them where to be seated. There were to be two kinds of races, chariot races and horse races, and the chariot races themselves divided into those with chariots pulled by one horse, and those by two. The races would go on all day, but these would be minor races only, mainly for students. The big games would be the next day, and would include coursing contests as well, before the great fair on the third day. Today, our function was to open the races, and then make ourselves scarce while the young played.

And so, after a mercifully short speech from Brian, we all repaired to the great Hall. The Steward was there at the entrance to greet us with all appropriate ceremony, the visiting Bard following immediately behind the King. This was an Ollamh Bard, or Bard with a Doctorate, which meant that he was as well qualified in his skill as was I in mine. He was famous throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. He was also a Doctor of History. Like mine, the job ran in the family, and he had learned his repertoire of histories and poems from his father and had added to the poems his own. He would teach the story  of our own times, especially that of the Great Brian Boru as he came to be known, to his own son or daughter, or perhaps more than one of them. Our native hospitality would have ensured that so famous a man was well lodged and entertained anyhow, but his visit was in fact a commercial transaction. He would entertain us and tell the stories of our past, and King Brian would pay him, quite possibly in gold. His name was Mac Liag, and so well did he agree with the King that he was to come back the following year, and then stay, until Brian’s death.

This Steward had, I always thought, an exaggerated idea of his own importance. He wore a fleecy mantle, and held in his hand his ‘wand of office’, a huge black club like staff, intricately carved, and quite capable of bashing a few heads if needed. He arranged the guests in their proper places at table, assigned them their sleeping-apartments, and determined each morning the supplies of food for the day. If a dispute arose on any matter connected with the arrangements for receiving, placing, or entertaining the guests, he decided it; and his decision was final. Unless of course I was there, or the King! He did his job of arranging guests in their proper places very well, though, I must give him that. And a particularly difficult job it was that evening, with so many notables, all jealous of their own seniority. One end of the hall was raised somewhat, so that those of us seated there would look down on the rest. And it was from this platform that the Bard would declaim. But first, food. And drink.

The guests were, as usual all seated round the walls on cushions, made of silk at the King’s end and linen elsewhere, gaily coloured and stuffed with feathers.  In front of each was a small table and on it was a knife and a beaker for each guest. Had this been a banquet with sub-kings in attendance, there would have been a trumpeter as well, and a small ceremony would have taken place during which each sub-king’s shield would have been hung by the Steward on the wall over the place where he was to sit, and they would then sit beneath them, all orchestrated by trumpet blasts. But this was a local banquet. As soon as everyone was seated the King stood and shook his ‘chain of attention’ – a small chain on which were hung little silver bells which made a musical tinkling. Silence descended, and the King made a short speech of welcome, introducing the great Mac Liag, the Piper and the Harpist whom everyone knew anyhow, and sat down.

Then came serving boys. The King and the Poet were each served a leg as by law decreed, and the rest of the food was all placed on a three long tables. King Brian had a reputation to keep up, and the food was good and plentiful. There were carvers by the joints of meat, and these cut off great slices. For us near the King, these were brought round to us and put on our platters, but for the rest, they went to the long tables and helped themselves, using their own knives to carve a piece, and their left hands to put it on their own platter. The meat – pork, beef and mutton – had all been roasted before the great fire, basted with honey and salt. There was also salmon, grilled. Apart from these main dishes, there was a hash made of meat chopped up small, mixed with vegetables, mixed with sprouts and rowan berries, very popular among the older people who were missing some teeth.  There were sausages and puddings, made by filling the intestines of a pig, cow, or sheep with minced-meat and blood. To go with all this there were quantities of honey, kale, onions, and other vegetables, and there were various cakes and loaves.  Each guest at dinner was given a little lump of salt, which he ground into powder with the bottom of his drinking-goblet. And to drink in the goblet there was a choice of ale, mead or wine – King Brian was a great wine drinker, as am I myself. We import it annually from Poitou in Gaul, where they make most excellent wine and where they like in exchange our hides and our gold.

After all had eaten and drunk their fill, The Great Bard stood. He has a remarkable voice with a hypnotic quality which would capture your attention even if you understood not a work of what he was saying. I noticed out of the corner of my eye the children creeping in quietly and sitting near the door, their eyes rapt on the Bard. That day, however, he had composed a new work on the recent Battle near Dublin at Glen Mama against the Viking King Sigtrygg Silkbeard, and how King Brian had befriended the Viking after and given him the hand of his daughter in marriage and set him to rule over Dublin again, but in his, Brian’s name. It went on for hours, literally, but all the guests not many of whom had been there, seemed enthralled.

After the Great Bard Mac Liag had finished, it was the turn of the piper and the harper, either of whom would normally have been the evening’s entertainment on their own. But for the King, it was too much and he quietly got to his feet and left. Followed by my wife and myself, for both of us were asleep on our feet!

To buy the whole book as a Kindle book, click HERE.

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