hist-brewing: More on Irish Meads

Dan McFeeley mcfeeley at keynet.net
Mon Oct 26 07:50:24 PST 1998

I thought list members might be interested in a sampling from Robert Gayre's
_Brewing Mead_  and Amy Ransome's _The Sacred Bee_ on Irish mead.  As I'm
sure readers are aware, both of these books are quite old.  Gayre was 
originally published in 1948 and Ransome in 1937.  Although widely 
recommended, some of the material is historically and anthropologically
dated therefor questionable.

Any comments or critiques of the material below would be very welcome.

>From Gayre, pp. 54, 59-60:

>From the widespread distribution of the word mead in all its variants
throughout the Ayran world, it is clear that we ought not to limit our
study of its use to our Anglo-Saxon and Norse ancestors in these islands.
Their enemies, the British Celts in the West and the Slavs in the East,
were not unacquainted with its use, and so far as the Britons were
concerned, they held it in no less high esteem than did the court of
King Alfred the Great or the earlier and ruder Harolds, Olafs and Beowulfs.
Pliny, speaking of the British Celts, tells us that "these islanders 
consume great quantities of honey-brew" (mead).  We also learn that it
was drunk by the Gauls, in nearby France, where we learn they had a rich
mead called 'zythus' and a less generous one known as 'corma'.

Britain was, of course, called, among the Celts, by the bardic name of 
the "Honey Isle of Beli" which, no doubt not only referred to the quality
of its honey, but had an oblique reference to the mead wine held in high
esteem by the Celtic nations.  

One of our principle sources of information on Celtic mead lies in the
'Mabinogion' and related documents.  Since these were written down in 
the Middle Ages, after they had often been handed down for generations
by oral tradition, they obviously relate to much earlier times.  


Among the Irish (as may be gathered from the Ultonian reference to the 
satisfying qualities of old mead) the culture of the bee was as important
as among the Welsh, and a large part of the native Celtic (Brehon) laws
is devoted to it.  Besides its use as a sweet and for cooking, its 
principle use was, as elsewhere, for making mead, and, perhaps, at an
earlier cycle, ale too before the malting of barley had been discovered.
At any rate up to the Middle Ages mead and ale were the two chief drinks
of the Irish.  In Gaelic poetry we read of the golden-haired Niamh 
describing paradise to Ossian, and saying -- "Abundant there are honey
and wine."  While a princess handed to the great Irish hero, Finn Mac
Cumall, a silver cup filled with mead, with the words -- "Mead, delectable
and intoxicate."  Indeed, mead was in great request among them, and it was
known as the dainty drink of the nobles, and the great royal hall of Tara,
where the High-King of all Ireland ruled, was called the House of the
Mead Circle.

Even (Irish) saints partook of mead.  We find that St. Findian lived for
six days a week on bread and water, but, on Sundays, he feed upon salmon
and a "full of a cup of clear mead."  There are also connections between
mead and the famous and popular St. Brigit, who, as Our Lord changed water
into wine, changed vats of water into mead.  When the King of Leinster
came to drink the mead prepared for him it could not be found.  Whereupon
St. Brigit, equal to the occasion, blessed the empty vessels which 
immediately filled with mead.

A variant of mead was also drunk by the Gaels, and this was hazel mead.  
We read, in the seventh-century poem, 'King and Hermit,' of Marvan drinking
this liquor, and Joyce tells us of hazel mead drunk from cups of gold.

>From Ransome, pp. 189-190:

As among the Germanic peoples, mead was the drink of the gods.  When the 
gods and heros sat down to meat, they devoured whole oxen and drank their 
mead from vats.  In the Celtic Paradise there are rivers of mead.  The Irish
gods when they were sent to exile sought a paradise, situate in some unknown
isle of the west; the chief of the gods who went there was Manannon, son of
Le'r,(1) and he sang a song extolling this land of the gods:

        Rivers pour forth a stream of honey
        In the land of Manannan, son of Le'r

(1) He gave his name to the Isle of Man. Note that the fairies came from
    the west; Fairlyland, the underground paradise, is in the west.

In some of these songs there is mention of a hazel-mead.  A poem of the 
seventh century, "King and Hermit," tells of Marvan, the king's brother,
who became a hermit and who rejoiced in the honey, the cup of "mead of 
the hazel-nut," and the swarms of bees, the "little musicians of the 
world," which God had given him; and in the story of the four children of
Le'r who had been changed into swans, but retained their human mind, the
daughter, Finola, remembering their former happy life, sang:

        Yet oft have we feasted in days of old,
        and Hazel-mead drank from cups of gold.

Dr. Joyce, in his _Social History of Ancient Ireland_ infers from these 
poems that "hazel nuts were sometimes used as an ingredient in making mead,
probably to give it a flavour."  In the Highlands of Scotland, however, an
elixir is still remembered by the people made of "Comb of the honey and milk
of the nut."  The Highlanders regard the hazel as a "milk" tree, the "milk"
being the white juice of the green nut.  In many countries the Mother-
Goddess" is connected with trees whose fruit produces "milk"; it was, as we 
have seen, an ancient custom to feed newborn infants on milk and honey 
(*do not* feed honey to infants -- because their immune system is not fully
developed, they are vulnerable to the spores of micro-organisms contained in
honey), and this hazel-mead may be a remembrance of this custom.

Dan McFeeley
mcfeeley at keynet.net


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