Flashback to the feasts of 999 AD

Coming up to Christmas in 999, there were plenty of wild turkeys left in the old Irish pinewoods

Coming up to Christmas in 999, there were plenty of wild turkeys left in the old Irish pinewoods. They weren't strictly turkeys, which are the American counterpart, but a massive woodland grouse, the capercaillie, with a glossy, blue-green breast like a peacock. The Irish called the bird coileach feadha, "cock of the woods", and at almost a metre tall the male could be cocky indeed, even aggressive. Its winter food was mainly pine shoots and the meat could taste a bit resiny; somewhat earlier, Diarmuid urged it upon Grainne, together with a drop of mead.

There were capercaillie bones in the cesspits of 10th-century Fishamble Street, so the bird was well-savoured in Viking Dublin. The Vikings had arrived as worshippers of Odin and Thor, but were happy to add on Christianity and its feast-days. As traders, they enjoyed a more cosmopolitan Christmas. Around wealthier hearths in the city, the roast was followed by imported walnuts and washed down with wine from Bordeaux (everybody else ate extra hazel nuts).

The Viking ports set their own standards of festivity, but everywhere on the island in 999 only powerful people expected to eat at all well, even at Christmas. The feudal structure of Ireland's medieval food is clear in the early legal texts from which Fergus Kelly drew for his infinitely quotable book Early Irish Farming (School of Celtic Studies, 1997).

At royal feasts in the provinces, where roast wild pig sizzled on the spit, status decided what the guests found on their slab of wood: haunch for the king, loin for the queen, shank for the lowest rank of lord. Even at Christmas dinner in farmhouse rath or cashel, the piece of meat that came out of the cauldron on the fleshfork depended on your rank and prestige: somebody had to take the belly. Right at the bottom, a slave in chains was entitled to "the loaf of the noble day", with appropriate condiment. Half a millennium before the potato, the basic daily diet of the common people was wholemeal bread and milk (or butter or cheese in winter). It was enlivened by a relish of other, tastier foods called the tarsun or anlann - a concept that lives on in the curious English usage, to "kitchen" something, or add a titbit for flavour. Salted meat and fish, cabbage or seaweed were all kitchening for the staple bread. Food in winter depended very much on what meat and cereals were left over after the local lord had been given his food-rent, and what could be preserved. Small joints of pork (or badger) could be cured with salt, but beef was mostly eaten fresh - and by the lords. Cheese for winter needed to be hard and long-lasting: Queen Maeve, it was said, was killed by a piece of it fired from a sling. An onion, like a crab-apple, was a winter treat.


The Christmas feast was all the more welcome after 40 days of fasting, carried out assiduously in the monasteries that dotted the island, and also urged upon the laity. But the monks added to the store of Christmas happiness with their surplus production of honey (they needed beeswax for their votive candles).

Honey was the supreme source of sweetness in the Ireland of Brian Boru - it was even rubbed into the Christmas roast before it went on the spit. There were bee-hives in every farmyard, their distribution helped along by a uniquely Irish solution to the problem of "trespass" by foraging bees. As compensation, so the early lawyers decided, a beekeeper must give a swarm of bees to each of his neighbours.

Honey, mixed with water, starts to ferment in a few days as it picks up the spores of wild yeast from the air. It may have provided man's first introduction to alcohol, and throughout northern Europe, from Ireland to the Urals, honey and mead were a comfort to humanity right up to the 15th century and the arrival of the new cane sugar.

The great banqueting hall of Tara was known as Tech Midchuarda, the "house of the mead circuit", where the drink was dispensed from a two-handled vat by a team of daileamhain or cup-bearers. Maelsechnaill was the king of Tara in 999, and well set up with Christmas presents from the Dublin Norsemen, but he submitted to Brian Boru a couple of years later (you wanted to know that).

Mid was the Old Irish for mead, and when spices were added, it became metheglin, originally peculiar to Wales. A special beer made from malted barley and honey was called bragget, as in "swollen-nosed bragget-swigger".

"Because of a general scarcity of milk and vegetables in winter, " Frank Kelly writes, "beer must have been of considerable significance in the early Irish diet, providing vitamins and other nutrients not available elsewhere." A fine excuse. But the monks of Tallaght weren't allowed it on feast-days, even after a plea from the abbot of Finglas.

Nor was there whiskey or brandy for anyone. The distillation of spirits was not discovered (in Europe, at any rate) until the 12th century, and possibly not introduced to Ireland for another century. Legends crediting St Patrick with introducing spirits in the 6th century are quite misplaced.

It takes three or four pounds of white honey to make a gallon of mead: any good wine-making paperback will give a recipe, using lemons for acid and yeast. Fermentation is slow: even in the hot press it may take months to finish. A good mead needs to be racked and stored for two years. If you'd thought of it, you could have had a Brian Boru millennium party, just like Bunratty Castle. Meanwhile, Happy Christmas!

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author