Britannia, by William Camden

Modern Customs

Big I IT is requisite, that I say something in this place, of the Manners and Customs of the Irish. As for the more antient ones, the account which I give of them is borrow’d from ancient writers; but their modern customs are recited from the observations of a modern Author, both learned and industrious.

The Irish of old time, while rude and barbarous like all other nations in this part of the world, are thus describ’d by the Antients.

Strabo, l.4. I can say nothing of Ireland upon good authority, but that the people are more barbarous than the Britains. They feed upon man’s flesh, and * *Πολυφάγοι, but in the Epitome Ποͷφάγοι, upon herbs and to great excess. They look upon it as very innocent, to eat the bodies of their dead Parents; and to lie in publick, not only with strange women, but with their own mothers and sisters. However, I must caution the Reader, that I pretend not to warrant the truth of this relation. It is said indeed, that man’s flesh was eat among the Scythians; and that, in the extremities of a siege, the Gauls, Spaniards, and many others, have frequently done it.

Pomponius Mela, lib.3. The Inhabitants are barbarous, and have no sense, either of Virtue or Religion.

Solinus, cap.24. Those who conquer, first drink of the blood of the Slain, and then besmear their faces with it, and know no distinction between right and wrong. When a man-child is born, the mother feeds it first upon the point of her husband’s sword, which she carries gently into the mouth of her little one; thinking this to be ominous, and wishing, after their heathenish way, that it may never refuse death in the midst of war. Such as affect gaiety, adorn the hilts of their swords with the teeth of Sea-monsters, which are as white as Ivory. For here the great glory of the Men, is * * In armorum tutelâ.in the fineness and well-keeping of their arms.

These are their antient customs. As for the usages of the middle age, we have them in Giraldus Cambrensis, and in others from him. But, for their later customs, they are describ’d by an industrious modern Author, whom I take to be J. Good, a Priest, educated at Oxford, and School-master of Limerick, about the year 1566. from whom I shall relate them word for word. Yet since I promis’d some account of the Administration of Justice among them; I will first discharge that.

O prefix’d to the names of the Noblemen of Ireland, by way of excellency. The great men, who have the fourth vowel prefix’d to their names, to denote their quality and eminence, as O-Neal, O-Rork, O-Donell, &c, and others who have Mac before their names; * * This whole Descriptionenjoy a large Prerogative. In virtue of which, they Lord it at a mighty rate; and by the tributes, is according to the state of them, ann. 1607. taxes, and other Impositions which they exact for maintaining of their Soldiers, namely their Galloglasses, Kernes, and Horsemen, they make their poor Vassals very miserable; especially, in times of civil war, they drain their very blood and spirits.

These Great men have their Lawyers; whom they call Breahans,Breahans. as the Goths did their’s, Bellagines; a mean ignorant sort of people, who at certain times try the causes of the neighbourhood upon the top of some high hill. The Plaintiff opens his cause before them with great complaints of the injuries he has suffer’d, to which the Defendant pleads Not guilty. If the Defendant is convicted of theft, they award Restitution, either of the thing or the value. These great men have likewise their particular Historians, to chronicle the famous actions of their lives; their Physicians and Poets (whom they call Bards;) and Harpers, who all have their several estates and possessions assign’d them. Professions hereditary. And in each territory there are certain particular families for the several employments; for instance, one for Breahans, another for Historians, and so of the rest; who take care to instruct their children and relations in their respective professions, and leave always one of the same race to succeed them. Among the Grandees, the rules of succession and inheritance are little regarded: whoever is descended of a good family, and has the greatest power, retinue, and courage, assumes the Sovereignty, either by election of the People, or usurpation; and excludes the sons, Nephews, and nearest relations of the person deceased; being, after their barbarous way, enthron’d in a stone seat, plac’d in the open air upon a certain hillock. At the same time a successor is sometimes declared, according to the Law of Tanistry; and they call him Tanist; but whether from the Danes, among whom (as among the Northern Inhabitants of Britain) Thane was us’d for many ages to signify a person of honour and the King’s Officer; I cannot positively say.

But now take the observations of Mr. Good; in whose behalf I observe once for all, that there is nothing in them malicious or partial, but all are exactly true; and that they are only to be understood of the * * And as these were, ann. 1607.wild and native Irish, who are as yet unciviliz’d, as living in the remoter parts of the Kingdom.

These people are generally strong bodied, nimble, bold, haughty, quick-witted, warlike, venturous, inur’d to cold and hunger, lustful, hospitable, constant in their love, implacably malicious, credulous, vain-glorious, resenting; and, according to their old character, violent in all their affections: the bad not to be match’d, the good not to be excell’d.

Names. They commonly baptize their children by prophane names, adding somewhat from one accident or another: from some old wive’s tale; or from colours, as red, white, black, &c. from distempers, as scab’d, bald, &c. or else from some vice, as Robber or Proud; and, though they cannot bear reproach, yet the greatest among them, such as have the letter O prefix’d to their names, are not asham’d of these appellations. It is look’d upon as foreboding a speedy death to the parent or other of the Family then living, to give his or their names to any of the children; and therefore they avoid it as unlawful. When the father dies, the son takes his name, lest it should be forgotten; and if any of the Ancestors have been famous for their atchievements, the like bravery is expected from him. And the rather, upon account of the Poets celebrating their actions; yet magnifying them with great additions of their own, and growing very rich by the rewards they have. For Brides, and women big with child, think it scandalous, if they present not even their best cloaths to a person so instrumental in Glory.

Nursing the Children. Women, within six days after their delivery, return to their husband’s bed, and put out their children to nurse. Great application is made from all parts, to be nurses to the children of these Grandees; who are more tender to the foster-children than their own. And notwithstanding a very ill temper of body, by reason of bad air, a moist soil and diet, * * Juris exilium.and licentiousness, for want of laws; nay, tho’ they think it a disgrace to suckle their own children; yet for the sake of nursing these, man and wife will abstain from each other, and in case they do not, they find another nurse at their own charge. The nurses here are almost as numerous as the maid-servants: and they think it a good reason to be lewd, to have the suckling of an infant. If the infant is sick, they sprinkle it with the stalest urine they can get; and for a preservative against mischances, they hang not only the beginning of St. John’s Gospel about the child’s neck, but also a crooked nail out of a horse’s foot, or a piece of a wolf’s skin. For this very purpose also, both nurses and sucklings wear always a girdle of womens hair about them. It is moreover observ’d, that they present their Lovers with bracelets of such hair; whether in imitation of the Girdle of Venus call’d Cestos, I cannot tell. The Foster-fathers take much more pains, spend much more money, and bestow more affection and kindness, upon these children, than their own. From these, they take, or rather unnaturally extort, cloaths, money, and portions, to carry on the designs, buy the arms, and gratifie the lusts of the others; † Etiam prædis abactis.even driving away their Cattle for them. All who have suck’d the same breasts, are very kind and loving, and confide more in each other than if they were ¦ ¦ Germani.natural brothers; so that they will have an aversion even to their own brothers for the sake of these. If their parents chide them, they fly to the Foster-fathers for protection, by whom they are often excited to open war against them; and being train’d up in this manner, they grow the vilest profligates in nature. And not only the sons, but the daughters, are brought up by these nurses, to all manner of lewdness. If one of these foster-children happen to be sick, it is incredible how soon the nurses hear it, though they live at a very great distance; and with what concern they attend the child day and night upon this occasion. Nay, the greatest corruptions and debaucheries of Ireland, it is believed, are to be imputed to no other cause, than this method of Nursing.

Bodies. It is probable, that this country is more hot and moist than others, by reason that the flesh of the natives is particularly soft; proceeding as well from the nature of the climate, as their use of certain washes. This softness of the muscles makes them also extraordinary nimble, and pliant in all parts of their body. The people are strangely given to idleness, think it the greatest wealth to want business, and the greatest happiness to have liberty. They love musick mightily, and above all instruments, are particularly taken with the harp, strung with brass wire, and play’d on with their crooked * * Unguibus.nails. They that are religious, mortifie with wonderful austerity, by watching, praying, and fasting; so that the Relations which we find of their Monks heretofore, are not to be look’d on as incredible. The very women and maidens fast every Wednesday and Saturday the year round. Some also upon St. Catherine’s day; and never omit, though it fall on a Birth-day, or though themselves be ever so sick; to the end, some say, that the Virgins may get good husbands, and that the Wives may become happier in a married state, either by the death or desertion of their husbands, or else by

their reformation and amendment. But such among them as once give themselves over to a vicious course, are the vilest creatures in the world.

Dying of Cloaths. With the bark of Alders, they die their cloaths black; in dying yellow, they make use of Elderberries. With the boughs, bark, and leaves of poplar-trees, beaten together, they dye * * Laxa indusia.their loose shirts of a saffron colour (which are now much out of use) mixing the bark of the wild Arbut-tree, and salt and saffron. In dying, their way is, not to boil the thing long, but to let it soak for some days together in cold urine, that the yellow may be deeper and more durable.

Robberies. Robberies here are not look’d on as infamous, but are committed with great barbarity in all parts of the Country. When they are upon such a design, they pray to God to bring booty in their way, and look upon a prize as the effect of his bounty to them. They are of opinion, that neither violence, robbery, nor murther is displeasing to God. If it were, they say God would not tempt them with an opportunity; nay, they say it would be a sin, not to lay hold of it. One shall hear the very Rogues and Cut-throats, say; The Lord is merciful, and will not suffer the price of his own blood to be lost on me. Moreover, they say they do but follow the example of their Fore-fathers; that this is the only method of livelihood they have; and that it would sully the honour of their family, to work for their bread, and give over their desperate adventures. When they are upon the road, for robbing, or any other design, they take particular notice who they first meet in a morning, that they may avoid or meet him again, as their luck answers that day. They reckon it want of spirit and courage to be in bed in a stormy night, and not on an Adventure, at what distance soever, for the sake of a good prize. Of late, they spare neither Temples nor Sanctuaries, but rob them, burn them, and murder such as have hid themselves there.

Viciousness of their Clergy. The vileness of the lives of their Priests is the great cause of all this; who have converted the Temples into Stews: their whores follow them where-ever they go; and in case they find themselves cast off, they endeavour to revenge the injury by poison. The Church is the habitation of the Priest’s whores and Bastards; there they drink, whore, murder, and keep their Cattle. Among these wild Irish, there is nothing sacred; no signs of Church or Chapel, save outwardly; no Altars, or at most such only as are polluted; and if there be a Crucifix thereon, it is defaced and broken: the sacred Vestments are so nasty, that they turn one’s stomach; their moveable Altar without a cross is broken and deform’d, the Mass-book torn, and without the Canon, and is us’d also in all oaths and perjuries; their Chalice is of lead without a cover, and their Communion-cup of horn. The Priests think of nothing but providing for their Families and getting Children. The Rectors turn Vicars, and hold many Parishes together; being great pretenders to the Canon-law, but absolute strangers to all parts of learning. The sons succeed their fathers in their Churches, having dispensations for their Bastardy. These will not go into Priest’s orders, but commit the charge to * * Presbyteris.Curates, without any allowance; leaving them to live by the Book, i.e. by the small oblations at baptism, unctions, or burials, which proves but a very poor maintenance.

The sons of these Priests, who follow not their studies, grow generally notorious Robbers. For those who are called Mac Decan, Mac-Pherson, Mac Ospac, i.e. the son of the Dean, Parson, and Bishop, are the greatest Robbers, being enabled by the bounty of their Parents to raise a greater gang of accomplices; and the more, because, in imitation of their Fathers, they keep no hospitality. The daughters of these, if married in their fathers lifetime, have good portions; but if not, they either turn whores or beggars.

Swearing. They hardly speak three words without a solemn oath, by the Trinity, God, the Saints, St. Patrick, St. Brigid, their Baptism, their Faith, the Church, their Godfather’s hand, and, by thy hand. Though they take these oaths upon the Bible or Mass-book laid on their bare heads, yet if any one put them in mind of the danger of damnation for perjury, they presently tell him, That God is merciful, and will not suffer the price of his own blood to be lost. Whether I repent or not, I shall never be thrown into Hell. For performance of promises these three things are looked on as the strongest obligations: 1. To swear at the Altar with his hand upon the book, as it lies open on his bare head. 2. To invoke some Saint or other, by touching or kissing his bell, or crooked staff. 3. To swear by the hand of an Earl, or by the hand of his Lord, or any other Great man. For perjury in the two first cases makes him infamous; but in this last oath, the Grandee, by whose name he swore, fines him in a great sum of Money and number of Cows, for the injury he has done his name. Cows. For Cows are the most valuable treasure here. Of which, this is remarkable (as the same writer tells us) that cows are certain to give no milk in Ireland, unless either their own calves be set by them alive, or the skin of it stuff’d with straw, to represent the live one; in which they meet with the scent of their own Matrix. If the cow happens to be dry, a witch is sent for, who settles the cow’s affections upon another calf by certain herbs, and makes her yield her milk.

Marriages. They seldom marry out of their own town; and contract with one another, not de præsenti, but de futuro; or else agree without deliberation. praesenti Upon this account, the least difference generally parts them; the husband taking another wife, and the wife another husband; nor is it certain whether the Contract be true or false, till their dying day. Hence arise wars, rapines, murders, and deadly feuds, about successions and inheritances. The cast-off-wives have recourse to the witches; these being looked on as able to afflict either the former husband, or the new wife, with barrenness or impotency, or some dangerous distemper. All of them are very prone to incest; and divorces under pretence of conscience are common. Both men and women set a value upon their hair, especially if it is of a golden colour, and long; for they plat it at full length for show, and suffer it to hang down finely wreath’d, winding about their heads many ells of fine linnen. Which sort of round dress is used by all who can compass it (be they wives or strumpets) after child-bed.

Superstitions. To these may be added, abundance of superstitious customs. Whether or no they worship the Moon, I know not; but when they first see her after the change, they commonly bow the knee, and say the Lord’s Prayer; and, near the wane, address themselves to her with a loud voice after this manner, Leave us as well as thou found’st us. They honour Wolves * * In Parents, calling them Chari Christi, praying for them, and wishing them happy; and then they think they will not hurt them. They look through the blade-bone of a shoulder of mutton, when the meat is pick’d clean off; and if they find a spot in any part, they think it portends a Funeral out of that family. They take any one for a witch that comes to fetch fire on May-day, and therefore refuse to give any, unless the party asking it be sick; and then it is with an Imprecation: believing, that all their butter will be stole the following summer by this woman. On May-day likewise, if they can find a hare among their herd, they endeavour to kill her, out of a notion, that it is some old witch that has a design upon their butter. If their butter be stolen, they fansy they shall recover it, if they take some of the thatch that hangs over the door, and throw it into the fire. But they think it foretells a plentiful dairy, if they set boughs of trees before their houses on May-day. In Towns, when any Magistrate enters upon his Office, the wives in the streets, and the maidens out of the windows, strew him and his retinue with wheat and salt. Before they sow their field, the wife sends salt to it. To prevent the Kite’s stealing their chickens; they hang up the egg-shells in which the chickens were hatch’d, somewhere in the roof of the House. It is thought unlawful to clean their horses feet, or curry them, or gather grass for them, on a Saturday; though all this may be done upon their highest Festivals.

Horses. If they never lend fire to their neighbours, they imagin it adds to their horses length of life and health: When the owner of a horse eats eggs, he must be very careful to eat an even number, otherwise they endanger the horses. Jockeys are not allow’d to eat eggs; and whatever horseman does it, he must wash his hands immediately after. When a horse dies, the master hangs up the feet and legs in the house, and looks upon the very hoofs as sacred. If one praise a horse, or any other creature, he must cry, God save him, or spit upon him; and if any mischief befalls the horse within three days, they find out the person who commended him, who is to whisper the Lord’s Prayer at his right ear. They believe, that the eyes of some people bewitch their horses; and in such cases, they repair to certain old women, who by muttering a few prayers, set them right again. The horses feet are very much subject to a worm, which, creeping upwards, multiplies exceedingly, and at last corrupts the body. The remedy in this case, is thus: They send for a witch, who must be brought to the horse on two Mondays and one Thursday; at which times, breathing upon the part affected, and repeating her charm, the horse recovers. Many give a good price for the knowledge of this charm, and are sworn, not to divulge it.

Charms. They think, the women have peculiar charms for all evils, shar’d and distributed among them; and therefore they apply to them according to their several Ailings. They begin and conclude their Inchantments with a Pater-noster and Ave-Maria. When any one gets a fall, he springs up, and turning about three times to the right, digs a hole in the ground with his knife or sword, and cuts out a turf; for they imagin * * Terram umbram reddere.there is a spirit in the earth. In case he grow sick in two or three days after, they send one of their Women skill’d in that way, to the place, where she says, I call thee P. from the east, west, south and north, from the groves, the woods, the rivers, the fens, from the fairies, red, black, white, &c. And after some short ejaculations, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the disease Esane (which they imagin is inflicted by the Fairies,) and whispers in his ear another short prayer, and a Paternoster; after which, she puts coals into a pot of clear water, and then passes a better judgment upon the distemper, than all the Physicians.

Armies. Their armies consist of horsemen, and ofTriariis.veterane soldiers reserved for the rear (whom they call Galloglasses, and who fight with sharp hatchets,) and of light-arm’d foot (they call them Kernes,) armed with ¦ ¦ Jaculis amentatis.darts and daggers. When horse or foot march out of the gate, they think it a good omen to be huzza’d; and if not, they think it forebodes ill. They use the bag-pipe in their wars instead of a trumpet; they carry Amulets about them, and repeat short prayers, and when they engage, they cry out as loud as they can, Pharroh (which, I suppose, is that military Barritus, of which Ammianus speaks,) believing, that he who joins not in the general shout, will be snatch’d from the ground, and hurried as it were upon the wing through the air (avoiding ever after the sight of men) into a certain valley in Kerry;See that County. as I have already said.

Sick persons. Those who are about the sick, never mention a word of God, or the salvation of the soul, or making their wills; but flatter them with the hopes of recovery. They give them over, if they once desire the Sacrament. The wives are not sollicitous that their husbands should make wills, because it is a custom, for them to have a third of his goods; and the rest is to be distributed by equal portions among the children; unless the Estate be seiz’d by violence, when he that is mightiest, gets the best share; for he who has most power, whether Uncle or Nephew, oft-times seizes the Estate, excluding the sons. When a sick person is departing, before he dies, certain women being hired mourners, and standing where four streets meet, and spreading out their hands, make a hideous outcry suited to the occasion, and endeavour to stay the departing soul, by recounting what blessings he enjoys in goods, wives, beauty, fame, kindred, friends, and horses; asking him, why he will depart, to what place and to whom he would go? and, expostulating with the Soul, they accuse it of ingratitude, and at last complain that the expiring soul transmigrates into Night-haggs (a sort of women that appear at night, and in the dark;) but when the soul is once departed, they fall into mournings, clapping of hands, and hideous howlings. They attend the funeral with so much noise, that a man would think the living, as well as the dead, past recovery. At these Mournings, the nurses, daughters, and strumpets, are most passionately sorrowful; nor do they less bemoan those who are slain in the field, than others that dye in their beds; though they say, it is the easier death of the two, to die fighting or robbing. They rail at their adversary with the utmost spite, and bear an immortal hatred against all his kindred. They think the souls of the deceased are in company with the famous men of those places; concerning whom they retain many stories and sonnets, as of the gyants, Fin-Mac-Huyle, Osshin Mac-Osshin, and are so far deluded as to think they often see them. giants

Diet. As to their diet, they delight in herbs, especially cresses, mushrooms, and roots; so that Strabo had reason to call them Ποͷφάγοι, i.e. Eaters of herbs; for which, in some copies, it is falsly read, Πολυφάγοι, i.e. Gluttons. They love butter mix’d with oat-meal, milk, whey, beef-broth, and flesh, oft-times without bread. What corn they have, they lay up for their horses, which they take great care of. When they are sharp-set, they make no scruple to eat raw flesh, after they have squeezed out the blood; to digest which, they drink Usquebaugh in great quantities. They let their Cows blood; which, after it is curdled and spread with butter, they eat very greedily.

Garments. They generally go bare-headed, save when they wear a head-piece; having a long head of hair, with curled Gleebes,Gleebes. which they highly value, and take it hainously if one twitch or pull them. They wear linnen * * Industis.shifts, very large, with wide sleeves down to their knees, which they generally dye with saffron. They have woollen jackets, but very short; plain breeches, close to their thighs; and over these they cast their mantlesMantles. or shag-rugs, which Isidore seems to call Heteromallæ,Heteromallæ. Heteromallaefring’d with an agreeable mixture of colours, in which they wrap themselves up, and sleep upon the bare ground. Such also do the women cast over the garment which comes down to their ankles, and they load their heads (as I said) rather than adorn them, with several ells of fine linnen roll’d up in wreaths, as they do their necks with neck-laces, and their arms with bracelets.

These are the Manners and Customs of the Wild Irish, describ’d out of the aforesaid Author: As for the rest, who inhabit the English PaleThe English Pale. (as they call it,) they are not defective in any point of civility or good breeding; which they owe to the English Conquest: and much happier would it have been for the whole Island, had they not been blinded with a stubborn conceit of their own Customs, in opposition to much better. But the Irish are so wedded to those, that they not only retain ’em themselves, but corrupt the English among them; and it is scarce credible how soon these will degenerate: Such a proneness there is in human nature, to grow worse.

* See the County of Tir-Oen, p.1410. I Just now * intimated, That I would give some account of the O-Neals, who pretend to be Lords of Ulster; and I promis’d an excellent Friend of mine a History of the Rebellions which they have rais’d in† So said, ann. 1607.our age. Tho’ that Gentleman is now happy in a better world, yet I had so high an esteem of him, that I cannot but perform my Promise to his very Memory. This only I think necessary to be premised, that my Materials are not drawn from uncertain Reports, or other weak Authorities, but from the Original Papers which came from the Generals, and from such as were Eye-witnesses, and had a share in the Transactions; and that I have handed them so sincerely, that I doubt not of the thanks of all such Readers who seek for Truth in earnest, and desire to be let into the Affairs of Ireland, which are so much a secret to most men; hoping to escape the Censure of all, except those who shall be galled at a true Representation of their own wicked Actions. ¦¦ This Account of the O-Neals, being merely Historical, is placed in the Appendix.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52