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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

Irish Domestics: Household of an Irish Chief

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Gaelic aristocracy lived in close and informal relationship with their immediate followers. Without resorting to sentimentality about “clan” bonds, we can recognize a genuine affection among the common folk for the ancient ruling families. In stark contrast to the fate of the Anglo-Irish Earl of Desmond, when Hugh O’Neill was reduced to skulking in Glenconkeyne woods after Kinsale, it never occurred his Gaelic followers to claim the price on his head. Even after the defeat, when Con O’ Neill of Clannaboy returned home after obtaining a pardon, his people turned out in troops to welcome him, mostly on foot with the better-off riding horses with ‘pannels,’ or straw saddles. They greeted him with a homage of “beeves, colpaghs (two-year-old heifers or bullocks), sheep, hens, bonnyclabber, greddan-meal-strowans (oat cakes); with snush and bolean (?) as much as they could get to regale him.” These cultural attitudes were of long standing. In 1394, Froissart records how four Gaelic Irish kings were brought to conformity by the steward when making their submissions at Dublin: “When these kings were seated at table, and the first dish was served, they would make their minstrels and principal servants sit beside them, and eat from their plates and drink from their cups. They told me, this was a praiseworthy custom of their country, where everything was in common but the bed. I permitted this to be done for three days; but on the fourth I ordered the tables to be laid out and covered properly, placing the four kings at an upper table, the minstrels at another below, and the servants lower still. They looked at each other, and refused to eat, saying I had deprived them of their old custom in which they had been brought up.” The steward explained “now they should conform to the manners of the English.” Such efforts were continuing two hundred years later, when in 1585 Sir John Perrot “bestowed gownes and other roabes to be woren in Parliament [upon Turlough Luineach O’Neill and others], whoe for the most part were as wearie of theise weeds as if they had byn put in prison; insomuch that one of them came to the Lord Deputy and besought him that one of his chaplaynes (whom he called preistes) might goe with hym thorow the streetes clad in his Irish trouses,” for then “the boys will laugh as much at hym as now they doe at me.”

Nonetheless, the remaining Gaelic gentry continued to mix freely with their servants a hundred years later, when in 1681 Thomas Dineley wrote: “They are at this day much addicted (on holidayes after the bagpipe, Irish harpe, or Jews harpe) to dance after their countrey fashion the long dance one after another of all conditions master, mrs, servants.” A Gaelic “Big House” culture clung on precariously through the 18th century in very remote places like the O’Connell’s house at Derrynane. In Hidden Ireland, Daniel Corkery credited the exposure to poetry and music afforded the large staff of hangers-on in these rustic halls with having elevated the state of poetry among the Munster peasantry. Until his death in 1726, Munster poet Aodhagán Ó Rathaille composed bardic poems praising the Big Houses of Munster’s fading Gaelic aristocracy, poems whose tropes—swords being whetted, chess played, poets paid, harps, mead—were highly traditional and aristocratic. Whatever one thinks of Corkery’s thesis, it is an undisputed fact that Ó Rathaille's poems remained on the lips of “illiterate” Kerry farmers into the 20th century.

16th century Gaelic tower house in cross-section.
16th century Gaelic tower house in cross-section.

Hanmer's List

In 1594, at the very outset of the Nine Year’s War (Tyrone’s Rebellion), an interesting collection of Mores Gentium of the Gaelic Irish was gathered by Meredith Hanmer, D.D. Hanmer was chaplain to the Earl of Ormond, and treasurer of Christ’s Church, Dublin. His notes are in the State Papers, headed “Miscellaneous Collection relating to Ireland, principally in the time of Elizabeth.” He gives an interesting and unique list of the inmates of an Irish chief’s household, stating what portion each of them received when a cow or sheep was slaughtered. (This is distinct from the wider circle of functionaries who administered the tuath, or petty kingdom, and whom we will review later.) The idea that 16th century Ireland’s Gaelic society provides a “window on the Iron Age,” like a bee preserved in amber, is discredited. But it must be admitted that Hanmer’s list preserves an archaic practice and is reminiscent of the “champion’s portion” in the tales of the heroic cycles, and the semi-fabulous seating arrangements recorded for the great hall of ancient Tara. In 18th century Big Houses, a sheep was killed every week, and a bullock once a month. A cow was reckoned to feed 40 people.

Cow.— The head, tong, and feet to the smith. Neck, to the butcher. 2 small ribbs, that goe with the hind quarters, to the Taylor. Kidneys, to the physitian. Marybones to the dony-lader Udder, to the harper. Liver, to the carpenter. A peece to the garran-keper. [gearrán = pack horse] Next bone, from the knee to the sholder, to the horse-boy. Choise pece of the beef to the Shott. The hart, to the cow-heard. Next choise pece to the housewif of the house. The third choic to the nurse. Tallow, for candles. Hide, for wyne and aquavitae. Black poodings for the plowman. Bigge poodings for the wever. Kylantony [Kyl-Anthony?], the a—e pooding, to the porter. Dowleagh, a brode long pece, lying upon the gutts, to the calf-keper. Sweete-bred, to hor that is with child. Rump, to him that cutts the beef. [i.e., the Chief]. Tripes to the kater. The drawer of water hath the great bigg poding.

Mutton.— Head, the horse boy. Neck, the garran-keeper. Lyver, the carpenter. Sholder, to the astronomer. Bag pooding, for the man that brings water. The hart and the feet for the shepherd. Skyne, for the cook.”

Not surprisingly, this all mirrors Highland practice, recorded by Dr. Johnson at the end of the 18th century during his tour of the Hebrides— “When a beef was killed for the house, particular parts were claimed as fees by the several officers or workmen. What was the right of each I have not learned. The head belonged to the smith, and the udder of a cow to the piper; the weaver had likewise his particular part, and so many pieces followed these prescriptive claims that the Lord’s was at last but little.”

The shott defending a castle at the "murder hole."
"Choise pece of the beef to the Shott"; defending the castle at the "murder hole."

Discussion of the Above List

The smith was a non-producer of food with semi-magical powers, and he was entitled to a tribute of first fruits—the heads of slain beasts were his perquisite. George Petrie, the nineteenth century antiquarian, recalled a time when a smith might have 50 or 100 heads of cows and pigs pickled in his kitchen. The “nurse” was not a wetnurse, for children were usually put out at “fosterage,” but rather a woman who tended the sick and wounded. “Astronomer” indicates the “physitian,” as the doctor used astrology to guide his treatments. The horse-boy we have reviewed in the previous two postings. “Him that cutts the beef,” and receives the choice rump, is no doubt the master of the house. Now let’s look at a few of these individuals in greater detail:

Lord’s Galloglass The dony-lader; duine laidir, literally “strong man.”—this was probably the lord’s galloglass, or gallóglach tighearna. Apparently distinct from the Constable who led the galloglass in the field, this was an individual galloglass selected to serve as personal bodyguard for the chief. In 1605 a witness in a lawsuit testified that “he was galliglasse to Connor O’Brien [3rd Earl of Thomond, died 1580] and waited on him in his chamber.” Brian O’Rourke, in his trial for treason, was accused of having sent “one Ashernan, his gallyglasse, to Surloghe boy his sonn, called Alexander, to come to hym with such force as he could make,” which shows that the lord’s galloglass could serve as trusted emissary. Even after he had replaced his galloglass with a new force of “bonnaughts” equipped as shot and pike, Hugh O’Neill retained his lord’s galloglass. His proclamation of 1601 for raising bonnaughts specifies that one of the “dead-pays” in each company should go to the gallóglach tighearna for his maintenance. This Gaelic institution was adopted by the English Lord Deputy in Ireland, and in 1590 “The Galloglass” has his clothing allowance listed in the accounts of the Lord Deputy’s office (details in our blog post on A John Derricke Drawing). Mountjoy’s secretary, Fynes Moryson, records the general and his staff being badly shot up while campaigning against Owney O’More in the midlands. His horse, Gray Davis, was shot, and his dog and chaplain. Likewise, his helmet was dented in the hands of his galloglass. Martin Martin says “Every Chieftain had a bold Armour-Bearer, whose Business was always to attend the Person of his Master night and day to prevent any Surprize, and this Man was call’d Galloglach; he had likewise a double Portion of Meat assign’d him at every Meal. The Measure of Meat usually given him, is call’d to this day Beiyfir, that is, a Man’s Portion; meaning thereby an extraordinary Man, whose Strength and Courage distinguish’d him from the common sort.” (Western Islands of Scotland, 1703) Porter In 1413, the Mayor of Waterford arrived at the chief castle of the predatory maritime clan of the O’Driscoll’s, and demanded admittance. “The porter brought back word that he was welcome. The porter opened the gate . . .” And when Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne was proclaimed traitor in 1595, he sent his “porter” to Dublin as a spy. Dr. Hanmer notes some droll Irish tales (Facetiae Hibernensium), one involving a tripe-eating match between a porter and another, which the porter won by employing a mastiff to eat for him. Martin Martin (1703) described the Highland equivalent; “They had a constant Centinel on the top of their Houses call’d Gockmin, or, in the English Tongue, Cockman; who was oblig’d to watch Day and Night, and at the approach of any body, to ask, Who comes there?” On Barra, he “saw the Officer call’d Cockman, and an old Cock he is: when I bid him ferry me over the Water to the Island, he told me that he was but an inferior Officer, his business being to attend in the Tower; but if (says he) the Constable, who then stood on the Wall, will give you access, I’ll ferry you over.” Permission was declined, as they suspected him of reconnoitering the place for an enemy. (Western Islands of Scotland, 1703)


Irish Shott defending a castle.
Irish Shott defending a castle.

The arquebusiers on whose good shooting the safety of the house, if assaulted, much depended. In the 1597 Dialogue of Silvyn and Peregryn, by Hugh Collier, Sir Edward Herbert’s personal ‘shott’ are noted; Bryan Reogh coming from the north attacked Herberts’s castle of the Durrough, King’s Co., “one Clinton the leader of Sir Edwardes shott issued forthe vpon the setting of some howses on fyre nere adioigning to the castell” but Herbert spied an ambush from the “top of his pyle” and called them back.

Caterer Antiquarian Herbert Hoare, writing in 1858, says; “The chiefs of that time maintained ‘thieves’ for the special purpose of plundering the Saxon; a fact that may be referred to without any squeamishness by the archaeologist, since it was regarded at the time, by the Gael, as a retributive and glorious means of, in the phrase of Roderick Dhu, rending prey from the robber.” “Cater” is from the French acheter, to purchase. Sir John Davies (1607) says the beef eaten in the houses of the Monaghan chieftains was for the most part stolen out of the English Pale, and that for this purpose “every one of them keepeth a cunning thef whom he calleth his caterer.” Campion (1571) says that whenever the Irish “sent their cators to purloyne from neighbours or friends” the Brehons were called on to judge and punish the offence by a fine. There are many references to this curious office in documents. For instance, in 1562 Sr. Thos. Barnewall and some Pale gentlemen, while complaining about having troops quartered on them by the cess, say there are “disorders much more grievous and intolerable. The abuses of the cators.” In 1572 the principal three Kavanaughs are said to be unable to make eight horsemen a piece “but they have thieeves on foote to steale from the Queen’s trewe subjects, and they do all dwell in the counties of Wexford and Carlough.” In 1576 Drury, President of Munster, while causing chiefs to “book” (register) their followers, says; “The nobles and gentlemen . . . maintain their idle persons and thieves, the best clerks and caters of their kind, which wicked kind I have indifferently weeded out . . .” The Dialogue of Silvyn and Peregryn by Palesman Hugh Collier, notes that in 1597 Tyrone’s agent, Capt. Tirrell was at Durrough in Kings Co., his men hungry after forced marching, so “he caused his people to play the caters; and so with such droves of greate and small cattell as they could get, came to Killmore, harde vppon the borders of Phercall,” In Fynes Moryson’s Manners and Customs of Ireland (1617), he says; “Theft is not infamous but rather commendable among them, so as the greatest men affect to have the best thieves to attend upon them.” Messenger Although he is missing from Hanmer’s list, we must include here the chief’s ‘knowne messenger.’ In the famous woodcut, Derricke’s messenger Donole O’Brean [below] delivers his chief’s message of defiance, folded and closed with a wax seal, to Lord Deputy Sidney with the word ‘shogh’ (seo—‘here’ in Irish, informal bordering on rude in this context). His spear with knarled staff, which H. F. McClintock thought to be a “jumping pole,” resembles some seen in French hunting paintings.

The Irish chief's messenger is noted in the account of the Dublin apothecary Thomas Smyth in 1561 (published in Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 6, 1858, pp. 165-167). Smyth, noting the division of spoil after a cattle raid, says; “And the messingers that goithe of their errants cleamith the gottes [guts] for their parcell;—bycause it is an aunscient custome they will not break it.” The editor adds; “The ‘Messenger’ mentioned by our writer, performed so active and useful a part in old Gaelic social life, that his services seem but meagerly rewarded by the offal which all records agree was his share of a feast. Captain Rich, who was quartered at Coleraine, and printed his quaint Description of Ireland in 1610, observes that “every great man of the country hath his rymer, his harper, an his knowne messenger, to run about the country with his letters.” The Gaelic names for one of these couriers were eaclach, and gilli-cosh. The latter word signifies ‘lad of the foot’.” Of course, as we saw in the postings on horseboys, the footmanship of the Irish was proverbial, the Venetian ambassador noting in 1611 that the Irish were “swifter on foot than any other nation.” As late as 1663, Gaelic foot messengers were used by the Deputy Vice-Admiral of Munster in preference to the regular post, as evidenced by the State Papers: “To messenger (Dermot McOwen) who on foot carried the news of sale of ships, etc., at Cork, Youghal, Waterford and Limerick—14 shillings.” Writing in 1662, Dr. Lynch spoke of the tenacity with which the lower orders of his countrymen clung to their trews, “the chief motive,” he thought, “for their obstinate adherence to this dress is the facilities if affords for the full exercise of their natural fleetness. They can generally keep pace with the courser galloping at his greatest speed . . .” Urbanus Vigors, in his testimony among the depositions taken after the 1641 uprising, echoes Lynch; “for they are nimble swift footmen they usually march as fast as their horse.”

Derricke's messenger. Compare spear shaft in French hunt scene.
Derricke's messenger with rough spear. Compare spear shaft in French hunt scene.

Note: Some of the above derives from an excellent but anonymous piece in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1855, titled Gaelic Domestics.

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