Rambling through 17th century Ireland

by Helen Allingham – Irish Cottage
[Public Doman] via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of researching day to day life in 17th century Ireland, I came across an interesting little volume called Teague Land or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). It’s a series of letters by John Dunton, written during his travels through Ireland, or as he liked to call them, rambles. The letters were eventually published when he returned to London.

Dunton was a London bookseller who enjoyed travelling and often combined both passions. Before hitting Ireland, he travelled to the New England states where he auctioned off a huge stack of books and made quite a neat profit doing so. Years later, hoping to replicate his success, he travelled to Ireland with a parcel of books and stayed mainly in Dublin. While that venture may not have been as lucrative as the earlier one, it did allow him the opportunity to travel through parts of Ireland and write about the people and places he found. Being English and staunchly Protestant, Dunton certainly had his prejudices; however, even with that caveat, his accounts are invaluable for opening a window into 17th century Ireland.

So what tidbits of information have I treasured? Being a historical fiction writer, social customs and day to day life interest me the most.

Food and drink

The 17th century Irish diet was rich in dairy and reflects how prized herds of cattle where in their society and as an indication of wealth. One only needs to look at Ireland’s early poems, Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Táin, which was involved an epic cattle raid.

Treamhanta was a curdled milk drink made by mixing sour and fresh milk, similar to non-alcoholic version of a posset. Dunton commented on how refreshing the drink was.

The bonny clabber, a breakfast dish, took advantage of similar ingredients but with a different preparation. Scalded new milk was mixed with buttermilk creating a probiotic rich offering. The dish was often served topped by fresh butter.

Kenneth Allen / Oat cakes, Ulster American Folk Park
via Wikimedia Commons

Oat cakes were also a common staple. Oats were hand milled, ground between two circular stones, together called a quern. The ground oats were mixed with water and formed into a cake then baked. Serve with fresh churned butter.

When not using oats to make cake, black oats were brewed into a strong drink called bulcaun. I suspect it was an early version of spirits, possibly not dissimilar to whiskey. And to hold it, try drinking from a “meadar”, a wooden vessel that Dunton described as being carved from a single piece of wood.

Hares, mutton, eggs, deer and fish provided additional protein. For those who had status enough to own one, the Irish wolfhound was invaluable for hunting hares and deer. In the 17th century, this breed was usually called a greyhound, which is not to be confused with the modern greyhound.

Housing and shelter

Dunton described the long cabin as a typical dwelling, with few (if any) internal partitions and room enough to bring in the cattle in the night (to protect them from hungry wolves). Houses were often framed by wattle (possibly hazel for the flexibility) while the walls were made of a mixture of clay and cow dung. Turf or thatch formed the roof. Instead of a fireplace and chimney, the fire pit was situated in the centre of the cottage with a smoke hole in the roof. A common source of fuel was dried turf (or peat). In Dublin, Dunton reported seeing a few brick homes.

Bedding was made up of green rushes piled on the floor, although sleepers might find the company of a white snail or two that had been brought in when the rushes were cut. Homespun woollens, like coarse frieze, would have offered additional comfort.

Social and traditions

Music was central to celebrations and entertainment. Usually associated with the Scots, bag pipes were held a special place in Irish celebrations along with the harp. And of course, there would be dancing.

During his travels, Dunton had the chance to participate in a funeral and a baptism. The latter was particularly interesting. One of the central parties in the rite was the ‘gossip’ or godparent who stood for the child. During the ceremony, the godparent and the priest invoked the holy spirit to ‘exorcise’ the devil from the child. The details are nearly identical to the Greek Orthodox baptism still performed today.

Another similarity to Greeks is the use of spittle as a beneficial power. Dunton observed that when saying farewell, the Irish kissed each other and gave each other their blessing, spitting lightly on their cloak. In Greek folk traditions, spitting on a child or young person would afford them protection against the evil eye. It’s very curious how something so wildly unique can crop up half a world away.

Even though our travelling bookseller wasn’t always charitable with his observations about the people he met and he often unfavourably compared life in Ireland to that in England, he was always greeted openly and graciously into people’s homes as a guest. By reading between the lines, one is still left with a view of the Irish as generous and welcoming, a people who enjoyed life to the fullest.

Resource: Teague Land, or, a Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698), by John Dunton, edited by Andrew Carpenter.

This article originally appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog.

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