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Social Classes in Ancient, Celtic Ireland

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at social classes in early, medieval Celtic Ireland—of bards, druids, nobles, kings, and slaves.

Social Classes in Ancient Celtic Ireland

In our modern age, especially in the U.S., we take it for granted that all should have equal opportunities. There are classes, to be sure. But we assume that no one is assigned permanently to their station in life. We have the ability to rise. Or to fall.

Surprisingly, in mid-fifth century Ireland, there was also some class mobility. This was somewhat different from the class system of peasants and nobility that arose on the continent later.

Every Celt lived within a fine, or extended family unit. And all the members of a fine might live together in one or two roundhouses. Many fines comprised a tuath, or clan. It is within the context of the clan that we look at early Celtic social classes.


At the bottom of the social scale were slaves.  Slavery was very much a part of life in the ancient world. In fact the basic unit of currency in ancient Ireland was the cumal, or woman slave. You could end up a slave if you had overwhelming debts and sold yourself into slavery, or if you were taken in battle. The Irish often raided the coast of Britain, stealing slaves in the night from the rich Roman villas. Indeed, this was how St. Patrick made his first journey to the Emerald Isle—in chains.

Bothach, the Lowest Class

Barely above slaves in status were the bothach, those with no property rights. Here fell criminals, indebted farmers, and unskilled laborers. The bothach were unfortunates who were stripped of all rights.

Feines, the Freemen

The feines, or freemen, were far better off. They owned their own huts, fields, and cattle. They managed their own affairs. They were one step away from being nobility.

Flaith, the Nobles

The nobility of the Celtic social structure were the flaith. These were men and women who attained their positions by skill, wealth, the strength of their character, or leadership. They did not necessarily rise through kinship. The nobles owned property, fields, tenants, cattle, sheep, and pigs. Noble women could also own property, choose their own husbands, and some even fought in battle. But usually they ran their households and raised children.

Artisans and Craftsmen

Can you make clothing, jewelry, pottery, or a fashion a bodhrán, one of those small Irish drums, or a bone whistle, or a harp with gut strings? Then you sat high on the social ladder. If could take a tree and turn it into a wagon, wagon wheel, or barrel, you were also well situated. And the blacksmith who forged swords and ploughs? Such a man was also highly regarded. Anyone with a skill in high demand sat high on the social ladder.


A Celtic Bard, by Bard Beard


Bards were a class of poets and singers, and in a world without books or TV, were highly respected. Bards were the Celtic entertainers and recorders of history. A ruler would take a bard into his court to immortalize his reign in song and verse. Each night the bard would play and sing for him, singing long tales, both ancient and new, and traditional ballads, while the court sipped mugs of mead or ale. Bards either played their own harp or bone pipe, or were accompanied by one who could.

Druids, the Priestly Class

Higher still on the social scale were the druids. These men, rarely women, were the mediators between the Celtic people and the spirits of forest, stream, and bog, and the gods of the sun, sea, and moon. They worshiped the ancient Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann, Danu, Crom Cruach, Lugh, Cernunos, and a host of other fearsome gods. They organized sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans. They divined the future by observing birds, the stars, animal entrails, and other means. They were sorcerers who could cast spells to turn people into animals or stones. Or so the people believed. The druids taught that people had an eternal soul which went to the Otherworld. And when St. Patrick brought Christianity, they opposed him.

They were also the clan’s healers, for they knew medicinal lore and healing spells. They were the clan’s judges, mediators in disputes, and advisors to kings. They held great power and the people feared them. The druids are so interesting, we may devote a later post exclusively to them.

Kings: The Rí Tuath and the Rí Cóicid

Highest of all, of course, were the clans’ rulers. An advisory council, comprised of the leaders of fines would advise the clan’s king, or Rí Tuath. Above each of the five main regions of Ireland sat a Rí Cóicid, or regional king. He held  loose power over the collection of a region’s tuatha and their kings. The palaces of legend where some of these men ruled were in Tara, Emain Macha, and Cruachain.

So that was the world of ancient, Celtic Ireland. Imagine yourself plucked from your bed and plopped into the middle of it. Where would you fit in?

Next week, I’ll interview Christian author Michelle Griep. She’s graciously offered a giveaway of her latest book, Brentwood’s Ward, for all who sign up for my newsletter next week. So check back.

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Food in the Early Middle Ages, Celtic Ireland—Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at food in the early Middle Ages, specifically at what people ate and drank in early medieval Ireland—Part II. (Click here for Part I.)


Boar on a Spit

Food in the Early Middle Ages

We’ve seen how the Celts’ main diet was composed of beef, pork, stew, game, or some kind of stew. Often they ate pottage, a stew of meat, vegetables, barley and whatever that simmered on the cauldron for days, with new ingredients constantly being added.

Forks and Knives?

But what culinary equipment did the early medieval diner employ? Not much. Forks did not come into existence until after the 11th century, imported from the Byzantine empire. The first forks only had two tines and some viewed these strange devices with great suspicion. Surely there’s a diabolical similarity here to the Devil’s own pitchfork? And you want to stick that in your mouth?

But the basic tool for attacking your dinner was the knife, and you might have used two of them. Hard to stab a pea with, but useful for most foods. For soup only a spoon would do, and spoons have been around from the very beginning. The first spoons were probably seashells. And the early imagination, pondering such a useful natural instrument, would naturally add a handle.

Finger Food

For many, basic dinner utensils consisted of bare fingers. Since your meal was likely roasting on the spit before you, what else did you need? Simply grab a hunk of meat carved from a joint and stick in your mouth. And the tongue works great for cleaning. What’s the fuss?

Trenchers and Plates


A Bread Trencher

Well into the 16th century, many Europeans served their dinners on trenchers of flat, stale bread. Imagine your meat and buttered turnips sitting on the bread, leaking their juices into the bread below. After the main course, you could follow it with a second one of soggy bread soaked in meat and vegetable juice. Yum! Some folk had wooden or clay trenchers, but it was the bread bowl that ruled most early medieval dinner tables.

Milk and Honey

Since the early Irish economy was cattle-based, they had plenty of milk. Milk was an important drink for everyone. From milk they developed cheese and butter. They also tended great hives of bees from which to make honey. So if you were lucky, your breakfast might also have been a porridge of barley, topped with honey, milk, and butter. The Irish had plenty of each.

Barley Beer—Every Table Had It

Since the water was often unsafe, what else besides milk did they drink? The answer, of course, is beer, mead, or wine. Beer was the easiest to make and since barley was ubiquitous, every Celtic roundhouse would have had a vat in which they brewed barley beer or ale. At table they often preferred to drink their beer from a drinking horn. But think about it. Once filled, you couldn’t set down your horn until the contents were either finished or the horn was passed to another.

Mead—the Celtic Drink of Choice

We mentioned the hives kept for honey. From honey the early Irish also fermented mead, or honey-wine. How do you make it? Get a large brass flagon. Fill it a third full of honey from your hives. Add spring water and some yeast. Put a lambskin cover on it and bind it tightly with rope. Wait three weeks and siphon off the mead into another flagon, leaving the residue behind. Place your flagon in a cool, dark place and wait six months to a year. Now it’s ready to drink.

Grapes do not grow well in Ireland. But if you had trade with Gaul, you could get your hands on some amphorae of good wine from Gaul and even Spain. So wine was mainly for wealthy nobles.

Next time we’ll look at  social classes in early medieval Ireland. Of nobles, druids, bards, and bothach.

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Food in the Early Middle Ages, Celtic Ireland—Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues examining the early medieval era, looking at food in the early middle ages, specifically in ancient, Celtic Ireland.

We all take for granted going to the cupboard for some potato chips or opening the refrigerator for a dish of ice cream. (Okay, now you know two of my favorite food groups.) But what if you lived long before all that? What if you called ancient Ireland your home and the year was A.D. 400? How and what would you eat? We’re going to look mainly at ancient Celtic culture, since that’s where I did the most research for my book, The Bonfires of Beltane. (To be released June 20.)

A Celtic Roundhouse

Food in the Early Middle Ages — The Central Fire

Most early Celts lived in large, community roundhouses, each of which had a central fire—no fireplaces yet. Fires were kept going day and night. A hole in the thatch above, perhaps with an outside thatch tent to keep out the rain, let out some, but not all, of the smoke. The rest hovered up at the roundhouse ceiling. If you stood up, you might be sucking in a lungful of smoke. In a roundhouse, there was no “non-smoking” section.

Cauldrons or Meat on a Spit

The center of the dining experience was likely the bronze or iron cauldron and the roasting spit. Diners would gather around the fire where the pot simmered or the joint of meat cooked. If someone had butchered or brought home game that day, then meat might be skewered on a spit, dripping fat into the fire. The Celts kept domesticated cows, pigs, and sheep. Cattle, of course, was the basis of the ancient Irish economy, so beef topped the list of desirable meats. Pork was also prized. Since the early sheep were smaller and goat-like, they were valued more for wool and milk than for meat. Besides this domestic threesome, some hunter might bring down a deer, a game bird, or catch a fish. Vegans in early Ireland?—you’d starve.

Killing Your Supper


Iron Age Cooking

One thing we’ve lost in our modern age is an understanding of where our food comes from and how it’s procured. In ancient times, those who consumed meat lived the best and healthiest lives. It might surprise some to know that meat comes from hunting and killing deer, partridges, or boar. Or from stabbing a fish with your spear. Or from slaughtering a cow, goat, or chicken. Indeed, every person in ancient times was intimately familiar with animal death. Nearly everyone had personally killed or hunted an animal. Few, if any, of us today, unless we’re hunters, have ever done so.

And once you’ve swung the axe on the ox and watched it bleed to death, is it not an easier step to swing the axe against your enemies, those you despise, or those who have something you want?

Barley and Wheat

Meat was important, but grains were an essential part of the early medieval diet—specifically barley. Easy to grow and nutritious, it made its way into barley bread and porridge. It’s also easily fermented into beer. Wheat was harder to grow in Ireland and wheat bread was highly prized. It was mostly for the nobility and upper classes.

Peasant Pottage

The typical “peasant” breakfast, lunch, and possibly dinner in early Celtic Ireland might have been pottage. How do you make it? Throw some barley and water into the cauldron and let it simmer all day. Someone caught a rabbit? Skin it, cut it up, and throw that in too. Your lady harvested some onions, leeks, turnips, or carrots? Ah, those too make good additions. Your uncle killed a deer? Even better. Cut up some venison for the pot. Meanwhile, you’re eating from the cauldron at all times of the day. In fact, you can keep eating from and adding to it for days on end. A bit boring, maybe, but then the ingredients did keep changing.

Next time, we’ll continue our discussion of the early medieval dining table, with Part II. But we’ll add the question: What did they drink? (Click here for Part II.)