AGRICULTURE (Medieval Ireland)

The Old Irish law texts of the seventh-eighth centuries a.d. are the main written source of information on pre-Norman agriculture in Ireland, but valuable information is also provided by other categories of text in Irish and in Latin, particularly annals, penitentials, and saints’ lives. In the period from the Anglo-Norman invasion until the end of the sixteenth century, the Irish annals continue to be an important source of information on agriculture as practiced in those parts of the country under Gaelic control. Information on agriculture in the rest of the country is provided by rentals, deeds, and other documents in Norman-French, English, and Latin. Interaction between Irish and Anglo-Norman farming practices is indicated by the borrowing of vocabulary in both directions. For example, the Irish word speal, "scythe," is probably of Middle English origin, indicating that large-scale hay-making was introduced after the Anglo-Norman invasion. Similarly, much of the farmwork on an Anglo-Norman manor was done by persons classed as betagh (Irish bfattach, "unfree tenant"), who were almost always Irish, and would no doubt have held to at least some of the agricultural practices of their forefathers.


The archaeological evidence indicates that cereals have been grown in Ireland since Neolithic times. It is clear, however, that the coming of Christianity in the fifth century a.d. with the subsequent establishment of monasteries brought various innovations in cereal-production from the Roman world. An eighth-century law text, Bretha Dein Checht, lists seven types of cereal grown in Ireland, arranged in order of value. Predictably, the most highly valued cereal is bread-wheat (cruithnecht), though it can hardly have been much grown in the rather cool Irish climate. The second cereal on the list is rye (secal, from Latin secale), which is likely to have been more widely grown as it tolerates harsher conditions. Other cereals included in the list are suillech, which is perhaps to be identified as spelt wheat, and ibdach, probably two-row barley, as it was used to make beer. Next on the list is ruadan, a reddish wheat which is doubtless "emmer," and then eornae, "six-row barley." At the bottom of the list is the least prestigious cereal, corcae, "oats"—a twelfth-century legal commentary states that a sack of oats is worth only half a sack of barley. The law text on clientship, Cain Aicillne, provides a description of the type of land which is suitable for the growing of barley, and stresses that it should be level, deepdraining and properly manured. Plowing was generally carried out in the spring, using a team of oxen. The usual term for such a team is seisrech, which contains the numeral se, "six," so it is possible that all six oxen were yoked simultaneously. It was probably more usual, however, for four oxen to be used. They seem to have been yoked abreast and led by a front plowman (cennairem) walking backwards ahead of his team, while a rear plowman (tonairem) directed them from behind. The Old Irish law texts contain no mention of the coulter (coltar), but it is referred to in twelfth-century commentary. Harrowing was carried out by horses. After the young corn appeared, it was kept free from weeds, of which the most pernicious was darnel (dithen), which has poisonous seeds. The law texts also lay down heavy penalties on the owners of marauding livestock that damage growing corn. When ripe, the cornstalks were cut with a sickle, and the ears of corn collected in a reaping-basket. The ears were then threshed with a stick or flail (suist), and dried in a kiln (aith). The dried corn was stored in a barn (saball); a fragmentary law text on cats stresses that the cat should patrol the area around the barn to keep mice away. Writing in the late twelfth century, Giraldus Cambrensis refers to mice as a particular pest in Ireland.

Apart from cereals, other plants featured in the early Irish diet. The texts refer occasionally to peas and beans, and it is likely that both were normally kiln dried and stored for winter use. Another vegetable that is frequently mentioned in the Old Irish texts is cain-nenn, which probably means "onion." It was clearly grown in fairly large quantities, as it formed part of the food-rent which a client paid to his lord. Smaller quantities of other vegetables were also grown, including braisech (cabbage), foltchep (chives), borrlus (leek?), imus (celery?), and cerrbacan (skirret?). The medico-legal text Bretha Crolige emphasizes the importance of vegetables in the diet of invalids. Apples and plums seem to have been grown on a small scale in the early period, but cultivated pears and cherries were evidently not introduced until after the Norman invasion. The main dye-plants were woad (glaisen) and madder (roid).


Cattle occupied a position of central importance in early Irish society, and feature prominently throughout Old and Middle Irish literature. Fines, tributes, fees, and other payments were commonly expressed in terms of cattle, the standard unit being the milk cow (bo mlicht). Cattle were valued primarily for their milk and for milk-products such as butter and cheese. Beef was also consumed, and hides were used for making shoes, bags, belts, and the like. Early Irish cattle seem generally to have been small and black—much like modern Kerry cattle—but there are also references to red, brown, dun-colored, and white cattle. There is no mention of the provision of hay for livestock in documents from the pre-Norman period. The Old Irish law texts refer to the practice of keeping an area of "preserved grass" to nourish the cattle over the winter, and there is also mention of branches of holly and ivy being supplied as winter fodder. In the summer, it was clearly a frequent practice for cattle and other livestock to be driven off to hills or other rough ground where they grazed under the care of herdsmen. At night they were kept in a pen (buaile), whence the Anglicized term "booleying." This practice was regularly opposed by English officials. For example, in 1595, Edmund Spenser denounced the "Irish manner of keeping boo-lies in the summer upon the mountains and living after that savage sort."

Other Livestock

Sheep were kept primarily for their wool, but were also valued for their meat and milk. The Old Irish law texts assign greater value to white sheep than to dun-colored or black sheep. In the twelfth century, Giraldus Cambrensis commented on the prevalence of black sheep in Ireland, and it is likely that larger white-fleeced breeds were introduced after the Anglo-Norman invasion. There is less mention of goats in Irish sources, and in legal commentary their value is lower than that of sheep. The flesh of the pig was prized beyond that of any other animal, and roast pig was the traditional main dish at feasts. Pigs were commonly fattened up on acorns in the woods. The Old Irish law text Crith Gablach states that a well-to-do farmer should own a horse for riding as well as a workhorse. In about the late thirteenth century, the great plow-horse, which was originally developed on the Continent for military use, was introduced to Ireland, and by the end of the fifteenth century it seems that oxen were largely superseded for this purpose. The Old Irish law texts contain many references to hens, and there is occasional mention of ducks and geese. A separate law text is devoted to honeybees, which indicates that they were of considerable economic importance. Doves may have been reared for consumption in early Irish monasteries, but there seem to be no records of dovecotes in this country until after the Anglo-Norman invasion. The rabbit was an Anglo-Norman introduction, and elaborate warrens were constructed to house them. Fishponds—mainly for introduced species such as perch, carp, and pike—were a regular feature of the Anglo-Norman manor.

Farm Layout

For the early period, the law texts are an important source of information on the layout of the Irish farm, and much of what they tell us is confirmed by archaeology. The farmhouse was round and constructed of wattle packed with insulating material, and there was an adjoining out-house. The farmhouse was surrounded by an enclosed area (les) of approximately 100 feet in diameter, which contained structures such as the sheep pen, calf pen, pigsty, and hen coop. Outside the les, the typical farm had a vegetable garden, as well as a kiln for drying corn and a barn for storing it. The Old Irish law texts regularly distinguish between the infield (faithche), which refers to the better land around the farmhouse, and the outfield (sechtarfhaithche) farther away. The main law text on farming, Bretha Comaith-chesa, provides detailed descriptions of what constitutes a proper field boundary, and distinguishes the stone wall, trench-and-bank, bare fence, and oak fence. The proper dimensions and method of construction are specified in the text. For example, the bare fence is constructed with posts and hazel rods, and is capped with an interwoven blackthorn crest—the medieval equivalent of barbed wire.

Farm Labor

It is clear from the Old Irish law texts that most of the work on the farm of a commoner was carried out by him and his family. However, plowing was often undertaken in cooperation by up to four farmers who pooled their resources of oxen and equipment, and plowed their lands in turn. Livestock were also regularly herded cooperatively, with animals belonging to a number of farmers looked after in a single herd. Higher up the social scale, the main work on the farm of a lord (flaith) was carried out by slaves or servants. In addition, lords were entitled to fixed amounts of labor from commoners with whom they had an agreement of clientship. These clients (ceili) also supported the lord’s household by the provision of an annual food-rent in return for the fief—usually of cattle— supplied by the lord. Some commoners were simultaneously clients of two or three lords. Monasteries functioned in a similar manner to lay lordships, and relied on the labor of church clients, as well as that of the monks. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, there is evidence that the independence of the commoner decreased, both in areas under Gaelic and under English control. The rent-paying bfattach became an unfree tenant bound to the land, without the option of transferring from one lord to another, or of serving more than one lord.

Land-Tenure and Control

The Old Irish law texts make a general distinction between a person’s inherited share of kin-land (fintiu), and land which he has personally acquired. Naturally, he has greater legal entitlement to sell or bequeath acquired land, and can only dispose of kin-land with the agreement of the greater family unit (fine) and of his lord. A large amount of land was owned by the Church, and it is clear that many agricultural innovations are of monastic origin. For example, the use of the water mill, which revolutionized the processing of cereals, is likely to have spread from the monasteries. The law texts recognize the rights of adult dependents—wives or sons—to veto contracts made by a landowner which could damage the well-being of the farm. In general, it is clear that the early Irish farmer farmed so as to support his family and to produce a surplus to fulfill his obligations to his lord, king, and church. Old Irish texts provide little information on trade in agricultural produce, and it seems that any such trade was small-scale and local. The establishment of Norse towns on the eastern and southern coasts in the ninth and tenth centuries undoubtedly stimulated trade in foodstuffs and other commodities, and it is significant that the Irish word for market (margadh) is a borrowing from Old Norse. An eleventh-century poem in Irish refers to the sale of livestock at the fair (oenach) of Carmun, probably in the present County Kildare. After the Anglo-Norman invasion there was a flourishing export trade in wool and sheepskins, mainly to England.

Next post:

Previous post: