EUGENE DALY continues his series on various aspects of
Irish folklore and customs
The stereotype of the brawling, drunken Irishman is a distortion, but the Irish love of alcoholic drink is undeniable. Irish songs are full of its praises: Preab san ól – Drink with joy – is a toast to drinking and conviviality. So, too, are the songs: ‘The Jug of Punch’, ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, ‘The Parting Glass’, ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ (made famous by the Dubliners) and many more.
The Irish song, An Bonnán Buí, written by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Gunna, so called because its writer went out one cold winter’s day and found a bittern, dead because it was unable to drink from a frozen lake. Here are two verses translated from the Irish by Thomas McDonagh, executed in 1916: ‘The yellow bittern that never broke out/In a drinking bout might as well have drunk/His bones are thrown on a naked stone/Where he lived alone like a hermit monk/ O yellow bittern, I pity your lot/Though they say that a sot like myself is curs’t/I was sober awhile, but I’ll drink and be wise/For fear I should die in the end of thirst’.
Catholic tradition from early times required Lent to be a time of abstinence from meat and general mortification of the flesh, so much so that in 1563 the Council of Trent decreed that no marriage should be solemnised during that period. In one respect, however, the cardinals and bishops veered towards leniency, causing the people to say: ‘Good luck and long life to the Council of Trent. For it took away meat, but left us the drink’.
The schoolteacher and diarist, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, who lived in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, describes a meatless St. Patrick’s Day feast he shared with the local parish priest and some friends in 1829: “We dined on fresh cod, salted ling, smoked salmon, fresh trout with green cabbage and fragrant cheese, served with white wine, port, whiskey and punch in plenty.”
Although trading brought wine and brandy to Ireland from early times, the earliest indigenous strong drink was mead (mid). Made by fermenting honey, water and herbs, it took a large amount of honey to make even small amounts of mead, so it conferred more prestige on those who served it rather than just beer. In an old Irish story, ‘The Vision of MacCon Glinne’, mead is described as ‘the relish of noble stock’, and the banqueting hall at Tara, seat of the High Kings, was known as ‘the house of the mead-circuit’.