Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget, and the Brewing of Beer

Despite the idiocies of Saint Patrick’s Day in the U.S. (by which I mean the consumption of green beer rather than blessed Guinness, and the over-enthusiastic endorsement of imbibing while Irish, there is a genuine, and historical, connection between Ireland and beer, or cuirm, in Old Irish. For one thing, there’s a long and documented history of Irish brewing that is very legitimate. So legitimate, in fact, that beer laws occur in the medieval corpus of traditional Irish law known as the Senchus Mór, which was colloquially known as Cáin Padraic, or Patrick’s Law, since the bodies of traditional Irish civil law and church law were said to have been combined and written down upon instructions from St.Patrick.

The Senchus Mór discusses, in some detail, the correct process for making beer. The beer was made from malted barley, produced by steeping barley in water for a specific time, then draining off the liquid from the barley. The barley is then spread, carefully, on a clean and level floor to dry. At this point the malted barley was known as brac or braich. As the brac dries on the floor, it is carefully raked into orderly ridges, so that each grain in turn is exposed to light and air. Then it is dried in a special kiln called an aith.

At this point, the malt or brac was either stored in the form of grains, or carefully ground and then formed into cakes. Brac was so valuable a commodity that it was used as currency, including the payment of rent. When the brewmaster, a truly respected craft and position, was ready to make ale, the brac was crushed to form a fine meal, and water was added to make a mash, which was in turn fermented, boiled and strained. The same yeast or leaven was used for bread making and brewing and both brewing and bread-baking used brac as raw material. Brac was so important that there were purity tests to determine its quality.

There are, all over Ireland, small horseshoe shaped mounds. They are now mostly covered by grass, but beneath the grass are burned, cracked stones clearly damaged by fire, arranged in a central pit, or trough. There are thousands of these fire-marked pits all over Ireland, though they appear particularly common in Cork. You’ll even find these pits marked on the official ordinance survey maps. Carbon dating suggests that most of these pits, known as fulacht fiadh in Ireland, were built between c. 1500 B.C.E. – c. 500 B.C.E. We don’t honestly know what these pits were used for; there have been many suggestions, including cooking meat by boiling it, dye work, and, most recently, an archeologist has suggested they were used for the brewing of ale.

In Irish tales like Mesca Ulaid, or “The Intoxication of the Ulsterman,” vast banqueting halls were filed with a hundred vats of ale, ale made expressly for the occasion of the feast. In such instances, the guests are said to “drink the banquet,” which gives us a fair idea of the importance of ale. In this particular tale, the men of Ulster get outrageously drunk and go on the Medieval equivalent of a pub-crawl, stopping and participating in ale-feasts all over Ulster and into the territory of Connaught.

Beer, and brewing were so very important in Ireland that St. Patrick had a personal brewmaster; one Mescan. St. Bridget was a famous brewer; indeed one of her miracles is that one year at Easter she brewed enough beer to fill the vats of all the nearby households. It is then quite appropriate on Saint Patrick’s Day to contemplate Saint Patrick, and Saint Bridget, and yes, beer. When asked what heaven was like, Bridget is said to have responded, poetically, with a poem now preserved in an eleventh century manuscript:

I should like to have a great ale-feast for the King of Kings;
I should like the Heavenly Host to be drinking it for all eternity.

So when you raise a pint of black today, and mutter sláinte, give a thought to Patrick and Bride, as St. Bridget is familiarly known.

The Truth about Corned Beef

Every year around St. Patrick’s day in the U.S. the grocery stores start putting corned beef brisket on sale, and restaurants and pubs add corned beef and cabbage to their menus as an Irish entrée. Unfortunately, corned beef and cabbage, even when accompanied by potatoes, is more American (or Germanic) than Irish; we’d do better to celebrate Irish cuisine with salmon or colcannon.

image of cooked slab of corned beef, partially sliced

Corned beef © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Corned beef is not really very Irish, though it is very American (and Germanic). Pork was a staple of the Irish diet, particularly in the form of bacon. Historically, the Irish raised pigs for meat, and beef for milk. If you butchered a cow, you did it in late October or early November, at Samain. By March that meat, even if you had cured it by corning it, was gone. When Irish immigrants arrived in Boston and New York, their beloved Irish bacon was not available; what was available was corned beef, thanks to Jewish delis and butchers in New York, and the New England Boiled Dinner popularized by German immigrants to Massachusetts and other New England states. Corned beef is simply beef preserved with salt, a process known as corning.

The Irish immigrants, unable to locate or in some cases, afford the distinctively different Irish bacon, traditionally served with cabbage and potatoes, possibly with carrots or other vegetables, turned to corned beef, and Irish Americans perpetuated the local cuisine.

Historically, beef in Ireland was a luxury (now, beef is often cheaper than mutton); in the middle ages, cows were prized for their milk. Dairy products were so important in medieval Irish diets that cheeses and similar milk products were called “white meats.” In the eleventh century medieval Irish satire Aislinge Meic Con Glinne/The Vision of MacConglinne, MacConglinne attempts to entice a “demon of gluttony” to exit an abbot by preparing a magnificent feast that includes

juicy old bacon, and tender corned-beef, and full-fleshed wether, and honey in the comb, and English salt on a beautiful polished dish of white silver, along with four perfectly straight white hazel spits to support the joints.

This is very clearly an over-the-top outrageous feast, and the use of corned beef in the feast points up that it was considered luxurious, and down-right extravagant.

Pork was by far the more common meat, even after the English conquest, since what beef there was was exported to England (especially during the Napoleanic wars), leaving potatoes, fish, pork and cabbage for the native Irish. You’ll find Irish families and restaurants even now having gammon, or a roast joint of pork, as a family dinner. The Irish emigrating to America continued to bring Irish cuisine and traditions with them though of necessity modifying them to suit the new land.