by Garry Bryant/Garaidh Ó Briain
In society today the connotation of fosterage is a very negative yet necessary element in the raising of children. It is strange to note that the closer to modern day life the more barbaric the treatment of children. In recent times there have been the discovery of pits at nursing homes packed full of the remains of babies and young children; stories of babies torn from mothers at the Magdalene laundries and given into slavery in exchange for a donation, and people within living memory who have no idea of their true identity because they were adopted or fostered outside of the law. [Ali Isaac, "Foster care in ancient Ireland was an established and beloved tradition," Irishcentral.com, 22 July 2015.]
Not so in ancient times. Fosterage was a form of child-rearing chosen and upheld for positive reasons by culture and practiced by all levels of society especially the wealthy and the noble. [Isaac.] Fosterage was the acceptance of the responsibilities of rearing and educating a child in accordance with certain regulations put down by the strict ancient Brehon Laws. The child was indeed the focus in this process, but the realm of fosterage expanded beyond that of childhood. It was a lifelong contract. Intimate bonds created through fosterage carried immediate and long term consequences, which were above and beyond the day-to-day concerns of parenting. Fosterage helped to mould the medieval child, and its enduring character long out-lived the medieval period. [Bronagh Ní Chonaill, "Fosterage; child-rearing in medieval Ireland," History of Ireland, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Volume 5.]
Fosterage strengthened natural bonds of kinship between various branches of a clan. In a turbulent world, it also served as a means of negotiating political advantage and gaining allies, and in war, fosterlings could be held for ransom. [Isaac.]
The primary stimulus for polygamy was procreation, the expansion of the clan/tribe especially during the pre-Norman Ireland era, and partly the reason for consecutive marriages in post-Norman times. Infant mortality was high during the Dark Ages and medieval times. In early medieval Ireland, according to customary law, the maternal and paternal kin had a say in where the child was placed, thus the kin group as a whole took an active interest in the future of the child. The valued position of children—as heir, succour in life, support in old age—is why the death of a child was particularly tragic. [Ní Chonaill.]
The suitable age for the commencement of fosterage was age seven, but sometimes as young as age one. This was a transitional stage for the child, who was generally regarded as having reached the age of learning and reason. The church had a lasting influence in promoting this, with the child bearing the same honor-price (the measured worth of a person in the Brehon Law) as a cleric until the age of seven. There is much evidence, however, for fosterage commencing at a much earlier stage, through the practice of wet-nursing. In legal material of the eighth century, reference is made to nursing clothes (‘cradle clothes’) given with the child when proceeding into fosterage. There were two sets of clothing given to the nursing-mother, a black tunic and a black mantle, returned on the completion of fosterage. The common practice was the giving of the child to a wet-nurse in her own home, who was then nursing two babies simultaneously, if her own child survived. [Ní Chonaill.]
The basis for the type of fosterage and education a child received depended on the size of foster-fee (iarrath) paid. A legal maxim of the eighth century reads: "the fosterage of each son according to his foster-fee," implying that rank was all-important. The foster-fee was graded, from three cows for the son of a strong farmer (bóaire) to eighteen cows for the son of a king (cattle was the currency. Remember King Brian Boru, 'boru' means 'of the Tribute,' all the tribes of Ireland herded their cattle to Beal Boru). Fosterage of a daughter was a sét (a fixed unit of value) more expensive in each grade. The foster-fee is infrequently mentioned in the sources. In a thirteenth-century poem attributed to Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe (Teasta eochair ghlais Ghaoidheal), the poet informs us that the child brought with her cattle and clothing (fríoth le buar is brat naoidhe). The cattle would appear to be a fosterage-payment. [Ní Chonaill.] [Isaac.]
A peculiarity of fosterage was the extra sét it cost for a female child commentaries on legal tracts speculate as to why it cost more. Reasons ranged from uncleanliness to the fact that her handiwork was of lesser value than the chores performed by a boy. The most plausible reason given was that her attendants were more numerous. Why this should be so is a point of interest. One piece of advice in the early medieval period reads: "three darknesses into which women should not go: the darkness of mist, the darkness of night and the darkness of wood." Women in saga literature are reproached for wandering alone—a woman on her own was suspected of keeping a tryst. Accompaniment was a precaution against abduction, rape, or attempts to lure into sexual union. The protective role of foster-sisters was important. The position of the foster-sister is made abundantly clear by Aongus to Curcóg who's statement is found in a medieval saga, in a poem which he recites after Eithne, his foster-daughter, has been enticed away: "though you are a foster-sister/ Curcóg is not good for guarding." The hazards which could befall a female fosterling would also have placed the foster-father open to the charge of neglect. General misfortune which could befall foster-children of both sexes, and which foster-parents were warned against, included the safety of the child in the presence of animals, the danger of cliffs, precipices, and lakes, and injuries caused by spikes, spears, sticks and stones. [Ní Chonaill.] [Isaac.]
The high cost in fostering female's has an example in the legend of Princess Taug:
Tuag was the daughter of High King Conall Collamhrach, but he was killed after only five years of rule. The princess was fostered at Tara by the new High King Conaire, and had a great retinue of ladies and waiting women to serve her. She was so beautiful that no man was allowed near her, for she was destined to be married to a great King, perhaps to Conaire himself.
At the age of fifteen, Manannán the Sea-God decided he wanted Taug for himself. He sent his druid, Ferdia, to steal her away from Tara. Ferdia disguised himself as a woman, and sang a sleeping spell over her, and thus managed to escape with her. To the mouth of the River Bann he carried her, and set her down on the sand whilst he went to get a boat in which to take her to Manannán’s land. She was still sleeping. As the tide rose, a great wave washed over the Tonn and carried her out to sea, where she was sadly drowned.
No doubt Conaire had to repay his foster-fee to Tuag’s family. [Isaac.]
The clothes worn by children of the free class (both noble and commoner) while in fosterage were of specific colours.
The color of clothes and the trimmings (brooches and gold and silver ornamentation) were outward marks of distinction.
Types of food were also distinguished according to rank. Porridge was given to all children, but the different flavorings reflected status: salt for the sons of the commoners, butter for the noble grades, and honey for royal children. The ingredients of the porridge itself differed, with a water-based porridge for the commoners, porridge made with new milk for the aristocratic grade, the same for the children of kings, but with extra wheat in it. In a hierarchical society, gradations permeated all aspects of life. [Ní Chonaill.]
At the core of fosterage was education to prepare the child for his position later in life. A fine of two-thirds of the foster-fee was incurred if the quality of fostering was deficient in any manner, say, through the negligent provision of instruction in a given area. Differences are evident in the type of education provided. There was a strong pastoral flavor to the education of the free-man grade.
Daughters were taught how to use the quern, the kneading trough, the sieve, and the herding of lambs, kids, pigs and calves. Women were in charge of domestic matters, and therefore needed the skills of cookery, tending sheep (which would provide fleece for weaving), and tending animals.
Sons were taught kiln-drying, wood-cutting and also the herding of various animals—all practical skills for the future farmer. One might have expected to find the boys receiving instruction solely from the foster-father, but this was not the case in areas where the woman held sway. In the medieval Lives of Abbán, Maedoc and the later life of Patrick, the three boys were tending animals. An animal is lost through negligence on the child’s part, and the child fears that the foster-mother may discover the incident. Being of saintly stock, miraculously the animals return and the cause of potential anger on the foster-mother’s side is removed.
Fionn mac Cumhail is perhaps the greatest of Ireland's warriors died in 283 AD. He was fostered by two women. They took him to a secret place in the forests of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, to raise him away from the reaches of his father’s enemies. Bodhmall was his aunt and a druidess, and saw to his education, whilst the mysterious Liath Luachra trained him in hunting and the battle arts. [Ní Chonaill.]
In the Irish mythilogical account of Lugh, Lugh's father is Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother is Ethniu, daughter of Balor, king of the Fomorians. In Cath Maige Tuired their union is a dynastic marriage following an alliance between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians. [ Whitley Stokes (ed. & trans), "The Second Battle of Moytura," Revue Celtique, volume #12, 1891, p. 59.] In the book Lebor Gabála Érenn Cian gives the boy to Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, in fosterage. Lebor Gabála Érenn, p. 59.]
The Irish saint Columcille was fostered by Cruithnechan in Kilmacrenan, County Donegal in Ireland. His birth parallels with the story of Hannah and her son Samuel in the Bible's Old Testament: Hannah/Eithne (mother of Samuel/Columcille) prayed for a child, and when she had conceived, she dedicated her child's service to the LORD. Eithne visited her son every year and when he was banished from Ireland and founded a monastery on the Isle of Iona, she followed him and lived on a nearby island. [Cindy, "Raising Children: The Path to Peace in Early Ireland." http://irishfireside.com/2012/06/12/raising-children-the-path-to-peace-in-early-ireland-2/ , accessed 12 Jan 2016.]
The children of the higher grades, in addition to receiving instruction in agricultural matters, were taught more noble pursuits: board games resembling draughts and chess for foster-sons; sewing, cutting and embroidery for foster-daughters. Skill in handicraft was a mark of distinction in a woman. When Cú Chulainn wooed Emer, the six gifts she possessed according to the saga were: wisdom, voice, beauty, fair speech, chastity and needlework. If there were appropriate facilities, swimming was supposed to be taught. The sons of noble grades were taught horse riding, if the father supplied a horse. There were many practical reasons for learning how to ride, from a quick escape whilst on a foray, to travelling to residences on a circuit of hospitality. [Ní Chonaill.]
A number of items are mentioned in legal material as being in the noble child’s possession, including a hurley and a scabbard, reflecting a mixture of play and military training common for most boys. We should not be surprised to find boys playing games of skill and agility of a competitive nature. Games were also important trials of strength. In Brehon law reference is made to early play-things (essrechta maccru). These are explained as "goodly things which remove the dullness from little boys, that is, hurleys, balls, hoops." Cats and dogs are also mentioned as children’s pets. Older children participated in field games and wrestling. In a thirteenth-century bardic poem (Leacht carad ó chath Bhriain), lamenting the death of several members of his foster-family, the poet fondly remembers games from his childhood, which he played with his foster-brothers. They would play at an imitation of an inauguration or homage ceremony, where a child was placed on a height with those remaining marching around him three times. Piggy-back games were also played, "(I) [the poet] was always the rider, he was my horse." [Ní Chonaill.]
Infractions by foster children
If the fosterage undertaken was one of affection (i.e. where no fee was levied), the foster-father or foster-mother was not liable for crimes committed by the child. The age of the child, the nature of the crime, and the number of offences previously committed, were all taken into consideration when the punishment for a crime was decided. The age of the child in relation to crime is divided in three: to the age of seven, from seven to twelve, and from twelve to seventeen. Punishment took the form of chastisement, fasting, and/or the restitution of goods.
The most common crimes committed by children were assault and theft. In the late medieval Life of Brendan an episode from his youth relates an incident where he beat a girl who wished to play with him. He is severely reproached by his tutor. Similarly, in a thirteenth-century lament for the death of a child, by Giolla Brighde mac Con Midhe, we are told that the child, Gormlaith, "never struck another girl, she never earned the sighs for a daughter." Excessive violence while playing games involving physical contact was also punishable. The only specifics of a crime committed by a foster-child in legal material is the theft by a child under twelve years of age of a hoop or hurley (lubóg no comán), resulting in restitution in kind. [Ní Chonaill.]
The foster-father paid the fines for the crimes committed, until he ‘proclaimed’ his foster-son to his natural father by formally declaring his foster-son’s criminal tendencies, thereby legally shifting the responsibility for certain crimes to the natural father, if the foster-father was not at fault. If a child was habitually criminal and subsequently proclaimed, the means of discipline available to the foster-parents was obviously limited. According to Brehon law, if a child was blemished in any way while in fosterage the foster-father forfeited the fee. If there was a justifiable reason, two-thirds of the fee was forfeited. For noble grades there could not be ‘a blemish if struck, or the shedding of blood, or one that is a bandage wound’. The overall impression is that disciplining a child was extremely difficult, and the best path a foster-parent could take was to proclaim the child. This would have been a wise financial step, as the foster-parent was held responsible for paying all the fines incurred by an unproclaimed child. As it stood the foster-father was responsible for the first deliberate offence committed by the child, which could involve a serious crime such as bodily injury or homicide. On a more positive note, the foster-father received one-third of the díre (fine) of the foster-son if he was injured in any way. [Ní Chonaill.]
Diarmuid ua Duibhne, a warrior of the Fianna, committed anoffense against his leader, Fionn mac Cumhall, he was already a young man, and so his foster father, Óengus Óg, Denann God of Love, was not held responsible.
Eloping with Grainne on the night of her wedding to Fionn mac Cumhall, Diamuid deeply offended Fionn. Fionn chased the love-struck pair across the length and breadth of Ireland, even when Grainne grew heavy with child.
Diamuid's foster-father Óengus, not biological father, in and intervened with Fionn, thus calling off the hunt and arranging an uneasy truce. However, Fionn was to get his revenge many years later. [Isaac.]
There were ‘three types of fosterage completion: death, crime and choice’.
Negligence carried far-reaching consequences if the foster-father did not compensate the family of the child adequately and swiftly for their loss. The ‘vengeance for the foster-child of the family’ was permitted by law.
If the father refused to pay for his son’s crimes once proclaimed, the foster-father kept the unspent part of the foster-fee and returned the child. A fostering contract could be terminated by choice, for example, when a girl married or took the veil. In legal material seventeen is the age of fosterage completion for boys and fourteen for girls, if special circumstances had not forced an earlier termination. At seventeen the male foster-child was held totally responsible for his own crimes and had to pay full fine accordingly. [Ní Chonaill.]
Significance of foster-ties
In Irish mythology with regard to the God, Lugh, aka Samildanach, or ‘Master of all Arts,’ because his foster-mother Tailtiu had seen to it that her foster son was taught not just in the battle arts, but many other skills also, such as healing, playing the harp, composing poetry, working metals as a smith, to name but a few. and his foster mother, Tailtiu. She was the only mother he had ever known, and when she died, he was so overcome with grief, that he founded the annual Festival of Lughnasa in her honor at Tailten (Teltown in Co Meath, between Navan and Kells), where she had lived and was buried. [Isaac.]
Multiple fosterages were another feature. The great warrior Cú Chulainn, for example, was fostered "among the chariot-chiefs and champions, among the jesters and druids, among learned poets and learned men, among the nobles and landlords of Ulster…so that I have all their manners and gifts." The amount of wealth one possessed was not an over-riding factor. When a child returned from fosterage, all that was given with him (cattle, etc..) was also returned. If one could afford to place a child once in fosterage, then one could afford to foster the same child as many times as desired. What was decisive was the demand for the child. The dispute over who was to foster Cú Chulainn is evidence of such a demand. In a poem addressed to Domhnall Óg Ó Domhnaill, king of Tír Conaill (1258-82) by Giolla Brighde mac Con Midhe, the fact that Domhnaill was of rig damnae (kingly material) resulted in all the men by the sea scarcely one not a foster-father to the high-king of Conall—it is no falsehood. [Ní Chonaill.]
The possibility of multiple fosterages expanded the range of personal and political contacts.
It is our common conception that children were fostered with a subordinate family as expressed in the Scandinavian maxim, "he is a lesser man who fosters." In continental tradition fosterage was an upwardly oriented institution. Political motives were the most probable for fostering with a subordinate family, as it is unlikely that a child would have been sent, for no apparent reason, into fosterage with people who were not accustomed to the standard of living of the child. It was political motivation combined with the loyalty fosterage ties created, which maintained the popularity of this method of child-rearing. [Ní Chonaill.]
The foster-child by customary law had to provide aid and maintenance (goire) for his foster-parents in later life. Fosterage therefore was a life-long commitment. Fosterage ties often meant much more than maintenance. Priest and historian Giraldus Cambrensis noted the love of the Irish for their foster-brethren. The nature of the Irish political scene allowed the strength of foster-ties to play a prominent role in the military sphere. In 1309 Maelruanaidh Mac Diarmada, king of Magh Luirg, went into the Sil-Muiredhaigh to defend the sovereignty of his foster-son, Feidlimid Ó Conchobhair, who was subsequently made king of Connacht by Mac Diarmada. An illustration of fosterage directly benefiting the foster-family is portrayed in a poem of Maelsheachlainn na nUirsgél Ó hUiginn to Aed Mac Airt Magennis of the Uíbh Eathach. Owing to geographical location in the early fifteenth century Aed protected the gap to the north from invasion. Included in the territories were those of the Uí Néill, his maternal kin. In return for his fostering with them we are told "he let not their folk be raided." [Ní Chonaill.]
From friendly advice to financial gain, the range of short and long-term benefits resulting from fosterage played a large part in sustaining the power of the institution into the early modern period. Through participation in fosterage, one not only secured maintenance in later life and the possibility of creating friendly or non-belligerent relations between families, but the child also secured support for itself and its siblings in the future. The medieval world was violent; the annals confirm this. Recurrent references to killings ‘dia muintir fen’ (at the hands of his own people), and to incidents of blinding, drowning, and seizing and many other violent acts, illustrate the need for support in everyday life. Foster-links did not guarantee support or loyalty, but they were one, if not the most binding, of ties, which society had to offer. Fosterage, as it functioned in medieval Ireland, was advantageous for the child, the kin and society. [Ní Chonaill.]
My name is Garry Eugene Bryant, or in Irish, Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain. My O'Bryan family emigrated from Ireland to Canada around 1830. They were devout Catholics and my 2nd great-grandfather, William, was informed by his parents that he was to become a priest like his two older bro-thers. He ran away changed his name by dropping the O' and adding a 't,' and ended up at Black Hawk, Col-orado about 1861. But this story was family tradition, no paper doc-ument to that gives the name change. To the rescue came Family Tree DNA and the O'Brien Surname Project which confirmed that I was not only of the Dál gCais Tribe with the R-L226 & FGC5659 snp marker's, but a distant cousin to Sir Conor M. E. O'Brien, Chief of the O'Brien Clan. So I'm not an English Bryant, but an Irish O'Brien! I have three children, all grown and married, and two grandchildren. I'm a retired photojournalist, am passionate about family history and heraldry.