St Brigid and the bathwater

One of the perks of being a journalist is that you can get married in St Bride’s, the church at the foot of Fleet Street in London which continues to be the “journalists’ cathedral”, even though the hacks and blunts have all moved out of Fleet Street and their former offices are now occupied by bankers and lawyers.

St Bride, or Brigid, is, of course, an Irish saint, from Kildare, and when the lovely E and I married, she being Irish and me being a journo, there seemed no better place to have our marriage blessed than a church dedicated to journalism and named for an Irishwoman.

While I was putting together the order of service, I even found a suitably beery quote from The Life of St Brigid the Virgin, written by a Kildare monk, Cogitosus Ua hAedha, around AD650, to use as one of the readings:

On another extraordinary occasion, this venerable Brigid was asked by some lepers for beer, but had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed it into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He Who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee Who turned water into beer here, through this most blessed woman’s faith.

Cogitosus, of course, was keen to chalk the bathwater-into-beer event up as a miracle, just like the one at the wedding at Cana, but there is, in fact, a possible non-miraculous explanation for how St Brigid was able to make the thirsty lepers happy. A record of a fire at the monastry of Clonard in Ireland around AD787 speaks of grain stored in ballenio, literally “in a bath”, which seems to mean the grain being soaked as part of the initial processes of malting. What St Brigid drew off, I’d suggest, may have been water from the ballenium where the grain was steeping in the first stage of malt-making.

Quite possibly, if the grain had begun to sprout wild yeasts had already started multiplying in the water, and making alcohol. Cogitosus heard the story, already more than a century old, about Brigid giving the lepers water from the ballenium to drink and, presumably because he knew nothing about brewing, thought this ballenium was an ordinary bath for washing in. While water from the grain steep might have made a passable ale substitute if you were a thirsty leper, for “bath water” to taste like ale must have seemed a miracle to the confused Cogitosus.

Ale was an important part of Irish society: the Crith-Gablach, an Irish law book compiled about the middle or end of the 7th century AD, declared that the “seven occupations in the law of a king” were:

Sunday, at ale drinking, for he is not a lawful flaith [lord] who does not distribute ale every Sunday; Monday, at legislation, for the government of the tribe; Tuesday, at fidchell [a popular Iron Age board game]; Wednesday, seeing greyhounds coursing; Thursday, at the pleasures of love; Friday, at horse-racing; Saturday, at judgment.”

Who’d be an Irish king, eh?

When I was researching for BTSOTP I hoped to include a chapter on Irish brewing history, which was dropped because the book was already too long, I did manage to include a translation of a a glorious poem to Irish ale that occurs in a record of the life of a Scots Gaelic prince called Cano, who fled to Ireland and was killed in AD687. The poem, which lists more than a dozen different ales from Kerry to Antrim, was written about the 8th or 9th century.

The version that appeared in BTSOTP missed out all the footnotes which cleared up some of the many obscure references. Here is the full version, with footnotes: proclaim it aloud, with foaming oxhorn in one hand and the rushlights flickering on the stone walls of your banqueting hall, and be transported back 1200 years.

Though he were to drink of the beverages of lords
Though a lord may drink of strong liquors
He shall not be a king over Eriu
Unless he drink the ale of Cualand (1)

The ale of Cumur na Tri nUisce (2)
Is jovially drunk around Inber Ferna. (3)
I have not drunk a juice to be preferred
To the ale of Cernia. (4)

The ale of the land of Ele (5)
It belongs to the merry Momonians;
The ale of Fórlochra Ardaa (6)
The red ale of Dorind. (7)

The ale of Caill Gortan Coille (8)
Is served to the king of Ciarraige (9)
This is the liquor of noble Eriu
Which the Gaedhil pour out in friendship.

In Cuil Tola (10) of shining goblets –
Druim Lethan (11) of good cheer
An ale-feast is given to the Lagenians
When the summer foliage withers.

Ale is drunk in Feara Cuile (12)
The houses are not counted. (13)
To Findia is served up sumptuously
The ale of Muirthemne. (14)

Ale is drunk around Loch Cuain (15)
It is drunk out of deep horns
In Magh Inis (16) by the Ultonians
Where laughter rises to loud exhultation.

By the gentle Dalraid (17) it is drunk –
In half measures by [the light of ] bright candles
[While] With easy-handled battle spears
Chosen good warriors practise good feats (18)

The Saxon ale of bitterness
Is drank with pleasure about Inber in Rig (19)
About the land of the Cruithni, (20) about Gergin (21)
Red ales, like wine are freely drank.

1) Eriu is another name for Ireland, and Cualand, or Cuala, is East Leinster, the parts of County Wicklow and County Dublin around Bray: the old tradition seems to have been that getting an ale-tribute from the land of Cuala was an essential part of being recognised as High King of Ireland
2) The meeting of the rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir, near Waterford: “na tri nUisce” means “of the three waters”.
3) The mouth of the Barrow
4) Probably the river Muilchearn in north-east County Limerick
5) Ely O’Carroll in Laois and Eliogarty in Tipperary
6) The country around Ardagh, Limerick
7) The district of O’Dorny in Kerry
8 ) Unidentified
9) Ciarraide Aei, near Castlerea, Roscommon and Ciarraidhe Locha na nAirdneadh in the barony of Costello, Mayo
10) In Longford, on the Cavan border
11) Drumlane, Longford. The Lagenians are the Laigin, who gave their name to both Leinster, and the Lleyn peninsula across the Irish Sea in North Wales.
12) A territory in the ancient Irish kingdom of Bregia, now the barony of Kells, Meath
13) Meaning the hospitality is so great, no one counts the size of the retinue
14) In the county of Louth, bordering the sea between the Boyne and Dundalk, where the legendary hero Cu Chulainn lived
15) Strangford Loch
16) Lecale, the area of County Down between Dundrum Bay and the entrance to Stangford Loch. The “Ultonians” are the Ulaid, the tribe who gave their name to Ulster, and Magh Inis was the home of their ruling dynasty, the Dál Fiatach (nothing to do with Magennis or Guinness, incidentally)
17) North-eastern Antrim, home of the Dál Riata
18) That is, while looking at feats of arms in the drinking hall by torchlight, smaller, easily-handed vessels are used
19) Unidentified
20) The land of the Irish Picts, that is, County Down and southern Antrim
21) The land of King Gerg, who possessed a great bronze cauldron

11 thoughts on “St Brigid and the bathwater

  1. I did some undergrad work on pre-christian Irish kingship and thought it sounded like a good job, until I heard about the retirement plan. Not too pretty a thought there.

  2. “…the Saxon ale of bitterness…”

    Holy moly…I had understood that gruit was sweetish and, through Unger and Horsley, that hops would not have gotten to the Saxon bit of the world for some centuries yet…or, err, is it just that the Saxons were bastards?

  3. Thge “Saxon ale of bitterness” reference is a bit of a puzzler, Alan – my assumption is that another bitter herb was being used by the Saesnach not hops …

  4. Hope it’s OK that we added you to our blogroll at Moore Groups Blog – – On the bitterness of Saxon Ale – It’s unlikely that they were using hops – the bitterness could come from any herbal source, which I’ve just noticed you say yourself. I’ve put a link to this post and would be fascinated to hear of any other Irish sources you might have.



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