Fionn mac Cumhall was famous for his band of hunter-warriors known as the Fianna. These men and women lived a lawless life on the edge of society, beholden only to the High King. In fact, the Fianna’s name derives from the ancient term, ‘fian’ which is believed to mean ‘wild’, usually in reference to animals such as deer.
During much of the year, while the weather was mild, the Fianna roamed free, living off the land, constructing temporary encampments, and hunting to feed themselves. According to all the ancient lore, they were particularly fond of hunting wild boar, deer and even the giant elk.
It would have taken a lot of hunting, and a lot of carcasses to feed such a large group. So how did they do it?
One suggestion is the outdoor kitchen, known as the ‘fullachta fiadh‘ (pronounced fool-ok-tha-fee-a). These archaeological sites have been found all over Ireland. So far, about 4,500 such sites have been discovered, nearly half of them in the county of Cork.
They generally consist of a low, semi-circular shaped mound of soil rich with charcoal deposits, and scattered with heat-shattered stones; a hearth on which a fire was built, and a central trough dug into the ground. The pit was often lined with planks of wood, or slabs of stone, and sometimes clay. The size of the trough varies considerably from site to site, but many measure approximately 1m wide by 2m long, and 1/2 m deep.
They are usually found close to a water source, be it a pool, river or bog; a source of suitable rocks, which are easy to get at, and near to woodland, where fuel to build a fire can be readily obtained. Post holes near some of these structures would indicate that small, temporary huts may have been erected nearby, although their purpose is not known, perhaps storage of tools or produce. They did not seem to be built near any more permanent buildings, or settlements.
The large concentration of heat-shattered stones suggests that they were used to heat the water in the pit. This was done by heating in the fire, and then rolling them into the pit. As they cooled and the water heated, they were removed and replaced by new hot stones.
It is suggested that a large pit of water could be heated quite quickly in this manner, perhaps in as little as half an hour…useful when there are a lot of hungry, impatient mouths to feed! The rock most commonly used was sandstone, as it could be heated, cooled and re-used up to 5 times before shattering.
Joints of meat were then wrapped in straw and placed in the water to cook. Trials have shown that cooking in this way acts much like slow braising, making the meat moist and tender.
However, no animal bones or foodstuff remains have been found at fulachta fiadh sites, causing this explanation to be questioned. So, what else could they have been used for?
Some suggestions have offered bathing, sweat-house, washing and dying cloth, preparation of animal hides and leather working, metal working, and even the brewing of beer; an experiment in Galway found that a drinkable light ale could be quite easily produced!
I look around my kitchen and see it used for a myriad purposes; my desk and computer are located here; the boys do their homework here; I sit and chat with friends here; I read here; I do my ironing here (when its raining, otherwise I do it in the garden); listen to radio here; we eat here; oh yes, and I cook here.
It seems reasonable to suppose, then, that the fulachta fiadh could also have served a variety of functions, so long as they shared the common requirement of needing hot water.
Personally, I rather like the idea of Fionn and his men gathering around the fulachta fiadh at the end of a long day’s hunting to wash the grime from their bodies, and cook the hard-won spoils of their efforts.
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