The Fosterling in Irish Mythology

The Fosterling in Irish Mythology

The Fosterling in Irish Mythology

Ireland has a strange history when it comes to the care of its children. Sometimes, it seems as if they were treated as possessions to be traded rather than flesh and blood to be cherished, our country’s future.

We have a dark legacy to come to terms with, as we discover 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.

In ancient times, fosterage played an important role in Irish society, but the process was governed by strict and complex rules as specified in the Brehon Laws. It was something practised by all classes, but particularly by the wealthy and the noble.

It 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.

Sometimes, a child was fostered out of goodwill, but generally a fee was paid to the foster parents. This was graded according to the child’s rank, so for example, three cows might be paid for fostering a farmer’s son, but eighteen cows might be paid for the son of a king. In those days, cattle were used as currency.

Fostering a girl was far more expensive than fostering a boy. The reason for this is unclear; perhaps she required closer supervision, or perhaps it was more complicated to teach her women’s skills.

The legend of Princess Tuag might indicate why the cost of fostering female children was greater than fostering males. 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.

When she was just fifteen, however, Manannán the Sea-God decided he would take her 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.

He carried her to the mouth of the River Bann, 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.

Children were often fostered as young as one year old, but seven was more typical. Often, strong affections resulted from fosterage at such a tender age.

We see this in Irish mythology with regard to the God, Lugh, 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 honour at Tailten (Teltown in Co Meath, between Navan and Kells), where she had lived and was buried.

It was expected that a foster child be reared in accordance with the role they would fulfil in life as an adult. Foster parents were responsible for ensuring the child was taught the knowledge, business, or trade suited to their rank. If the quality of the fostering was found to be inadequate in any way, the foster parents would be subjected to a hefty fine of two thirds of the original foster-fee.

Lugh was known as the Samildanach, or ‘Master of all Arts’, because 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.

Fosterage was considered complete if the child died, committed a crime, or was married. For a girl, marriage was legal at fourteen, and for a boy, seventeen. If the foster parents had no children of their own, they were entitled in old age or sickness to be supported by their foster children.

The laws which governed the fosterage process were very detailed and complex and controlled even the minutiae of their daily lives; stirabout (a type of porridge) was given to all fosterlings for breakfast, but only the sons of kings were allowed to flavour it with honey. Fresh butter was given to the chieftains’ sons, but the lower ranks had to make do with salt butter.

Even the colour of their clothing was controlled by the law. The lower ranks could wear yellow, black, white or beige, but children of noble status were allowed to dazzle in red, green and brown. Purple and blue were reserved only for royalty. This probably had much to do with the scarcity and costliness of certain dyes.

If a child committed any crime, it was the foster parent rather than the natural father who was liable for the offence.

When Diarmuid ua Duibhne, a warrior of the Fianna, committed an offence 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.

Diarmuid eloped with Grainne on the night of her wedding to Fionn mac Cumhall. Deeply offended, Fionn chased the love-struck pair across the length and breadth of Ireland, even when Grainne grew heavy with child.

It was Óengus, foster father, not biological father, who stepped 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.

If a fosterling was physically marked in any way, either through being struck by the foster parent, or injured whilst in their care, the foster-fee was forfeit. If the child became seriously ill, or diseased, the foster parents had the right to return it to its natural parents.

If a child died, and the foster parents were found to be negligent, the child’s biological parents were fully entitled by law to seek direct retribution.

When Cuchullain was born to Lugh and the mortal woman, Dechtine, daughter of Ulster King, Conchobar mac Nessa, the nobles of Ulster squabbled amongst themselves over who should foster the boy. The matter was only settled when Morann the Wise intervened and chose a team of six foster parents for their own particular skills, who all had a clearly defined role in the boy’s upbringing.

Interestingly, Fionn mac Cumhall was fostered at birth 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.

But perhaps the most famous fosterage story of all in Irish mythology is that of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Deirdre was the daughter of the King’s storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill. Cathbad, the King’s chief druid prophesied that the child would grow up to be so beautiful that kings would go to war over her, much blood would be spilled, and Ulster’s three greatest heroes would be exiled.

Hearing this, many people called for her death, but the King of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, refused to have a baby murdered, and took her into fosterage. He gave her to a druidess named Lebhorcham, and ordered her to be reared in the forest in isolation, where she could cause no harm.

Deirdre grew up into a beautiful young woman, and one day quite by chance, meets Naoise, a warrior frrom the King’s court. They fall in love and fearful of the King’s wrath, elope to Scotland with Naoise’s two brothers, Arden and Ainnle.

Conchobar tracked them down, and had Naoise and his brothers killed. He married Deirdre, but then decided to give her to the man who had murdered her lover, Naoise. Distraught, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, hitting her head on a boulder, and so was killed.

These myths are tragic indeed, but pale beside the true stories which have been emerging in Ireland in recent years. Brehon law, although altered by the Christians to fit with their beliefs, continued into the middle ages. These laws, so ahead of their time, protected the rights of not only the fosterlings, but the foster parents and the birth parents too.

That they came to be scrapped in order to pave the way for the abuses which are still coming to light even now was a step not into enlightenment, but ignorance.

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23 Comments on “The Fosterling in Irish Mythology

  1. Pingback: 6 Most Tragic Love Stories in Irish Mythology (Part Two) | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. So will we ever find out why fostering a girl was so much more expensive? Maybe it was because she could go on to give the Foster-Parents Grandchildren?
    And I wonder why the difference in ages as to when boys and girls could marry? Perhaps boys were thought too immature to marry at the age of 14?
    Another fascinating read, Ali, especially as I only recently watched the movie Philomena.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tragic and compelling stories Ali. You tell them so well. Girls especially seemed to suffer if they were beautiful. Life must have been harsh and yet, poetry and legend were born from it.
    So sad that the abuse of children existed and still exists to the present. Kudos to those who have lovingly fostered children not their own!


  4. really interesting post, Ali. there really was a lot of fostering in Ireland. How bizarre that their practices could change SO dramatically to something so awful. I always wonder what can cause something so signifiant like that to happen.


    • My guess would be Christianity, greed, domination, control, hunger for power, misogyny, poverty and want, denial, and the convenience which secrecy, silence and fear provide in order to continue atrocity and cruelty toward those who have been convinced, programmed, and systematically portrayed to be invisible. Perhaps not in that order.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating, Ali! I had no idea how complex fostering was in ancient times. I found myself feeling glad I live now while reading … it always makes me uneasy to think about having to grow up according to a very particular role and not having a say in it. I have friends who were told by their parents what they would be when they grew up, and ended up pretty miserable as they followed direction. You make the vocation your own, but at what cost? At least the positions we take on nowadays as adults don’t make up our entire identity and social status as was quite often the case for our ancestors. And then again, compared to our modern atrocities, using children for social gain and alliance seems pretty benign.

    The colors to denote status has always interested me. I’m pretty sure Fionn wore green, most people in kinship with him wore brown. I know Ailbhe also wore brown – she grew up in a somewhat noble land-owning family.

    Red usually made people stand out too much. 🙂

    Thanks for such a great post!


  6. Great history lesson, Ali. Some of the tales remind me a little of Sleeping Beauty (despite the tragic endings). It’s disheartening to learn about the old Brehon laws being swept aside and replaced with opportunities for abuse. In the US, we still haven’t come to terms with the terrible abuse of Native American children that were taken forcibly from their families and put in foster homes. Cultural arrogance is not only unfortunate but often dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s mad that children seemed to be seen as a commodity and yet held on more value and esteem than in the 20th century, isn’t it? At least there were measures set in stone regarding their welfare. But I don’t think I’d be up for fostering a demigod child. Imagine what’d happen when you grounded them or took away their iPhone.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! I admire you for being a foster parent. I’m sure you made a huge difference in those children’s lives. I find it hard enough being a parent to just my own kids! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

        • That is a beautiful post. You must have been a wonderful foster mum! Yes, very tough at times, I see that these kids had an impact on your entire family, but looks to me like you did a great job! And you have some amazing memories. It must be so sad to see some of them spiral out of control like that, but so rewarding to see the others go on to do well in life. Fair play to you!


          • Thanks Ali. I think I did OK, and hope that all of those who stayed with me for however long or short a time are happy in their life. Hopefully they may think of me sometimes.


  8. Fostering was common across the whole of the UK with the fosterling often taken as Squire by a lord and taught the ways of the Knight as well as being hostage for his birth fathers good behaviour. Often as you say it guaranteed a treaty of some kind. But there were times when the birth father and the foster father found themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. I’m sure more than one fosterling has paid the price for that.
    A great post as always Ali. Thank you.
    xxx Gigantic Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • David, I never knew that the Squire was a fosterling… that suddenly makes so much sense. Yes, the thing about foster parents and biological parents being on opposite sides in battle is interesting…
      Thanks David! Hope you’re having a great week! Huge hugs!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Barb! It’s a bit grey over here too, but not raining 😲 for a change and quite fresh. Hoping that big yellow ball in the sky might put in an appearance today…


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