Why Fostering Kids Was So Popular in Ancient Ireland

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Why Fostering Kids Was So Popular in Ancient Ireland

There were many complex laws and customs prevalent in the Celtic-speaking world of ancient times. In Ireland and the British Isles in general, these c

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There were many complex laws and customs prevalent in the Celtic-speaking world of ancient times. In Ireland and the British Isles in general, these customs survived for many centuries, some as late as the 19th century. Life in ancient Ireland was full of complex, unwritten social rules, laws and traditions of utmost cultural significance – laws of tenure, cultural connections, relations and gender differences, social castes and classes, hostages, marriages, and fosterage. Today we are uncovering the custom of fosterage, where a child would be sent away to an altogether different family to be fostered and brought up. This was a complex custom that carried a lot of weight and involved benefits for both families involved.

The Origins of Fosterage in Ancient Ireland

Fosterage can be observed across Europe as a long-practiced tradition. However, it can be best studied in the histories of Scotland and Ireland, the last Celtic bastions of the British Isles. Here, the custom of fosterage was of major cultural importance as one of the most common and important aspects of Irish society. The tradition was governed by a set of highly strict and specific rules, many of which were later compiled in the Brehon Laws, the statues that governed everyday life in ancient Ireland.

The custom of fosterage was observed amongst all of Ireland’s classes – from wealthy nobles and landholders, all the way down to simple tenants and clansmen. However, it was more prevalent amongst nobles, since fosterage was an effective way of strengthening bonds amongst kinsmen and allies. Surprisingly, there were parallels to the system of taking hostages, but whereas a hostage secured obedience or alliance through pressure and threats, fosterage was a mutual agreement amongst kinsmen, cousins, and allies – a way to strengthen the bonds in a mutually beneficial manner.

In a time when clans were spreading far and wide, with many sub-branches emerging, foster care was an effective way to keep the blood ties and relations alive. Ancient Ireland was a turbulent nation, almost constantly torn apart by war, famine, internal conflicts, and invasions. Fostering was thus a great way to secure allies in times of trouble. If your ally turned on you, a foster child could quickly become a hostage held for ransom.

Put simply, the ancient custom of fosterage meant that one family would send a child to be brought up by another family. This process could last for many years, but since the child’s actual parents were still acknowledged as such, the process differed from adoption. The fostered child was looked on as an equal in their new family, and could not be seen as burdensome in any way.

In ancient Ireland, a child was often sent to the ollam, either for free or for a fee, ollams being the highest classes in Ireland. The ins and outs of fosterage depended on the child’s rank in society. If a child was fostered out of good will, there was usually no fee. However, if there was a price involved, it usually varied. For example, a fee amongst the lower, farming classes might be three cows for the fostering of a boy. But if it was a son of a noble, the fee could go as high as eighteen cows. Note that in ancient Ireland, cattle was seen as the main currency and source of wealth.

Cattle was the main currency in ancient Ireland. Cows were often part of the fostering arrangement. (Wellcome / CC BY 4.0 )

A Strong Bond Between Two Connected Families

However, the fosterage fee did not only depend on the child’s social rank. A lot of it had to do with gender too. In general, girls were more expensive to foster, roughly one third more than boys. This is because their needs were seen as more complex than that of boys. A girl, a daughter of a tenant or a farmer that was given to foster care, was taught the common female chores of that era. These included running a house, the use of the quern (a primitive hand mill for grinding grain), how to use a sieve and how to knead-through, the herding of lambs and (goat) kids, and so on. However, if a girl was from a higher-class family, she was also taught how to sew, cut and embroider, which were highly prized skills at the time. Wealthier children were also educated, taught board games , horse riding, and other noble pursuits.

The period of fosterage could last many years, usually covering the duration of childhood. It would end when the foster child reached the age of consent: in ancient Ireland this was usually around fourteen for girls and seventeen for boys. However, even when the fostering period ended, strong bonds and affection would continue between the fostered child and the fostering family. In fact, the ancient Irish Law records one of the four “legitimate killings” in Irish society: the “avenging of a foster-son of the kin.”

It is crucial to understand that fosterage was a life-long commitment for both parties involved. This reflects the strong bond created and a major emphasis on alliance and strengthening of kinships. The payments – made by both families – served as a way to provide aid between families, often in times of war. On completion of fosterage, an important payment was made to the child, known as sét gertha (roughly translated as “valuable of affection”). This payment was a way to ensure the maintenance of the foster family in later life. If the foster family was afflicted by poverty in old age, the foster child would be obliged to look after them.

Painting of the Irish from circa 1575. Fosterage was a common custom in ancient Ireland. (Public domain)

Painting of the Irish from circa 1575. Fosterage was a common custom in ancient Ireland. ( Public domain )

A Complex Matter of Securing Allies in Times of Trouble

In many ways, fosterage was a clever way for the Irish to fill certain “holes” in the fabric of their society at the time. In an age where families had many children competing with other kinsmen over inheritance, fosterage was a way to secure sustaining allies. It also held benefits for mothers who wanted to secure and maintain ties to their own kin – ties that were often lost upon marriage. Through fosterage, the mother could maintain partial control over the raising of her children, and stay in good relations with her own kin.

Of course, on the whole, fosterage was fairly complex, regulated by numerous unwritten rules that gave it a whole new dimension. It was yet another layer of the already complex set of rules that pertained to ancient Irish law, and while it was beneficial in many regards, it likewise brought numerous possibilities for furthering existing conflicts.

The custom of fosterage, did not exist solely in ancient Ireland. It was prevalent in Scotland too, a society based on clans and kinships, as well as in medieval Iceland. The latter could have adopted the custom from Scotland or Ireland, since there was a strong Norse presence there, or it could have been vice versa – that the Norse introduced the custom into Celtic lands. The true source remains unknown.

Nevertheless, the custom survived a long time in both Ireland and Scotland. We know it was in use in remote parts of Hebrides until the 18th century, but it could have survived for longer. One unique report, written in 1775 by the famed poet, writer, and essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson in his work “A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland”, documents the custom of fosterage that was practiced at that time in the islands of Inner and Outer Hebrides. The report remains one of the most valuable “modern” accounts of this ancient tradition:

“There still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away, the custom of fosterage. A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence, sends his child, either male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant, but some distant friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very reasonably thought. The terms of fosterage seem to vary in different islands. In Mull, the father sends with his child a certain number of cows, to which the same number is added by the fosterer. The father appropriates a proportionable extent of ground, without rent, for their pasturage. If every cow brings a calf, half belongs to the fosterer, and half to the child; but if there be only one calf between two cows, it is the child’s, and when the child returns to the parent, it is accompanied by all the cows given, both by the father and by the fosterer, with half of the increase of the stock by propagation. These beasts are considered as a portion, and called Macalive cattle, of which the father has the produce, but is supposed not to have the full property, but to owe the same number to the child, as a portion to the daughter, or a stock for the son. Children continue with the fosterer perhaps six years, and cannot, where this is the practice, be considered as burdensome. The fosterer, if he gives four cows, receives likewise four, and has, while the child continues with him, grass for eight without rent, with half the calves, and all the milk, for which he pays only four cows when he dismisses his Dalt, for that is the name for a foster child.”

Is Fosterage a Remnant of a Much Older Indo-European Custom?

Interestingly, the custom of fosterage can also be observed in some other cultures in the world. Most notably, the tradition existed in the Caucasian mountains, amongst its numerous tribes and cultures. There, it was commonly known as atalism, whereby a child, shortly after his birth, spends some time with the family of an adoptive parent called Atalyk for its upbringing, and then, after a certain time has elapsed returns to his parents. The custom was documented as late as 1818, by a French traveler and chevalier, Edouard Taitbout de Marigny in his work Travels to Circassia (“Voyages en Circassie”).

Although the custom is prevalent amongst Caucasian peoples, the origins of the name are Turkic, with the root of the word Atalyk being ata, the Turkic word for “father”. Atalyk itself is a word meaning “fatherhood”. Of course, the word for father is similar in many Indo-European languages. Thus, amongst the Celtic speakers in Ireland, an aita was the name for a (foster) educator. This all tells us that the custom of fosterage has extremely ancient roots, stemming perhaps from the uniform set of beliefs of the Indo-Europeans.

The custom of fosterage was common in ancient Ireland. (Public domain)

The custom of fosterage was common in ancient Ireland. ( Public domain )

Ireland and Scotland as the Last Bastions of Fosterage

The custom of fosterage is a recurring theme in many of the numerous myths in Irish tradition. Stories of Princess Tuag, a girl fostered at the holy hill of Tara by High King Conaire and stolen by Manannán the Celtic god of the sea, are centered around the fosterage custom. Furthermore, the theme can be observed in the myths regarding the pagan god Lugh, who was raised by his foster-mother, Tailtiu. She was a goddess, and thus she taught her foster child all that she knew. And accordingly, Lugh became known as the Master of All Arts.

Today, of course, the custom of fosterage has been almost completely lost to time. In fact, not many know of it, nor are they aware that it was once a defining feature of Irish life. In many ways, it was a custom born out of circumstance, dictated by the increasing need for allies and strong kinship ties in a time of war and inner strife. Still, as we dig deep to find its roots, we encounter an important ancient custom that survived across the ages.

Top image: fosterage Source: trafa / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

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