Last evening, while I was harvesting my small crop of lavender blooms, I was delighted to see a number of busy buzzing visitors to my garden – even more now since the honeybee is fast becoming an endangered species. I let the bees collect their harvest before I clipped the blooms.
Bees were especially important to the Gaels – so much so that they devoted an entire law tract to the subject of beekeeping. Bechbretha, or Bee Judgments, is believed to have first been set down in the seventh century, but the only complete copy still in existence was begun sometime in the fourteenth century. The tract deals with ownership rights of hives and swarms, compensation for harm caused by bee stings, among other things. Here’s a sample from the tract, first in Old Irish, followed by an English translation:
Fer in-étet saithe nadbi lais co finnathar maigin i suidigetar: trian do thír frisa suidigetar, trian do fiur doda-etet, trian do lestur oa n-élat bes bunadach doib. The man who follows a swarm which is not his and who finds the place where they settle: a third [goes] to the holding where they settle, a third to the man who tracks them, a third to [the owner of] the hive from which they escape and which is their original home. (Charles-Edwards & Kelly, p.78-79)
Sounds reasonable. Honey, after all, was a hot commodity since it was one of the few sources of sweeteners besides berries and other fruits. Beeswax for candles was also highly prized. It burned cleaner and smelled a whole lot better than tallow candles. Monasteries practiced beekeeping on a large scale since great quantities of beeswax were needed for candle making. For the tasty and useful products they create, bees were valuable possessions and garnered much respect….except from one man.
Because of an unfortunate accident, he became known as Congal Caech (Congal the Blind). He claimed he was blinded as a result of a bee-sting and he demanded compensation from the owner of the hive. His case is mentioned in the Bechbretha and given some importance since Congal was King of the Ulaid (a confederation of tribes in what is now Ulster). Unfortunately, the beekeeper was Domnall mac Aedo meic Ainmirech, King of the Uí Néill (a northwestern tribe) and High King of Ireland. For his suffering, Congal was awarded a hive – an unsatisfactory verdict, as you can imagine. The Ulaid demanded that the eye of Domnall’s son be put out as fair compensation, but this alternative verdict was denied by the judges. Once simply did not mess with the Uí Néill or make such demands of the High King. Congal, of course, was furious. He clashed with the Uí Néill in the Battle of Mag Rath in 637 and was slain for his trouble.
Fergus Kelly’s modern commentary on this case gives an interesting sidebar: “According to modern beekeepers, the human eye-closing reflex is so fast that a bee’s sting would be unlikely to penetrate to the cornea. To lose the sight of an eye from a bee-sting would therefore be a most unusual accident.” (p. 239).
Mmmm…this might be one for Mythbusters!
Charles-Edwards, T. & Kelly, F. (eds). (1983). Bechbretha. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Kelly, F. (1995). A guide to early Irish law. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.