Six years ago, I lost my mother to cancer and over the course of the same year, I was blessed with a new mother – a woman 20 years my senior who took me under her wing and saw that I wasn’t alone during the holidays, who read and re-read my manuscripts, and watched all 79 episodes of the original Star Trek series just because I said she should see them. Her husband has become another father to me, her daughters my sisters. The relationships we’ve developed are very much like the relationships I might have developed as a youth in ancient Ireland with foster-parents and foster-sisters.
The brehon laws, the highly advanced legal system that governed Gaelic society for over a millennium, speak of many customs that the Gaels of both Ireland and Scotland held dear. One of these was the practice of altram, or fosterage, in which children were sent away to be raised in other households (often that of the mother’s brother) for a period that lasted between seven to ten years. One prominent law tract, Cáin Íarraith (“The Law of Fosterage-Fee”) describes in vast detail the practice of fosterage.
According to Kelly (1995), there were two types of fosterage – altram serce (fosterage for affection), for which no fee was paid by the parents, and the type of fosterage which required a fee [Kelly does not provide a term for this type]. Altram serce took place more often among kindred and familial friends. But perhaps the most important type of fosterage was arranged for the children of high-ranking men, and it was this fosterage that forged political alliances.
Cáin Íarraith sets the fosterage fee for the son of a king at 30 séts [a common unit of unknown value], while the son of a farmer could be fostered for a mere 3 séts. All children, according to the laws, were fed equally “until the end of (the first) year,” after which time children were fed according to rank: “Stirabout (porridge) made of (oatmeal) on buttermilk or water is given to the sons of the féni grades (farmers), and a bare sufficiency of it merely, and salt butter for flavoring. Stirabout made on new milk (is given) to the sons of the chieftain grade, and fresh butter for flavoring, and a full sufficiency of it is given them; and barley meal upon it (i.e., is the basis). Stirabout made of new milk and wheat meal is given to the sons of kings, and honey for flavoring” (Patterson, 1994, pp. 190-191).
Furthermore, the laws prescribe that “…the son of a king must be supplied with a horse for riding, and with clothing worth 7 séts…the son of a king or noble must be taught the board-games fidchell and brannuigecht, horsemanship, swimming, and marksmanship. A daughter [of a king] is taught sewing, cloth-cutting and embroidery. Lower down the social scale, the son of a famer must learn how to look after lambs, calves, kids and young pigs, as well as drying corn, combing wool, and chopping firewood. A daughter must learn how to use the quern, the kneading-trough, and the sieve” (Kelly, 1995, p. 88). Children of high rank were often fostered by a number of foster-parents during their years of fosterage. This had the advantage of relieving the foster-parents of a prolonged financial burden and benefiting the child with the knowledge and training of various elders.
Interestingly enough, the fee to foster girls was slightly higher than for boys, and Kelly explains that this may be because of “the greater difficulty of rearing a girl, or the fact that she is less likely to be of benefit to her foster-parents in later life” (1995, p. 87). It also seems that girls were not fostered as long as boys. According to Cáin Íarraith, both sexes began fosterage around the age of seven with girls finishing fosterage about the age of fourteen and boys at age seventeen. When fosterage was completed, it was customary for the foster-father to bestow a sét getha (a valuable of affection) upon his foster-child at parting.
Why would parents willingly give up the raising of their children to others, especially when travel was difficult and they may not see their children until they were nearly grown? Patterson provides the best answer: “Amongst the aristocracy, fosterage was a political instrument of great significance and prestige, to the extent that children of this class were fostered by several families sequentially” (1994, p. 190). The more foster-families a man’s child had, the more allies he had. Additionally, fosterage does not seem to have been an arrangement that was unacceptable to children, as is evidenced by the terms of affection given to foster-parents in Old Irish. The formal words for foster-father and foster-mother are datán and datnat, respectively. However, a foster-father was more frequently called aite (a term of affection equivalent to “dad”) and a foster-mother muime (i.e., “mom”), whereas the child would call his natural parents “father” and “mother.” For the child, fosterage was looked forward to with excitement – a big adventure and a chance to make new friends in foster-brothers and sisters.
Here’s to you, Muime.
Kelly, F. (1995). A guide to early Irish law. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Patterson, N.T. (1994). Cattle-lords and clansmen: the social structure of early Ireland. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.