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 practiced 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 honor at Tailten (Teltown in Co Meath, between Navan and Kells), where she had lived and was buried.
It was expected that a foster child would be reared in accordance with the role they would fulfill 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.
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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 that governed the fosterage process were very detailed and complex and controlled even the minutiae of their daily lives; stir-about (a type of porridge) was given to all fosterlings for breakfast, but only the sons of kings were allowed to flavor it with honey. Fresh butter was given to the chieftains’ sons, but the lower ranks had to make do with salt butter.
Even the color 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 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 offense.
When Diarmuid ua Duibhne, a warrior of the Fianna, committed an offense 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, met Naoise, a warrior at the King’s court. They fell in love. Fearful of the King’s wrath, they eloped 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 that 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.
*Ali Isaac lives in beautiful rural Co Cavan in Ireland, and is the author of two books based on Irish mythology, “Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean,” and “Conor Kelly and The Fenian King.” Ali regularly posts on topics of Irish interest on her blog, www.aliisaacstoryteller.com.
** Originally published in 2016, updated in Nov 2023.