With apologies to John Lennon, “Imagine all the people Living for today…” a life without books, mail, radio, TV, video, streaming, and no regular 9 to 5 job. Hard to conceive of, isn’t it? So, what did people do with their time during the Developed Iron Age (starting from about 400 – 1 BCE) in Celtic Ireland? How did they spend their free time?
The short answer is work. Everyone worked. There were no free lunches as it were. Both men and women worked in the fields, clearing the land, Men did the heavy plowing, made easier with new iron tools while the women weeded and sowed crops of wheat, barley, rye, peas and oats Planting was done by hand in early spring, in tune with the feast of Imbolc celebrating fertility and the beginning of spring while the beginning of the harvest season was in late summer or early autumn. The harvest festival Lughnasa was held on or about halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox and would signal the turn of the seasons.
The women combed the sheep, cleaning the wool, dying and sorting it before spinning it into thread on a spindle. The threads were then woven on an upright loom. Heavy stones kept the vertical threads – the warp – straight while the horizontal thread – the weft – was passed in between.
Crops had to be ground down in hand powered querns (mill stones) for flour or made into porridge and used for beer /ale. The earliest querns consisted of a hollowed out stone onto which the grain was placed. A second, smaller and rounder, stone was place on top and rubbed back and forth to grind the grain, labouriously and slowly. A later Celtic invention made use of two stones, one convex and the other concave which were fitted together. Grain was poured in through a hole in the top stone, to which a handle was added so that the top stone could be “stirred” around, grinding the grain underneath into a rough flour.
Milk was an important part of the diet and used extensively in porridge, to which honey and herbs were often added. Cooking was done, for the most part, over open fires either on a spit or in a bronze or iron cauldron. Nearly 5000 troughs, known as Fulachta Fíadh, have been discovered throughout Ireland and it is assumed that they were used as a communal type of kitchen as the stone troughs could hold water heated by hot stones in which food could be cooked. However they may well have served other purposes – brewing, tanning, rendering down fat and so on – but whatever purpose they had would seem to indicate a social purpose outside of the individual domestic home.
Sick animals needed to be cared for, while milking, collecting eggs, repairing thatch, fetching water and herbs were all daily and regular activities. Cattle were highly prized, being the main source of wealth but pigs, goats, cows, ducks and geese were all essential to survival and meagre comfort while eggs were an essential part of protein and goose fat was used to soften and waterproof leather and goose feathers were used for bedding and cushions. (In Raiding Cooley, one of the characters was so excited that he bounced up and down, bursting the goose feather cushion he was sitting on!)
Dogs were used much as today, as both companions and guards against neighbourhood raiding, and fierce wild animals – the boar revered for its ferocity, and wolves while the superb Irish wolfhound would accompany warriors into battle.
No time was wasted in reading and writing for several reasons but mostly because there was no written language and the Druids believed holy knowledge was too important to be written down although Greek and Latin were sometimes used.
Ogham, often referred to as The Tree Alphabet, was an ancient British and Irish alphabet, not a language, dating from about 300 C.E. consisting of twenty (later amended to 25) characters grouped into sets of 5 and was made up of strokes or notches diagonally across, or on either side of, a vertical line, this often being the edge of a standing stone. Possibly the script is much older and might have been based on a type of sign language used by the druids using five fingers. More than likely based on the Latin alphabet, but using straight lines rather than letters, the message is read from the bottom up. A letter for /p/ is conspicuously absent, since the phoneme was lost in Proto-Celtic, and the gap was not filled in Q-Celtic, and no sign was needed before loanwords from Latin containing /p/ appeared in Irish (e.g., Patrick).
The Ogham alphabet originally consisted of twenty distinct characters arranged in four series named after its first character “the B Group – BLFSN”, “the H Group HDTCQ,” the M Group MGNGZR”, and “the A Group – AOUEI”). Five additional letters were later introduced, the so-called forfeda but for convenience here I have reproduced the letters in Alphabetical order.
Used mostly for names of individuals, they might well have been used to mark burial spots or act as memorials or perhaps they property borders.