The Celtic-speaking regions in Ireland, the British Isles, and other parts of Europe had many complex laws and customs in ancient times. In Ireland and Britain, many of these customs survived for several centuries, some as late as the 19th century.
In ancient Ireland, life was full of many complex and unwritten social rules, laws, and traditions of great cultural significance including cultural connections, relations and gender differences, social castes and classes, marriages, taking hostages, and fosterage.
Fosterage involved a child being sent to a completely different family to be fostered and raised. This was a complex custom which carried a lot of importance and involved benefits for both the families involved.
Origins of the custom in Ancient Ireland
Fosterage was practiced across Europe as a long-practiced tradition. But it was best studied in the histories of Scotland and Ireland, which were the last bastions of Celtic culture in the British Isles. The custom of fosterage was of major cultural importance as one of the most common and significant aspects of Irish society. The tradition was ruled by a set of highly strict and specific rules, many of which were later incorporated in the Brehon Laws, the statutes that governed daily life in ancient Ireland.
The custom of fosterage was seen among all of Ireland’s classes including wealthy aristocrats and landowners, ordinary tenants, and clansmen. But it was more prevalent among the nobility since it was a way of strengthening the bonds between kinsmen and allies. Surprisingly, there were parallels between the customs of fosterage and the system of taking hostages. The difference was that while a hostage secured obedience or an alliance through pressure and threats, fosterage was a mutual agreement among kinsmen, cousins, and allies, and a way to strengthen the bonds in a mutually beneficial way.
At a time when clans were spreading across the country, with many sub-branches emerging, foster care was an effective way to keep alive the relations of blood. Ancient Ireland had a turbulent history as it was almost constantly torn apart by war, famine, internal conflicts, and external invasions.
Fostering was thus a great way to secure allies in troubled times. If one’s ally became hostile, a foster child would quickly become a hostage and be held for ransom. In simple terms, the ancient custom of fosterage meant that one family would send a child to be raised by another family. This process could last for many years but as the child’s actual parents were still accepted, the process was different from adoption. The fostered child was looked on as an equal in the new family, not to be seen as burdensome in any way.
In ancient Ireland, children would often be sent to the ollam, which were the highest classes in the country, either free of charge or for a fee. The specifics of fosterage depended on the child’s social conditions. If a child was fostered due to goodwill, it was usually for free. But if there was a price involved, it usually varied. For instance, a fee among the lower, farming classes could be three cows for the fostering of a cow. But if the child was a son of a noble, the fee could be as high as eighteen cows. It is noteworthy that in ancient Ireland, cattle were considered the main currency and source of wealth.
The bond between two connected families
The fosterage didn’t depend only on the child’s social rank. It was related to gender too. Generally, girls were roughly one-third more expensive to foster as equated to boys as their needs were considered more composite than boys. A girl who was the daughter of a tenant or a farmer, and was given to foster care, was taught the normal female duties of the era.
These included running a house, the use of the quern, which was a primitive hand mill for grinding care, using a sieve, kneading through, herding of lambs and goat kids. If the girl was from a higher-class family, she was also taught sewing, cutting, and embroidery, which was considered highly prized skills at the time. Wealthy children were also educated, taught board games, horse riding, and other such pursuits.
The period of the fosterage could last for many years covering the entire duration of childhood. Fosterage would finish when the foster child reached the age of consent, which in ancient Ireland was 14 years for girls and 17 years for boys. But when the fostering period ended, strong bonds would continue between the fostered child and the fostering family. According to Ancient Irish Law, one of the four ‘legitimate killings’ in Irish society could be the ‘avenging of a foster-son of the kin.’
An important aspect of fosterage was that fosterage was a life-long commitment for both the families involved. It reflected a strong bond that was thus created and an emphasis on alliance and strengthening of kinships. The payment made between the two families was a means to provide aid during times of war.
When the fosterage was completed, an important imbursement was made to the child, which was known as set gertha which was roughly translated as ‘valuable of affection’. This payment was a way to ensure the upkeep of the foster family in the later life of the child. If the foster family was affected by poverty in their old age, the foster child would look after them as an obligation.
Securing allies in troubled times
In many ways, fosterage was a clever way for the Irish to plug certain holes in their social fabric at the time. At a time when families had many children competing with their other kin for an inheritance, fosterage was a route to secure the sustenance of allies. It also had benefits for mothers who wanted to maintain ties to their families which were mostly lost when they married into their husband’s family. Fosterage allowed the mother to have partial control over the bringing up of her children, and maintain good relations with her own kin.
The fosterage process was quite complex and was maintained by many unwritten rules which gave it an entirely whole new dimension. It pertained to ancient Irish law which, while beneficial in many regards, also brought about numerous possibilities for furthering existing conflicts. Fosterage didn’t exist solely in ancient Ireland. It was prevalent in Scotland as well. Scotland was a society that was based on clans and kinships, as well as in medieval Iceland, who could have adopted the custom from Scotland or Ireland, as there was a strong Nordic presence there or it could have been vice versa that the Norse introduced the custom into Celtic lands. The true source remains unknown.
The custom, nevertheless, survived for a long time in both Ireland and Scotland. It was used in the remote parts of the Hebrides until the 18th century or more. A unique report, which was written in 1775 by the famous poet, writer, and essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson in his work ‘A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland’ recorded the practice of fosterage that was observed at the time in the Inner and Outer Hebrides islands
The report remains one of the most valuable modern accounts of the ancient tradition. According to the report, the custom of fosterage still remained in the islands though it was dying fast. A Laird, who was a man of wealth and eminence, would send his child, male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, where the child would be raised. The tenant was not always his own but a distant friend who got this honor. The terms of fosterage were varied in the different islands.
In Mull, the father sent with his child a certain number of cows, to which the same number was added by the fosterer. The father took a proportional amount of ground, without rent, for the forage of the cows. If every cow brought a calf, half belonged to the fosterer, and half to the child.
However, if there was only one calf between two cows, it was the child’s, and when the child returned to the parent, it was accompanied by all the cows given, both by the father and by the fosterer, along with half of the increase of the stock by propagation. These animals were considered as a portion, and known as Macalive cattle, of which the father had the product, but was not supposed to have the full property, but to be obligated the same number to the child, as a portion to the daughter, or a stock for the son.
Children continued with the fosterer for perhaps six years, and couldn’t, where the practice existed, be considered as a burden. The fosterer, if he gave four cows, received four likewise, and had, while the child continued with him, grass for eight without rent, with half the calves, and all the milk, for which he paid only four cows when he dismissed his Dalt, which was the name for a foster child, wrote Johnson.
Remnant of a much older Indo-European custom
Interestingly, the custom of fosterage was also observed in some other cultures in the world, especially in the Caucasus mountains, among the numerous tribes and cultures there. There, it was commonly called atalism, where a child, shortly after its birth spent some time with the family of an adoptive parent called Atalyk for its upbringing, and then return to its parents after a certain amount of time had passed.
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’). Though the custom was prevalent among the Caucasian peoples, the origin of the name of the custom was Turkic, as the roots of the word ‘Atalyk’ were ‘Ata’, which was the Turkic word for ‘Father’.
The word for father was similar in many Indo-European languages. Therefore, among the Celtic speakers in Ireland, an ‘aita’ was the name for a foster educator. Thus, the custom of fosterage had very ancient roots, perhaps stemming from the beliefs of the uniform beliefs of the Indo-Europeans.
The last bastions of the custom of Fosterage
The custom of fosterage was a recurring theme in many of the myths in Irish mythology. The stories of princess Tuag, a girl fostered at the holy hill of Tara by High King Conaire and stolen by Manannan the Celtic sea god, were centered around the fosterage custom.
The theme can also be observed in the myths regarding the pagan god ‘Lugh’, who was raised by his foster-mother, Tailtiu. She was a goddess, and thus taught her foster child all that she knew. Accordingly, Lugh came to be known as the Master of All Arts.
Today, the custom of fosterage is completely lost to time. In fact, many don’t know of it nor are they aware that it was once a definitive feature of Irish life. It was a tradition born out of context, dictated by the growing need for allies and strong affinity ties in a time of war and inner strife. Yet, as its roots are discovered, an ancient custom is encountered which survived across the ages.