Antiquity of Corn in Ireland

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 14, September 29, 1832]

The annexed wood-cut represents one of the ancient bronze reaping-hooks so frequently found in Ireland, and which, from its material, must be of the most remote antiquity. It is about half the size of the original.

We shall, though not half prepared, offer a few thoughts upon the antiquity of corn in Ireland. It is a subject curious in itself, and worthy of the most serious investigation; and although the limits of our Journal will not permit us to give many or copious quotations, we trust, nevertheless, that we shall be able to quote authorities so worthy of historic credit, as to convince our readers that Ireland was not always the land of potatoes, but the land of milk and honey, the land of wheat, of oats, of ale, of mills!

We have to lament that bold assertions, without genuine authorities, have too often disgraced the pages of Irish history. On one side, the Milesian must have every thing grand and splendid and majestic;—on the other side, the contemptuous Englishman looks upon ancient Ireland at barbarous, savage, and uncultivated;—to him every Irishman, until the English invasion, was a wild man of the woods, naked and ignorant as an American Indian, having no shelter from the rain, save the foliage of his native oak, or the cavern of the rock, and having no means of satisfying hunger, save only his success in the chase. These assertions are made with as much boldness, and urged with as much force and emphasis as if they were historic facts, borne out by the most genuine historic monuments.

We shall approach the subject temperately, and without any of that etymological lunacy which is justly censured by all rational antiquaries; we shall shew the world that truth is our object.

We are told that Partholan, a Grecian, who arrived in Ireland A.M. 1798, brought with him ploughmen, brewers,&c. but we do not insist upon this as historic fact. It is scarce necessary to observe, that the old traditions of the Irish deserve no more faith than such as Livy allows to the earlier traditions of his countrymen:— "Poeticis magis decora fabulis quam incorruptis rerum gestarum monumentis traduntur. Ea nec affirmare nec refellere in animo est."— Liv. Praef.

Fragments of the works of two erudite Irish historians are still extant, and worthy of the highest credit, viz. Cormac Mc. Cullenan, bishop and king of Munster, who was born in 881, and killed in 908, and Tigernach, Abbot of Clonmacnoise and Roscommon, who died in 1088. Before we quote Tigernach as unquestionable authority, we shall give a short description of his annals of Ireland.

Tigernach questions the veracity of all the most ancient documents relating to Ireland, and makes the historical epoch begin from Kimbaeth, and the founding of the city of Emania about the 18th year of Ptolemy Lagus, before Christ, 305. " Omnia monumenta Scotorum (says he) usque kimbaeth incerta erant."

The quotations from Latin and Greek authors in Tigernach are very numerous; and his balancing their authorities against each other, manifests a degree of criticism uncommon in the age in which he lived. He quotes Eusebius, Orosius, Julius Africanus, Bede, Josephus, S. Jerome, &c., and sometimes confronts them. He always collates the Septuagint with the Hebrew text.

From the various quotations given by him from the works of ancient Irish poets, it appears that he had an extensive library, (by the envious hand of time long since destroyed,) a fact which no one will dispute, who for a moment considers that he was abbot of the rich and splendid monastery of Clonmacnoise. The annals of Innisfallen, under the year 1088, thus record his death:

"1088. tigernach hua brain do Shiol Mhuireadh-aigh, Comharba Chiarain Chluana-mac-nois, agus Chomain, saoi oirdhearc in eagna 'sa bfoghlaim, agus ollamh deaghurlabhra, agus fear ro scriobh annala Eirionn gus an m-bliadhain so, d' eag, agus a adhlacadh a g-Cluain-mac-nois."

"TIGERNACH O'BREEN of the Siol-murry, Comharba (i. e. successor) of Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and of Coman, an illustrious sage in philosophy and literature, an eloquent doctor and a writer of the annals of Ireland to this year, died, and was interred at Clonmacnoise."

Under the year 651 he has the following passage, in which there is a most distinct reference to wheat, oats, and a mill.

"A.D. 651. Guin da mhac Blathmaic mic Aedha Slaine do laignib i Molind Maelodrain .i. Donchad acos Conal/. Guin Oisre mic Oiseirg la Maelodran."

"The two sons of Blamac, son of Hugh Slaine, viz. Donchad, and Conall, were mortally wounded by the Lagenians in Maelodran's mill. Oisir, the son of Oiserge, was mortally wounded by Maelodran."

In corroboration of this, Tigernach quotes a few lines of very ancient poetry, which is indisputably a part of a poem composed immediately after the deaths of these warriors; it was probably an elegy composed by their own bard on the occasion of their deaths. In it he remarks that the mill of Maelodran had ground not oats, but precious wheat, alluding in a figurative and satiric manner to the two royal warriors having been there killed.

Having carefully compared this fragment with the same as given in the Chronicon Scotorum, and in the Annals of the Four Masters, we thus give the text:

A Muilind cia ro melt? mor do Tuirind!! Ni ro coimelt for serfuind Aro melt for uib Cearbhuill! An gran melis in Muilind Ni coirce acht is derg Tuirind! Is di fogla in cruinn mhair For do Mhuilind a Mailodhrain! " Ah mill! what hast thou ground?

Precious thy wheat!! Thou hast ground—not oats— But thou hast ground the offsprings of Cerbhall!!

The grain which the mill has ground, Is not oats, but blood-stained wheat!! May thy mill, O Maelodran! Want for ever such corn to grind."

The word that I translate wheat is Tuirind in the original, which is undoubtedly an ancient Irish word for Wheat. Father Francis Walsh, lecturer of divinity in the college of St. Anthony, at Louvain, wrote an Irish vocabulary, in which the common words of the Irish language are first given, and then the more ancient and difficult ones. In this glossary he gives Cruithneacht as the modern word and Tuirinn as the ancient one.

Vallancey in his essay on the origin of the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland, writes the following remark upon this word:

"Wheat which grows spontaneously in the northern parts of Tourann, is named by the Irish, 'Arbha Tuireann' i. e. the grain of Tuireann: and I suspect that Orna, the Irish name for barley, comes from some place in the country of that name. The Calmucs call it Arba Buda, (Strahlemberg) which signifies yellow corn in Irish; as Cruin-eacht another name for wheat, signifies red corn. In this compound we find the Chaldaic chit, wheat; whence the old English cheate, bread; main cheat, or manchet, wheaten bread.

Cormac M'Cullenan who was born in 831, thus derives the word Cruithneacht:

“Cruithneacht, i. cruith cech crodhae acos cech derg; acos nect cech glan, i. iars, an ni is derg acos is glan in Cruithneacht."

"Cruithneacht, i. e. cruith, i. e. blood-coloured, or red; and nect, i. e. clean. Wheat is so called from its being red and clean."

Aldfred, in his poem, (published in our 12th number,) says:

"Ro d'eat or is Airgeadact Ro d'eat Mil is cruithneacht."

"I found (in Ireland) gold and silver, I found honey and wheat."

As soon as we establish that there were mills anciently in Ireland, it will follow that there must have been corn: our crowned prelate above mentioned, thus derives the Irish word Muilenn, a Mill.

"Muilind .i. mol acos ond: ond .i. cloch: ar issed dedhe is Muilend a Muilind. No, Moland .i. mo a ail .i. mo a chlocha quam clocha bron. Muilend din .i. mel acos lind; ar is for lind melis."

"Muilend compounded of mol, i. e. a shaft, and ond, i. e. a stone, for these are the two things called the mill,—or moland, q. d. mo-a-ail, because its stones are larger than those of the quern. Muilend is derived (by some) from mel, to grind, and lind, a pond, because it grinds by means of the pond."

This is most positive evidence of the early use of water mills in Ireland.

Again, when we show that there was malt made anciently in Ireland, it will follow that, there must have been corn of which it was made. We refer to what the same Cormac says of it, as quoted in our 12th number.

And again, speaking of a certain golden vessel, he says:

Boige ainm ballan bec a m-bidis cuig uinge oir neoch no bhidh fri h-ol sainleanda ass: ocas no bhidh din fri gell do filedhaibh ocas do Ollamnaibh unde dicitur is na brethaibh nemhedh:

Ballan baise boige cuig n-uinge ban oir. " Boige, the name of a small vessel, weighing five ounces of gold, which was used for drinking Sainlinn (ale) out of it. It used to be given as a reward to Fileas and Ollaves, whence is said in the Brehon laws:

"The Boige is a vessel with a handle, containing five ounces of pure gold."

Tigernach under the year 1021 records that a shower of wheat fell that year in Ossary.

1021. Fross Cruitnecta d' fertain a n-Osraighe re lind Mailsechlainn mic Domhnaill.

"A shower of wheat was rained in Ossary, in the time of Malachy, the son of Donall."

What this alludes to it is now hard to determine.

That the lands of Ireland were highly cultivated in former times is proved from the marks of the plough being still visible on the tops of mountains, now deemed unworthy of the husbandman's labours, and from similar marks being daily discovered in the bottom of our bogs. It appears from an ancient law tract to be found among the MSS. in the library of Trinity College, that the irrigation of their lands was practised by the Irish, at a very early period, from which it will be allowed that they had a superior skill in agriculture.

We shall, for the present, close this article by giving the following curious extract translated from the last great work of the celebrated Baron de Humboldt—Tableau de la Nature:

"It is certainly a surprising phenomenon that on one side of our planet, a people exist, to whom milk and flower extracted from grain-bearing plants, are totally unknown, whilst that the opposite hemisphere abounds with nations who cultivate the cerealian plants, and propagate animals that give milk. Thus the culture of different grain characterizes the two parts of our globe. In the new continent, we see from 45 degrees north latitude to 72 degrees south, they cultivate but one species of grain, namely maize. In the old continent, on the contrary, we find every where, and in the most remote period which history records, the culture of wheat, barley, corn and oats, in a word, of all the cerealian plants. Diodorus Siculus, mentions wheat growing wild in the fields of Leontium and in several other places of Sicily. M. Spungel has collected several interesting passages which render the opinion likely that most of the species of European corn have been originally brought from Persia and India, where they grew naturally. I have some doubts of the existence of wild corn in Asia, and I believe it did not become so till it had been cultivated there. A negro slave of Ferdinand Cortez was the first who cultivated wheat in new Spain; he found three grains among some rice which he had brought from Spain for provisions for the army. In the Franciscan Convent at Quito they carefully preserve as a relic, the vase of clay which enclosed the first wheat, which brother Jodoas Rixi of Gonte, a Franciscan monk, had sown in the city. They at first cultivated it before the convent upon the place called the Plazuella of S. Francis. The monks whom I visited often during my stay at Quito, begged of me to explain the inscription traced upon the vase, which they supposed had some relation to the wheat, but I found this sentence written in the old German dialect:

" Let him who empties me in drinking, not forget the Lord."

This antique German vase had a very respectable appearance." In a future article we shall give a curious list of Irish Mills from the sixth century to the English invasion.

John O'Donovan.