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  • Mary O Sullivan

Drinking Patterns of the Early Irish

The first alcohol consumed in Ireland was beer (5000 years ago) and mead, however, surprisingly alcohol was not considered the most important drink. That honour went to milk!


A herd of beef cattle at sunset. Some Charolais and a hereford/fresian cross.
Cattle looking Majestic af! Image credit @stijntestrake

While alcohol may not have been that important to the early Irish, the oldest pub in Ireland, 'The Brazen Head' in Dublin, has been dated to 1198AD.


Picture of the sign 'The Brazen Head' attached to the front wall of the pub. The building is festooned with hanging flower baskets
Both the oldest pub in the country, also one of the locations where the 1798 rebellion was planned.

However, the early Irish were besotted with cattle, and hence milk. The story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley is the national epic. It is centred around the power struggle between Queen Medb and her husband King Ailill and the main unit of currency were cattle!


A beautiful long horn cow lowing on a hillside, in a meadow gone to seed.
There are many units of historical currency ... but this one is beautiful!

( Photo by Timothy Abraham on Unsplash )


Any ceremonies of importance were cemented with drinking milk. Hospitality was considered a duty related to honour. Refusing the gift of a drink from your host was therefor a hostile act, and was calculated to give huge offence. In a curious echo down the centuries, the caricature of Mrs. Doyle in Fr. Ted is a strangely close nod to the historical importance of hospitality. Milk was the most important ceremonial drink until approximately the 17th century, when tea and alcohol took over its social significance.

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