Ancient Irish Ale

beer-historyMartynCornellIt was a tough life being a king in ancient Ireland. The Irish poetic epic called “the Cattle Raid of Cooley” describes the typical day of King Conor Mac Nessa, the legendary ruler of Ulster around the end of the first century A.D. King Conor, the poet said, would spend a third of the day watching the youths at sport (the ancient equivalent of tuning into the football on television); a third playing fidchell, a popular Iron Age board game; and the last third of the day drinking ale – coirm or cuirm in Old Irish – “until he falls asleep therefrom.”

Cuirm comes from the same root as the curmi mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny, about A.D. 60, as a drink made from barley and consumed by the Celtic Gauls. At some point the “m” in curmi changed to “v,” and when the Romans adopted the Gaulish practise of ale drinking they called it cervesia in Latin, from which the Spanish word cerveza is derived. Coirm, as well as meaning ale, also meant a drinking party or feasting, and coirm agus ceol was the Irish for feasting and singing.

Another Irish word for ale was scó, which occurs in the old Irish expression scó scethach, used for beer that was off, and meaning literally “vomiting ale,” or “vomit-inducing ale.” Under ancient Irish law, if anyone served scó scethach to his guests he could be sued for the consequences. (Incidentally, the modern Irish for beer, lionn, was originally a word for any sort of liquor.)

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