The Tale of the Irish Bees
The history of beekeeping is a long one in most cultures, and the Irish are no different. As mentioned in Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, honey was utilized as a sweetener in brewing ale and in making dairy spreads.
The Bee Laws
Bech Bretha (Bee Judgments) was a part of ancient Brehon Law. Ownership of hives was to be clearly determined. There were laws against stealing hives, and even compensation for those stung by another man’s bees. Destruction of bees was a grave offense and a devastating tradegy. The Annals of Ulster in 993 recorded a plague of people, animals and bees across the island.
Honey was not to be given to the ailing because it caused digestive problems, but owners of hives were expected to share their honey if their neighbors came down with a craving. I wonder if we could apply the same rule today to chocolate chip cookies.
The Monks as Beekeepers
The ancient monks were beekeepers, as were many common folks. Tracking a swarm of bees was one of the few activities the church allowed on Sundays. Beeswax candles came to be popular and beeswax was also used for practice writing tablets in monastery schools.
Kerry Ross has written an interesting blog post on Irish beekeeping laws you might be interested in.
How the Irish Got Their Honey
Mo-Domnóc, a 7th century Irish saint is traditionally credited with bringing the first honeybees to Ireland. Apparently he was working with the bees in a monastery in Wales, and when he returned to his native land he unknowingly brought the bees with him. Bees are so loyal that way, you know. They follow you, unless your name is Winnie the Pooh. In that case you have to go raid the hives. Mo-Domnóc’s bees, however, supposedly never returned to the Welsh monastery.
Some sources say that Mo-Domnóc was actually Welsh, not Irish. In that case this is something the Irish can thank the British for.
St. Gobnait, a 5th or 6th century nun from County Clare is the Irish saint of beekeepers. Gobnait is Irish for Abigail, but she’s also known as Deborah (Honeybee.)
I picked this up at the grocery store recently. You know, for research!
Cindy Thomson is the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history, especially the Early Christian period. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.