Fosterage today has a totally different implication than it did in the Middle Ages in Ireland. Today a child is put into foster care if his/her parents are not able to provide adequate care. But in ancient times fosterage was a positive thing that helped both the birth and foster families, not to mention the child.
Why Fosterage Happened
Fosterage was a common practice in pre-Christian Ireland. If you sent your child to live with a neighboring tribe, chances are you would not attack and visa versa. The practice went a long way in assuring peace between tribal groups. There were other benefits as well. If another family held a higher social status, or had skills the birth family lacked, or if the birth family wanted to be sure another clan would be loyal to them in battle, sending their children to live with a foster family could reap great benefits not only for the child, but also for the birth family who might need those skills and talents once the child returned. Even kings put their children into fosterage to assure they would learn certain skills.
How It Worked
Sometimes payment was involved. A foster family would be paid to allow a child to live with them. Fostering girls was more expensive than boys since girls needed more supervision and skills such as weaving and sewing were more difficult to teach. Fines were levied if the quality of the fosterage turned out to be inadequate, if for example the child did not learn as much as the birth family expected. Girls were taught household skills like weaving and caring for animals. Boys were taught to use a kiln, chop wood, and herd animals. If the child was of a higher social status, he/she was taught such noble pursuits as board games and embroidery. There were strict laws about the welfare of the child, such as who was responsible if the child committed a crime during the fosterage, and a number of other things. But one thing is clear: children were sent to live and work with other families for many centuries in Ireland.
Even after the children returned to the birth clan, around age 14 for girls and 17 for boys, the foster family was held in high regard. The child was expected to care for his foster parents in their old age, and if the child was at some point killed, not only was the birth family entitled to an honor price, but so was the foster family. Children were often more emotionally attached to their foster parents than to their natural parents. Clearly strong bonds were formed.
Famous Fosterages in History
In The Táin, Cú Chulainn, the ancient legendary warrior from Ulster, is forced to fight his foster brother, which is traumatic for them both since they grew up with a strong bond between them.
The practice of fosterage was carried on with the early Irish Christians, not falling out of common practice until the 17th century. Children were often sent to live with nuns and monks to receive religious training. This is where one would learn to read and write. St. Ita is known as the “foster mother of the saints of Ireland” since she fostered so many who became known as saints, including St. Brendan of Clonfert.
The story of St. Columba (St. Columcille) and his fosterage has always fascinated me because of its apparent parallel to the Bible story of Hannah and her son Samuel. (It’s entirely possibly that this similarity was intentionally drawn by the scribe who recorded the story.) Columcille’s mother, Eithne, prayed for a child, and when she had a son, she dedicated him to service within the church. Legend says she visited him every year and when he was banished to Iona, she followed and lived on a nearby island. Columcille was fostered by Cruithnechan in Kilmacrenan, County Donegal, possibly in a church near today’s Kilcronaghan, which in Irish means church of Cruithnechan.
A Lasting Influence
The Middle Ages was a time of war, as the annals document. Danger lurked everywhere. And yet this was a time in history when Ireland flourished. Monasteries were built and swelled in size with pilgrims from the continent who wanted to learn to read, write, and illuminate manuscripts. Despite the tribal system, which propagated dissension, and the Norman invasion, Ireland survived. I suppose the alliances that were formed through fosterage had a part in that.May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings, slow to make enemies, quick to make friends. ~Irish blessing
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.