Bees in Medieval Ireland

Bees have always been kept in Ireland according to Library Ireland.  In Brehon times "the management of bees was universally understood; and every comfortable householder kept hives in his garden. Wild bees, too, swarmed everywhere —much more plentifully than at present, on account of the extent of woodland. Before cane-sugar came into general use—sixteenth century—the bee industry was considered so important that a special section of the Brehon Laws is devoted to it.  


Giraldus of Wales expresses the curious opinion that 'honey would be still more abundant all over Ireland if the bee-swarms were not checked by the bitter and poisonous yews with which the woods abounded.'

The Brehon Law tract on "Bee-judgments," enters into much detail concerning the rights of the various parties concerned, to swarms, hives, nests, and honey". For example "If a man found a swarm in the faithche [faha], or green surrounding and belonging to a house: one-fourth of the produce to the end of a year was due to the finder, the remaining three -fourths to the owner of the house. If he found them in a tree growing in a faithche or green: one-half produce for a year to the finder: the rest to the owner. If they were found in land which was not a green: one-third to the finder and two-thirds to the owner of the land. If found in waste land not belonging to an individual, but the common property of the tribe, bees and honey belonged to the finder, except one-ninth to the chief of the tribe.

As the bees owned by an individual gathered their honey from the surrounding district, the owners of the four adjacent farms were entitled to a certain small proportion of the honey: and after the third year each was entitled to a swarm. If bees belonging to one man swarmed on the land of another, the produce was divided in certain proportions between the two. It is mentioned in "Bee-judgments" that a sheet was sometimes spread out that a swarm might alight and rest on it: as is often done now. At the time of gathering the honey the bees were smothered.


Food and Drink
A mixture of milk and honey was sometimes drunk; a mixture of lard and honey was usual as a condiment. Honey was sometimes brought to table pure, and sometimes in the comb. Often at meals each person had placed before him on the table a little dish, sometimes of silver, filled with honey; and each morsel whether of meat, fish, or bread was dipped into it before being conveyed to the mouth. Stirabout was very generally eaten in the same way with honey as a delicacy.

Honey was used to baste meat while roasting, as well as salmon while broiling. In one of the old tales we read that Ailill and Maive, king and queen of Connaught, had a salmon broiled for the young chief, Fraech, which was basted with honey that had been "well made by their daughter, the Princess Findabair": from which again we learn that the highest persons sometimes employed themselves in preparing honey. It has been already stated that honey was the chief ingredient in mead; and it is probable that it was used in greater quantity in this way than in any other".

How did the honey bee come to Medieval Ireland?

Bee-keeping came to most of the world with the travellers who brought bees with them.  As the Journal of pathology notes "Since the 1600s...most of the European honey bee’s range expansion has been the result of deliberate human transport (Crane, 1999)". Unsurprisingly "honey bees were imported by settlers for their ability to make honey and bees wax. Honey was the only sweetener available to early African, Middle Eastern and European civilizations, and demand for the product no doubt lead to the domestication of bees by the Ancient Egyptians sometime before 2600 BCE.

Timoleague Abbey West Cork
The practice of keeping bees was passed to the ancient Greeks by 650 BCE, who in turn passed the art to the Romans (by 150 BCE) who spread the art throughout what would become medieval Europe. It was the descendants of medieval European beekeepers who eventually spread both the practice of beekeeping and the bees themselves around the world (Ransome, 1937)".

The legend of how the bees travelled to Ireland itself is uncertain. A monk called Mologa or an abbot called St Modomnoc are credited with the deed. Modomnoc is believed to have been followed from Wales to Ireland by a swarm of loyal bees. The story is without much evidence, and the saint was a bishop and member of the influential O Neill family so may be credited with deeds not his own.  What is known is that Molaga's thriving bee culture at Bremore gave rise to one of the most interesting place names in Irish topography- Llan-Beach-Aire (Church of the Beekeeper), an unusual amalgam of the Welsh and Gaelic language.

Of local interest is that Molaga later founded churches at Tulach Min (Knockaneeun/ and at Teampall Molaga, near Kildorrery. "His last and perhaps greatest foundation was situated in Timoleague or Teach Molaga."  an abbey still standing (though without a roof) on the Co Cork Coast. With Mologa presumably came the bees and bee-keeping craft that are still thriving in the area of South West Cork