Monthly Archives: January 2015

She was the yoke that bound them’: Irish children and the medieval ‘Mammy’


irish mammy and child



(Gaelic Irish people, woman is on the left by Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575. )

The title of this blog references a quote from a translated Gaelic Irish poem of the thirteenth century that laments the death of a child, Gormfhlaith, the daughter of Domhnaill Mór Ó Domhnaill, who died of an unknown disease in her fifth year. The poet describes the traumatic effect of the young girl’s death not on her birth mother, as might be expected, but rather on her foster mother, the wife of O Neill. The emphasis on the foster-mother’s grief is a crucial point in understanding the dynamics of family life in later medieval Gaelic Ireland. The effects of the girl’s death and the impact her brief life had on those around her is described as follows,

‘Her father was Domhnall in the west – she set their hearts
along a common path; her foster-father was Domhnall in the
east – she was the yoke that bound them.

Cattle and bright clothing were brought along with her, there
were brought prosperity and wealth; mourning for her after the
good fortune she caused, is a bronze tail on the gifts

Her foster-mother spends a while weeping, a while telling
stories of her; what recollection would be more sorrowful to her
foster-mother than the remembrance of her gaiety?

‘Her foster-mother spends a while weeping, a while telling
stories of her; what recollection would be more sorrowful to her
foster-mother than the remembrance of her gaiety?’

(from, N. J. A. Williams (ed.), The Poems of Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, (Dublin 1980), ii, pp 22-29)

The snuffing out of such a young life was a bitter experience for this foster mother because she was the woman who cared closest for the child. This woman who had fed her, cleaned her, taught her and mourned her passing was not a family member so to speak but her sorrow at the death of her young foster-daughter conveys to the reader, in a simple way, the complexities of family life in later medieval Ireland. It also tells us that children were loved and cherished and their early passing was a cause of great grief.

Fosterage was an intrinsic part of medieval Gaelic life. There is a large body of evidence about the practice from various sources. The practice could happen from infanthood up as there are references to foster-mothers suckling their new charges. Thus increasing the likelihood of a close bond. References in the medieval legal codes to nursing clothes and breastfeeding in realtion to fosterage appears to suggest this. After the nursing by the foster mother (Muimme) was over and when the child matured a little he or she would be trained by the foster-father (Aite). This training was both gender and rank-specific

Sons of royalty were taught horse riding, archery, and courtly board games; their sisters were instructed in sewing, dress making, and embroidery. Humbler freemen were taught skills of animal husbandry and cereal preparation; their sisters learned to grind flour at the hand-quern and to knead dough in the trough. In a society obsessed with hierarchy and status, rank also entitled infants to sumptuary adornments of clothing and graded rations of cereal porridge after weaning. This training continued until marriage which took place at fourteen years for a girl and seventeen for a boy.

irish  man and woman

(Irish man and woman Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575)


Thus in the Gaelic tradition the foster-mother (Muimme) would become the child’s principal carer, the only mother it knew. The birth mother likely maintained contact with the child but it was probably intermittent and as she would have always known that this event was going to happen she may have prepared for it by perhaps distancing herself from her children in order to fortify herself for the long break ahead. On the other hand the foster-mother had no such difficulties and relations between foster child and its ‘Mammy’* (Muimme) were recognised by the Irish as being particularly close. The child’s bonds with foster parents and foster siblings were inevitably closer than with their own families and there are many tales of people defending their foster families to the death and feeling as though they belonged more to the foster family than to their own birth family.

However, closeness to one’s foster rather than one’s birth family could also have negative effects. It meant that blood brothers and sisters sometimes hardly knew each other and that could lead to highly irregular situations. An incestuous brother-sister relationship may have involved the Sugán Earl of Desmond and Edmund, the last White Knight, was alleged to have had an incestuous relationship with his own daughter. These are exceptional cases though. More likely is that blood relatives simply did not get on with each other having grown up amongst a different family, perhaps with a different set of values and cultural traditions.

* Mammy is used here as it is a word that conveys the close and affectionate nature of the foster-mother and child bond rather than the possibly more distant one with birth kin

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