Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 8

In which the writer answers some questions, and then hares off after an Irish word unused in a millennium

Hello! I’ve had a few questions in on various media, so I’m going to answer a few of those in this issue, alongside some of the usual ramblings.

Do you really do all that food planning, or is that just the ideal?

I do. I mean, this is lockdown- and unemployment-enabled, and this week, when I’ve had a few semi-external writing projects on the go, has meant that the plan contained much simpler food (“grilled chicken, potatoes, veg”) for many meals, but it’s still planned out. Otherwise I wouldn’t know what food to buy, like, and we can’t currently do the today’s-food-today thing.

I can buy staples and some of what looks good half-at-random and cook that, and it’ll certainly be edible and even taste good, but there’s no guarantee that Anna will eat it, or that it’ll contain enough vegetables for health, or indeed that it won’t be wall-to-wall carbs in cream sauce. You have to remember that left entirely to my own devices, I’ll spend twelve hours a day reading about very niche topics in historical food, alternating with episodes of She-Ra, and living on microwaved frankfurters wrapped in buttered sliced pan. Planning keeps me from turning into some sort of chonky academic wraith.

What about takeaway? Fast food?

Because I’m here cooking, we’re ordering a lot less takeaway. I’m considering scheduling some into the plan for an evening next week. Under ordinary circumstances, Nina and I would get takeaway delivered maybe once or twice a week, and Anna gets it more often again. We usually get Chinese or pizza, with occasional Indian. The good sushi place that used to be in Celbridge and would deliver to here closed down, so we’re left with only a slightly less good - but still good - place in Leixlip, and that gets the occasional order too. Our favourite actual restaurant in Maynooth, Picadero’s, is starting to do takeaway, though not delivery, so we might look to pick up something from them soon too.

In terms of fast food as such, I am a Burger King loyalist. You need to pick sides in the culture wars, and me and Harry Dresden are on the same one. Thankfully, they do not deliver, and the nearest outlet is the Applegreen rest stop on the motorway west of here, which is distinctly inaccessible. McDonalds (may they disappear from the face of the earth, etc) have a drive-through in Maynooth, but as above, I do not darken their doors.

(Yes, I am aware there’s sod-all difference between them in food sources, quality, or actual nutrition. Leave me be.)

You’ve said in a few places you’ve had books delivered. What were they?


I want to know what’s in your food library!

Oh man. Ok, so there’s a list of the books in the last delivery in Ebb & Flow, and I apologise to the people who read both for repeating it here. I’ve changed the format a bit, at least:

  • The Allotment Chronicles: A Social History of Allotment Gardening (Steve Poole)

  • Edwardian Farm (Ruth Goodman)

  • The Silent Revolution: Farming and the Countryside into the 21st Century (Quentin Seddon)

  • The History of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie (Trevor Hickman)

  • The Festive Food of Ireland (Darina Allen)

  • Grain And Chaff: Threshing Out The History Of Felmersham in Bedfordshire (W E Draycott)

  • Food: A History (Felipe Fernández-Armesto)

  • Hard to Swallow: A Brief History of Food (Richard W. Lacey)

  • Ham and Pigs: A Journey in Search of the Whole Hog (Paul Heiney)

  • Porters English Cookery Bible: Ancient and Modern (Richard, Earl of Bradford)

  • For "Home & Country": War, Peace and Rural Life as Seen Through the Pages of the WI Magazine 1919-1959

  • Post-war kitchen: Nostalgic food and facts from 1945-1954 (Marguerite Patten)

  • A Dictionary of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts and Festivals (Colin Waters)

  • Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at the Table (Nigel Slater)

My food library is, frankly, beyond the scope of this newsletter, and could by now sustain a publication in its own right. I catalogue the physical books on LibraryThing, and there are at time of writing 147 books there (link goes to my listing). They’re not all strictly food, but they’re books I would refer to in the course of writing about food, which I feel counts. A number of the purely-cookbook volumes are not in there, either, which I should probably fix.

(The food books are a small subset of the physical books in the house, which despite repeated ferocious cullings, replacement with ebooks, and other restrictions, still number well over two thousand.)

Then there are the ebooks. Some of these I have bought in an entirely legitimate way, usually the more pop-history of biography-of-Mrs-Beeton kind of food books - there are maybe thirty or forty of those. Others are of more dubious legality. I have an intense dislike of having to shell out more than three hundred euros for a very niche academic text, priced to be sold to college libraries and not to people (the publishing company Brill is notorious for these), and on a couple of occasions, the author has sent me a PDF or even a Word doc, with the general intent of “citations are better than buying”. There’s also the issue of stuff which is out of print, and too niche to show up as second-hand physical books, but which I can get a dodgy PDF of from my network of academic librarians and other information-devoted souls. If I could get these in print, I would - but a gouger quoting me £1,111 on Amazon marketplace for a book published in 2018 with a tiny print run… no. And there’s older stuff which is out of copyright and comes from the Gutenberg Project or the like. There are, overall, probably a couple of hundred ebooks.

And then there are the academic papers. Most of these are entirely legitimate; recent open access has been kind, and I do have proper credentials via DCU for access to JSTOR and similar. has an occasional uploaded paper, and most scholars are very generous with spreading PDFs of their work around, again with citations in mind. I durst not count the papers, to be honest; there are certainly hundreds, maybe closing on a thousand. They are as varied in their specialisation as “Irish food before the Potato” (that’s now a whole field of study with many sub-fields) and

Have I read them all? Pretentiously, I refer you to Umberto Eco.

(So, no. Not even nearly. They’re there for when I have a need for the information in them.)

More questions are always welcome!

Meantime, I’ve been working up an essay on medieval Irish brewing and drinking culture, for an SCA project. I’m waiting on a further book to be delivered, which contains a chapter about specifically 8th-century Irish brewing, and once I’ve integrated information from that into the essay, it’ll be done, and ready to send off. It’ll be a while before it sees the light of day in the SCA publication, but if you’re interested, drop me a line and I’ll copy it into an email for you.

In the process, though, I came across some discussion of the Aislinge Meic Con Glinne, which is one of the major written sources about Irish medieval food. It’s not really about food; it’s a satire about churchmen having visions. However, up to now, I was familiar only with the central poem, and it turns out there’s some surrounding prose as well, of which there are four different translations.

One of these, in the most widely available translation (dating to 1892, by a chap called Kuno Meyer) describes a dish in a list as “sprouty meat-soup with its purple berries”. This made me sit up and pay attention, because that’s about three times as much information as we otherwise have about any given medieval Irish dish.

(Image from the National Library of Scotland)

However, another translation (by Lahney Preston-Matto in 2010) translates the same line as “gruel streaming around purple berries”. So, y’know, that’s not the same thing.

The original text is “Craíbechán chráebaig co n-a choeraib corccra”. Now, obviously that’s constructed for alliteration, not describing the food to some obsessive dude a thousand years later, but I can still pick it apart a bit. It’s Old and/or Middle Irish, so running it through Google Translate won’t cut it. Cee did a pile of digging and research for me on this, and the result is that the fragment is, word for word, “[pottage] [SOMETHING] [possessive preposition] [berries] [purple]”. Adjectives come after nouns in Irish, regardless of antiquity.

Of these, the word for purple is the most certain; it’s almost unchanged in the modern form, corcra. The word for berries is more obscure, but pretty reliable all the same. The word for pottage is the one that Meyer interprets as “meat-soup”, and which means “pottage” in every other reference I can find. But a pottage could contain meat, and certainly soups are pottages. So… it’s kind of fair. The possessive preposition thing is an artefact of Irish grammar, of which I, like most humans, do not wot enough to comment. That said, “with its” seems much more likely than “around” or even “around its”.

It’s the SOMETHING, the adjective chráebaig, that causes difficulty, really. It’s a sufficiently obscure word, even without the grammatic thing disguised as the letter h - so cráebaig - that it shows zero results in Google (and if this newsletter is indexed, it might be the single result in a few weeks). eDIL, the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, has no entry for it, and finds it within only three other entries, one of which is the exact text I’m looking up. The two other entries refer to a single text fragment in The Book of Ballymote, where it’s applied to… another unknown noun, coclaig. The unknown noun is related in turn to a slightly more-used adjective, cochlach, with a meaning of “hooded”, or “shrouded”, or possibly “crested”, or maybe “heavy-lidded”, as in eyes. So even if the noun is “hood” or “shroud” or the like, that tells us little enough about what cráebaig means.

Taking off the fada (the accent) on the a gives craebaig, and since vowel accents really don’t settle well until modern Irish, that has some legitimacy. Unfortunately, that word shows up only as a placename in the Book of Leinster, as the residence or origin of a fellow called Becc mc Duib Duili mc Garbain mc Fhintain, and nowhere else.

However! Some versions of the Book of Leinster indicate that this placename is Creabhach, which is a plausible rendering of the same word (look, it makes sense if you speak Irish, just roll with it). And creabhach is a word, if a very obscure one, meaning “dry branches”, “twigs”, “twiggy”, or, just about plausibly, “sprouts”. This is attested to as “dry fticks” (please excuse my childish representation of the long s as f) in Nuadh fhoclair Gaidhlig agus Beurla do reir ordu man litriche; A new Alphabetical Vobabulary, Gailic and English, with some directions for reading and writing the Gailic, published in Edinburgh in 1795. This does refer to Scots Gaelic, not Irish, but to be honest, the two are so closely related that etymologies cross over.

Mind you, that same vocabulary also gives creabeag, “a little woman”, which is near enough to being the same word, and, more interestingly, creamh, wild garlic, and creamh-gáraidh, “leek” and even creamh-mac-fiadh, “harts-tongue; or afparagus” (which looks to me like “garlic, the deer’s son”). You could, sort of, construct a word like creamhach, “garlicky” out of that, and since the mh and bh sounds are as close in Irish as w and v in German, you could make an argument for that being the intended word.

As backup, we can also look at William Shaw’s A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, that Could be Collected from the Voice, and Old Books and Mss, Volume 1, published in 1780, which has entries for creabhach (“dry brufh-wood”), creabhag (“a twig; a young woman”), creamh and creamh-garaidh for garlic and leek, and creamh-muice-fiadh for the asparagus.

And finally, while I’m digging around in old texts, there is another Scottish tome, The Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway, Their Forebears and Friends, Their Courts and Customs of their times with notes of the early history, ecclesiastical legends, the Baronage and placenames of the province by Sir Andrew Agnew, Baronet of Lochnaw, from 1893. Man, old book titles. Anyway, this one refers to the word creabhach as meaning “bushy”.

So. I can see where Meyer got his “sprouty” from, although it’s also possible that came from the translation he was familiar with, by a W. M. Hennessy (I haven’t yet tracked down Hennessy’s version, but Meyer is, ah, critical of it). If Preston-Matto was looking at “branches” in the context of “brushwood”, he could have got to “branching”, and rivers branch, so “streaming”. That honestly feels like more of a stretch to me, though. There was a third translation, in 1901, by Rudolf Thurneysen, but that was into German, and I am reluctant to add another language I only sort-of read to the mix. If anyone has the patience to go digging, it’s the last chapter in Sagen aus dem alten Irland.

It’s the creamh, wild garlic, that interests me most here. “Garlicky pottage with purple berries” isn’t just a plausible translation, it also lines up with what we know from lots of other sources about the use of garlic, leeks and onions as foodstuffs in early medieval Ireland.

This doesn’t even start to go into what else is in the pottage, if there should be meat in it, and if so, what kind, which of the available purple berries (blackberries, fraughans, elderberries and possibly sloes) should go in, etc. But it’s still more information than is available for any medieval Irish dish, so I’m going to continue working on it until I can pin down something plausible to reconstruct. I shall keep you posted.

This issue has been brought to you by obscure Irish etymology, UCC’s corpus of Irish texts, pasta in cream sauce, and some thinking concerning hazelnuts, which will probably surface again. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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