Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Brewing History: Irish Red Ale Part I - Lost in Translation?

On the 15th of July 1856 Eugene O’Curry, who was Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland, delivered a lecture relating to ecclesiastical manuscripts with the catchy title ‘Of the so called “Prophecies” anterior to the time of St. Patrick. (“Prophecies” as described to Conn of the Hundred Battles)’, where he references a manuscript ‘On the Original and Ancient Account of the Baile an Scáil.’

In it O’Curry relates in his own words a fragment of a story where Conn and his companions were led to a ‘royal court, into which the entered, and found it occupied by a beautiful and richly dressed princess with a silver vat full of red ale, and a golden ladle and golden cup before her.’ This was translated from Old Irish and O’Curry could not date it exactly but implies it must be from before the middle of the 11th century. Looking at a copy of his source material reproduced in old Irish script, the word that is important to our story is ‘Derg-Lind’ and later in the same source the word is repeated as ‘Derg-Laith’, which was translated as the Irish words for 'Red Ale'.1

So there we have it, one of a few clear mentions of red ale being brewed in ancient times from an extremely reputable source, and so began a continuous brewing of red ales in Ireland that has continued right up to the present day...

Or at least that is what many a publication and the marketing people of many breweries both big and small would have you think.

And here lies the problem, we have been so brain washed by a couple of beer brand’s blurbs on our brewing history that many people believe that Irish red ale as we see it today is the same beer that has been produced in this country for centuries if not millennia, but it is my belief that we need to look at the various mentions of red ales brewed in Ireland as separate and unrelated brewing periods to attempt to make sense from it, and for convenience I will break it down into three periods: ancient, historical and modern.

‘Ancient’ mostly relates to myths, prose, and poetry from our very distant past although usually repeated, transcribed and recorded at a much later date. ‘Historical’ relates to the 19th century and the decades either side of it, and the 'Modern' period deals with the beers that would appear from the middle of the 20th century onward that were eventually promoted under the term ‘Irish Red Ales’.

I will deal with those later periods in two separate posts so for now we will return to Professor O’Curry who in 1872, almost two decades after the lecture referenced above, posthumously had published another series of lectures, edited by William Kirby Sullivan called ‘On the Manner and Customs of the Ancient Irish’ which was to become an important and much referenced book regarding Irish life in the far distant past and included a few more-than-interesting pages on food and drink in ancient times. In that section is transcribed the often-repeated poem from a manuscript on the life of a prince named Cano, which lists the various ales being made in different parts of Ireland at this time. (If you are unaware of the poem you will find it in the book's link listed below.) According to O’Curry, Cano was killed in 687 A.D. and the manuscript is from ‘about the year 1390’ and he suspected it to have been originally taken from material from no later than the 12th century.2

In this poem there is mention of ‘The red ale of Dorind’ and that ‘About the lands of the Cruithni, about Gergin, red ales like wine are drunk freely’, so again we have early references to red ales in the country in the distant past.

This book was widely available and certainly would have been used by many historians as a source text, and no doubt certain passages like the poem these two lines are taken from would have fed the musings of writers of the mythology and poetry of our past, so I certainly feel it influenced more than just students of our history. The poem has been repeated in a slightly different translation in other sources since the one that featured in O’Curry’s book, and there appears to be two versions of this poem, which vary only slightly from one another but I have looked at one version from the Yellow Book of Lecan held in Trinity College Dublin, which is transcribed in Irish from this source, and here are the two mentions of red ale in Irish:

Cormand dorindi derga - [The red ale of Dorind]

Cormand derga anal fin - [Red ales like wine]

(I have also looked at scans of these manuscripts (The poem starts in the middle of column 794) and the translations seem accurate to my untrained eye, although I had trouble making the word ‘derga’ out of the collection of letters after ‘cormand’ on the second mention, but as a few experts have translated it thus then I will take it to be so.)

So what is my problem with all of these wonderful mentions of one of our national drinks? Well at this point I need to emphasise my extreme lack of expertise in old manuscripts, the Irish language and history in general, but I do feel there are a few issues with some of this content even to my amateur eye and mindset - and with taking it all at face value, which quite a few brewing books, articles and brewers have done.

Let us start with the first mention and the words ‘Derg-Lind’ and ‘Derg-Laith’ and leaving aside the ‘Derg’ part for now we can look at both ‘Lind’ and ‘Laith’, and the issue here is that neither word necessarily means beer or ale according to any sources I can find. 

‘Lind’ is also seen written a ‘Lin’, ‘Leann’ (as in O’Hara’s Leann Folláin stout - the latter word meaning wholesome or robust) and other variations, but this word does not necessarily mean beer, it appears to refer to any type of alcoholic liquor. O’Curry himself states in ‘Manner and Customs’ that the word ‘Lin’ - which he suggests is of Anglo-Saxon/Old Norse origin by the way - is ‘sometimes used for ale, but it is rather a general term for liquor rather than a special name for beer.’ Another excellent more modern online resource that looks at older meanings of words, the eDIL (Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language), under the spelling ‘Linn’ also gives it to be ‘In general sense drink, liquid’ although it does mention beer as another definition, but then it also mentions milk and other liquids. Modern standard dictionaries do mention 'Leann' as meaning beer but do also reference it to mean just liquid and interestingly if the word is combined with another it seems to emphasise that it just meant a liquor, so ‘Leann Úll’ becomes cider, ‘Leann Piorra’ is perry, ‘Leann Sinséir’ is ginger ale and so on, which seems to reinforce to me that it just meant a beverage. The word ‘Laith’ or ‘Laid’ or even another variant - ‘Flaith’ - has similar issues, as again it can mean ale but can also mean any intoxicating liquor.  

For another source for the use of these words, we can look at Broccán’s hymn to St. Brigid, where the word ‘Derglaid’ is used in relation to the miracle of turning a bath of water into beer, but ‘Laid’ might not mean ale at all. So might it refer to a different alcoholic beverage? Perhaps clever Brigid dumped a little whiskey and some colouring into the bath and proclaimed it a holy miraculous liquor!

The other word used for beer, 'Cormand' - see also 'C(h)orma', 'Corm' and often 'Cuirm' (there appears to be many spellings) - is probably a little more straightforward, as most mentions I can see refer to it meaning an ale or beer, with the implication that grains were used in some manner in its brewing. Although it is possible that this word did not begin its linguistic journey as a meaning for beer, but O'Curry states it is related to the Greek word Korma for a fermented grain-based drink and is possibly of Celtic in origin, which would of course make sense. I might add that I have found an interesting source from 1786 which mentions that the word does not necessarily mean beer and gives the example of 'Cuirm Caoral' [Caoral = Caoraíl? Meaning blazing/Glowing?] as meaning 'red cuirm or wine.' What is equally interesting is that a few sources such as the translation of a poem in this publication from 1870 translates 'Cuirm' to mean feast, a meaning that is sort-of referenced in the eDIL meaning of the word too in connection with an ale-feast and entertainment. It is difficult to bring that meaning back into the original examples above and to get the wording to make coherent sense, but it might be worth noting that if one sees 'Cuirm Leann' or similar mentioned somewhere it may mean a 'Feast Drink' and not an 'Ale Drink'? This is perhaps a timely and good example of the evolution of words, no matter what the language...

But those two lines that I extracted from the poem above that use the word 'Cormand' probably do refer to a grain-based liquor, although the first line of the poem ‘Cid dech do lindaib flatha?’ ['What is the best liquor of sovereignty?'] would make us think that the poem is indeed about general alcoholic beverages and not specifically beer, so as with much of what I have mentioned and referenced it gives us pause for a rethink if nothing else.

Of course that is the reason I am pointing out all of this - and some of it involves a fair degree of straw-clutching I admit. It is to raise a little doubt in the mind of other beer writers as to whether any of these words we have taken as meaning ‘beer’ can be seen as being definitively correct if we look back at the original sources, especially those from a distant past. I would argue that we cannot assume that all beverages labelled with any of those 'L' words - at the very least - should be categorised as beers, as they could quite possibly be meads, ciders, or any combination of those drinks such as braggots or other concoctions. In fact we can be pretty sure they did apply to these beverages given the meanings I have shown above.

But let us get on to safer and less shaky ground with the word ‘Derg’ or even ‘Derga’ for the colour red, surely that is straight forward enough? After all we still have the word ‘Dearg’ in modern Irish and even I with my limited vocabulary of Irish words can translate that to mean 'Red' …

But did it always? If we look at the English language, we know that in the past the word ‘Red’ covered a multitude of shades from orange - the colour was named after the fruit by the way, not vice versa - to perhaps burgundy shades, so why would it also not be true in the Irish language? I am not very sure about the language of colours in ancient Ireland but I would hazard a guess that, as in many languages, there was not a colour name for every hue, especially the spectrum that starts beyond deep yellow and continues to burgundy shades. I think it is quite feasible that red when mentioned with drink of any kind could have meant a mid or deep amber shade, or even perhaps a dark-to-near-black crimson.

Although I must point out that I have also seen 'Derg-Buide' (Red-Yellow) in texts to mean - presumably - something orange in colour, but the eDIL again backs up my original premise by translating ‘Derg’ to mean ‘(a) Of colour, red, ruddy (used of colour of blood, flame; also of orange or tawny hue as of ale, gold, etc.)’ It was the ‘tawny’ hue of ale that struck a chord, as to me that would refer to a pale brown or perhaps dark golden colour. 

Incidentally - or perhaps not - there is another meaning for the word ‘Derg’, and this is for something intense or fierce. I am not seriously suggesting that this would be the case here but it certainly raises some interesting possibilities if we went down the implications of that meaning for a drink…?

Poets and prose writers can also be blamed for some of the erroneous mentions, and an example of that false narrative can be found in an undated original poem published in the Dublin Weekly Nation on the 10th of May 1890, which was printed in its original Irish version and then translated into English by the contributor of the day.

Here is a very relevant passage in English first:

It is there that men never would wonder

At waves of the floods of drink

And the ale running red from the coppers

Full filled to the frothing brink

And here is the Irish Version:

I ann nach gcuirfidhe and t-ioghnadh

Faoi an dilinn dá thonnadh ann,

A’s air nós na Gcopaire buidhe

Bhios lionta lán de liunn

I can see no reference of a variant of 'Dearg' for red in that last couplet and using my extremely poor translation skills it reads:

And like the yellow copper,

Will be filled full of drink

The 19th century translator has added the word ‘Red’ to his version to make it sound a little more poetic, much like I have cheekily used the word ‘Drink’ here to help with the rhyming scheme, although in this case yet another spelling of ‘Leann’ - ‘Liunn’ - probably did mean ale, given the mention of a 'copper' (The brewing vessel presumably, but he could mean just a copper pot or jug?), although the original writer might at a serious stretch have meant spirits. Here we can see how easy it is to weave some poetic alliteration to say that the ale was indeed red, even though the original source mentions nothing of the sort. Poetry and the aesthetic of the words can often overshadow facts and accuracy, and this is true in marketing speak as much as in prose. (Although I will be the first to admit - for example - that something called St. Brigid’s Tawny Braggot might not be extremely appealing if launched on the general public…!)

So, what does any of this mean? Well, I think certain meanings probably comes down to interpretation and the context of the words to a degree, but from the examples above (and there are more), we could certainly interpret that there were historic malt-based beverages that may have been the same colour of the beers that are categorised as ‘Irish Red Ales’ today, although they would have been completely different in many other ways of course. For example if they contained any bittering herbs or adjuncts, we can be relatively sure that they would not have contained hops. That modern(ish) Irish brewing ingredient is unlikely to have arrived on this island until well after the period we are discussing.

But given that we were almost certainly fermenting other sugar sources such as honey, apples and who knows what else then it is hard to say for certain what any of these possibly-red beverages might have been, and we cannot say for sure that red ales existed at this time. As I have shown above, even those sources that mention variants of relatively safe words like 'Cormand' or 'Cuirm', which we take as definitely meaning grain-based drinks might have lost something to misunderstandings, assumptions and the basic evolution of language, especially as these tales were told verbally down through the generations. And it is worth noting that even if red coloured beverages did exist, they could have used different ingredients such as Madder or other adjuncts to achieve colour as well as for flavouring or bitterness.

And so after all of that, I think all we can possibly say to the question of whether we had red ales in Ireland in the distant past is to give a shoulder shrug and a mumbled, 'Well, maybe...', while staring at our shuffling feet. (I often think that we do not use the words ‘might’, ‘possibly’ and ‘perhaps’ enough when we talk about these subjects - the issue may be that historians do not like vagaries and prefer definites…?) My own opinion even after all of this is that we did have some reddish coloured ales, but just as a part of a wider range of grain-based drinks and other beverages. I have shown that there is enough uncertainty around the language of drink and the language of colour to pull back from the ubiquitous and often repeated mentions in our history and mythology of only an ancient ‘Irish Red Ale’, with no references to almost any other beverage.

What I think we can safely say that the very modern version of Irish Red Ale has no identifiable linear connection with brewing in the distant past, unless it was purely inspired by the past’s poems and prose, which I will be arguing against in the last part of this trilogy. Before that - in the next post - I write about Irish red ales in the context of the historical references of the 19th and early 20th century, where at least we have some proper(ish) records to discuss and dissect - and luckily for me, none are in Irish or inked on vellum this time ...

(Part II is here...)


(Please let me know of any errors you see in this piece and I will do my best to rectify them - or argue my case.)

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without my permission, full credit to its source, and a link back to this post. References to quoted newspaper is available via email or DM to me.

The image at the top of the post is taken from the first publication listed below.

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