Pigs have always been important in Ireland, primarily as a food source, but for all sorts of other reasons as well. Most people are familiar with the Irish breakfast, which is heavily pig-based, and bloody delicious as well, but why is Brigid linked with pigs in the Lebor Gabala Erenn? Why is the king of boars, Triath, mentioned with her in the text?
Now, I’ll obviously go deeper into the Brigid connections in the upcoming class (this Saturday, 7pm in case you’re interested! Or available on demand if you’re reading this after Saturday 16th September 2023) But I wanted to go into the importance of pigs in Ireland throughout history because a) it’s interesting and b) I think people can underestimate the animal
Really ancient history of the pig in Ireland
The Irish word for pig is muc, and looking at dil.ie, this appears to be the old Irish word as well. Mucc is an alternative spelling, just for some variation. Because, as we know, prior to the Caighdeán in the 1950’s, spelling in Irish was a variable thing. To be fair, old spellings are still accurate and correct. It’s just that the newer spellings are simpler, even if they don’t always make as much sense from a linguistic point of view. Everything in the 50’s in Ireland was in short supply, even ink for pens…
But I digress. So, boars, the ancient, wild ancestors of the modern pig, were domesticated around 9000 years ago. Ish. It’s thought that the first pigs in Europe were domesticated round about 4500 BCE or about 6500 years ago. We’re talking archaeology here, so don’t give out to me for being a few thousand years off, alright? 🙂
Now, it looks like, from the Nature Journal, that wild boar were rampant across Europe. And famers basically bred the domesticated pigs that came from the Near East (I’m assuming through what is now Russia, Turkey and surrounding countries?) with the wild boar, eventually domesticating the boar.
This ties in with the relationship with other animals to Brigid in this selection. Animals that had been wild and people then domesticated… And were in the province of women for at least part of the time.
Kings and rich people kept large herds, since the upkeep was essentially zero, except possibly for a swineherd or two. Pigs appear in many of the old story – aside from Brigid ones. For example, they appear in the story of Diarmaid and Gráinne, Bricciu’s Feast and of course, swineherds play a major role in the kicking off of the Battle Raid of Cooley…
Slightly less ancient history of the pig in Ireland
If we move on to more modern times, well kinda… Dear old Giraldus of Wales, in his 12th century propoganda piece for the English invasion, wrote:
In no part of the world are such vast herds of boars and wild pigs to be foundhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pork_in_Ireland
See, the thing about it is, that pigs can be fed on almost anything. So, people turned them out into forests and such to fend for themselves almost. Or, in towns/ urban areas, they were fed from scraps. Or buttermilk/ sour milk. Seriously – can survive on almost anything. Obviously, there are diets they are more and less suited to, depending on how much meat you want to get off the animal, but survival? Not a major issue in terms of foodstuffs.
In saying that, in the 15th century in Ireland there was a fairly rapid phase of deforestation. It’s at this stage we see a massive decline – to the point of extinction – of the wild boar. From here on out, people kept domesticated pigs only. No more hunting parties. Well, not for boar, anyway!
And it’s about this time we start seeing a lot of by-laws covering pigs in urban area.
More modern angles
The pig, no more than Brigid herself, has lasted well into the modern day in Ireland. In 1841, just before the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór) there were apparently 1.4 million pigs in Ireland. For comparison, there are apparently around 1.7million pigs in the country today.
Pork and pigs have always been a major export in modern Ireland. That mention of the famine? In 1846, Ireland exported 480,827 pigs to Britain. (Ireland Before and After the Famine, Cormac O Grada) If you extrapolate that over 5 years, that’s 2.5million pigs exported over the time period of the Famine. Ok, that’s not the most accurate calculation, but gives an idea.
Now, if you look at even more recent history, as I said in today’s email to my mailing list (want to join?) both my parents remember pigs at home and the slaughtering of pigs as a regular, normal event. In the 1960’s however, pork became more of a business/ consumer business. Now, to be clear, modernisation started in the late 19th century, but in the 1960’s things really kicked off. Smaller breeders gradually disappeared and modern, larger scale breeders developed. Today, the five main counties for pigs in Ireland are Cavan, Cork, Tipperary, Waterford and Longford.
Obviously though, pork and pork products are still a major part of Irish life.. Any supermarkets running out of rashers, sausages and black/white pudding would probably shut down for the duration. It wouldn’t be worth the scandal!!
The Brigid connection
Now, no more than a lot of Brigid connections, while this piece of lore comes from pre-Christian Ireland, a lot of the extrapolation comes from the hagiographies. St. Brigid is often mentioned as looking after pigs in the stories. She gives them away to the needy and hungry, only to have the correct amount of pigs appear when needed. (This is such a regular storiy in the hagiographies, I’m not even going to link to it – just have a read!)
Equally, the preparation of food stuffs was traditionally women’s work in Ireland, including making the puddings from the pig and the sausages and the rashers. This ties in with the work in the dairy that Brigid is closely related with and food prep in general.
The pig, similar t0 Brigid herself, has been here throughout Irish history, supporting the people as best it can. A relatively cheap source of food, and every part of the pig can be used in some way. The animal is present pretty much throughout human occupation of this island and in many ways has supported more Irish people than the cow has (sacrilege, I know!!)
Want to know more? Check out the Brigid in LGE class on Saturday, 16th September at 7pm. (Or it’s available at the link above on demand if you want to check it out after that date!)