Feast...and Famine...in the World of the Blue Bells Chronicles: A very brief history of the Carrickfergus feast of 1316
The feasting lasted three days. Someone had hung sad, scanty boughs of evergreen. They were poor substitutes for Glenmirril’s gaily decked halls, though their scent mingled tantalizingly with hundreds of wax tapers, and roasted venison carried in by streams of servants to the thousands of Scots filling the hall. He could almost forget the rain streaming down the windows and pattering in the courtyard, as the dishes kept coming, each smelling better than the last.
“I thought there was famine here.” On the third day, Niall stood in the doorway of the great hall with Hugh, Owen, and Lachlan, wanting to be home, with one bird roasted inside another, a dozen sauces, fruits and nuts, and, most importantly, Allene and her father beside him.
He surveyed the crowd of bearded men at Carrickfergus’s tables. Gil Harper sat before Robert and Edward Bruce at the head table, singing lauds to the Scots. Candle and firelight flickered off the gold threads of the prancing lion on Bruce’s tabard, and off the thin circlets of gold on the brothers’ heads.
“There’s famine indeed.” Beside them, the servant girl who had cared for Niall spoke softly in an Irish brogue. “We’ll see it soon enough.
Book Four of The Blue Bells Chronicles
The Christmas feast of 1316 at Carrickfergus must have been a poor one compared to most years. The previous 18 months or so had been months unusually heavy and frequent rains, in addition to an epidemic of livestock disease. Grain rotted in the fields. Animals died, taking with them their labor, meat, and milk. Ireland was particularly hard-hit by the weather conditions.
In addition, Edward Bruce had come to lead the Irish kings against their English oppressors. The goal was to press England from all sides—James’s Douglas’s raids in northern England, the growing unrest in Wales, and now Ireland rising—such that Edward would relent and sign a treaty recognizing Scotland’s sovereignty and Bruce’s kingship.
The end result, in these years, was that with war on top of the rest, 1315-1317 were years of famine all over year, but most especially in Ireland. (And Edward II continued to resist a treaty, even as his troubles grew with his own nobles, too.)
On June 24, 1316, about six months before Niall’s Christmas feast at Carrickfergus, Edward Bruce was besieging the castle. He sent thirty Scots in to parley. Rather than negotiate, the Irish took them hostage. Reports said six (or eight) of them were killed and eaten.
In September 1316, Edward Bruce took Carrickfergus.
It is against this backdrop that Edward and Robert Bruce still manage to feed an army a Christmas feast. Not what Glenmirril had in good years, Niall thinks, and yet they managed to produce something. At least in my version. My guess is they would have had venison, maybe hare (is the world ever without rabbits?) and plenty of fish.
In my forthcoming Food and Feast in the World of the Blue Bells Chronicles (still tentatively named), I will be presenting a possible recipe for the birds within birds and some other guesses as to what this Christmas feast consisted of.
At some point in the future, I will also post here the story of the servant girl who speaks to them. She continues with Bruce's army, and has a very dramatic part in history--yes, a true story.