Not sure what came first to the British Isles, Monks or Pubs. Both Irish, Scots and Brits enjoy the conviviality of the institution known as the Pub or Public House. The Scots are usually identified with their uniquely stronger spirits which is perhaps related to their relatively more taciturn nature. The Irish need little assistance to socialize while the Brits seem enjoy the loosening effects of a pint or two. On this side of the pond, Americans have learned to enjoy the results of artistic fermentation.
Of course the origins of ales, bitters and the rest go back in time to well before the 19th Century establishment of “Beer Houses” by the 1830 Beerhouse Act. The act enabled a home owner to pay a fee and become a regulated “publican” and to serve the beverage seen by Parliament and supporters of temperance as a healthy and nutritious alternative to gin. William Hogarth summed up the argument pictorially,
Drinking fermented barley goes back to at least the Bronze Age. Along the Roman roads “tabernae” sprung up to accommodate the needs of travelers for meals, refreshment and sleep.
The Roman tavernae never left with the Romans in the 5th Century. Instead, they evolved in to the Anglo-Saxon alehouse where the proprietor would advertise with a green bush on a pole signifying that a fresh batch was ready. These alehouses soon became the local meeting place to exchange gossip and evaluate worldly affairs. Alehouses that provided a bed and meals in addition to the beverages became know as inns. The distinction remains today although there are no formal restrictions.
Monasteries provided accommodations to travelers in their hostelries which grew in demand to the increased popularity of pilgrimages in the middle ages. Unfortunately, in the British Isles. the rule of Henry VIII was rough on monasteries and their hostelries. Henry VIII “dissolved” – shut down – the monasteries and either kept the wealth for himself or distributed it to his political supporters. Luckily, Bed and Breakfast’s have filled the void.
As for the Monks, we need to back up a bit. Way back to the 6th Century in Ireland. While most of Europe reveled in pre-Christian paganism, Ireland was the center of religious fervor. By the 9th Century, it is estimated that one in four Irish males were attached to a monastic order. Not good when it comes to Vikings but good for the rest of Christian Europe. It is Irish monks that will convert the Anglo-Saxons, the Scots and establish Irish-style monastic communities in Germany, France and even Italy at a time when the church of Rome was mired in conflict with Goths, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths.
The first identifiable Irish monastic leader was St. Bridget, a contemporary of Patrick. She founded a co-ed monastery near Kildare. In the 5th Century. Being practical in these uncivilized times, they relied on stone towers for protection. Peggy loves towers.
These towers are built of stacked stone without mortar. Notice the doorway some 20 feet off the ground. They have stood for more than a thousand years. Fortunately, this one was closed for the day, otherwise we would have climbed to the top.
Large monastic centers like Glendalough which lies in the Wicklow Mountains to the south of Dublin develop with support from the ruling families of whom there were many. Today the tourists outnumber the monks.
Eventually, the independent minded Irish monasticism was more closely aligned with the traditional Roman Catholic monastic orders around the 11th Century. They did not lose their enthusiasm but some of their uniqueness. But as subjects to the English crown, the monasteries suffered the same depredations as the English monks and nuns during Henry’s reign.
Before we leave our topic, I need to conclude with the best example of collusion between church and beer, the invention of Guinness. Let us turn to Cashel, the political center of the south of Ireland before the imposition of English rule in the 12th Century. Patrick converted the King of Munster at this location and consequently a vast cathedral was built in the 13th Century.
While it was the king’s residence, it was deeded over to the church when the king was losing to his dynastic rivals. The church was destroyed by Cromwell’s minions and the religious center moved to the new cathedral and Bishop’s Palace in the down the hill part of Cashel. It was in the Bishop’s basement that a monumental event in Irish history occured.
The Bishop and a house guest, not sure but the term hospitality had to apply, while brainstorming in the basement “buttery” they arrived at the idea of toasting the barley before fermentation. The local help loved it and thus was born the national beverage, Guinness.
Naturally, we had to research this creation and found the historic locale. We were not the first Americans to visit. President Reagan and Nancy previously occupied our seats as well as Jackie Kennedy. I was surprised not to see Bill Clinton’s name on the list of notables. I offered to sign the wall but they coud not find a Sharpie. Maybe next time.