Analysis: the 12,000 people who have pledged to help Ukrainian refugees are following a long tradition of providing shelter to those in need

By Gary Dempsey, GMIT

Ireland is often promoted as the land of a thousand welcomes. In just one week, almost 12,000 Irish people had pledged to accommodate Ukrainian refugees on the Irish Red Cross website. This demonstration of selflessness by those who have pledged a room or vacant accommodation is part of the history of hospitality in Ireland, both in context of medieval Brehon Laws, and near recent accounts that survive in the Irish Folklore Commission's digital archive.

Life in medieval Ireland was governed by laws, just as it is today. Readers may be familiar with the term Brehon Laws, which represent a collection of references to instructions, traditions and customs which originate in the 7th and 8th centuries and survive in later medieval manuscripts. It is within these texts that we find evidence of the importance of hospitality in medieval Irish law.

According to these laws, a householder was required to offer food and lodging to any traveller passing through a neighbourhood. In addition, householders were bound by religious morals to give to the poor. This is not to say that the Irish were welcoming outright, but there was a legal requirement to provide for those travelling in an area.

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From O'Brien Press, author Jo Kerrigan talks about her booj Brehon Laws: The Ancient Wisdom of Ireland

Long distance travel was not common in the medieval world. The type of 'stranger’ a person might expect to knock on their door seeking shelter usually came from a familiar place, with people typically travelling locally for markets or fairs, and to attend religious events or large seasonal gatherings. Comparing this to recent lockdown restrictions, a person may have travelled a few kilometres from their home on a regular basis, and within their regional boundaries on special occasions.

Travellers who set out on long distance journeys generally came from higher tiers of society and would usually travel with the permission of a local ruler or the church. A person’s social status determined the level of hospitality they could expect to receive. The rules around this usually determined how long a person could avail of hospitality in a household and how many people in their company would the courtesy be extended to.

The rules around hospitality remain an important narrative in the Irish story. The Irish Folklore Commission, founded in 1927, and the Schools' Collection (1937-1939) collected a wealth of Irelands oral tradition and culture. There are hundreds of stories in these collections which show the importance hospitality played in Irish society long after the medieval period. This showed an Ireland with a folk memory of the rules for welcoming strangers to your home set out by medieval Irish law.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, the National Folklore Collection has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register

In Co. Clare, school teacher Marcella Crowe told of the hospitality of the people of Coney Island saying, ‘In no other part of Clare is the spirit of Irish Hospitality more thorough and sincere, a hearty welcome greets you at the threshold of their homes… and you are treated to the very best the house affords.’ Here again, there is a pride and honour associated with the hospitality of the people who welcome visitors with open arms.

But these warm welcomes were not just reserved for the upper classes. Several records in the folklore collection tell of the hospitality for ‘beggars’ and ‘travelling folk’. In the townland of Rashinagh, Co. Offaly, it was recorded that ‘beggars used to be received in certain homes in the country districts with hospitality’. There was a warm welcoming nature associated with those local communities that provided homes to travelling folk who would in turn replay their hospitality with news from the parish and neighbouring regions or help with housework.

Several stories tell of strangers who arrived at a house on a stormy night. In the morning it became clear that the stranger was a person of wealth who would leave behind money or food for the family. Other stories speak of the tradition of lighting a candle on Christmas night so that strangers might not pass unwelcomed.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Liam O'Dwyer from the Irish Red Cross answers listeners' questions about hosting refugees

Irish hospitality is still evident today. The Irish Red Cross have long had a tradition of extending this hospitality to refugees. A brief look at the RTE Archives reveals several news broadcasts detailing the plights of refugees from Iran, Poland and even Northern Ireland in 1971.

The current campaign calling for host families is not new. A similar campaign was launched for Syrian refugees which saw Irish families open their doors to strangers in their time of need. While hospitality is no longer a requirement under Irish law, the 12,000 people who have pledged to open their doors are following a long tradition of providing shelter to those in need.

Gary Dempsey is a lecturer in Design and Heritage Studies at GMIT


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ