Hospitality in early medieval Ireland was a very important practice to uphold, no matter what social class. Being hospitable to any freeperson would help build up your reputation and achieve higher status, while depriving someone of hospitality was one of the easiest ways to fall in status. A hospitaller, or briugu,[1] is someone who without fail offered hospitality to any guest without keeping a record of their debts or how often they came. Hospitallers achieved high status, even as high as a lower king, from their limitless hospitality.[2] This seems to be a way in which wealthy people of non-noble birth could attain high status despite their inheritance.

References to Hospitallers in Law Codes:
The status of a hospitaller is described in the Bretha Nemed toísech as depending upon “a never-dry cauldron, a dwelling on a public road, and a welcome to every face.”[3]

In Uraicecht Becc, a briugu is distinguished as a man who attains equal rank with a lord (flaith) by attaining twice his lands and property. A briugu should have a “hundredfold wealth”, or cetách, from which to support his guests. This is understood to mean that a briugu would have at the least one hundred cattle.[4] It would be very difficult to maintain limitless hospitality without a great amount of wealth, so the qualification to have so much in order to attain the status of briugu was just as much a practical one as it was a status requirement. There is a higher rank of briugu described in the Uraicecht Becc, the briugu leitech, who has two hundredfold wealth, and whose house is at the meeting of three major roads.[5]
A briugu could increase his status until even with that of a chief poet or the lowest grade of king, at which point he was known as a chief briugu, or ollamh briugad. (For more about the different types of kings, click here) As noted in the law of status or franchise, “A king of overkings, a king-poet, and a hospitaller are without sick-maintenance among the grades of a tuath.”[6]

References to Hospitallers in Literature:

  1. ^

    Kelly, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law : Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998, p. 36.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^

  4. ^

    Ibid, 37.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^

    Eoin Mac Neill, "Ancient Irish Law: The Law of Status of Franchise." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 36C, p. 301.