A real case of fosterage

Below is a section from a poem by Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, who lived in the thirteenth century. The poem deals with the fostering of a girl named Gormlaith, daughter of Domhnall Mór Ó Domhnaill of Tír Conaill (modern-day Co. Donegal). Gormlaith died at the age of five. She had been fostered by a man referred to as ‘Domhnall in the east’; this might be Domhnall son of Aodh Úa Néill of Tír Eoghain (modern-day Co. Tyrone).

Read the extract and write responses to the questions as a Carousel activity. The class should be divided into six groups. Each group will be given a flip-chart sheet with one of the questions on it; they write their answer and then rotate to another sheet with a different question. There, they read the response of the previous groups and can either agree, disagree or add to the response. Each group should have the opportunity to comment on each question and each group should have a different colour of pen.

Eochair shíothchána Shíl Chuinn
altrom inghine Í Dhomhnuill;
breith Ghormladha tar sliabh soir
do iadh comhladha an chogoidh.

Dob athair di an Domhnall thiar –
thug a n-aigneadh ar éinrian;
dob oide di an Domhnall thoir –
dob í conghlann a gceanoil.

Fríoth lé buar is brat naoidhe,
fríoth sochar is somhaoine;
a cumha i gceann a solaidh
earr umha ar na hasgadhaibh.

The fostering of Ó Domhnaill’s daughter
was the key to peace for Conn’s descendants (i.e. the people of the north of Ireland);
bringing Gormlaith east across the mountain
closed the doors of war.

Domhnall in the west was her father –
she brought their minds together
Domhnall in the east was her foster-father –
she was the fastening of their bond.

Cattle and bright clothing were brought with her,
advantage and wealth were brought;
the good fortune she brought ended in grief,
the gifts came to nothing.

From Angela Bourke et al. (eds), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, iv (Cork, 2002), pp. 308–9; translation adapted.


  • When Gormlaith was sent to be fostered what did she bring with her to ‘Domhnall in the east’?
  • Why do you think that cattle were given to ‘Domhnall in the east’?
  • What does the description of Gormlaith’s clothing as naoidhe (‘bright’) suggest?
  • What does the poem tell us about the relationship between the peoples of Tír Conaill and Tír Eoghain?
  • Why was ‘Domhnall in the east’ chosen to be Gormlaith’s foster-father?
  • Gormlaith was obviously sent into fosterage under the age of five. Can you imagine the emotions her own family and her foster-family might have experienced when she was sent into fosterage and when she died?

Changing meanings

Irish dalta is an example of a word that has changed meaning over time; it originally meant ‘foster-child’ but it now means ‘pupil’ and ‘student’. Other words that have changed their meanings include:

English girl used to mean simply ‘a young person’ and could be used to refer to a boy

Irish buachaill used to mean ‘a cow-herd’, which could be male or female, but it means ‘boy’ in Modern Irish

Using Linked Resources and the Oxford English Dictionary (, learn how the following English words have changed their meanings: nice, sly, wicked, sinister.

Using Images and the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language ( and Leabharlann Teanga agus Foclóireachta (, learn how the following Irish words cló and fadhb have changed their meanings.



Select a member of the class to play the part of EITHER a girl in fosterage in early Ireland who does not want to learn embroidery but wishes to go horse-riding with the boys, OR a child from a low-status family who envies the better food and more colourful clothing of more noble children. Other members of the class take turns to ask about their feelings and the reasons for them.