With so much talk these days of Paleo diets and eating how your ancestors ate, I was struck by the realisation that I had no idea what Irish people ate before the introduction of the potato into Ireland. What did the Irish subsist on? Was it primarily meat or vegetables? And when did the potato first come to the Green Isles? These were just some of the questions I wanted to answer in today’s post. And who knows, maybe the next fad diet will be the If the Irish Ate It (ITIAI) diet?
So how far back can we trace the Irish diet?
Well very far back it seems. As early as the 1st century BC, Greek writers such as Athenaus were describing the eating habits of the Gaels for those in mainland Europe. Athenaus wrote of the Irish dining habits and cuisine, “the Celts place dried grass on the floor when they eat their meals, using tables which are raised slightly off the ground.” He would later write that the typical Irish feast centered an abundance of roasted and boiled meat, which were eaten with bare hands. Delicious. As the Celts began to fade away and the Normans took their place, the Irish cuisine expanded to include a vast array of dairy products, grains and vegetables. Interestingly, scholars still maintain that from the time of the Celts to the introduction of the potato centuries later the Irish diet remained relatively the same, revolving around dairy, grain, meat and vegetables.
Ireland: A Nation of Dairy Lovers It’s fair to say that dairy played a large role in the Irish diet. Indeed, almost every account of what the Irish ate from prehistoric times until the introduction of the potato involves some description of dairy. Unsurprisingly given the vast green spaces, Irish farmers prided themselves on cattle. Something that interestingly can be found in many of the Ancient Irish Epics in which to steal another tribes cattle was a grievous sin. It was, banbidh, or “white foods” that the Irish of old seemed to live off of. Depending on the time of year, and in many cases, the disposition of their employer, Irish families chose from drinking milk, fresh curds, old curds, buttermilk, ‘real curds’ and a sour drink made by mixing whey with water (did the Irish invent the world’s first protein shake?).
Drinking milk was almost a national pastime at times. In 1690, one visitor from England noted that the native Irish consumed milk “above twenty several sorts of ways and what is strangest for the most part love it best when sourest.” The sour milk the visitor was most likely referring to was bainne clabair or “thick milk”, which many people postulate was either old milk and sour cream. Aside from milk, the Irish had a real fondness for butter as well. This was humorously discussed by Irish historian A. T. Lucas who in 1960 wrote that
Recent international statistics show that the consumption of butter per head of the population is higher in Ireland than almost anywhere else in the world and the writer believes that the history of butter in the country can be summed by saying that, were comparable figures available, the position would be found to be the same in any year from at least as early as the beginning of the historic period down to 1700.
Similar to their milk fondness, the Irish found a way to produce a variety of different products. From the 12th century onwards, records exist detailing onion butters, garlic butters, sour butters and so on. A favourite style for many natives seems to have been ‘bog butter’ for want of a better word. Butter would be buried in a bog for a long time, allowing the butter to absorb a bog flavour. Dairy wasn’t the only mainstay in the Irish diet however…
Grains, Glorious Grains… Whereas today’s Irish consumers can choose anything from quinoa to couscous, the Irish of old contented themselves primarily with oats and barley. This had as much to do with convenience as it did with the temperamental Irish weather. Oats could be stored for long periods of time and could also be used to thicken soups and stews. Porridge was possibly the most popular grain staple food. According to Danachair, porridge was made very thick as a morning meal or almost liquid. In the liquid state it was usually eaten at nigh and was consumed either hot and cold. Breads were also made from either oats or barely. Interestingly, ‘traditional’ Irish soda bread didn’t exist until at least the latter half of the 19th century when baking soda was first created. Other grain meals included sowens, a jelly like drink made from fermented wheat husks and boiled sowens.
Protein Power: Meat, Fish and Eggs It appears that right up until the introduction of the potato into Ireland that the rural economy was focused on the rearing of cattle. In the pre-Christian era, the number of cattle in a man’s possession depicted his wealth and holding cattle meant an unlimited supple of dairy products, which as we have learned were a mainstay in the Irish diet. The importance of the cow with regards dairy production, meant that beef was only eaten in the winter time as a means of culling the non-breeding and older animals. For this reason beef became known during Brehon times as ‘winter food’. Cows would be slaughtered in the winter months and the beef preserved using salt. Up until the eighth century, beef, pork, venison and mutton were the meat options of choice.
Following a relative drop in the number of deers in Ireland from the eight century onwards, beef, pork and mutton became the go to options. There are some accounts of horses being eaten but it is difficult to ascertain if that was out of necessity and to what extent it happened. Of course being an island nation, the Irish also partook in fishing. As late as the 17th century, English explorers such as Sir William Perry would note the abundance of fish in the rivers and lakes in Ireland. The variety of fish caught and eaten was something special. The Irish had access to a variety of shellfish, white fish and of course salmon. As anyone with a knowledge of Irish mythology knows, salmon held a special place in Irish hearts. It was said to have magical powers and for many years wishing someone the health of the salmon meant to bestow on them long life, strength, and good fortune. Similar to beef, fatty fish and white fish would be salted, dried and stored for future months. Eggs were also used. Primarily those from ducks and sea-birds. Occasionally goose eggs were eaten on special occasions.
Fruit and Vegetables So what was a traditional Irish vegetable? It appears that for many centuries, the vegetables of choice included cabbages, onions, garlic and parsnip alongside wild herbs and greens. Eventually kale and carrots would also be added to the Irish plate with greater regularity. In the summer months, a variety of fruits were available such as sloe, wild cherries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, rowan berries, whortleberries, crabapples and elderberries. It is interesting to note that such fruits were grown wild and that the only fruit that appears to have been grown deliberately were apples.
It wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of the traditional Irish diet without a conversation about alcohol. Guinness propaganda aside, for many centuries, the traditional drink of Ireland was ale made from corn and flavored with herbs, plants, honey and spices. It was drunk hot or cold by the whole family. The strength of this drink is difficult to ascertain as some scholars such as O’Brien have argued that this ale may have been very low in alcohol content due to a quick fermentation process. Aside from corn ale, mead, the oldest drink in the world, was drunk by the higher echelons of ancient Irish society. In later centuries, sloe wine, a wine made by boiling mashed sloe berries, found it’s way into Irish cups. And in case you’re wondering, Guinness wasn’t invented until the 1700s!
Despite it’s popularity in today’s Irish cuisine, the potato is a relatively new import into the Irish diet. The starchy carb was first sold in Spain in 1573 and by the 1590s had spread throughout Europe. Whilst the exact date of its arrival in Ireland is unknown, by the mid-1600s, it was the cornerstone of Irish diets. In the time before the Potato famine in the 1800s, a diet of oats and potatoes helped sustain the Irish peasantry. The change in the Irish diet after the introduction of the potato cannot be underestimated. Take for example, a menu plan from an Irish workhouse in the 1800s
Breakfast Dinner Supper
|Men||4lbs potatoes, 1 pint skimmed milk.||The same, with herring instead of milk in Winter.||Not always provided.|
|Women||3 lbs potatoes, 1/2-1 pint skimmed milk||The same.|
|Men||5lbs potatoes, 1 pint sour milk||The same. Herring when milk cannot be had.||The same|
|Women||3lbs potatoes, 1 pint milk||The same||The same|
So how can one eat like their Irish ancestor? Quite simply. Eat real, unprocessed food with a good balance of meat, vegetables and carbohydrates alongside generous amounts of dairy. If you want to go more modern add in potatoes. If you want to go super modern just head to your local take away!
Wow, that food menu is pretty serious…4lbs of potatoes? Lol. -Derek
To say the potato became a staple is somewhat of an understatement! Hope all’s well with you 🙂
Thanks so much for dropping by, glad you enjoyed it!
Hi! Very interesting. We are looking for a “typical” irish daily menu. Big breakfast? Big lunch, etc. Could you give us a line up? It would be greatly appreciated!!
Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it!
Using the guidelines here you could say
A hearty bowl of porridge with a glass of milk. In the summer months freshly picked berries could be added.
Cabbage and Bacon or Fish and seasonal greens
Mutton, Deer, Fish or Pig with Porridge again or bread made with oats or barley. Served with seasonal greens.
Ale made from corn and flavored with herbs, plants, honey and spices
Hope that helps!
Its important to remember that “corn” refers to any grain, not maize.
Hi Jim, thanks for the clarification. Many, myself included would have thought otherwise!
Yes, although the word “corn” refers by default to the plant maize in contemporary English (at least in the Americas), maize is a new world crop that would have been unknown in Europe before contact with the American continent.
It’s funny, maize as a word now has almost completely disappeared
Thank you very helpful!
I am looking to eat an Irish based diet so looking to read anything I can get my hands on to this subject! Best one I’ve read yet!
Hi James. Very funny – I was only chatting about this diet to someone the other day. Delighted to hear it’s of use and I hope the food plan goes well 🙂
I am an American of Irish ethnicity. I have an autoimmune thyroid condition as well as Celiacs. My endocrinologist suggested I stick to a Paleo diet. As I researched this diet I realized that many of the suggested foods were not what my ancestors would have eaten. As someone with Celiacs, I am painfully aware of the consequences of subjecting a body to a steady diet of a substance that body had not evolved to consume. I began to research the diet of the Irish prior to the English. Honestly, I had to dig pretty deep.
As we know, prior to the English, Ireland was deeply forested. Research into our ancient diet has revealed that our staple food was hazelnuts. Other foods would have been whatever the forests or sea would provide. So, deer, boar and birds. Eggs, honey, garlic, onion, mushrooms and leafy greens like cress. Berries, berries and more berries! Fish and shell fish both fresh and ocean. I learned that honey was abundant and used lavishly.
Later we became a cattle culture and beef and dairy became a huge part of our diet. Clearly we have evolved to tolerate dairy.
Grains that grow in cooler, damper climates, like oats and barley most definitely arrived with agricultural. Wheat, on the other hand needs a lot of sun and dry air to grow. It’s no wonder that the Irish have the highest incidence of Celiacs in the world. We did not evolve to consume wheat.
I am writing this to add to your article and not to correct you in any way. Please take it as such. I did the research because my well being literally depended on it.
My one concern with your article was the mention of corn in the making of alcohol. Do you refer to “corn” as a general reference to grains or do you refer to American (maize) corn? To the best of my knowledge American corn was not introduced to Ireland until the Famine. It was shipped over as a “ relief” food.
Wishing you the best in your endeavors young man.
Hi Allison, thanks so much for getting in touch with such an informative post. I am sorry to hear about your own health issues. My partner is similarly Celiac so I know how cumbersome it can be finding the right diet.
You’ve certainly done your homework on this! My own writing was a shorthand for grains in general re – ‘corn.’
If you had time I’d love to see your current way of eating as it sounds truly informed!
Hi Allison. Important to know there was no Irish famine. Ships full of produce were waiting in front of the coasts but forbidden to unload. Much like now ships with gas are waiting for the EU coasts waiting for the highest bidder. The socalled Irish Famine was a men orchestrated famine. Good to know your info. And of course the intake of milk, milkproducts would be raw milk or raw milk cheese. Which cannot be compared with the harmfull pasteurised or sterilised dairy of today or the difference between A1 cows and A 2 cows milkproducts.
This is a very helpful comment, thank you!
Irish people did not eat potatoes ancestrally in fact part of the potato famine was particularly deadly for them is it is not a food most Irish do well on. Look it up!
I’d add that its certainly not a food most Irish people do well in excess on either!
I grew up I. San Francisco with an Irish immigrant farm mother from Co. Mayo. She insisted we eat potatoes every night, boiled or baked. When we five kids and my Irish-American dad wanted some spaghetti sometimes, she would purse her lips and do it BUT with the big caveat that we eat a potato with it! Now how’s that for carbs? We all love Italian food here, and our local catholic school and parish were full of Italians. My poor Mom was not just adjusting to USA but to the other immigrants here.
Thanks for sharing. Going to have to start adding some parsnip into my diet!
This is great! I’m of Irish/Scottish/English decent and I had an extended period of time when I was in Ireland and was eating the food available to me. I not only felt amazing but, most noticeable, the eczema that I was born with disappeared after about a month of being in Ireland. I was shocked that I didn’t have to lotion on and I couldn’t understand why this happened other than I was supposed to be in Ireland and my body liked it! When I got back home to America almost immediately my eczema returned and I’ve been trying to get back to that state ever since. Recently my attention on the issue of my eczema was turned in my diet and I was reminded of my time in Ireland and deduced that the largest factor of my eczema healing had to be the food I was eating. This is the first real and concise explanation of the Irish diet that I’ve seen to date and I’m definitely going to use it as a guideline. If you know if any other resources as well, please let me know.
Hi Bridget thanks so much and really amazed (and happy!) to hear that. If you can access it JP McMahon published the Irish Cookbook last year which I’ve heard rave reviews about. It combines recipes with history! https://www.phaidon.com/store/food-cook/the-irish-cookbook-9781838660567/
Oh great ! Thank you! I’ll definitely try that out. 9
Very nicce blog you have here
You might be a city fellow so perhaps you don’t know that for every dairy cow there’s a steer (or when younger, a veal calf). So doing dairy… unless you’re just plain wasteful or have money to burn… means having meat. You didn’t kill your cow (winter or summer) unless she stopped producing.
And about potatoes, the English seized most of the arable Irish land in the 1600s; forced them to grow good foods for the English overlords and merchants, and forbade the Irish from raising any really nutritious foods on what had been their own farms. So they were forced to live in spuds and cabbage, until potato blight left them all starving.
And I’d take “the workhouse diet” off you site as an example of Irish diet. My grandmother lived in one as a child for almost 10 years and it’s a wonder she survived. It is basically a debtor’s prison run by the English owners or favored (compliant) Irish, and they competed to see who could feed their inmates the most cheaply. The worst example of prison food there was.
A lot of foods we now eat have been forced upon us. Either telling us they are bad for us or that they are healthy for us. The anti fat hype, the ancestral lack of salt and now anti salt hype, the anti sugar hype, equaling honey and natural fructose to chrystal sugar, the vegetable oils are good for you hype and of course the processed foods hype, the latter being disastrous for our healths. So i am wonderiing about Potatoes. Quinoa f.i. never eaten on itself by indigenous people but mixed with something else. Raw dairy good for us, pasteurised bad. Yet raw dairy banned in some countries. Something i also notice is that what is on promotion often contains glucose fructose syrup, coming in many different names. Docu Sugar the bitter truth.