A History of Irish Cuisine

(Before and After the Potato)

John Linnane BSc, MSc.

Lecturer in Food Production,

Dublin Institute of Technology,

Cathal Brugha St, Dublin, Ireland.


Since this paper is for the students of culinary Art or any reader who loves the study of food and who may have no ambitions or opportunities to delve deeply into the voluminous archaeological literature, which might be involved in each of the periods and topics covered. For that reason this research into Irish cuisine is not intended as a study guide for students of history or archaeology. It is intended as a insight into cuisine in Ireland over the centuries therefore, the text pages are not encumber with too many references. Should the reader wish to study the subject further the Bibliography at the end will be most useful.


The introduction of the potato into Ireland in the 17th century could be considered by some gastronomists to be the greatest occurrence or the worse calamity to befall the Irish diet, Irish cuisine and the Irish people. This paper examines the foods that were eaten by the Irish before the introduction of the potato, the methods of cooking and the changes that came about due to its introduction.

What occurred in the past in relation to diet and nutrition has a major bearing on the formation of nations and of each human being within those nations. What was consumed over the centuries has been of vital significance in developing people's stature, intellect and character. The quality and health of a nation is shaped by the diet as well as the behaviour of our ancestors to this effect Ireland is no exception. (Tannahill 1988)

Historical Background

It would serve no useful purpose to burden you the reader with questions of chronology, but some rough idea of dates is necessary so as the few simple technical terms used might be understood. Prehistoric times in Ireland are divided into three main periods, the Stone, Bronze and early Iron Ages. The earliest period the Stone Age 8,000 to 2500 BC is subdivided into the Early Middle and Late Stone Age. The latter the Late Stone Age or Neolithic period in Ireland was very brief covering less than 200 years and overlapped the coming of the Bronze Age. It is from this period that the earliest records that exist concerning diet and cooking can be traced. The Bronze Age extended from 2000 BC to 500 BC and it too was divided into Early Middle and Late phases, each of about 500 years duration. With the coming of the Celts about 600 to 500 BC heralded the beginning of the Iron Age which lasted from 500 BC to 500 AD, yet even during the Iron age stone and bronze continued to be used both as tools and for cooking purposes. The date 600 to 500 BC for the beginning of the Iron Age in Ireland is used because it marks conveniently a point at which Iron Age influences are felt, but there is very little evidence of a real Iron Age in Ireland until the first century BC. Following on from the Iron Age came the period of enlightenment, (Christian Era) then the Dark Ages (A period when Ireland was invaded and under the control of the Normans), the Middle Ages a period of great social change, which in turn were followed by our Modern Era.

The Dawn of Irish Civilisation

For the first 8,000 years or so of Irish history, little is known of the people who inhabited the country but they were believed to be predominately hunters and gatherers of food, responding to their environment and also restricted by it. As in any other primitive society ancient Ireland was no different, the quantity of food available varied greatly from season to season or year to year, thus limiting the number of people that could be adequately supported on a given land area. (Bode 1994)

There is some indication that the ancient (5,000 to 8,000 years ago) Irish may have also farmed sections of the land as the layout of fields have being excavated in the parts of Ireland that they inhabited. In addition some remains of what appear to be domesticated animals have been found in archaeological sites related to that era. The variety of food items they used would have had to have the potential to provide the essential nutrients, which may not have been available on an all year around basis due to the climate that existed at that time. (Murphy 1978) This could or would be another reason why a rudimentary form of farming must have occurred.

During the remaining 5,000 years of Irish history, however, dynamic changes occurred due to the so called "Cultural Revolution" or the beginning of modern civilisation, which embraced major social and agricultural developments (O'Brien Education 1972). As a result of these changes, humans began to exhibit a degree of control over their environment. The essence of this revolution was that people began to organising families into small social groups, and this resulted in co-operative efforts among individuals and with it the birth of social organisation and the beginning of government.

This reasonably well-developed social order appeared to have existed as far back as the late Stone Age continued through the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The evidence for this belief is based on the level of co-operation which would have been necessary to build the many large structures that are dotted around Ireland, such as New-Grange, a Neolithic tomb located in County Meath. This is a structure of immense size and complexity of construction that is more than 5,000 years old, and is considered by some to be equal in grandeur to the great Pyramid at Giza. Mention will also be made here of the Beaker People, a people who existed in Ireland at the end of the Late Stone Age, Early Bronze Age 2 to 2500 years BC (Riordian 1942). These were a people known because of their distinctive type of pottery, which was used for storing, serving and preparing food, the presence of which indicates an advanced social order, a pottery industry and the collecting of food items for storage.

Changes in Food Production

Other aspects of social changes were the domestication of a variety of animals, the clearing of forests, plus the collection of wild edible plants for immediate use, cultivation or storage. Approximately 5,000 years ago this extended to the cultivation of a variety of edible grass seed and leaf plants. The best example of this kind of agriculture in Ireland where the evidence still exists to this day is the Ceide fields in County Mayo, considered to be more than 5,000 years old. The establishment of single-crop production (oats and barley) is believed to have occurred in these fields, which in turn led to long-term storage and elementary processing of food. Alongside and following the establishment of crops, the rural controlled grazing of animals also began. With these dramatic changes came the creation of relatively stable family units. The increase in the quantity and dependability of the food supply somewhat loosened the natural restraints of starvation, disease, and similar forces that held in check the potential growth of the population which began to expand rapidly, and the Irish moved toward a civilisation which had its own political organisations dominated by the Druid Priesthood and the Ruling Class.

The Level of Food Production in Ireland

Food production inevitably was the principle preoccupation of the mass of the population and, as it was in most societies of that era, it took up most of their working day. Evidence for agricultural activity during the centuries BC is rather surprising, for periods up to 200 years the level of agricultural activity seemed to have declined then increased and declined again. During the periods of decline the consumption of meat and dairy products increased. Periods of forest clearing for agriculture were followed by periods of secondary re-growth of the cleared forests and a return to dependence on livestock, hunting and gathering. This intermittent cycle of forest clearing and planting lasted up until the 3rd century AD when a dramatic expansion of permanent agriculture occurred.

Political Organisation

Prior to the Celtic conquest, (which occurred around 600 to 500 BC and lasted until the 12th century AD), the political organisations that existed in Ireland is unclear but after the coming of the Celts it is well documented. Ireland during the Celtic era was divided into about 150 tiny kingdoms called Tuatha. The people in each Tuath were divided into four main groups, the King, (who was elected by the nobles) the Nobles (landowners and warriors), the Freemen and the Un-free (slaves). A number of Tuatha came or allied together to form a province and appointed a greater king to represent them and do battle on their behalf. At one time in Ireland there were 12 provinces, today there are 4. A tax in the form of food (cattle, pigs, and sheep (tithe)) was levied on each family by the king, which was collected in the summer months. (O'Brien Education 1972).

From the 5th century a Church tithe was imposed and consisted of the first born male of every milk-bearing animal. For a family sending a son for the priesthood, a year's tuition consisted of a dairy-cow, a sack of malt, a sack of corn and a calf.

The Family Group

Under Brehon Law, (Old Celtic Laws which go into detail about many every day to day things) the family group was more important than the individual. The family extended to four generations and included all the descendants of a common great grandfather. This group was known as the Derbfine. All of the land was owned and inherited jointly and they lived in one enclosed compound, which was either built on a hilltop, or in a lake for protection from wild animals or marauding bands (crannog). (Herity & Eogan 1977)

Irish Diet Before the Potato

Milk, cheese, meat, cereals and some vegetables formed the main part of the Irish diet from prehistoric times up until the introduction of the potato. (Danaher, K 1992).

The Most Widely Used Cooking Methods in Pre-potato Ireland

If any attempt is made to record the history of Irish Cuisine and diet it should start with the use of the cauldron a large three legged pot which was hung over the fire and simmered continuously. Depending on whether the community was inland or coastal would determine the types of foods chosen for cauldron cooking. Coastal communities collected a variety of shellfish (razorbills, cockles, clams, oysters, limpets, periwinkles, mussels, prawns and crabs) added seaweed, some herbs and vegetables to make a soup/stew, which was left simmering for hours then eaten with Oat bread. (O'Brien Education 1972). Meat and game were also cooked in this fashion. Necessity having been the mother of invention, the cauldron inspired Irish cooks to devise endless pottage and soups such as Irish farm broth, sheep's head broth, clam and cockle soup, hot lobster soup just to name a few (Sexton 1998).

The Brehon Laws while honouring cooks stated that the cook cannot be held responsible for a person getting scalded when he is serving food from a cauldron if he shouts out in a loud voice a warning to those a round him. (Danaher, K 1972). In the great houses of Ireland the cooks were generally males.

Cooking of Fowl and Feathered Game

Fowl and feathered game were cooked by covering them with a couple of inches of mud or blue clay without plucking or removal of the intestine and put into a hot fire. When sufficient time passed the clay, which was than baked as hard as stone was drawn out and broken open, the feathers and skin came away with the clay and the bird was cooked without the loss of a drop, hedgehogs were cooked in a similar fashion. (Danaher, K 1972).

Other Methods of Cooking

The main method of cooking food was in the large pot or cauldron or on spits over an open fire, archaeologists have not found remains of ovens in any ancient house sites. The cauldron was on occasions turned upside down on hot stones thus acting in a crude way as an oven. Bread could be put to bake on a hot flagstone in front of the hearth or under the cauldron. However the iron or bronze cooking cauldrons would have been valuable possessions, not easily available, so other methods of preparing food were devised. Remains of ancient cooking places showed that hot stones were used to heat water, and cook meat. A wooden trough would be filled with water, which was brought to the boil by adding stones, which had been heated in a hardwood fire; meat could then be put in the trough to cook (O'Kelly, J 1954).

A cooking trough like this was discovered in a bog at Ballyvourney in Co. Cork. It held 500 litres of water and the archaeologists found that this amount could be brought to the boil in thirty minutes by adding the hot stones. Once the water was boiling they only had to add another stone at intervals to keep up the temperature. They cooked a leg of mutton perfectly by wrapping it in straw and then boiling it for 2 to 3 hours in this trough.

Meat particularly young meat was roasted by placing the joint on a hot stone and covering it with a mound of hot stones, the fat running from the meat also played a part by igniting and continued to heat the stones. All spit or stone roasted meats were basted with honey and seasoned with salt.

Serving the Food

Once prepared the food would have been served simply, possibly in a common bowl or dish. Drinking vessels and bowls were usually made from wood, which was easily obtainable rather than metal. Wicker baskets could also have been used to obtain and hold food. Honey and salt were served with all meats, honey apart from basting, was used as a dip for meat while the salt was used for flavour. Fish, which was cooked by spit roasting, was also basted with honey.

The serving of food was considered so important that when a family member died food bowls were buried with them for their journey to the next world.


Animal husbandry in Ireland was the dominant food producing activity during the pre Christian era the number of cattle a man possessed depicted his wealth and cattle were kept for their milk rather than their meat, though beef was eaten especially in winter.

All the evidence both written and archaeological, tends to show that in Ireland prior to the potato cattle dominated the rural economy. The most recent and most detailed examination of faunal remains in Ireland has being carried out by P.J. Crabtree on animal bones from Dun Alinnne County Kildare a Bronze and Iron Age settlement. Here the great majority of the more than 19,000 bones identified belonged to cattle (54%) and pigs (36%), while sheep and goats (7%) and horses (2.5%) were poorly represented. Crabtree's analysis of the bones led her to conclude that cattle were kept in ancient Ireland primarily for dairying rather than meat as most of the cattle bones were those of calves less than six months old or elderly female animals past their milking usefulness. Meat was obviously a most important foodstuff, and the most plentiful meat was beef. Beef was not available all year round as only a limited number of cattle could be carried over the winter due to a lack of fodder therefore a cull of non-breeding animals took place in the autumn. The animals slaughtered during the cull would be old female animals, maimed, or unwanted bull calves. Beef for this reason became known in Brehon law as "winter food" as it was salted for use over the winter months and whitemeats (Cheeses and curds) were known as "summer foods" (O'Grada 1994). Large numbers of pigs and some sheep were kept by most families, the sheep were kept in open country and on the hills (as they are to this day) and were used for the production of wool. The pigs were herded in the oak forests, which covered more than a third of the land of Ireland where they were feed on the acorns that fell from the trees, and on other woodland fodder. (Cullen, L 1968)

Beef, pork, wild deer (venison) and mutton was the most common meats consumed up and until the eight century, as venison became scarce due to over hunting, beef, pork and mutton then predominated. The meat, which was usually tough, was cooked in the cauldron for many hours. Younger animals were cooked on a spit over an open fire or stone roasted, calf meat was usually spit roasted over the open fire. It appears that horses were also eaten but how widespread this practice was, is unknown (Danaher, K 1992).

Collecting of Blood for Pudding Making

Healthy cattle were bled from the neck to collect the blood without killing or harming the animal, the blood was then mixed with meal, which was processed into a black pudding, then salted or dried and used over the winter as a protein source. Pork was very popular and seems to have been the main meat eaten at all feasts in the great houses, any feast was considered not complete without a full mature roasted pig, although venison, beef, goat, and salmon were also included on the menu. The meat of the badger is mentioned as a delicacy as was the meat of seals and porpoises according to Danaher (1992). The coastal people preferred the meat of the sea pig (porpoise) to that of any land pig.

Hare was a common meat dish in Ireland and, after the introduction of rabbit by the Normans, it too became popular. Rabbit and hare were sometimes boiled in a bath of rancid butter that contained about 20% water. (Cullen, P 1981)

The Poor Mans Meat

The working or poorer classes salted pork, the cheapest of the meats to purchase, and used it as their main meat all year round; the blood which was collected after slaughter was also used for making puddings as it is in some parts of Ireland to this day. Salted meat was twice as valuable as fresh meat because salt was expensive and the meat lasted for a considerable time. To supplement their diet the poorer classes up until the coming of the Normans ate venison, hedgehogs, wild goats, wild boar and river fish, with the division of the land up into large estates after the Norman conquest the hunting of deer and other game was forbidden. (Mokyr, J 1985)


Bread does not seem to have been eaten in large quantities, but eight types of cereals were known and distinguished by the Irish and their use varied from place to place and with one's income. Oats and barley the most common cereals were used to make a variety of breads, the seeds of which were milled in querns or hand mills. Oats, a rain tolerant cereal most suitable for the Irish climate, and barley also acted as a thickening agent in most soups and stews. Oat-meal which was much more important than wheat or bere barley as a food source was prepared in many different ways e.g. porridges, boiled in its un-ground state as a gruel or ground and boiled in fresh or sour milk, flavoured with honey and seeds, salt or herbs. Porridge was made very thick as a morning meal or almost liquid, in the liquid state it was usually eaten at night. Porridge was consumed both hot and cold (Danachair 1958).

Rye and wheat were also grown but not in large quantities; the commonest wheat bread eaten by the poor was a mixture of rye and wheat flour made into bread called Maslin which was well known throughout the Celtic world. Full wheaten breads were considered a delicacy, and the finest white flour was made into sweet cakes with eggs and honey, but was only eaten on special occasions (Danachair 1958). This type of cake was baked in different sizes and was mentioned in early Brehon Laws, the bairgin banfuine or woman's cake under these laws should be half the size or thickness of the mans cake or bairgin ferfuine which in turn was only half the size of a guests cake or bairgan indriud (O'Brien Education 1972). Scones were prepared with wheat flour and burned seaweed, sour milk and additional acid extracted from fruit, which acted as the raising agent. Drops or lumps of the mixture were wrapped in wild cabbage leaves and then baked under a cauldron over hot coals/stones until cooked. Oat bread prepared from roughly ground meal was cooked on hot stones in the hearth (fireplace); this was usually eaten with meat, or used to mop up stews/sauces. Another use for oat bread was to break it up into crumbs and put it into a mutton or beef stew to thicken it. Bread was also cooked in the cauldron over the cooling embers without a lid by placing the loaf in the oiled pot and allowing it to bake over night, a practice that is carried out in parts of rural Ireland to this day (Moreton, C 2000). In times of hardship, bread was made from peas, beans or acorn meal mixed with other grains.

Alcoholic Beverages

A great deal of the corn grown was made into ale which was flavoured with herbs, plants, honey and spices and was drunk hot and cold by the whole family. It is not known if the ale produced was fermented sufficiently to cause intoxication. (O'Brien Education 1972).


Mead, the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, was considered a delicacy by the Irish and was consumed before the start and after a feast. The great banqueting hall of Tara the seat of the High Kings was known as the Mead Circling House. Mead was made from fermented honey and water with herbs and spices, and finished by sweetening it with additional honey.

Metheglin, highly spiced mead was popular and consisted of honey, thyme, rosemary and sweet briar, this was added to some dishes for special occasions. (Lysaght 1969). Another drink favoured by the Irish was sloe wine, made by mashing sloe berries and boiling them in water, leaving them at room temperature uncovered for one day, adding honey then putting the mixture into an airtight container and burying it for 6 weeks in the ground, then straining it through straw and drinking it as a wine.

Trade in Wine

For over 1,000 years a trade in furs, hides and salted meat for grape wine was carried on with Gaul. Wine was a popular drink in the great houses of Ireland one story goes that the High King Muircheartach MacEarca while trying to escape a fire in his castle jumped into a barrel of wine and drowned.

Dairy Products

Milk was an important foodstuff and was consumed in large quantities; it might be drunk fresh, allowed to go sour and eaten as curds (whitemeats) or used to make a variety of cheeses and butter fresh or salted. Butter was allowed to go rancid and was stored in barrels in bogs. Cheeses made from sheep's milk were also quite common in Ireland. The use of rennet from the stomachs of milk fed animals was well known as a means of curdling the milk for cheese making. A small piece of the bag in the stomach was cut off and boiled in water to produce the rennet.

Slaves and workers were given the green milk to drink this was the milk left over (whey) after the production of the whitemeats. (Anon. 1673)

Milk was also boiled with Irish Moss (seaweed) and allowed to thicken then mixed with honey and eaten after the meal as the sweet course with season fruits. This sweet is still popular in many parts of Ireland to this day and this seaweed, Irish Moss (cairigin), is exported throughout the world. Two other edible seaweeds were used: Dilisc and Steamhchan.


Eggs were in common use and consumed in large quantities especially those of ducks and wild birds (Sea-birds). Goose eggs were considered a delicacy and were used on special occasions such as Easter and mid summer's day. Eggs were cooked by frying them on hot stones with butter or they were boiled or poached in a hot bath of water with salt and fermented fruit juice. (Danaher, K 1972)


Sir William Perry (1672) in his writings noted that fish were caught in abundance in the rivers and lakes of Ireland and cooked over the open fire. The salmon was the most prized of all fish, but was also considered to have magical powers. To wish a person the health of a salmon was to bestow on them long life, strength, and good fortune. The most famous salmon story in Irish mythology was Fineigeas the poet's "salmon of knowledge", a mystical fish containing all knowledge that Fineigeas is said to have caught. The story goes that whoever tasted the fish first would gain that knowledge locked inside it. Fineigeas who was almost blind gave Fionn his young servant the task of cooking the fish, while cooking it he tested it by pressing his finger into the flesh, the purpose of which was to assess if it was cooked sufficiently. In the process he burned his finger which he then put into his mouth to cool the burn and tasted the fish. It was said that afterwards when Fionn needed to find the answer to a question he just put his finger in his mouth. What is recorded in this story is that the most prized fish (Salmon as well as Pike and Trout) were cooked over a fire made of apple wood which the Irish believed imparted flavour and colour. Trout, pike, perch, and roach were other river fish were in common use and eel weirs were well known on certain river in Celtic Ireland. Sea fish i.e. cod, hake, whiting, mackerel and skate as well as shellfish were also eaten (Mahon 1991). In addition to baking over an open fire the Irish consumed fish as a stew with all the fish available added to the pot and cooked with vegetables, seaweed and herbs. In parts of southern Ireland (Kerry and Cork) this practice was continued up until the 1930s (Moreton 2000). A number of fish caught in abundance such as herrings and mackerel were salted and dried and stored for winter use, or sold inland to farming families (Danaher, K 1972).

Large amounts of shellfish remains have being found in archaeological digs especially on the western coasts where shellfish were not only part of the diet but also where a thriving industry in purple dye took place, which was extracted from certain shellfish for dying the clothing of the nobility.

The diet of the Vikings in medieval Dublin from the 10th to the 12th century consisted to a great extent of shellfish (Mahon 1991).


There is little evidence in the literature about the vegetables that were eaten before the 8th century; people probably relied on those that they could gather in the wild rather than growing them themselves. They used onions, wild leeks, sorrel, nettles, and watercress. A variety of fruits could have been gathered in the summer, sloe, wild cherry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, rowan, whortleberries, crabapples and elderberries, but apples seem to have been the only fruit that was cultivated in any way. Under Brehon Law a tenant who lost his land for any reason had to be compensated for any apple trees he may have planted. Hazelnuts were collected and used in cakes as a ground meal, or eaten raw. (Salaman 1949).

The literature of the period from 800 to 1160 mentions the lubgort or vegetable garden; these were areas on ridges on the side of hills, which were manured in the autumn and planted in the spring with a variety of vegetables. A vegetable called cainenn possibly a member of the onion family was widely cultivated, the bulbs and stems were eaten raw or placed in a stew. Immus (celery) were grown extensively. Foltchep a kind of onion chive or leek were also grown. Meacan and cerrbacan believed to be carrots and parsnips were also cultivated. Peas and beans introduced by the Normans were extensively grown and were mixed with cereals to make a type of bread or were added to stews; turnips were also used after the 12th century. A type of wild cabbage and kale were also cultivated. Watercress was used as a salad vegetable and added to stews as were a number of water plant roots, which were also used as vegetables. Crem a wild garlic was used in most dishes and as a vegetable. All edible fungus (mushrooms) were gathered, either used fresh or alternatively dried for winter use. The dandelion leaf and a number of edible flowers were used as salad vegetables. (Daly, M 1986).

Though the winter months were probably hard, the Irish generally seem to have eaten well yet physical domineer was considered important, it was against Brehon law for a man to allow himself to become fat or develop a pot-belly. Certainly they do not seem to have wasted food; an old Irish text says:

'Anyone who gives another anything in which there has been a dead mouse or dead weasel, three fasts are laid on him who gives it. If it is in any other dry food, in porridge or in thickened milk, the part round it is thrown away, the rest is consumed'.

The Food for Fostered Children

The Irish had a strong sense of family and when the parents of young children died or were killed the children were fostered to other families. Strict laws were laid down as to their treatment, which included the food they were to be given. Below is a quote from O'Brien Education 1972 from life in Celtic Ireland concerning this issue.

'Stirabout is given to them all; but the flavouring which goes into it is different. Salt butter for the sons of inferior grades, fresh butter for the sons of chieftains and honey for the sons of kings. The food of them all is alike, until the end of the year or three years i.e. salt butter, and afterwards fresh butter to the sons of chieftains and honey to the sons of kings'.

'Stirabout made of oatmeal or buttermilk or water is given to the sons of the Feini grades, and a bare self-sufficiency of it merely, and salt butter for flavouring. Stirabout made on new milk is given to the sons of the chieftain grades and fresh butter for flavouring, and a full sufficiency of it is given to them and barley meal upon it. Stirabout made on new milk is given to the sons of kings, and wheaten meal upon it and honey for flavouring' (O'Brien Education 1972).


The Irish seemed to have been very friendly and generous, not likely to turn a visitor away from the door. Strangers would be given food and drink before they were asked their business. Any man who failed to feed a stranger would be dishonoured and disgraced. Any special occasion like the return of a hero or a victory in battle was celebrated with a great party or feast. Even ordinary evenings would often be spent eating and drinking while listening to singers and storytellers. (Gillespie 1991)


A feast was an occasion for great celebration and rejoicing, though it could often end in bloodshed as well if a hero thought that he wasn't being treated with enough honour and attention. Men and women usually sat round the wall of the banqueting room with their backs to the wall, taking their places according to rank and giving the most important or influential man the senior position. The bard or storyteller was responsible for the seating agreements. The champion warrior was given the best portion of meat, and fights often took place to decide who should receive it. Particular joints of meat were reserved for certain individuals at a feast, e.g. a leg of pork for a king, a haunch for a queen, a boar's head for a charioteer.

'The Irish banquet layout in the great hall at Tara was such, that no-man could have his back to another as a noble gesture of respect. The guests sat on cushions on the floor or on hay depending on their rank and had their meals served on wooden tables raised slightly above the ground. Their food consists of a small number of loaves of bread together with a large amount of meat, either boiled or roasted on charcoal or on spits. They partook of this in a cleanly but length-wise fashion, raising up whole limbs in both hands and cutting off the meat, while any part which is hard to tear off they cut through with a small dagger... When a large number dined together they sat around the wall with the most influential man at the top of the table, beside him sat the host and next on either sides the others in order of distinction.

The use of common cups (one cup only for each table) ensured that people could only drink a little at a time, usually only a mouthful, but the cup was passed around quite frequently for the duration of the meal.

The Irish way of life and its cuisine continued unabated up until the coming of the Normans. Restrictions began to be placed by the conquerors on hunting and fishing this had some effect on the standard and quality of life, which continued to slowly disimprove from the 12th century onwards. Part of the problem was the division of the land up into large estates and the downgrading of the native Irish from land-owner to tenants.

Changes in Land Ownership

Moving forward from the12th century to the early 1500s the mixed farming system that was the main feature of Irish agriculture and the means of subsistence of the Irish peasants came to an abrupt end according to Lucas (1991) for the following reasons:

The massive shifts in land ownership in Ireland (the plantation of more than 2/3 of the best land in Ulster and Leinster by the Elizabethans), (Quinn 1966) the destruction of the oak forests for fuel for the smelting industry and materials for the building of the British fleet and the stream of settlers made up of common soldiers from Scotland and England who were granted land in Ireland for the part they played in English wars .

The Introduction of the Potato and the Ensuing Increase in Population Bringing Changes in the Irish Diet and Irish Cuisine

A major impact on the Irish diet was the discovery of the New World. In terms of human food supply this had explosive effect due to the introduction to this country of new and exotic food crops one of which was the potato.

In terms of human diet the potato is a most important vegetable crop, it ranks fourth behind rice, wheat, and maize in terms of the number of people world-wide who depend on it as part of or as their staple diet (Nonneche 1989). It is only during the past three hundred years that the potato became the most popular vegetable in Ireland


It is assumed that potatoes were among the first crops "domesticated" by man when the Andes were first colonised about 5000 years ago. The tuber bearing species of the Solanum (Potato) are found wild in North and South America.

Archaeological evidence of early use of the potato is difficult to pinpoint in that the people living in these regions left no artefacts of plants. The earliest record is an Inca ceramic with a picture of potatoes dated from the 4th century AD.

The Introduction of the Potato to Europe

The Spanish brought the potato to Europe in 1570 where the first account of its sale was in Seville in 1573 when it was purchased as part of the normal supply of vegetables. From Spain the potato spread through Europe in 1590 it had reached the British Isles where it was first used as an ornamental bedding plant but its value as a food was quickly established. By 1601 it was also a common vegetable in Germany and France.

Potato in Ireland

The Irish were the first to seriously consider the potato as a staple food. By 1663 it was widely accepted in Ireland as an important food plant and by 1770 it was known as the Irish Potato. The potato became associated with depressed agricultural areas in England, Scotland and especially in Ireland. In Ireland the potato first became a centrepiece of winter diet from August to March taking the pressure off the late summer wait for the oats harvest. The cost of sticking with the older patterns of eating by the majority of the people was too high especially with the loss of their land and the shifting of the bulk of the population to the south and west of Ireland. They were required to exist on the marginal boggy lands of these parts of the country. The new diet of potato and oatmeal was regarded by the Irish as inferior but was nutritious and allowed the population to increase even during the little ice age of 1650 to 1720. (Salaman 1949)

Increase in Population

Because, it had the ability to improve long-term food security the potato was accepted by the Irish as their staple food particularly among the landless population. The potato more than anything else had contributed more to the demographic transformation of Ireland from an under-populated island of below 1 million in the 1590s to 8.2 million in 1840. Ireland became the most densely populated country in Europe (Phillips and Rix 1995). Nearly two and a half centuries of genetic evolution of potato varieties lay behind this remarkable ascendancy, going from under 2 tons per acre in 1670 to up to 10 tons in 1800. The abundant rain in summer and the mild climate produced these large crops of potatoes where it thrived in the peaty acid soils, and was grown in the Irish system of "lazy beds" or raised beds to protect them from frost, damp and rain. (Phillips and Rix 1995).

During this relatively brief period, the Ireland's food resources increased greatly, and the population expanded much more rapidly than before. It was slowly recognised, however, that food production could not indefinitely keep pace with unchecked population growth. In 1798 the economist Thomas Robert Malthus summarised this viewpoint: "population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio."

Efficiency of the Potato

Potatoes are one of the most efficient crops for converting natural resources, labour and capital into high quality food, which can be harvested after 60 days. (Phillips and Rix 1995). A poor family would rent between 1 and 10 acres of land for a season to grow potatoes, this enabled then to pay their rent build a cottage and to feed themselves. The greatest proportion of the population increase was among the poorest sections of society. This was made possible because of ample amounts of potatoes, supplemented with milk. Potatoes being predominately carbohydrates the average Irish adult male consumed them at a rate of approximately 14 lbs. per day. (Phillips and Rix 1995).

The Rise in Cereal Prices

The rise in international cereal prices after the Napoleonic wars and the increased demand by town-dwellers lead to a steady extension of tillage farming. The use of cereals particularly oats by the rural population declined right throughout Ireland except for some of the counties of Ulster. (Poirteir 1995) This brought about an increased dependence on potatoes by the landless or tenant farmers as landlords exported as a cash crop the vast bulk of the grain. The standard crop at the beginning of a corn rotation in the 17th and 18th centuries was the potato, which was used to reclaim or break in marginal land, up until then this land, was used by the poor to graze their cattle. At the time of land reclaiming a glut of potatoes existed but the change in the use of the marginal land resulted in the loss of the cow to many rural families. The first report by the General Board of Health (Dublin 1822) stated, "A rural family without a cow is truly to be pitied" but that's as far as the report went, they did nothing about common grazing rights. This reduction in the dairy herd in turn lead to an increase in the price of milk resulting in milk consumption and other dairy products being denied to the poor. In former hard times the rural family would have bled or sold the cow or its offspring for food purchases. They held little or no cash reserves or ancillary sources of income (spinning or weaving etc.) due to the mass production at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the cost of the materials required and the loss of these skills by the poor. (Mokyr 1975)

The Start of Modern Irish Cuisine

At the beginning of the 18th century it is imperative to keep in mind not just the regional patterns of the evolution of diet and cuisine in Ireland but of class ones as well. Sir William Perry (1769) noted that farm families owning over ten acres of land considered themselves to be of a superior class. To widen their diets they consumed a greater range of vegetables, greater amounts of wheaten bread and more meat, as well as the potato. Soups and stews were now thickened with the potato and all meals had as the main vegetable the potato. Sugar replaced honey and tea replaced ale.

One must suspect that much of what is today regarded as traditional Irish cuisine - soda bread, apple tart, barm-brack, boxty, champ, colcannon, Irish stew, potatoes and bacon and Dublin coddle - were only then being developed in the kitchens of the solid farming classes. From the early 18th century onwards no meal was considered complete without potatoes. The rise in the village grocer's shop also allowed for more foreign food and ideas to be included into Irish cuisine. (O'Grada 1994).

The Plight of the Poor

For the landless poor or tenant farmers no such wonderful changes occurred. It was noted in the parish of Glynn in Co Antrim in the 1830s that: the poor no longer eat meat or corn, their meagre diet is the Irish Potato supplemented by salted herrings in winter and cabbage in summer. (Lysaght, P 1987). This was the price being paid by the majority of tenant farmers and farm labourers by developing an exclusive dependence on the potato and therefore now lacked the dietary choice that had existed for centuries earlier. It was the potatoes own successes that helped to create the conditions, which made a large proportion of Irish society so vulnerable in the event of an unforeseen natural disaster. Population growth had contributed to the intense stratification of rural society, while the adaptability of the potato had allowed the landless to keep a toehold on the land unlike their confreres in neighbouring countries. (Mokyr 1975)


The dependence by 3/5ths of the counties in Ireland on one crop lead to two main famines. Lesser famines also occurred in 1620, 1678, 1680, 1765, 1770, 1774/5, 1783 and 1800 (Cullen 1968). The first great famine in 1739 was due to extreme cold weather, which destroyed the potato crop. (Phillips and Rix, 1995). The second in 1845 was caused by a new disease called potato blight (Phytophora Infestans) then called "murrain" which was seen on a wide-scale basis for the first time. This first attack in 1845 destroyed part of the crop with the loss of 200,000 lives but the following year 1846 total destruction occurred. Over 1,000,000 died in 46 and 47 and 48 more than 2,000,000 emigrated and 3,000,000 more were made dependent on the emergency rations provided by government sponsored soup kitchens. Ireland was known as the country of beggars as more than 3,000,000 people lived on charity. The population of Ireland declined by over 50% (Phillips and Rix 1995) but the potato, the cause of all these deaths, remained the most important Irish food commodity.


Irish cuisine began its history, as a cuisine based on meat and dairy products supplemented with seafood in coastal regions and vegetables as a side issue but not as a major component of the diet. The rights of the people to utilise the natural resources of the land (hunt and collect wild vegetables) were jealously guarded by the population until the coming of the Normans. Around the 8th century the production of vegetables became the practice of most households, replacing the dependence on wild and forest products. With this practice the standard of living improved and the wealth of new dishes increased greatly. Animal livestock remained as the indication of the wealth of the population, coinage was not an overtly important method of exchange although trade in gold and silver was common. This wholesome diet ensured that the Irish dined as well as the most sophisticated diner of today and its only in the past 50 years that the Irish diet is beginning to return to what it was at the start of the eighth century.

With the introduction of the potato a plentiful and cheap food source, the population increased greatly especially among the poor or displaced. A family with 10 acres and four sons divided the land up into 4 equal parts, when these sons had children the 2.5 acres were again divided up making the land unproductive by overworking with continuous seeding and harvesting. This practice eventually lead to families having no productive land at all with yields falling and disease striking the crops. The potato by providing a means of population increase also provided for the disasters that followed yet no meal today in Ireland would be complete without potatoes. The diet and cuisine of the Irish was changed completely by the introduction of one vegetable and to this day the memory of the people of Ireland their diet their cuisine and their history is tied up in events related to that vegetable the potato. No other nation in the world had their cuisine changed so drastically as the Irish, with the possible exception of the effect of the tomato on Southern European cuisine.


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