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Food Timeline FAQs: Irish food history & traditions

A History of Irish Food
Ancient Celtic fare
Irish food before the potato
The Great Famine
Halloween traditions
New Year traditions
corned beef & cabbage
Irish coffee
Irish soda bread
Irish stew
oyster stew
shepherds pie

Ancient Celtic fare
Much is known about what ancient Celtic foods, dining customs, and cooking methods:

"The eating and feasting habits of the Celts were recorded by a number of classical writers, the most important of these being Posidonius, a Syrian Greek philosopher who in his Histories provides eyewitness accounts of the Gauls in the 1st Century BC. Although his work does not survive intact, it was an important sources of information for a number of later Greek writers, notably Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) and Athenaeus (fl. C. AF 200). Detailed accounts are also found throughout the corpus of early medieval Irish saga literature, much of which is believed to reflect Iron Age Celtic society. Athenaus, quoting Posidonious, describes the informal feasting arrangements of the Celts as follows: 'the Celts place dried grass on the floor when they eat their meals, using tables which are raised slightly off the ground.' The classical material indicates that the feast was centered around the cauldron and roasting spits and was characterized by an abundance of roasted and boiled meat, which were eaten with bare hands....the feast was a ceremonial manifestation of the warfaring nature of society."
---Oxford Compantion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 149-50)
[NOTE: This book contains far more information than can be paraphrased here. It also cites sources for further study. Your librarian can help you find a copy.]

"The Celts, like their predecessors, prepared their meat by roasting or stewing. Both methods became easier after the introduction of metal utensils. Bronze, known in Britain from introduction the middle of the second millennium BC, was for a long time used sparingly for weapons, knives or jewelry. The inspiration for cauldrons of the meat came from the Greek trading colonies on the French Mediterranean coasts. Their vessels of riveted sheet bronze were seen and copied by itinerant Irish smiths about the eighth or seventh century BC. Soon cauldrons began to made in Britain too, though there were rare at first and were probably reserved for ritual meals rather than everyday use. Metal had many practical advantages over pottery. The new containers could be placed directly over the flames of a fire. They were not liable to be broken through over-heating or by being accidentally dropped. They were even more hygienic, for they could be cleaned with sand or ask and water more thoroughly than earthenware pots."
---Food and Drink in Britain From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, C. Anne Wilson [Academy Chicago:Chicago] 1992 (p. 67)
[NOTE: This book is an excellent source for your project. It is arranged by general food group (cereals, breads, meats, vegetables, etc.) and then by time period. Each chapter has pages devoted to Iron Age Celtic foods/cooking methods. Sample below. Ask your librarian to help you find a copy of this book.]

"Mealtimes among the Celts in Gaul were described by Posidonius (135-51 BC)...The diners sat on the ground on straw or hides, and ate their meat with their fingers in a cleanly by leonine fashion, raising up whole limbs in both hands and biting off the meat, while any part that is hard to tear off they cut through with a small dagger which hangs attached to their swordsheath in its own scabbard'. They were waited upon by t heir older sons and daughters. Beside them are hearths blazing with fire, with cauldrons and spits containing large pieces of meat. Brave warriors they honor with the finest portions of the meat.' The Celtic Iron Age saw the establishment of salt working around Britain coasts. The salt helped to preserve meat for winter use, and especially the pork so well loved by the Celts. The hams prepared by their neighbours in Gaul were exported to Rome as a delicacy; but we know no details about the salted meats of Britain. According to an Italian recipes of the mid-second century BC, hams had to be covered with salt and steeped in their own brine for seventeen days, dried for two, rubbed over with oil and vinegar, and them smoked for a further two days. It is likely that Celtic Britons followed similar practices, barring the oil and vinegar dressing."
---Food and Drink in Britain (p. 68)

"The Celts, who began to settle in Britain from the eighth century B.C., added hens, ducks, and geese to the list of Britain's domeseticated animals. They refused to eat the wild horses and instead tamed them for riding and for drawing wagons and chariots. The Celts were the first to recognize that the soil of Britain is more fertile than that of continental Europe, and they cleared forests to plant cereals and allow pasture to grow for grazing. They preserved meat, fish, and butter in salt and exported British beef to the Continent. The Celts also tilled the soil so successfully that they exported grain to many parts of Europe. In Britain, they built underground grain storage silos. The Celts processed wheat by setting ears alight, then extinguishing the fire when the husks were burnt. The wheat was then winnowed and baked, and saddle querns were used to grind it into flour. These industrious farmers also began beekeeping, with conical hives made from wickerwork daubed with mud or dung. They employed shallow earthenware pots as drinking vessels, whereas deeper pots were made for cooking pottages (mixtures of meat, grains, leaves, roots, and herbs) slowly over a fire. Honey and water, left together in a pot, will ferment, and this drink--mead--was often flavored with wild herbs and fruits. Some cow, ewe, and goat milk might have been drunk fresh, but most of it would have been made into cheese and only the whey drunk. The Celts made an unhopped beer from barley and wheat, first allowing the grain to germinate, then stopping this process with heat and allowing it to ferment. Finally, they also imported wine and, later, began to grow vines themselves."
---Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1217-8)
[NOTE: page 1217 contains a summary of foods known in the British Isles prior to the Celts. Presumably, these foods were also known to these peoples.]

Recommended reading:

What did Irish people eat before the potato arrived?
Food history books skip from
Ancient Celtic fare to the late 17th century, when the Irish embraced the potato. Surely, food did not stand still for centuries. "Irish Food Before the Potato," A.T. Lucas, Gwerin: A Half-Yearly Journal of Folk Life, Volume III, No. 2, 1960(p. 3-43) explores this period in depth. Information is grouped by food type: meat, bread, milk, cheese, corn (grain), butter, drinks. This scholarly article is not available via the Internet or academic databases. You can read it here, in three short courses: I, II & III.

Irish potato famine
Highly recommended: Feast and Famine: A History of Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920/L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford [Oxford University Press:New York] 2001, 2005. This scholarly book offers graphs, tables and charts detailing nutritional analysis for different classes of people in specific locations and years. Account books and extensive bibliography included. nutrtional analysis and

Food historians generally agree colcannon belongs to the Irish. This conclusion is based on linguistic evidence, ingredient availability, and culinary preference. Combinations of potatoes, cabbage, and leeks were also embraced by many other cultures and cuisines, most notably Germany, Russia, France, Scotland, England. These hardy, economical, filling foods sated the bellies of the working and poorer classes.

Cabbages and their cousins were known to ancient cooks. They were thought to have several medicinal attributes. The Romans are said to have introduced cabbages to Europe, with the possible exception of Ireland, where [According to C. Anne Wilson/Food and Drink in Britain(1973)], linguistic evidence suggests it was already known to Iron Age Celts. In Medieval Europe cabbage/cole (often in combination with members of the onion family) were the food of the common man. Potatoes were introduced to to Europe by 16th century explorers. They were first regarded as curiosities, not readily embraced as food. The French, then the Irish, were among the first to recognize the fact that potatoes could keep a nation from starving. Recipes for potato and cabbage dishes were inevitable. These dishes developed according to collective taste and culinary experience.

"Colcannon. Originally and Irish dish of boiled potatoes and cabbage or kale mashed together and flavoured with onion, shallots, or leeks and cream or butter...The word 'colcannon' is from the Gaelic cal ceannann' which literally means white-headed cabbage. However, the cannon' part of the name might be a derivative of the old Irish cainnenn', translated variously as garlic, onion, or llek. Therefore it can be suggested that in its earliest form colcannon may have been a simple mixture of some brassica and allium. One of the earliest Irish references to the dish as a mash of potatoes and cabbages is found in the Diary of Wiliam Bulkely, of Bryndda, near Amlwch in Anglesey, who made two journeys to Dublin in 1735...The dish was introduced into England in the 18th century, where it became a favorite of the upper classes...In Ireland colcannon was associated traditionally with Hallowe'en (31 October) festivities, when it was used for the purposes of marriage divination. Charms hidden in bowls of colcannon were portents of a marriage proposal should unmarried girls be lucky enough to find them, whilst others filled their socks with spoonfuls of colcannon and hung them from the handle of the front door in the belief that the first man through the door would become their future husband."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 203)

"There were variations, if rare, even that the poor ate. One was colcannon, or cale-cannon, turnips or cabbage mashed up with potatoes and stewed. (A northern version, popular in county Armagh, substituted beans for the turnips and cabbage.) Colcannon entered English usage in 1774, but the dish may be older. What is more certain is that colcannon was a treat--few cottagers grew turnips or cabbages. That didn't stop it from becoming a delicacy, however, because the peasants reportedly liked to steal the missing ingredients now and then. When Irish immigrants came to the United States, they introduced colcannon to American cuisine."
---The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, Larry Zuckerman [North Point Press:New York] 1998 (p. 32)

"Cabbage and Potatoes.
--Chop cold boiled cabbage and potatoes quite fine; put them together, season with butter, pepper and salt, add a very little vinegar or hot water, to moisten without making it wet, put it into a stew-pan over the fire, stir it well, that it may be thoroughly heated, but not burn; then take it into a dish, and serve for breakfast, or with cold boiled salt meat for dinner."
---Mrs. Crowen's American Lady's Cookery Book, Mrs. T. J. Crowen [Dick & Fitzgerald:New York] 1847 (p. 194)

--Boil separately equal weights of young cabbage, savoy, or spinach, and potatoes. Chop the greens and mash the potatoes, and mix them well together with a little pepper and salt, and one ounce of butter to one pound of the mixed vegetables. Heat the mixture over the fire for a few minutes, stirring it all the time; then press it into a hot, well-buttered mould. Turn out and serve. Or, press it after mixing into a well-buttered mould, and put it into the oven for half an hour. Turn out and serve. Cold vegetables may be warmed up in this way. Probable cost, 6d. for a pint mould. Sufficient for three or four persons."
---Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations [Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.:London] 1875 (p. 150)


Ingredients: To each 2 lb. of sieved cooked potatoes, add 1/2 lb. sieved green cabbage, cooked with bacon, if possible. 1 teaspoonful minced onion; 1 oz. butter; 1 tablespoonful cream; 1/2 teaspoon pepper; 1/2 teaspoonful salt.
Method: Cook potatoes by steaming for 3/4 to 1 hour. Peel and pass through sieve. Add hot sieved cabbage. Melt the butter, add the onion, milk and seasoning. Stand it over gentle heat, add vegetable mixture and heat thoroughly but do not allow to boil. Serve very hot. Serves six."
---250 Irish Recipes: Traditional and Modern, [Mounth Salus Press:Dublin] 196? (p. 76-77)

Irish Stew
The history of Irish stew, therefore, is truly a study of each ingredient. Onions were introduced by the Ancient Romans. Potatoes were a new world food, introduced to the British Isles in the 16th century, but not embraced until much later. The dating of "shepherd's pie" has similar notes. About
shepherd's pie.

"Irish stew is a celebrated Irish dish, yet its composition is a matter of dispute. Purists maintain that the only acceptable and traditional ingredients are neck mutton chops or kid, potatoes, onions, and water. Other would add such items as carrots, turnips, and pearl barley; but the purists maintain they spoil the true flavour of the dish. The ingredients are boiled and simmered slowly for up to two hours. Mutton was the dominant ingredient because the economic importance of sheep lay in their wool and milk produce and this ensured that only old or economically non-viable animals ended up in the cooking pot, where they needed hours of slow boiling. Irish stew is the product of a culinary tradition that relied almost exclusively on cooking over an open fire. It seems that Irish stew was recognized as early as about 1800..."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 407)

"764. Irish Stew

Having taken the loose fat form a loin or neck of mutton, cut from three to four pounds of it into small well-shaped chops. Flatten and season them with salt and mixed spices. Peel six or eight onions; parboil and skin a quantity of potatoes. Lay some shred suet at the bottom of a stew-pan, and a half-pint of broth, or melt two ounces of butter. Slice in a layer of potatoes, then a layer of chops, then strew in the onions, then again the potatoes and chops, &c. and let the top be covered with potatoes. A shank or small bit of ham, or a scrape of smoked tongue, or a little sausage meat, is a great addition to this favourite family dish. It must stove very slowly, and the pan must be closely and constatnly covered. Mshed potato makes an excellent wholesome paste to cover plain meat-pies of all kinds, particuarly pies of fat meat.--Obs. Some cooks wrap an old napkin round the stew-pan lid, which forms a kind of luting in dressing this and othe stoved dishes. There is a kind of cottage oven used in Ireland, in form of a wide stew-pan, made of cast-irong, whith a lid of the same thickness, on which embers of turf are put. This is placed over other embers, and an equal slow heat is maintained, which dresses a stew, baks a pudding or a bit of meat, and is found very useful at other times as a cottage-pot. Hunter's pie is another excellent form of Irish stew, only this is sometimes made of beef-collops instead of mutton-chops; and then the potatoes are always mashed. Place the potatoes, meat, and onions in alternate layers in an earethen-ware pie-dish, andbake them; the top layer of potatoes ma be neatly scored, scollopped on the edges, and glazed with eggs, if approved. A fashionable Irish stew is baked in a mould, en casserole, and turned out when served."
---The Cook and Housewife's Manual, Mistress Margaret Dods [Mrs. Isobel Christian Johnston], facsimile 4th edition revised and enlarged 1829 [Rosters Ltd:London] 1988 (p. 377-378)

"Irish Stew.

Take from two or three pounds of chops from the best end of a neck of mutton, and pare away nearly all the fat, for an Irish Stew should not be greasy. If liked a portion of the breast may be cut into squares and used, but a neck of mutton is the best joint for the purpose. Take as many potatoes as amount after peeling to twice the weight of the meat. Slice them, and slice also eight large onions. Put a layer of mixed potatoes and onions at the bottom of a stewpan. Place the meat on this and season it plentifully with pepper and slightly with salt. Pack the ingredients closely, and cover the meat with another layer of potato and onion. Pour in as much water or stock as will moisten the topmost layer, cover the stewpan tightly, and let its contents simmer gently for three hours. Be careful not to remove the lid, as this will let out the flavour."
---Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations [Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.:London] 1875 (p. 331)

Dinty Moore's Irish Stew.

"Irish Stew

To each pound of meat allow 2 lbs. potatoes, 1/2 lb. onions, and just enough water to cover. (A little mushroom ketchup or a few spiced mushrooms is a good, but not classic, addition.)
2 lb. scrag or middle neck of mutton
4 lbs. potatoes
1 lb. onions
seasoning and 1 pint water
a bunch of mixed herbs
2 bay-leaves
Cut the meat into cutlets. Trim off the fat, cut the potatoes in half and slice the onions thickly. Put in the pan a layer of potatoes, then the meat, them more potatoes and all the other ingredients. Cover tightly and simmer gently for 2-2 1/2 hours. Watch that it does not stick. and shale the pan form time to time. This dish should not be sloppy; the consistency should be thick and creamy and it should be very well seasoned. Spiced or stuffed prunes are excellent with ths. If stuffed, they are stoned and stuffed with the flesh of prunes."
---The Constance Spry Cookery Book, Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume [Pan Books Ltd.:London] 1956 (p. 570-571)

"Irish Stew

Ingredients: 2 lb. breast of mutton or 1 1/2 lb. gigot chops; 5 medium-sized onions; 2 lb. potatoes; pepper and salt; 1 pt. cold water; 1 teaspoonful chopped parsley.
Method: Cut themeat into neat pieces, removing the skin and sujperfluous fat.All fat is nto removed becuase the potatoes will abosrb a cretain amount. Put the meat in the bottom of stewpan, then put in somesliced potato and onion. Season with pepper and salt. Add water, bring to the boil, skim, simmer for 1 hour. Arrange the remainder of potatoes and onion on top, cover and simmer for a further hour. When stew is cooked serve on a hot dish with the potatoes and onion around and the meat in the centre. Pour a little gravy on top and serve the remainder in a hot sauceboat. Garnish with parsley."
---250 Irish Recipes: Traditional and Modern, [Mounth Salus Press:Dublin] 196? (p. 54-55)
[NOTE: "A gigot is the hind leg of a meat animal-in current usage...restricted to lamb, but formerly also used for veal, venison, etc."---An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 140)]

Traditional Irish New Year food customs

"New Year's Eve. The last night of the old year was known in Irish as Oiche na Coda Moire--The Night of the Big Portion--because of the belief that a big supper on this night ensured full and plenty for the year to come. No food should be taken out of the house on New Year's Eve. On any other night of the year a hungry traveler or homeless waif might expect hospitality as a matter of course, but on this night food and drink were given grudgingly, if at all. It was better not to ask. This custom went back to the time when the success or failure of the crops meant all the difference between famine and plenty. Spells and incantations were invoked to guard against the danger. It was customary of the woman of the house in many parts of the country to bake a large barm brack on New Year's Eve. As night approached the man of the house took three bites out of the cake and dashed it against the front door in the name of the Holy Trinity, expressing the pious hole that starvation might be banished from Ireland...After the ceremony of banishment was over the fragments of the cake were gathered up an eaten by the family. In Imokilly, Co Cork, they had a custom that the crumbs were thrown at the door and windows to prove that no one inside was hungry. A rather more pleasing version of this custom from west Limerick is given by Kevin Danaher in The Year in Ireland. The door was struck three times with a large cake while the head of the household recite... 'Happiness in and misfortune out From tonight to this night twelve months In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen' Church bells ringing, hooters hooting, bonfires burning, people joining hands at midnight and singing 'Auld Lang Syne'--these are now the customary ways to welcome the New Year...New Year's Day was always known as La na gCeapairi--the Day of the Buttered Bread. This was possibly a talisman against hunger, or to show that food was plentiful. Sandwiches of bread and butter were placed outside the door on this morning."
---Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink, Brid Mahon [Mercier Press:Boulder CO] 1991 (p. 146-148)

Recommended reading:
"Irish Food Before the Potato," A.T. Lucas, Gwerin: A Half-Yearly Journal of Folk Life, Volume III, No. 2, 1960 (p. 8-43)
Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink/Brid Mahon
---best overall history
A Little History of Irish Cuisine/Regina Sexton
---recommended by culinary historians
Oxford Companion to Food/Alan Davidson
---includes separate entries for traditional dishes
You Eat What You Are: People, Culture and Food Traditions/Thelma Barer-Stein
---popular foods, dining customs, holiday meals & glossary. Grades 4-12.

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3 January 2015