Irish Food History

Corned beef, Cabbage, Mash, and Guinness
Corned beef, Cabbage, Mash, and Guinness

Amidst the mythology of Saint Patrick’s Day, a little Irish food history to cheer you on your way — be it to stove, pub, or church.

John Linnane wrote a wonderful introduction to the history of Irish cuisine before the arrival of the potato. Here he comments on the customs of feasting, very appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day:

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.

An Irish Chieftian's Feast
An Irish Chieftain's Feast