Mussels for sale in Bantry, Ireland 1993
© Sue Schenk
It’s important not to let images of the Irish potato famine cloud your picture of Irish food, as useful as it is still for beating the British over the head with.
The fact is, Ireland is a land of plenty and abundance. Even at the time of the great potato crop failures, it actually produced enough other food products such as grains, dairies and meats to feed the population of the island three times over. The food just wasn’t getting to the people.
Blessed with a plethora of top-quality ingredients, including seafood and fish, the cooking methods themselves are now undergoing a renaissance. Ireland is becoming a heaven for cheese lovers, and Irish cooks are re-inventing favourite old dishes.
The part of Ireland most renowned for its baking is actually Northern Ireland.
Tap water is safe and drinkable, and is in fact drunken.
The Irish drink a lot of milk, even with meals. Cows are able to graze on grass in pasture for most of the year.
Ireland had traditionally produced many artisanal cheeses, but most of them were lost when, during World War Two, the government diverted all cheese milk into making a standardized cheddar. After the war, cheese-making just became large-scale industrial production.
Artisanal cheesemaking (farmhouse cheese) started again on a small scale with the advent of Milleens Cheese in 1978 in West Cork. Then, in the 1980s, Irish dairy farmers found themselves restricted in milk production by EU milk production quotas for countries. Some were even paid not to produce milk. Industrial cheese production was restricted by the same quotas. Artisanal Farmhouse Cheese production came to be seen as the way out. In 1983, the National Dairy Council of Ireland helped facilitate the founding of CÁIS, the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association. Many of the founding members were still in the cheese business 25 years later, making cheeses such as Coolea, Durrus, Gubbeen, Milleens, etc.
As of 2005, 80% of Ireland’s dairy products are exported. The focus is of Irish cheese exports is the EU, rather than North America.
Raw milk sales are illegal (they were banned in July 1997), though its use is permitted in making cheeses. Authorities with the Department of Agriculture continue to try to encourage cheesemakers using raw milk to either switch to pasteurized milk, or just go away, but at present (2006) they don’t seem able to take stronger measures owing to the number of awards that Irish cheeses keep winning.
The Irish food calendar was for long dominated by religious restrictions, as elsewhere in Europe. Lent, for instance, governed the food served during spring. Now, though, it has diminished to the point where you are supposed to abstain from meat just on Fridays. Even then, though, the problem arises, of what to do if St Patrick’s Day, a increasingly-celebrated day, falls on a Friday. Bishops often grant dispensations to their parishioners to make merry and feast anyway — though often asking in return for the day to be made up some other time during the week
In Ireland, as everywhere else now, the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier each year. The stores, not doing the roaring trade in commercial Hallowe’en items that North American stores do, start pushing out decorations and cards in October.
Christmas trees are decorated, wreaths and mistletoe hung, and nativity scenes mounted.
Before Christmas, fruit cake, plum puddings and mince pies are made.
On Christmas Eve, stockings are hung, and many Catholics and Protestants attend a midnight service somewhere on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Dinner is served around lunchtime on Christmas Day, started off with Christmas crackers. Turkey is now traditional for Christmas, with dessert a steamed Plum Pudding. Spiced beef is still popular, though, sometime over the holiday.
Potatoes in Ireland
Potato is still the most important food item in Ireland. Potato consumption (as of 2006) is approximately 308 pounds (140 kg) per person per year. 90% of the potatoes consumed in Ireland are grown in Ireland, and 80% of those are grown in Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Louth, Meath and Wexford.
The most popular potato varieties with growers are Home Guard, British Queen, Kerr’s Pink, Record, Rooster, Golden Wonder, Saturna, Maris Piper and Lady Rosetta. But of these, the two most popular are Kerr’s Pink and Rooster. 25% of all potatoes planted are Kerr’s Pink; 33% are Rooster.
In Ireland, the traditional method of boiling potatoes is as follows. The potatoes are scrubbed, but left unpeeled. They are put in a pot, covered with cold water, and the water is brought to a boil. Two-thirds of the water is then drained off, and the potatoes allowed to steam for the remainder of the cooking time.
Wheat and barley were grown in Ireland thousands of years ago.
Potatoes were introduced into Ireland around 1590. They were first grown in Munster as a garden rather than a field crop. All classes of people ate potatoes, not just the poor. The English conquest led to the removal of milk, butter and cheese from the diets of the poor so that they could be sold for “greater gain”. Owing to this, cheesemaking died out in the 1700s. This caused them to rely more on grain, until its commercial value too became too high, then they depended even more greatly on the potato.
During the English occupation, the Irish were pushed to the south and western regions of the island, which were less fertile. In 1705, anyone who didn’t belong to the Church of England was prohibited from owning land. This applied to most Irish, as they were Catholic. In fact, only Anglicans could even rent land — so everyone else was reduced to being serf labour in the country. In 1771, the land laws were relaxed somewhat — the Catholics were allowed to rent up for 50 acres of bogland for up to 21 years. The tenants, though, had to pay their rent with crops, and therefore had to grow crops that the landlord was interested in accepting as payment. Consequently, you used most of your rented land for cash-crops, and reserved only a small portion of the land for potatoes — as potatoes are highly productive and nutritious to get you through with little else.
The growing of vegetables including legumes decreased by the start of the 1800s, though cabbage growing remained unchanged and cabbage was the prime “green” vegetable of the poor.
People living in coastal regions were luckier; they could harvest and eat dulse (seaweed). In English-settled areas, there were apple and plum orchards.
Up until the 1800s, the everyday bread was oatcakes — only the wealthy had proper ovens to bake yeast-risen loaves of bread.
By the end of the 1800s, everyone could afford tea.
During the First World War, food rationing was instituted. Wednesdays were meatless days. Potatoes were to be served only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fancy cakes and pastries were banned. Fresh bread was banned — loaves had to be at least 12 hours old to be sold. Between the start of the war and the end, food prices doubled, as they did elsewhere in the United Kingdom at the time.
In 1921, southern Ireland achieved independence from the UK.
Timeline of the Irish Potato Famine
In Ireland, the potato famine of 1845 was called “The Great Hunger” (“An Ghorta Mhór”.) It was caused by a disease called “Phytophthora infestans”, which turns a healthy potato slimy black within a few hours. It is carried by the wind. The irony is that, although warning signs of relying so heavily on a single food source appeared as early as 1722, there was nothing the poor Irish could do about it.
1722 – First potato blight results in deaths from starvation;
1726, 1728, 1738 – More potato blights and famines leave tens of thousands dead;
1741 – Famine, half a million die. Was called “the Year of the Slaughter” (“Bliadhan an Áir”);
1750 – Potato becomes popular in Connaught and Leinster;
1765, 1770, 1774, 1783 – more famines
1810 – Lumper variety of potato was introduced in Munster. This variety could grow in very poor soil with very little fertilizing;
1816 and 1817 – Some potato crops failed; in 1817 60,000 people died of famine;
1821 – Another bad potato harvest, with more dead. Still by this time, the reliance on potatoes as a food source as only gotten heavier; the Irish were eating between 7 and 15 pounds (3 to 7 kg) a day for lack of an alternative.
1845 – The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 was caused by a disease called “late blight” (aka “Phytophthora infestans”) hitting the potato crops. 40% of the crop was lost in 1845; in the next year, 1846, 100%.
Literature & Lore
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” — From Ulysses by James Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941)
Day-Lewis, Tamasin. In Ireland, every canape’s a picnic. London: Daily Telegraph. 2 May 2002.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Starvation and Emigration: colonial landlordism in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Talk presented at the Marx Memorial Library, London, 22 November 2004. Retrieved November 2005 from http://www.irishdemocrat.co.uk/anonn-is-anall/irish-famines
Green Party Ireland. Breaking new ground. Agriculture and Food Policy 2003. Dublin, Ireland.
Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. “Guide to the Grand Canal of Ireland”, 5th Edition. Dublin: The Waterways Service, 1995.
Lawless, Warren. Clontarf’s Protestant Communities in the First World War. Senior Sophister Dissertation in History for Trinity College Dublin. 1995. Retrieved August 2006 from http://homepage.eircom.net/~wlawless/ww1/Clontarf.htm.
Mercer, Chris. Irish dairy to milk multi-million euro funding. In DairyReporter.com. Montpelier: France. Decision News Media. 1 August 2005. Retrieved August 2006 from http://www.dairyreporter.com/news/ng.asp?n=69534-funding-irish-dairy-investment
Newby, Eric. Round Ireland in Low Gear, London: William Collins Ltd, 1987.
O’Connor, Valerie. Val’s Kitchen. Blessed are the cheesemakers. Limerick, Ireland: Limerick Independent News. 25 November 2008.
Rossiter, Nicky. Wexford May 1917 – ‘people of steel’. Wexford. Wexford Council of Trade Unions. 1992.