Ireland is commonly referred to as the Emerald Isle. An abundance of fresh rainfall onto a tapestry of lush green fields gives the country a unique landscape perfect for farming and growing crops.
Irish agriculture is vital to the country’s economy with rich soil producing food and fuel. Not to mention acres of rural grazing land for the animals of Ireland’s prosperous meat and dairy industries.
Our cities are cultural hubs and home to some of the world’s best restaurants, leaving us spoilt for choice of culinary delights. But the calibre of dishes on Irish menus today hasn’t always been available and to look at the history of our food, in a nutshell, we can split it into three eras; life before potatoes, life with potatoes and life after the blight of potatoes.
Before The Potato
The people of Ireland are a resourceful bunch and our early ancestors were no exception. Originally, hunter-gatherers, the first Irish settlers survived on whatever the land and sea offered, depending on the season.
It wasn’t long, however, before they began to manipulate the land according to their needs with the first signs of farming appearing more than 5,000 years ago.
The Ceide Fields in County Mayo are a fine example of this agricultural breakthrough where evidence of some of the first oats and barley crops were found.
This led to the production of food for storage, planning ahead and ultimately anchoring families to patches of land for their own personal needs and the use of their animals.
Our rich folklore also lends itself well to revealing the history of Irish food before the humble spud. Many famous tales speak of how the people of Ireland were judged on how many cattle they had in their fields. They rarely killed them for meat, using them primarily for milk, cheese and butter.
The ironic twist in the well-known story of Queen Maeve of Connacht is that she met her death by a preferred source of food. A lump of hard cheese to the head while standing on top of Knocknarea in Co. Sligo finished her off. While our legendary hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill literally struck oil from the Salmon of Knowledge while cooking it for his master.
The Arrival Of The Potato
As the Irish became experts in tending their fields they began using the potato as a cleansing crop. It was being used in this way in other countries but Ireland was the first to consider it a main source of nutrition.
Easy to grow in our somewhat harsh climate the potato quickly became a staple food and even began to be referred to as the ‘Irish Potato’.
By the late 18th century potatoes were plentiful in Ireland and had caused the population to flourish. Poor families were able to rent land, grow their own crop, build a small house and feed their children. Their diet consisted mainly of potatoes and milk.
Even those better off considered a meal incomplete without spuds. Stews were thickened with them and cakes were made more wholesome, with potato cakes (or farls) still a firm breakfast favourite in Ireland today.
Regional delights such as Coddle in Dublin and Boxty in the West appeared in kitchens along with Irish soda bread to mop up stews. People grew stronger and families thrived. But it was not to last and may be said the ‘gift’ of the potato to Irish civilization was, in fact, their biggest affliction.
The Potato Blight And Years After
In 1845 disaster swept across Ireland. Late blight, a disease of potatoes and tomatoes causing the crop to rot from a mould, devastated the country and left the people of Ireland starving. For the next four years, Irelands main food source rotted in the fields and families lost their homes.
It is believed around one million people died in the streets and workhouses while others took to the seas, emigrating to England and America, and leaving the population of Ireland in severe decline.
Around 1849, as the country began to recover, foods such as cornmeal were imported from America to save the poor. But many Irish used it to feed the pigs and chickens instead, giving the production of meat and eggs a well-earned boost.
Farmers who had been brave enough to stay during the famine (and lucky enough to survive) had claimed any abandoned land. This was the making of a bigger, more ambitious farmer and the beginning of our thriving food industry.
At the turn of the 20th century, Irish families traditionally ate dinner consisting of meat, potato and vegetables. This is still a staple meal in many homes especially on Sunday when the potatoes are roasted. The transition from cooking over an open fire to wood-burning ovens and then electricity or gas also played a big part in Irish cuisine and a boom in convenience stores in towns and cities meant families with money could experiment with ingredients from across the globe.
The end of the great famine was the start of modern Ireland and led to a huge change in the Irish relationship with food.
In the early 1990s, a culinary revolution occurred and chefs like Darina Allen became household names.
While celebrating the fresh produce of our fair land and embracing the cooking methods of the Mediterranean they reignited our love for food.
As resourceful as ever, we delved deeper into a new world of tempting tastes, leading to the many delicious dishes we have on offer today.
From pub grub to Michelin star restaurants, Ireland is now home to high-quality food, locally sourced produce and a thriving food export industry.
In true Irish style, we remain loyal to our heritage while embracing change and development.