From prehistoric times up until the introduction of the potato, ancient Celtic Ireland’s diet was mostly made up of milk, cheese, meat, cereals and some vegetables. The Irish gathered wild onions, wild leeks, sorrel, nettles, and watercress, made cheese from livestock, and gathered wild grains for breads. They began farming vegetables around 800 to 1100 A.D. 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), meacan (carrots), and cerrbacan (parsnips) were also grown.
A major impact to the Irish diet arrived in the form of the potato from South America. Potatoes became a staple of the Irish diet by the late 1600’s. The potato was primarily eaten by the poorer population because it was cheap, easily grown and easy to store. This reliance on the potato for sustenance led to the Great Potato Famines in 1845 and 1846 when a fungal disease raced through the Irish potato crop, causing widespread famine that killed millions of people in Ireland. Many more millions immigrated to the United States to avoid starvation. The population of Ireland declined by over 50%, but the potato, the cause of all these deaths, still remained an important Irish food commodity.
In addition to potatoes, oats and barley were grown to add to the diet of both family and livestock. Breads and porridge were made from this. And being surrounded by water, fishing was important to the coastal communities. Halibut, salmon, herring, and cod were staples, as well as trout and other fresh-water fish along inland rivers and streams.
Apples have been grown in Ireland for at least 3000 years. St. Patrick is said to have planted a number of apple trees in Ireland. They were used for making cider and for cooking.
The early Irish did not eat much bread, but later, breads like soda bread, scones, and hearty oat breads were a staple.
Soups, stews, and “boils” made up a large part of the diet. The traditional beef boil made of cabbage, potatoes, and a beef brisket roast, an inexpensive cut of beef, is probably where the American version of “corned beef and cabbage” came from.
Colcannon is a very traditional Irish dish, made of mashed potatoes, chopped cabbage, cream, and butter. The recipe first appeared in print in 1775 and is still made in Ireland today.
So enjoy St. Patrick’s Day with a dram o’ Irish whiskey or a Guinness, a mound of colcannon, or some Irish stew, soda bread and a cake made with apples, and you’ll be well on your way to being Irish for the day!