When you think of Irish food, there is one humble vegetable that immediately comes to mind: the potato.
This root vegetable has been a central part of the Irish diet for centuries. But, if we take a look through Ireland’s long history, we’ll find that the potato isn’t Irish at all. It’s South American. Like many modern countries, Ireland’s cuisine has been deeply impacted by colonialism. In fact, when Saint Patrick made his historic journey to Ireland during the 5th century, the potato had not yet landed on the Emerald Isle. So what type of foods were available in the 5th century? And what might Saint Patrick have eaten?
Oysters, Mussels, and Cockles: Surrounded by the ocean, Ireland has an abundance of seafood to choose from. Salmon and eel were popular, but oysters, mussels, and cockles were easy to catch. These shellfish were widely available and a rich source of essential nutrients.
Hazelnuts: You can find references to hazelnuts in early Irish poetry and folklore. Native to Ireland, the hazelnut tree was important in Celtic mythology. The nut was considered sacred, and found at the borders between worlds. Hazelnuts were eaten whole or crushed up and mixed with milk and oats.
Milk, cheese, and butter: Often called the "white foods", dairy was the main source of protein in the Irish diet. Archaeologists have even uncovered barrels of ancient butter in bogs! They suspect butter was placed there for safe-keeping (bogs are great for preserving) or ritual purposes. Because milk was so essential, cows played an important role in Gaelic Irish customs and were seldom slaughtered for meat.
Left: Archaeological illustrations of a barrel used to store "bog butter" from Ulster Journal of Archaeology. Right: Bog butter displayed on the Ulster Museum by Bazonka / CC BY-SA 3.0.
Pig or wild boar: The early Irish people rarely ate beef, but they were cooking up bacon. Pork was likely the most common meat consumed in Saint Patrick’s time. In general, however, meat was reserved for the wealthy or special occasions (like feasts).
Oats: Instead of wheat, most cakes and breads were made from oats. This Irish staple helps fill the belly, especially when it's cooked in milk. Just like today, porridge was the perfect meal for those cold, rainy days.
Fruits and Vegetables: While the potato wasn’t around just yet, there were plenty of other root vegetables to choose from. The Irish diet included onions, garlic, radish, cabbage, and carrots. There were also many fruits to enjoy, like apples and berries. One type of berry, called fraughan, is similar to a blueberry and found in the mountains.
Fraughans are found in different parts of Europe and go by other names such as bilberries and whortleberries.
Image credit: Andrew Curtis / Ripe bilberries, Dipton Wood / CC BY-SA 2.0
National cuisine is ever-evolving. So, while Saint Patrick wouldn’t have been able to enjoy shepherd's pie or soda bread, don’t let it stop you. These well-known foods speak to Ireland’s long culinary history.
Want to learn more about the history of food? Check out Honest History's children's book History Is Delicious. Young historians can uncover the history of cuisine and culture from around the globe.
Daley, Jason. "A Brief History of Bog Butter." Smithsonian Magazine (2016).
Lucas, A.T. "Irish Food Before the Potato." Gwerin: A Half-Yearly Journal of Folk Life 3:2 (1960): 8-43. https://doi.org/10.1179/gwr.1960.009
O'Sullivan, Catherine Marie. Hospitality in Medieval Ireland, 900–1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004.
Peters, Cherie N. “‘He Is Not Entitled to Butter’: The Diet of Peasants and Commoners in Early Medieval Ireland.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature 115C (2015): 79–109. https://doi.org/10.3318/priac.2015.115.03.