When talking about pub food favorites at your local Irish restaurant, a few common dishes probably spring to mind, nearly all of them revolving around the potato. Along with Irish whiskey and Guinness, the potato – and the Great Potato Famine – tend to be some of the most popular and widely known food factoids that hail from that little island across the Atlantic. But did you know that Ireland has only had the potato for a few centuries? That’s right, the food most commonly associated with the Irish isn’t actually native to Ireland! So, that begs the question: what did the Irish eat before the potato and, maybe more importantly, are they really as potato crazy as Americans believe? As it turns out, traditional Irish food is more than just potatoes and Guinness-cooked meats.
When we talk about Irish food, most of us think of dishes like shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and corned beef with potatoes and cabbage – all dishes in which the potato is a pretty prevalent component. Before the potato found its way to Ireland, food and drink on the Emerald Isle was largely an amalgamation of local influence. According to The Spruce, the basis of traditional Irish food started with the Celts, who inhabited the island starting around 600 BC. From there, the Celts got a fair amount of cooking, seasoning, and preservation ideas from both the Vikings and their nearby neighbors, the English. By and large, most foods in Ireland pre-potato centered on their livestock, so most dinner options were some collection of meat and offal (the animal’s organs and entrails), milk, cheese, and butter. In particular, according to Bon Appetit, milk was a used multiple ways: as a popular drink in multiple levels of fermentation, a condiment, and as a component in a variety of dishes. And that doesn’t include the different ways they loved to flavor and eat butter! By and large, pub food and home fare alike consisted of meat, milk, butter, cheese, and a bit of grain like oats or barley to add a bit more nutritional content. Some of this history can still be seen in dishes, predominantly in the many variants of stew, some of which are still made with offal in Ireland.
The Arrival of the Potato
The arrival of the potato had a pretty major impact on Ireland, when it finally made its way that far north. The potato as a crop started in South America and traveled first to Europe with the cross-oceanic exploration undertaken by the English, Spanish, Portuguese, and others around the time of Columbus. It took roughly a decade for the potato to travel up to Ireland and gain notice amongst the inhabitants, which happened at the tail end of the 1500s. However, once the potato took root on the island, the population of Ireland as a whole jumped from 1 million people up to more than 8 million in roughly 50 years. As it turns out, the potato offers a lot of nutrition that the Irish previously weren’t getting. Because it was an easy enough crop to grow, people began to eat more sufficiently, live longer, and have more children survive infancy.
Why the Potato?
The reason the introduction of the potato caused such rapid population growth is, primarily, because it was easy to grow, produced a large yield of crops in a fairly small area, and it has a surprising amount of nutrition. Between milk and potato, a person would receive a majority of the nutrients they needed to live a healthy life (given the health care at the time). It might not have made for a particularly exciting diet, considering the wealth of restaurant options we see today, but it was nutritious enough to live on. This worked out well because it meant the poor of Ireland could feed themselves inexpensively and nutritiously.
The Irish Potato Famine
Within a century, Ireland was heavily reliant on the potato for sustenance and nutrition for the rich and poor alike – and it didn’t get better. According to DoChara.com, by the early 1800s, Ireland was so reliant on potato crops for all their meals that some began warning that such a heavy reliance on a single source of food was dangerous. As it turned out, those doomsayers were, unfortunately, correct. By 1845, a fungal disease began sweeping through the potato crops up and down the entire island of Ireland. The Potato Blight, as it was called, had the devastating effect of making potatoes rot while they were still in the ground, making them entirely inedible. At that time, the standard meal for most Irish was potatoes and milk, occasionally supplemented with a bit of herring. A family of six (two adults and four children) would, on average, eat 5 pounds of potatoes a day. Imagine, grabbing five of those bags of potatoes from the grocery store to eat every day.
Irish Food Post-Famine
As you may recall from your history class, the Irish Potato Famine had a devastating effect on the population of Ireland because they relied so much on the potato for food. This, in turn, forced a great many Irish who could scrape together enough money to immigrate to America. As you may imagine, this is a large part of why Irish restaurants and pubs are so prevalent across the country.