History of Irish Food

When it comes to food there are three major periods in Irish history, before the potato arrived, after the potato arrived and after the potato failed. For thousands of year prior to the arrival of the humble spud, the diet of the Irish. and how they prepared their food, changed little. After it arrived, everything changed. When it failed, the consequences were immediate and devastating.

It is impossible to look at any aspect of Ireland’s history without dwelling on the Potato Famine in the mid-nineteenth century. This dark and tragic event changed the country irrevocably, killing over a million people and leading many millions more to leave Ireland forever.

Although it may seem a very long time ago, it isn’t really – there are still people alive today who knew, personally, people who survived that terrible time of hunger. I can remember hearing older people speak of family members, great aunts and uncles, who left for America or England in the second half of the nineteenth century and, not infrequently, were never seen or heard of again.

The Uninvited Guest at the Table

The famine was the uninvited guest in every Irish dining room for more than a hundred years and I firmly believe it was the main reason why it took so long for Irish people to start thinking of food as a source of pleasure rather than simply as sustenance.

Only in the last 25 years have we started to move into a fourth period, with Irish people at last able to enjoy food – choosing it, preparing it and eating it – without a lingering sense of guilt at such indulgence and plenty.

Food in Ireland from 5000 BC to Today

Early Irish Food
From 5000BC to about the end of the 1500’s the way food was produced and cooked changed remarkably little.

The Potato Arrives
The beginning of the 17th century saw the start of a population explosion that lasted 250 years and saw Ireland’s population increase eight fold. The potato was the staple food which made it possible for this to take place.

The Potato Famine
By 1845 a massive population of desperately poor tenant farmers and farm labourers depended entirely on the potato for their survival. When it failed, they had no hope.

Recovering from the Famine
From 1851 the slow recovery began. For more than 100 years the Irish ate a fairly dull, if sufficient, diet, but recent years have seen an explosion of interest in food and the emergence of a distinctive Irish cuisine.

Published: December 19, 2008 | Updated: March 31, 2017 | Image Credits

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  • Michael says:

    “Without a lingering sense of guilt at such indulgence and plenty ” , how do you explain the current obesity rate ? Cancer ,diabetes are more prevalent in Irish society than they have ever been in history . We have men an women in politics who are clearly obese and unhealthy in general taking health minister post’s.Our suicide and depression rates are off the charts for 4 million people , the elephant in the room in relation to Irish culture is the mass addiction present in society be it alcohol ,drugs, cigarettes ,food and much more .We have mass denial of this ,addiction is rampant through all the social classes, in particular Dublin city . 
    Ireland has more problems now in relation to food than it ever did , food addiction is a fact backed up empirically in abundance , there is huge data available to show a direct relationship between mental health and diet , between addiction and diet . 
    . We must cover up our addictions at all cost with long winded rhetoric and fake optimism , St Patricks Day a fine example of a day of carnage worldwide , a proclaimed love of fine food which I can assure is a love of glorified calorie laden junk food in hubristic surroundings, we then shout to the rest of the world to look at our fine taste we have developed, the 5 star hotels of Ireland are a fine example of this .
    thankfully we do have a minority in Ireland looking for change in relation to diet not just for appearances sake but most importantly for mental health which when balanced can better fight the most infectious disease we have ever known in Ireland , “addiction”. 
    We need to bring back a lingering sense of guilt if not to better our health but to show some respect to the third world where we once resided , we currently behave like animals . 
    The enjoyment of food you speak about is food addiction ,food is sustenance first and foremost and teaching our children to view food continually in relation to pleasure will do nothing for our health , I truly believe an addicts subconcious will stop at nothing to justify its addiction even writing articles to justify it . 

  • OLI says:

    this really helped
    thanks 10/10

  • Mark says:

    I would just like to say, that I feel very sorry for all of those Irelanders, it’s really very devestating to learn about. On a happier note, Thank you for publishing this, it has really helped me with my English Course work.


  • MMM says:

    This page was a great help and answered all the questions i needed for my assignment. Thanks

  • Michael Z. Williamson says:

    Thanks. I was wondering to myself, exactly, “What did the Irish eat before the potato?”

  • Roisin Fallon says:

    Thank you so much for this comprehensive entertaining piece its everything I want and need to know without wading through tons of books and stories. It’s interestingly written and highly amusing.

    R Fallon

  • stephanie says:

    it was very sad what happened and this site is very helpful

  • LJ says:

    Thanks very much. Helped an awful lot with my school project.



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