Food In Ancient Ireland

This paper is intended as an introduction to the everyday foods in use in Ireland of approximately the 4th-9th centuries CE. Emphasis is on foods readily available then and in modern times, for the edification and convenience of the historical recreationist. Sources are included at the end.


Ireland has probably always been a rather wet place to live. With poor drainage in general, and that tending towards the center of the island, the best farmland was along the coast with the bulk of it east of the Shannon. Most of Ireland at the time was heavily forested, with areas of natural grassland that remained green year round, and boglands predominated towards the center of the island. While this was ideal for raising stock, it made farming difficult, especially farming using the simple methods of the time. The main staple of the Irish diet of the time was porridge, or stirabout, with dairy products. Bread was also eaten, but as wheat was the most difficult of the cereal crops grown in that region, it was primarily a grain of the upper classes. Porridge was generally made of oatmeal and eaten with an annlann, or condiment, of butter, milk, or honey, depending on social station. It could also be made of wheat or barley meal. While oatmeal stirabout was the most common, wheatmeal was considered the best and barley meal was food for the poor. The Irish laws specified what types of stirabout were to be served to the various classes of children in fosterage, and what annlanns had to be served with them. Stirabout made on new milk was considered the best, served with honey and fresh butter, but it could be made on buttermilk or water, and served with salt butter, or if one were very poor, nothing. Butter of any kind was the preferred condiment.

Bread was made of meal or flour, and as with stirabout, wheat bread was considered the best, barley bread the worst. Anyone who has cooked with barley or oat flour can readily appreciate why, as the baked goods do not hold together well, and are not as light in taste or texture. Bread was made with yeast, and the amounts of bread due each person were specified in Irish law. Milk was sometimes added, as well as honey, and baking was done on a heated flagstone or metal griddle. As the Irish for roughly half this period did not use water mills to grind grain-the earliest date for a water mill so far is 630 CE, all grain was ground by hand and flour was a very labor intensive product.

Dairy products were an important part of the diet, though they were not considered to be as nutritious as meats. In addition to its use as an annlann, milk was made into curds, cheeses, and drunk by itself. New milk was considered to be the best drink, but it was also drunk sour, skimmed, and references are made to thick milk as a good drink. Honey was often mixed with milk. Whey was a drink of the poor, but buttermilk was drunk by everyone. Cows milk was the most common, but sheep and goats were also milked. Stirabout made on new sheeps milk was considered fit for a king. There is mention of deer being milked as well, but in mythic terms, rather than as a regular component of the diet. Butter was salted or fresh, and has been found in wooden firkins sunk in bogs, apparently to give it flavor. A summer delicacy was a dish of curds, mixed with milk, butter, and wild garlic.

The ideal food, as far as the Irish were concerned, was meat, and the ideal meat was beef. The tales are full of references to feasting on large amounts of it, accompanied by gallons of ale. Cath Maige Tuired makes reference to a poor host in this way:

"There was great murmuring against him amongst his maternal kinsmen the Tuatha De, for their knives
were not greased by him. However frequently they might come, their breaths did not smell of ale;"

Cath Maige Tuired Trans. E.M. Gray

The Irish ate beef, mutton, goat, pork, fish of various kinds, game birds, and eggs. Chickens were rare and expensive. In the early Medieval Irish Canons, one chicken was worth two silver pennies.

The position of cattle, though favored by the climate, was partly a means of social control on the part of the nobility. Each rank of farmer held land as their right in the area held by their tuath. As part of the rights of their rank, they had to maintain a specified number of cattle loaned by the nobility, who owned the herds, and also had to pay tribute based on those cattle. Ownership of specified numbers of cattle determined social rank, and tribute was paid in terms of cattle, though not always in actual animals. This assured the nobility of control over their tenants, as they owned the stock, as well as a constant supply of beef and other animal products. As grass was abundant almost year round, the Irish neither cut hay or winter fodder, nor killed off a portion of their stock as winter approached. It would make little sense to do so, after all, if rank was based on the number of animals owned. Other animals kept were sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and horses. A complicated web of social relationships characterized the animal inhabitants, just as it did the humans, and it was by means of this order of precedence that the Irish farmstead was populated. Horses in particular were considered noble animals, and to possess one was a mark of wealth. Until later times, after the introduction of the horse collar, horses were useless for plowing, as the yokes used for oxen put the weight of the plow on their throats. Pigs and sheep were the most commonly kept animals, and in some ways, the most useful. Pigs were low status animals, almost unclean as far as crops were concerned. They could be kept very cheaply, both in terms of care and fodder, as they could be allowed to run free in the forest for part of the year and brought in and slaughtered as needed. Their meat was easy to preserve, either by smoking or salting, and they did not compete with other stock for grass. They were the main food animal of the poorer classes of farmers.

Sheep were considered to be womens' stock, and were mainly valued for their wool and milk, though they were eaten as well. The festival of Imbolc, held on February 1st, marked the beginning of lambing season, and was also the time when the cattle ceased to give milk after the hard winter season. Since food stores in general were low at this time and had to be stretched to early summer when they could be replenished, sheeps milk was an important source of spring food.

The Irish enjoyed hunting, and venison was gotten this way. Venison was considered fit for a king. Meat was eaten fresh, salted, roasted, broiled or boiled, and meat broth was drunk. Sausages and puddings were eaten, as well as a variety of hash. Organ meats were extensively used, both in puddings or by themselves. Lard was used for cooking and as an annlann. There is even mention of it being mixed with honey and spread on bread.

Vegetables were mainly eaten as annlanns, chiefly cabbages, onions, and kale. Root vegetables such as turnips and parsnips were grown as well as garlic and leeks. Seaweed was used in various forms. Apples and strawberries were grown.

The only available sweetener was honey, and the Irish made extensive use of it as a dipping sauce for meats, for basting, and in breads and stirabout. Honey was important enough in ancient Ireland to have an entire law tract, the Bechbretha, or bee-judgments, devoted to the subject. Ancient writers remarked on the prevalence of beehives in Ireland as compared to other lands. Every household of any size kept hives to ensure a steady supply of honey and beeswax. Bees were kept in hives, called skeps, made of wicker smeared with cow manure or of woven straw. These hives were kept in alcoves called bee boles built into stone walls, or in bee houses, special enclosures that allowed the bees free access to the outside while protecting the hives from the elements.

The Laws recognized the importance of honey as well as the nature of bees by providing that the occupants of the four nearest farms to a domestic hive were entitled to a share of the honey each year, and a swarm of bees every fourth year. There were also specific divisions laid out for wild hives and swarms found on cultivated land, and on land belonging to the tuath, but not under cultivation. For example; if bees from one plot swarmed onto another, their produce for the following year was evenly divided between the two plots.

The other main use for honey and grain was in the manufacture of alcohol. Barley was the grain most often used, being the cheapest of grains, and of the three it is the one most suited to brew with. Neither oats nor wheat have enough husk to allow the liquid to be extracted easily from the mash, and both grains have a distressing tendency, from the point of view of the brewer, to clump together when heated with water. Neither oats nor wheat contain enough of the necessary enzyme to convert the starch in them to sugar, even after malting, something that properly prepared barley malt has in abundance. Malt was prepared in quantity and stored until needed, and the method the Irish used is not all that different from the method used today except in scale. Barley was first soaked in water, then spread out on a level floor to sprout. It was turned and raked in ridges as it dried to ensure even drying and prevent spoilage. It was then kilned and stored until needed. Honey needs far less preparation to be made into mead, though the fermentation process takes far longer due to the relatively complex sugars it contains. It can be fermented without adding yeast once it has been sufficiently diluted with water. The relative scarcity of honey compared with barley and the long fermentation time made mead a more expensive drink than ale. The Irish were also fond of imported wine, though this was the most expensive drink of all.

Salt was highly prized as a means of preserving meats, as brine, for basting, and as an annlann. The Irish distinguished between various types of salt, and salt from England was considered the best. Salt was made from seawater and dug from pits. Mined salt was considered better than that extracted from seawater. Ulster was known to have large natural salt deposits. At dinner, each guest was served either with a small dish of salt or a lump of it, which they ground beneath their cups. Salt was much more expensive then than it is at present, and as one of the few available preservatives, was heavily used. Sacks of salt were often given as tribute.

Sources

Crane, Eva. The Archaeology of Beekeeping. Ithaca. Cornell University Press, 1983.

Gray, E.A. Cath Maige Tuiread. London: Irish Texts Society. 1983.

Gregory, Lady Augusta.Gods And Fighting Men. Guernsey: The Guernsey Press. 1976.

Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland. Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son Ltd. 1920.

Patterson, Nerys T. Cattle Lords & Clansmen: Kinship and Rank in Early Ireland. New York: Garland Publishing. 1991.

Copyright 1996 Erin NhaMinerva. Permission is granted to download this article for personal use, provided the author's name and all copyright statements are left intact.