Ireland: What Do Irish People Eat?

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What foods do Irish people eat?

Jump to: Memories of the past | Irish food and eating: how the change began
A look at the average Irish food shopping experience | Eating out in Ireland: restaurants and fast food
Traditional food: survivals, revivals | The future of Irish food

The cooking/baking hearth of an Irish cottage, circa 1780: courtesy Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

The question of what Irish people eat these days is one that brings people to our website all the time. (By the way, if you're here looking for an answer to the question "What is the Irish national dish?", the short answer is that there may not be one -- at least not one that you can get even a majority of Irish people to agree on. If you're thinking that the Irish national dish is corned beef and cabbage, we're sorry to tell you that it's not, and never has been: you can go to this page to find out why. It might be the Irish-American national dish...but here it's nowhere near as popular as a real national dish would be.)

Memories of the past

Many North Americans' ideas about Ireland's food and what Irish people eat have been shaped by images of a long-lost past, or stories older relatives have told them -- especially their grandparents...

They hear stories about the limited pre-famine rural diet, which might have been based mostly on potatoes and buttermilk with only a taste of meat on Sundays and holidays. Or they hear stories of the relatively poor diet of many non-city-dwelling Irish people during the early 1900's, either heavy on meat and potatoes, or on tea and bread and little else. Or people may hear stories about the limitations and rationing that made it hard to find much that was really good to eat during the years of World War II, usually referred to in Ireland as "the Emergency". And immigrants from Ireland to the US and Canada during the lean times of the post-war years, when so much of the young workforce had to leave home to find any work at all, won't usually have much good to say about the sameness and blandness of Irish food during the 1950s and 1960s. But then came the food revolution that was begun -- at the grassroots level -- by people who, as the economy improved and air travel got cheaper, were able for the first time to go abroad for their vacations / holidays.

A village shop in Roscommon

There are a number of good books that go into great detail about the history of Irish food and eating, and some websites that give a broad overview. Some of these are listed at the bottom of the page. This page, however, is going to talk about what Irish people eat now.

Irish food and eating: how the change began

There was relatively little change in the Irish diet between the late 1800's and the mid-1900's. Ingredients were heavily biased toward local foods or foods that could be imported from Ireland's main trading partner, the United Kingdom. In both city and country there was a tendency toward heavy meat-and-potatoes meals, and not much else.

But in the 1960s and 1970's things began to change -- especially with the growth of cheaper air freight and worldwide refrigerated transport, and the introduction of the "package holiday" and the first low-cost airlines. Suddenly ordinary Irish working people could afford to sail or fly to foreign countries and eat the local foods. And when they came back home, they wanted more of what they'd had while they were abroad. The then-growing native supermarket chains (wisely) began giving their customers what they wanted -- which, at the time, was anything but Irish traditional food.

As a result, the days of the little local village shop that featured nothing but some canned / tinned foods, a few worn-down looking cabbages and parsnips, and some milk and bread, or the small local butcher with a half a butchered pig hanging on a hook and nothing but ham and bacon on sale, are pretty much gone. Where the small village shops persist, a state of the art distribution network has made it possible for them to be carrying canned, chilled and frozen foods from anywhere in the EU, if not anywhere in the world. They are, however, competing with smaller convenience-store chains like Spar, Centra and Londis, foreign discount supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi, and large native national supermarket chains like Dunnes Stores and Superquinn -- or even larger, originally Irish chains that have been bought and taken over by British chains, like Tesco Ireland (formerly Quinnsworth). ...Some more detail about the Irish retail food environment can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Retail in the Republic of Ireland.

A typical Irish Tesco supermarket

So, if you live in North America or the European Union, or in any other industrialized western country, the short answer to "What do Irish people eat?" is mostly going to be, "Pretty much what you do!" -- because the Irish diet changed almost completely in the last three decades.

The automatic preference for the meat-and-potatoes diet began to shift. Frozen foods appeared, featuring dishes that had a more European slant. Vegetables that were not native to Ireland (and a mindset less likely to boil them to rags) started to appear. Even salads caught on. The traditional meats -- bacon joints, beef steaks and stewing beef, legs of lamb, Irish "black pudding" and "white pudding" -- started being featured at supermarket butchers side by side with continental cold cuts and imported sausages, lamb from New Zealand and beef from South America. Now local venison and imported wild boar are there too, along with corn-fed French chicken and locally reared pheasant and quail. Mediterranean swordfish and tuna cut as sashimi can now be found fin-by-gill with Irish salmon and rainbow trout. In short, many traditional foods survive, but with a rich overlay of new foods and flavors from all over the world, and the average Irish diet is as likely to include burritos, frozen pizza and beef Stroganoff as it is Irish lamb stew and soda bread.

A look at the average Irish food shopping experience

 

The fruit and vegetable aisle at the SuperValu in Baltinglass, County Wicklow, Ireland

 

As an example of what's available to the average Irish shopper, we took our digital camera for a wander down the aisles of our local market, Gillespies' SuperValu of Baltinglass, County Wicklow, so you can see what's on the shelves of a small-town supermarket belonging to one of the smaller chains. You can see the results here, in a Flickr photoset: when the photoset loads, you'll be able to click on each separate image to enlarge it if you want to see the brand names or other package details. The selection overall is similar to what a North American small-town supermarket would carry -- but, in some areas, our selection is considerably better. In particular, our supermarkets' ready-made or cook-chill dishes are sourced from all over the European Union, Central Europe, and even some parts of Africa -- so we get our fresh pasta and frozen pizzas direct from Italy, our fresh moussaka direct from Greece, and so on. With such variety, it's easy to get spoiled. (Please note that in a big-city supermarket here, the available choice of all kinds of food would be significantly larger. The Superquinn and Tesco markets in the Dublin area, for example, can compete with and in some cases surpass anything available in an ordinary supermarket in New York City or Los Angeles, where we've both lived and shopped.)

Eating out in Ireland: restaurants and fast food

Ethnic foods and restaurants are also popular and getting more popular here all the time, especially in the big cities -- though even very small towns now routinely have at least an Indian or Chinese restaurant or two to complement the traditional fish-and-chips takeout. And even smallish supermarkets (such as ours) routinely have a large ethnic food section containing Indian, Chinese, Thai, Tex-mex (yes, it's ethnic food around here...) and other such foods. One type of food which has been seeing an upswing in our supermarkets, lately, is food from Central Europe, especially Poland and the Czech / Slovak / Slovene regions, because of the many immigrants from those countries who have come here to live and work.

Ireland also has its share of fast food. Besides the now traditional fish and chips, the big chains like McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Subway, and Pizza Hut are here in force, having followed in the tracks of Irish-originated fast-food chains like Abrakebabra and Supermacs. There are also rapidly growing sandwich chains like O'Brien's -- now so big it's expanding overseas -- and countless independent burger bars, pizzerias and snack bars in big and small towns all over the country, along with the thousands of pubs that now serve food of this kind.

Traditional food: survivals, revivals

The Meeting House Square Saturday farmers' market, Dublin

Among people born of native Irish stock in the last fifty years or so, and in native Irish culture at large, there is still a great love for the "old-fashioned dishes" like colcannon and lamb stew (aka "Irish stew"). But in the busy multicultural Ireland of today, fewer and fewer people have the time or inclination to cook these dishes for themselves. They expect the supermarket to have them, and -- in the cases of the big chains like Tesco and Sainsburys -- usually they do.

It would also be a mistake to leave anyone with the idea that the supermarkets reign supreme in Ireland -- or that they should. Traditional Irish food -- after being temporarily abandoned between the 1970's and late 1990s because people were very bored with it and wanted something different -- is now being rediscovered, not only because of the seminal influence of the world-famous Ballymaloe cooking school, at which Myrtle Allen almost single-handedly reinvented Irish food for the twentieth century, but also the influence of Irish (or Irish-based) celebrity chefs like Paul Rankin and Myrtle Allen's daughter Darina Allen. The Slow Food movement, with its passionate interest in getting back to the concept of quality ingredients prepared with time and care, is active here. And in a country whose native foods are, by comparison to others', surprisingly free of additives and the market-induced tastelessness of foods from many other lands, the movement is gathering speed and becoming very successful. Irish meats, free from antibiotics and hormones, and fish from the unpolluted Irish offshore waters, are perfect for this kind of use...and the fish, especially, are coming into their own again, now that seafood and fish in general are losing their "penitential" associations as something you had to eat once a week whether you wanted to or not. Artisanal cheeses and breads are becoming more numerous every day. (In this vein, it's interesting to note that the famous LaBrea Bakery, whose breads were featured on Anthony Bourdain's A Chef's Tour and are available in grocery stores all over the USA, has now been bought by an Irish company, so that its breads are now available here via Tesco.)

Cheese stall in the Meeting House Square Saturday market, Dublin

Also getting jump-started, after half a century or so of neglect, is the "local marketplace" concept. In earlier Ireland, many middle-sized towns became known as "market towns" where cattle were brought periodically to be sold. Usually some kind of food or produce market would spring up to accompany the cattle market. For a long time in the last century there were only a few of these scattered around the country, and the range of products they would carry was limited and often not of very high quality. Now, though, local people have been encouraging local providers to gather together to sell their produce locally -- appreciating the superior quality of locally-grown (and often organic) produce to mass-produced vegetables grown to the demands of some big impersonal chain. The increasingly famous city-based weekly markets like the one in Dublin's Meeting House Square are becoming havens for artisanal cheeses, sausages, meats and breads, made by local producers from the highest quality ingredients, along traditional lines, but with the constant addition of new ideas and flavors from other countries to create a food style that is more "Irish fusion" than anything else.

The future of Irish food

So the average Irish diet has come a long way from "praties and buttermilk." However, the country's modern-day prosperity -- especially as regards the market dominance of the supermarkets, with their huge choice of processed foods -- has not been entirely kind to the health of the Irish people as a whole. As in other industrialized countries where such processed foods make up a large portion of the diet, the greatly increased Irish intake of hidden fats, sugars and salt is taking its toll: heart disease is up and obesity rates are rising rapidly.

The Irish government, which funds the national health care system, is acutely aware of the problem and is trying hard to educate the growing generation into some kind of awareness of how to manage the flood of fat-rich, additive-rich "superfoods" that big business is constantly trying to get them to eat. What success these efforts will have, only the next twenty years or so will tell.

Other web pages of interest:

A couple of excellent books on the evolution of the Irish diet over the last two millennia:

The above article is © 2006-2012 Diane Duane. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce it, please click here to contact the author.)