The second largest island of the British Isles, Ireland not only boasts coastlines in all directions, but the interior is dotted with lakes, streams and its longest river, the Shannon. These wet areas, coupled with heavy rainfall, have given Ireland lush, green grasses, earning it the appellation "the emerald isle."
The rich, fertile pastures gave rise to dairy farming, and early on the Irish were raising oats, barley and wheat—grains that remain staples in their diet today. Ireland's Celtic culture developed strongly, for the island remained free of the Roman influences that were affecting other European peoples. In fact, it wasn't until St. Patrick's arrival in the 5th century that Christianity spread, and with it came the monks who dutifully recorded the details of Irish social customs and foodways. From their scripts, we know that Celtic diets included a wide range of soured milk drinks, curds, cheeses and rich, golden butter.
In the next few centuries, Ireland came to be occupied by first the Vikings, then the Normans, and then the English. Irish families (both Catholics and Protestants) on their own native land became tenant farmers for English and Scottish landowners, resulting in tense clashes in the 18th century. Increasingly, Irish farmers were eating less of their own livestock, dairy products and crops and ceding more and more of these to their English gentry.
But in medieval Ireland, food tastes developed that still characterize traditional Irish cuisine today. Because a man's wealth was judged by the size of his cattle herd, cows were raised in plenty for dairy, but rarely eaten as beef. Instead, pigs and sheep were eaten for their meat, and every part of the animal found some use in the kitchen. Salted slabs of fat-streaked bacon became a favorite part of the Irish diet, and fat in all forms, from butter to lard, was a valued seasoning.
Irish meats also came from the woodlands, in the form of venison, wild boar and other game. Woodsy herbs and plants like sorrel, leeks, watercress, berries and hazelnut were gathered from the same areas. Salmon, shellfish, and freshwater fish were harvested from the seas and rivers.
The potato was introduced to Ireland in the late 16th century, probably by Sir Walter Raleigh who brought it from Virginia. As the Irish peasants came to enjoy less of their own native foods, they rapidly adopted the potato as a filling, economical crop. Additionally, the potato was adopted because it lent itself well to Irish kitchens, which were generally limited to a cauldron and a griddle.
But then disaster happened, in the form of the Great Famine of 1845.
Several factors contributed to the famine's impact. The Irish population, fed on a healthy diet of potatoes and milk, more than doubled between 1780 and 1845, peaking at 8.5 million. In fact, over one-third of the population (which was already plagued by intense poverty) had virtually made potatoes their exclusive form of sustenance. When the potato blight hit in 1845, the potato was in such demand that its failure was devastating. By 1851, over one million people had died and another million fled to North America. Ultimately, after subsequent potato crop failures, Ireland lost over a fifth of its population.
Today, the Irish diet is not as dependent on potatoes, and disease-resistant strains help ensure that such a disaster will not recur. But potatoes do remain a featured ingredient, and today the Irish consume more potatoes per capita than any other nation in the European Union.