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Irish Diet In Ancient Times

by Cassandra Liberty West

     People in Ireland began raising livestock about 5,000 years ago. This was made possible by tribes banding together to protect each other, thereby enabling them to farm and tend to their flocks. They were also able to preserve meat and they learned to stock up on grain.
     This led to different methods of cooking, for boiling was very rarely used at the time. They built troughs and placed hot stones in water to cook meat, which lead to soups, and the discovery that hot water mixed with certain grains, such as oats could produce a fine meal.

     Food was used as currency, covering everything from the yearly taxes to a son’s tuition in the religious schools. His payment would likely be a dairy cow, a calf, a sack of malt and a sack of corn.
          Celtic (Brehon) law stipulated that families live in compounds together on top of hills or on lakes called ‘crannogs’ for protection.

     Until they were introduced to the Potato, the main diet in Ireland was milk, cheese, meat, cereals, fish and some vegetables. Pork was the least expensive and the easiest to preserve, so it was called ‘poor man’s meat.’ Pork is an important part of the Irish diet even today. They also ate venison and mutton, but during ancient times, sheep were raised mostly for their wool.
     They made bread with Oats, Barley, Rye and Wheat, with the latter two being used mainly by the poor. Oats were used in porridge, just as today, and Barley was used to thicken soups. Barley was very nutritious and those two grains were beneficial in many ways. Cakes were made with honey, eggs and fine wheat flour. Oddly enough, they ate very few vegetables or fruits, most of them being what they could gather, such as onions, leeks, sorrel, watercress, berries, and the like.

     For hundreds of years, meat was always roasted over fire. Then, when they learned how to make cauldrons which could sustain a high heat, they began to cook most things in pots, for several hours. This they would serve with the oatbread they made over hot stones or under an upturned cauldron- an early version of the oven.
     Most meals were from a common bowl, but sometimes, people would use their own wooden bowls and cups, with spoons carved from wood.
     They made a corn liquor which they flavored with honey, herbs and spices… and made a more refined drink from honey, called Mead, which was used for special occasions. Milk was more important to the Irish diet than many other nations. They used it as a drink, in cheeses, in a dessert made with seaweed and honey and to dampen hardened oat cakes or bread.

     Hospitality was valued, and strangers were always fed. That was one reason they were so resentful of the British and the Irish Lords who refused them food during the Potato Famine. Guests were given the best cuts of meat, and if they guest was royalty or someone of high standing, they gave them the best of everything they had. All the diners drank from one cup. It was a gesture of trust, because it meant that no one was trying to poison anyone else.

     When people from England and Scotland migrated to Ireland, laws were passed restricting land ownership, so that the Native Irish were often pushed off their own land. The Potato helped mitigate things when it was first introduced, because a poor family could plant a small plot of land and raise enough potatoes to feed themselves, and enough livestock to pay their taxes.
     It was still a precarious life though. If one crop failed, it meant disaster for many, because most families were very large. That’s why so many people were driven off their lands during the Potato Famine and why even today, food is very appreciated and revered in Ireland.
     There is still and attitude that feeding a guest is the height of honor… and that food should be enjoyed, for it may not always be there.


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