Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Irish Domestic Life and Special Occasions



The emigrant Irish may dream of potato fields, turf-roofed cottages, and a hearth with bubbling stew, and they could return to Ireland today and see much unchanged. Modern Irish cities, however, are as noisy and crowded as most around the world, but one need not travel far into the countryside to find examples of life as it has traditionally been lived and as it will likely continue for a long time.

Accustomed to a frugal existence and hard work, many rural Irish still find deep contentment in simple daily life. The huge hearth for cooking and heating a cottage, and open shelves to store dishes and groceries are used today much as they were several hundred years ago.

The term “to take pot luck” reputedly originated with the three-legged iron pot that the Irish homemaker hung over her fire to cook potatoes, make a soup or a stew, and even bake breads and cakes. Skill was necessary to bank the coals of the fire just so, and to raise or lower the “bastable oven” as the three-legged pot is sometimes called. A kettle for boiling water, a churn for butter, and a sturdy wooden board for making dough (mostly quick breads) as well as mixing bowls and stirring spoons comprised the important utensils of the Irish country kitchen.

City kitchens, like those in most of the rest of Europe, are efficient and compact, and contain as many electrical or gas conveniences as needed. However, the Irish cook, like the Scottish, prefers simple substantial meals with no frills so there is little need for many of the gadgets and “conveniences” found in so many western kitchens. Although this too is changing.


Most Irish are of Celtic origin and about 95 percent are of the Roman Catholic faith. The majority of Protestants live in the north. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution.

A Christian country, Ireland celebrates Christmas and Easter, but since there is still more than a small belief in the “wee people” and in spirits and fairies, Halloween is also still very much a part of the festival calendar.

Christmas is the most lavish family celebration of the year with many specialty dishes that are also very much a part of holiday tradition in Canada and the United States. The traditional dressed boar’s head is sometimes replaced with a potato-stuffed roast goose or turkey, and homemade spiced beef is a frequent holiday delight. Spicy-sweet plum puddings, hot mince pies, and traditional iced rich Christmas cake round out the meal. New Year’s is a more important celebration in Scotland than in Ireland, but the Irish do celebrate it with the Scots currant bun and Scottish shortbread.

The austerities of the Lenten season are ushered in with Shrove Tuesday, when pancakes highlight every meal and homemakers happily attempt to win the many pancake-flipping races held locally. Lenten dishes are based on fish, cereal, and vegetables and are really not too different from the rest of the year. Soups like brotchan and brotchan roy made from an oatmeal-thickened vegetable broth and sometimes garnished with grated cheese as in the meatless cottage soup, champ, and colcannon, and dishes like mealie greachie (pan-fried flaked oatmeal served with fried eggs) are all examples of filling and meatless dishes.

Easter is welcomed with the spicy warm fragrance of hot cross buns, simnel cake (marzipan-topped fruit cake), and Easter biscuits made with currants, grated lemon rind, and egg yolks.
Halloween is celebrated with parties and fireworks. Roast goose is part of the traditional menu, topped off with apple cake, toffee apples, and nuts in the shell. Often tiny charms are wrapped in paper and baked in the cake or in dumplings to add to the fun of the evening. A must with the goose dinner is the making of dozens of boxty pancakes, gobbled up as fast as they are fried. The large potatoes grated for the pancakes are usually too big to store and no one objects to this method of storage. Barmbrack is the fruited yeast bread for Halloween.

There could not be an Irish wedding or christening without a many-tiered darkly rich fruitcake, beautifully iced and decorated. Because it is considered good luck to share this cake with the guests, all are given a small finger of it, often specially wrapped. The top tier of the wedding cake is the smallest one and is often stored away to be used for the christening of the first child. Sometimes the middle tier is saved for a 25th wedding anniversary. If these wedding customs have a familiar ring, now you know their source!

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