Food Culture and Tradition

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Irish Food and Culture


The Irish are one with their land. Warm, sprightly, and whimsical on the outside, the Irish character occasionally surfaces to reveal mercurial ups and downs of temperament firmly rooted in steadfast stubbornness. The land is the same. A moderately moist climate gently washes over the idyllically green land, which is dotted with lakes and encircled with mountains, and which only occasionally breaks to reveal the limestone of the plains or the granite and basalt of the Highlands. Even the softness of the peat bogs belies their vital importance for fuel and power. The Irish people and their island homeland exhibit both tenderness and strength and bear witness also to the contrasts inherent in their history.

After the arrival of St. Patrick in 432 C.E., Christianity spread over the many separate kingdoms of the Emerald Isle and for the next 400 years Catholicism, monasteries, oatmeal, milk, and leeks occupied the souls and filled the stomachs and the working days of the Irish. Aside from those in the religious life most of the population were farmers and shepherds. Then this somewhat peaceful existence was shattered with Viking raids and even the brief establishment of Viking rule. Although seldom openly attributed to the Viking conquest of 832 C.E., could it be possible that the Vikings left an inheritance of mischievous trolls and bottomless imbibing that remains to this day so much a part of the legends and customs of the Irish?

For the next 700 years after the Viking occupation, the Irish had to stave off raids, invasions, and pressures from first, the Normans (who had already established themselves in England) and then the English. Both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s and early 1600s gradually supplanted Irish landowners with Scottish and English owners. The Irish (Catholics and Protestants alike) now became tenant farmers on what was their own land. This non-resident ownership of land together with strong grievances in many other areas of Irish life came to a head and erupted in the conflicts of the 1700s.

But a specter more ominous than religion or politics was looming. The wheat, oats, and barley that the Irish grew for their landlords, and the pigs, mutton, and beef pastured on their lands never saw an Irish hearth. Adopted by the Irish peasants as their staple food, potatoes in every possible form became the basis of every meal. The usually gentle climate became endless days and nights of alternately drizzling and torrential rains and in 1821, the uneducated, misgoverned pauper peasants suffered famine, fever and death from the first failure of the potato crops. Increasingly, the majority of the Irish population lived on misery and little else. Some, at this point, assured that there would be priests and a goodly supply of potatoes in the New World, set out for life in North America.

Those Irish who decided not to emigrate managed to survive and the next year enjoyed, if nothing else, a profusion of potatoes so plentiful that it is said they were even used as fertilizer. The respite in the form of food for all, however, hardly made up for the almost slave-labor conditions in the cities and the general oppression in the countryside. England and Scotland were glutted with unskilled labor; poverty, disease, and death were commonplace. And the blighted potato crops of 1845 were only the fore-shadowing of the disastrous total crop destruction in 1846. The beleaguered government chose a policy of eviction and forced emigration, a far less costly strategy, they decided, than attempting to support the starving disease-ridden thousands in workhouses.

So it was that almost two million Irish – almost 40 percent of the population – prematurely aged, haggard, sick with cholera, typhus, and dysentery, allowed themselves to be herded onto filthy ships to the New World. Many died on hoard, others soon after landing. Those who managed, by miracle or inner fortitude, to survive were given three-quarters of a pound of bread and the same amount of meat for six days and then they were on their own.

While the Irish back home fought for survival as well as independence from the English, those in the New World applied their inner stubbornness to building roads, homes, and sawmills and clearing land for their own farms. Others became soldiers or political and religious leaders. But always the lilt of Gaelic (Irish language) and laughter could be heard over the clink of glasses wherever the Irish gathered. And as memories of the misery of their lives in Ireland softened with time (although it is said that the Irish have a long memory) they kept alive too the memories of leprechauns, hearth-baked soda bread, St. Patrick’s Day and the Blarney stone (whoever kisses it will have a “golden tongue”).

What other holiday is celebrated with such a mixture of wistful sadness and uninhibited joy? Who but the Irish could turn their St. Patrick’s Day Parade (wherever in the world it is held) into an event felt and celebrated by all ethnic groups? Perhaps it is that March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, is more than “the wearin ‘o’ the green,” more than parades and drinking and sad lamenting songs; perhaps St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by so many because most of all it portrays a yearning memory of a dear homeland, beloved in spite of suffering. Most peoples of the world can share that.

The struggle for independence from the English culminated in the Foundation of the State in January 21, 1919. Disagreements, treaties, and violence were not to end. The Irish flag, a tricolor of green, white, and orange, was adopted in 1848. It was not until 1948 that the Republic of Ireland finally gained British recognition, but Northern Ireland has remained under British control. The green represented the Gaelic and Norman-Irish while the orange symbolized the William of Orange supporters, mostly English and Scottish. The field of white on the flag, then as now, was meant to symbolize peace between the Irish factions. Sadly, violence still disrupts the Emerald Isle, but hopes for lasting peace have never burned as brightly as in the closing years of the twentieth century.

More than political miracles have been happening. It has been said that the Irish care more about what comes out of their mouths than what goes in. This too is changing. A food revolution of a happy sort is erupting everywhere, and not just in restaurants. The Irish are awakening to the luscious possibilities of their homegrown succulent lamb, creamy Irish cheeses, the freshness of rain-washed vegetables, and the rich bounty of the waters around them. Homegrown Irish ingredients touched more boldly with fresh herbs and seasonings and prepared with loving perfection can now take their place in any cuisine of the world.

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