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Erly-Irish-Fd-art - 8/1/13


"Lawyers, Legends and Landfills: Early Irish Food" by Ban-Fili Cailte Caitchairn, O.L.


NOTE: See also the files: fd-Ireland-msg, fd-Scotland-msg, fd-Scot-11tC-art, puddings-msg, Irish-Vik-fst-art, 11tC-Scot-fst-art, grains-msg, porridges-msg, seaweed-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Lawyers, Legends and Landfills: Early Irish Food

by Ban-fili Cailte Caitchairn. OL

Barony of al-Barran, Kingdom of the Outlands




This project is combined research with extrapolation to present what may been eaten in early medieval Ireland.   The research centers on the three "L's":  Legends - being mythology, heroic tales and literature, Lawyers - Brehon law and monastic laws/rules, and Landfills - excavated middens and bogs.  All three can give good evidence of not only what was available to be used in cooking, but also what was eaten by which social class.


For those who think of the foods of the Irish as boiled pork, boiled oatmeal, and potatoes, or think that dinner was venison over the fire after a hunt, or thin watery gruel with a frighteningly remarkable resemblance to dishwater, this paper will illustrate that although simple, the food of the early Irish could be rich and delicious as well.


This paper will present the information in an informal manner.  Were I to use footnotes for articles when mentioned, the information would be overwhelmed by the references.  Wherever possible, the information in each area (Food, Cooking Methods and Food Regulations) will be identified with the book or document used.





Care must be taken to differentiate between "traditional" and "historical" foods of Ireland.  Traditional Irish food spans the 19th century to current time. There are some documents, mostly letters and diaries that show us the food prepared and eaten in the large estates in the 18th century.   These time periods relate to the Manor houses, when (if you will forgive me) the English moved in, took over and tried to live the high life as it was in Britain, only in the Irish countryside.  


Also to be considered is that we are at the mercy of the translator(s).  In "The Vision of MacConglinne", Munro uses words like spleen and chitterling.  I may be wrong, but they seem pretty modern to me, especially chitterlings (intestine or gut or even casing might not have made me question it).  





The following foods and comments were found in Early Medieval Ireland 400 – 1200, The Land of Milk and Honey, A Little History of Irish Food, and in "Irish Food Before the Potato"


Grains:  Oats, barley, rye and wheat in that order; the hardy oats and barley fared particularly well in Ireland's damp climate.  Rye and wheat were cultivated with more difficulty, and therefore portioned to the upper class.


Bread:  Oat bread was the bread of the people, barley bread was eaten with the austere diet of the monks, and wheat bread was a delicacy for the upper classes or very special occasions.  


Porridge/gruel/stirabout:  These were grain soups and porridges of variant nature.   The base could be broth, water, milk, buttermilk or whey. Grains were added to the liquid to the consistency desired, from extremely thin to thick.  Additions could be herbs, onions or garlic, butter or honey. Sometimes meat was added on high days.  Salt is not mentioned, but may be assumed as a given, especially in coastal areas.



               Pork: Pig bones are found in large quantities in village excavations, and far outnumber those of cattle.  The pig is a very efficient animal to raise, as it does not need careful feeding, and in early Ireland often ran free, and fed on the mast of oak trees (acorns) to the point where some records comment on the exceedingly large quantity of oak mast in the forest, which was making the pigs quite fat that year.


               Beef:   The famous cattle herds of ancient Ireland were largely cows and male breeding stock.  Cattle were more important for their milk and the products that could be made from it than as a source of meat.  Blood was taken from live cattle by the poor to make blood puddings in hard times.  Slaughtered animals were usually unwanted bull calves, old cows past their prime and those cattle injured to the point of no recovery.


               Mutton/Sheep/Goat: Mutton is not largely mentioned, sheep being prized more for milk and wool than for its meat.


               Horse: Horsemeat was rarely eaten, and anyone found eating it was looked upon as a pariah, regarded as on a level with wild men, thieves and murderers.   The church could impose a penance lasting three and one half years upon anyone found eating horsemeat.


               Game: Venison, boar, hare and rabbit (introduced by the Saxons) were eaten.  The wild red dear was hunted to extinction.  One must be careful not to rely on the sagas and myths to come to the conclusion that all feasts were game-centric. Game tended to fall into the warrior- on-the-road style of eating as seen in the tales of Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna rather than the sole banquet food of the village/town.


               Fish and Shellfish:  Fishing was very important to those living on the coastal areas, providing food and commerce for the inhabitants.  Fish was also available from the inland waters and supplemented the diet, especially on fast days.  Trout, pike, cod, salmon, mussels, clams, winkles, oysters, prawns and crabs were available.


               Fowl: Chicken and geese were kept at monasteries and homes, and wild fowl were available in the forests and woods.  There are few direct references to chicken eggs as food, although wild eggs are mentioned in legend, and goose eggs were enjoyed by the Culdee monks at Easter.


               Milk and Milk Products:  Milk was a primary food source, especially valued for its use in cheese products, including soft cheeses, hard pressed cheeses and curds.  Rennet was used in cheese making, often by adding a piece of animal stomach to the milk.  Cheese was so highly regarded that it was used as a measure of size, one warrior being described as "each of his buttocks were the size of a cheese".  Obviously these were no paltry cheeses being made! Butter was prized as a condiment, and was often referred to as "the" condiment for bread.  Both cheese and butter were buried in peat bogs to help preserve the product, giving it the flavor of the peat.  Butter is mentioned as being flavored with wild onions or garlic.  There is no mention of a mixture of honey and butter, as we know of it today.


               After the cheese making and butter making, the remaining whey was used as a refreshing drink, as was buttermilk.  Buttermilk in this sense is not the thick, tart beverage we think of today, but rather a thin drink that holds some of the flavor of the butter.  Whey and whey water were major products in the monasteries, both for drinking and cooking porridge.


Vegetables:   Vegetables were boiled, added to soups and eaten raw. Vegetables included watercress, sorrel, nettles, "imus" (translated both as celery or parsley), kale, cabbage turnips, mustard greens, carrots, parsnips, wild mushrooms, garlic/leek/wild onion (being used more for flavoring than a side dish), onions, and several seaweeds (dulse and carrigeenan moss).  You will note a large number of cruciferous vegetables.  Peas and beans were introduced by the Saxons.


Fruits and Nuts:   Fruits included sloe, wild cherry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, rowan berry, crabapple, elderberry, whortleberry (resembling blueberries) and apples.  Apples were the first fruit to be grown as a product of an orchard.  Hazelnuts were native to Ireland.  The walnut is an English import not available in this time line.


Honey:  Bees were incredibly important to early Irish life.  Honey preserved, sweetened, and flavored food.  The wax from the hive was used as candles and tablets in the monasteries.  Honey was a condiment on the table. Meat was dipped into honey and sprinkled with salt.  (There are several recipes from Apicius that use honey as a condiment for meat, and it is quite tasty!). It was second only to butter on bread.


Herbs and Spices:  Not much is said of herbs and spices. Those that are mentioned are mustard seed, thyme and the use of wild garlic and onion as a flavoring.  Salt could be gleaned from seawater by evaporation, and then exported off of the island.  Seaweeds were used as flavoring agents as well. There is mention of horseradish as a seasoning.  Sorrel was prized for its sharp flavor.  As seen earlier, onions and garlic were often used for flavoring as opposed to a side dish of onions.


Beverages:  Beverages ranged from the simple to the complex, from the plain to alcoholic.  We have already noted the many uses of whey and buttermilk as a beverage.  Goat's milk was considered to have great medicinal value.  Ales were grain beverages flavored with honey and herbs, but the alcoholic content is not known.  Mead, fermented honey flavored with herbs, was drunk before and after a feast.  Wines were imported from Gaul, in trade for furs, hides and salted meats.


The following foods are mentioned in the Medieval Irish story, "Aislinge Meic Conglinne (The Vision of Mac Conglinne)", a very long story about a scholar who drove the demon of Gluttony from the person of King Cathal of Munster.


Protein:  slice of old bacon, brawn of deer, lard, bacon, full fat sausage, gravy, dripping, fish of Inver Indsen, old-wether (whether being a castrated sheep or goat) spleen, suet, corned beef, salmon, salmon skin, fat, kidney, rib, shoulder, leg, loin, tip, litch, striped breastbone, back paunch, slender tripe, juicy old bacon, full-flesh wether, and "sprouty meat soup with its purple berries"  (juniper or whortle?).  Note the use of offal.


Milk and Products: sheep's milk, rough curds, "small cup of the church whey water", whitemeats (cheese), smooth clustering cream, buttermilk, curds, pure new milk, sweet whey, beistings (top cream from the milk of a nursing cow), butter and "cheese without decrease"


Vegetables:  dulse, leeks, twisted leeks (spring onions?), carrots, onions and "tops of effeminate kale".


Fruits and Nuts:  tree fruit, nut fruit, and apples


Grains and Products:  wheaten cakes, stirabout, pottage, white porridge (wheat?), buckwheat, rye, oats, oatmeal gruel and bread


Beverages:  whey water, braggat, beer, mead, wine, buttermilk, beistings, and sheep's milk.


Condiments:  honey bag, honey in the comb, English salt





Bread baking:  Grain was dried in a kiln, converted to meal in a quern, sifted, kneaded in a trough and baked on a griddle or flat stone.  A cauldron could be inverted over the dough to create a makeshift oven.


The three legged pot or cauldron with bail was an important piece of equipment since it could be placed in front of the fire or hung over it.  It could also be inverted over hot stones for baking.


Broth, porridges and soups were very common, cooked in a cauldron in front of or over a fire with any form of grain, vegetable, meat, whey, water, broth or herbs/spices.  


Small game birds were covered in clay and baked in the fire until done, and then the hardened clay was broken to remove feathers and skin.


Remains of ancient cooking places showed large troughs that were filled with water and then hot stones were dropped in to bring water to a boil to cook meat.  Such a trough found in a bog in Ballyvourney, County Cork would have held 500 liters of water. Experimentation revealed that this water could be heated to boiling in 30 minutes by submerging hot stones.  A leg of mutton cooked in two to three hours.


Joints of meat could be cooked on a large, hot stone by covering with other hot stones for a dry cooking process.


Spit cooking for meats and fish over an open fire or in a heart was common.  


A flesh fork is often mentioned in legendary tales.  This is not so much the fork as we know it but rather a metal rod with a sharp hook on the end that will fish gobbets of meat out of a cooking vessel.





Monastic Rules:


Gruel/Porridge/Stirabout:  the annals of the Monastery of Tallect in the 8th century allow for three porridge/gruel preparations – gruel upon water, gruel between two waters and gruel underwater.  There are no explanations for the differences (but one might think that the consistency of the gruel for the fast day or holy day might be a reason for the three "techniques").


The life story of St. Finian of Clonnard states that the saint ate barley bread and water, but on Sundays, a bit of wheaten bread and a piece of boiled salmon.


Stricter monastic communities could not eat cheese made with rennet on a fast day since the rennet was procured from the stomach of an animal.


Whey and buttermilk were common drinks in the monasteries, sometimes further diluted with water for fast days.


Brehon Law:


The law tract, Senchas Mor, describes several forms of stirabout as food for children:   inferior grades (class): oatmeal on buttermilk (remember this is the "milk" left over after making butter, not the thick, sharp market buttermilk we drink today) or water with stale butter; chieftain grades:  Barley meal on fresh milk with new butter; kingly grades:  wheaten Meal upon new milk with honey.


Loaves of woman baking were to be two fists in breadth and one in thickness; loaves of man-baking were two times as large.  Standard sizes for certain vessels were determined by how many loves of man-baking and women baking they could contain.  Man-baking may be the result of the need for bread baking in the monasteries where no women were allowed.


The fine for the trespass of hens was levied at three loaves of man-baking AND their condiment (butter or honey).


Large tracts are devoted to the fines for the trespass of bees or the theft of a hive.  Brehon Law regulates all activities related to bees and honey, including the trespass of bees into neighboring land, the destruction of another's bees and/or hives, swarms of bees and their maintenance, and honeycomb as tribute to an overlord.  


It was against Brehon Law for a man to allow himself to become fat or develop a pot belly.


Brehon Law states that anyone who gives another anything in which there has been a dead mouse or a dead weasel, three fasts is laid on him who gives it.  If it is in dry food (grain?), in porridge or in thickened milk, the part round it is thrown away, the rest is consumed.  (I assume this does not mean during a cooking process but rather …ahem… floating.)


The Brehon Laws on cooks states that the cook could not be held responsible for a person getting scalded when he is serving food from a cauldron if he shouts in a loud voice a warning to those around him.  (The precursor to "hot stuff, comin' through"?)





There are many legends we can look to for hints at the food eaten, "Bricrui's Feast", "Mac Da Tho's Pig", "The Cattle Raid of Cooley" and the tales of Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna.  If you are interested in Irish culture and legend you are no doubt familiar with them.  Great halls welcome fabled warriors during their travels throughout the countryside.  Huge amounts of food are procured and presented.  Cooking fires and cauldrons of gigantic proportions are used.  Men fight over the most prestigious place at the table.  Great hounds patrol the rush-strewn floors, or gnaw on tossed bones in front of a blazing fire.  Huge amounts of mead and wine and ale disappear in a moment. Champions demand their allotted portion (usually a whole haunch).  One can only surmise that all of this food was served up on a fresh, heaping platter of testosterone!


I have chosen to focus on one not so well known.  It is an anonymous piece, believed to have been written in the 11th or 12th century.  It is a parody of the ecclesiastical "vision" works prevalent in Christian literature.  The extant copies of the piece are in collections dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.


Aislinge Meic Conglinne

This is a long story, actually two stories in one, involving the scholar Meic Conglinne and Ireland, Cathal MacFinguine, the King of Munster.   The stories are intertwined for as Meic Conglinne goes on his search for knowledge and poetry, he has a dream (vision) of how he can cure the Cathal of the demon of Gluttony, a curse put on him by Maelduin, the father of a young woman Cathal was wooing.  Cathal had been cursed with this ravenous (and legendary) appetite for three and one half years and nearly ruined his kingdom and surrounding areas.  It was said that in another half year, he would have decimated the entire country.  


In his early travels, Meic Conglinne meets a group of most inhospitable monks who he satirizes, and their meager offerings to travelers.  He is held prisoner, beaten and threatened with death by them, and then finally escapes by his wits and his glib tongue.  He comes to the house where Cathal is staying (and feasting outlandishly) and through alternating riddles, poetry, and fasting, finally cleanses him of the Demon of Gluttony.   Most of the food listed above in the Meic Conglinne section is seen in the poetic visions.  He speaks of a land where the houses, trees, lakes, shores, halls and waters are made of foods.  He describes the landscape with loving detail:

               Like honey the sea soil…

               New butter was the bridge in front…

               Bacon the palisade…

               The door of it was dry meat

               The threshold was bare bread, cheese curds the sides…

               Smooth pillars of old cheese and sappy bacon props…

               Behind was a wine well, beer and bragget in streams…

               Malt in smooth, wavy sea…

               A loch of pottage fat

               A row of fragrant apple trees...

               A forest tall of real leeks, of onions and of carrots stood behind the house…

               A lake of milk I beheld…

               A house thatched with butter

               Puddings fresh boiled, they were its thatch rods…

               Its two soft door posts of custard

               Its dais of curds and butter

               A huge cauldron full of boiled leafy kale, browny-white

               A bacon house of two core ribs

               A wattling of tripe

               Of chitterling of pigs were made its beautiful rafters…


And he describes the inhabitants of this wondrous land:

               The other eye started out of his head until it was as large as heath-pouts' egg...

               Within, a household generous, a welcome of red, firm-fed men around the fire…

               Seven bead strings, and necklets seven, of cheeses and of bits of tripe hung from each neck…

               The chief in mantle of beefy fat…his fleshfork on his back.


This gives us a very clear picture of common and highly prized foodstuffs on sheer repetition alone.  I think one could put together a very respectable feast working on this story paired with the information on the cooking methods and class restrictions seen earlier in this handout.  It ends with a listing of rewards to be given to anyone who can recite it in its entirety.  And amusingly enough, many of these rewards are food-centric.





Early Irish food can be simple, and it can be very good.  Food does not have to be exotic to be impressive.   Although there are no recipes, no many instructions of how to cook which "fancy" food for what occasion, you can, with some intelligent and informed extrapolation, bring some of these foods to life.  Can you bill your feast as "perfectly period"?  No.  Can you have a researched yet creative and unique feast? You certainly can.  Just make sure the resulting feast you are giving is aimed at a crowd that can appreciate it.





Allen, Darina, Irish Traditional Cooking, Kyle Books/National Book Network, Lanham, MD 2005


Gantz, Jeffrey, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Penguin Press, London, England, 1981


Linane, John, A History of Irish Cuisine, http://www.ravensgard.org/prdunham/irishfood.html">http://www.ravensgard.org/prdunham/irishfood.html, 2.18.12


Lucas, A.T., "Irish Food Before the Potato", Gwerin, Vol. III, No. 2, Ghee and Sons Ltd, Denbigh, Wales, 1960


Mahon, Brid, Land of Milk and Honey, Poolbeg Press, Dublin, Ireland, 1991


Meyer, Kuno (translator), "Aislinge Meic Conglinne" (The Vision of MacConglinne), In Parenthesis. Publications Medieval Irish Series, Cambridge, Ontario, 2000


O'Croinin, Daibhe, Early Medieval Ireland 400 -1200, Longman Ltd., London, England, 1995


Ross, Ann and Robins, Don, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, Simon and Shuster, New York, NY, 1989


Sexton, Regina, A Little History of Irish Food, Gill and Macmillan Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1988


Sundermeier, Michael, "The Archaeology of Ancient Ireland",

               http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/English/micsun/IrishRsources/archaeol.html, 10.22.12


Walkley, Victor, Celtic Daily Life, Robinson Publishing London, England, 1997



Should you wish to contact me to discuss any of this information further, the best way is email:  

karobert at unm.edu

Kathleen "Kat" Roberts, Albuquerque, NM


Possible Feast Menu



Brochtan Folchep (soup of butter, broth, cream, onion, oatmeal and herbs)

Herbed fresh cheese

Bread and oatcakes






Roasted pork glazed with honey and ale

Salmon dressed with cream and mustard seed

Parsnips, turnips and carrots


Horseradish sauce



Salad of sorrel, watercress, greens and vinegar with hazelnuts



Chicken stewed with leeks and onions

Oatmeal stirabout with thyme

Kale with bacon



Roasted apples with honey and thyme

Oatmeal Stirabout with dried cherries and currants and honey/wine sauce

Fresh cheese and honey




Copyright 2012 by Kathleen Roberts. <karobert at unm.edu>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of publication.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org