Ancient Irish ate very little beef or fish despite abundance of both

People ate tonnes of butter, cheese, curds and whey and an awful lot of bread and porridge

Study author Dr Liam Downey: “Ireland was covered with cattle from time immemorial. In fact, cows were the currency.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Study author Dr Liam Downey: “Ireland was covered with cattle from time immemorial. In fact, cows were the currency.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

There was an “extraordinarily high” number of cattle here from earliest times and an abundance of fish in the waters, yet Irish people ate very little beef or fish, a new paper has found.

UCD honorary professor of archaeology Liam Downey and environmental archaeologist Dr Ingelise Stuijts collated and analysed a body of research that looked at food consumed from the time of the earliest documentary sources up to the late 17th century.

Dr Downey, a former Teagasc director, said some of the findings were surprising. “Ireland was covered with cattle from time immemorial. In fact, cows were the currency,” he said. “Therefore, isn’t it very surprising that the ordinary people were not eating much beef? Now the wealthier classes undoubtedly were eating beef but not the ordinary people.”

Research had found that people lived primarily on dairy products and cereal products. “They ate tonnes of butter, cheese, curds and whey and when it came to cereal products they ate an awful lot of bread and porridge.”

Dr Downey and Dr Stuijts quoted findings from AT Lucas, former director of the National Museum, who published a paper on historical food products in the 1960s. Lucas said beef was most commonly consumed “by the higher ranks of society”; mutton was “only a casual item in the menu”; and pork and bacon were by far the most important kind of flesh eaten in ancient, medieval and later times.

Near-obsession

The Vision of MacConglinne

Dr Downey said it appeared that when beef was eaten, it was eaten because cattle had to be slaughtered from late autumn because of a lack of winter fodder. This meat had to be distributed and eaten before it went off, so “communal feasting in early Irish society was organised around the livestock production system and in particular the seasonal slaughtering pattern of cattle”.

Dr Downey said the low level of fish consumption in ancient times was even more surprising. “The rivers, lakes and seas abounded with fish and in general we used very little fish.”

Pilchard fishery

Ireland had a thriving pilchard fishery in the 1600s and 1700s and the small oily fish was exported in sizable quantities. They were processed in adjoining buildings known as fish palaces. Pilchards were salted in one building and crushed under weights to extract the oil in the next “palace”.

The papers on historical food products and the history of fisheries are published respectively in the latest editions of the Journal of Irish Archaeology and the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Journal.