Flaming poteen herring! Ireland’s long-standing fish aversion

The Way We Were: published February 5th, 1955

“Pupils of St Mary’s College of Domestic Economy, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin, receive instruction round a combined island range”

“Pupils of St Mary’s College of Domestic Economy, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin, receive instruction round a combined island range”

 

Published: February 5th, 1955

On February 5th, 1955, a question we consider to be a contemporary one was posed in The Irish Times by the food writer Monica Sheridan. Under the headline “Ireland’s untapped food supply”, Sheridan bemoaned the Irish aversion to seafood, a topic that survives in present-day culinary discourse. Sheridan found an Irish recipe in the book Larousse Gastronomique, “which was a new one on me”, she wrote. “Remove the heads and tails of some salt herrings and split them open lengthways. Place in a shallow dish and cover with whiskey. Ignite the whiskey and, when the flame has burned itself out, the herrings are ready to be eaten.” Sheridan thought Larousse was exaggerating, until the recipe was confirmed to her: “A man from the West of Ireland tells me that he remembers, in his grandmother’s house in Connemara, there was always an enormous barrel of salt herrings. His four uncles, enormous men of between fifty and sixty, who lived in mortal terror of their 85-year-old mother, would come in from a day in the fields, go to the barrel and take out half-a-dozen herrings apiece. They’d pour maybe half a pint of poteen over the herrings, set the spirit alight, and when it had died down they’d eat the herrings. I should add that they had their own private still, and that the old lady was the best authority on poteen in the district.” 

Sheridan continued: “Which brings me to what I set out to say – that there is no distinctive Irish cuisine worth talking about.” She was perplexed by the lack of seafood eaten in Ireland: “I cannot understand why, with a coastline of 2,500 miles, we have no indigenous tradition of fish cookery. Except on Fridays, nobody will eat fish in the country. Why?” She wondered why people don’t pick mussels – “Here in Dublin they can be eaten only in three of the more exclusive restaurants” – or fish for scallops, which she noted were thrown back into the sea when caught in nets by fishermen.

The economic and philosophical soul-searching that occurred during the 21st century recession, where questions of identity and purpose were dominant in the Irish food and restaurant industry, instigated an inventiveness that became what we can characterise as modern Irish cuisine. But it’s only in recent years that indigenous seafood has become a focus of menus. 

Sheridan would go on to become better-known for her cookery programmes on RTÉ television and her cookbooks, but she was also a fantastic food journalist. Her articles were full of cheeky asides, self-deprecating humour and brilliant turns of phrase and a portal into a type of glamour that few would have been experiencing in 1950s Ireland. It’s worth checking out her epic comeback on RTÉ TV in 1987 (available online by searching the RTÉ archive), where she was stuffing a “lousy” turkey, and in the process takes the RTÉ “hierarchy” to task for firing her, before chucking a healthy dose of martini into the turkey stuffing.

Back in 1955 the groundwork for Irish cuisine was being laid. Interestingly, two days before Sheridan’s seafood piece was published, Anne Plunkett reported from St Mary’s College of Domestic Economy, on Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin, which had begun a project to train hotel and restaurant staff. DIT continues to train people in hospitality management and tourism.

As for the flaming poteen herring, Margaret Hickey’s Ireland’s Green Larder, published last year, put the recipe down to “Some innocent researcher [who] was surely unaware of the equally traditional Irish delight in pulling someone’s leg.” But it does appear that there may be some truth to the recipe. Darina Allen wrote in Irish Traditional Cooking that herring was a “prevalent item in the Irish diet” as far back as the 14th century. Much later, fish houses were built in Donegal, Dublin and Waterford, with salted and smoked herring exported to Germany and Russia.

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