Feeding the Family

Learn how traditional Irish families grew, hunted and foraged for their food.


Interior of cottage with family. Aran Islands, Co. Galway, c. 1900
 
Households tried to be self-reliant in producing their own food, growing grains and potatoes, fruits and vegetables, and collecting wild berries, garlic, and herbs.
 
Most farms kept some livestock such as pigs, cows and goats for meat and milk, and poultry for meat and eggs. The women of the house sold any surplus butter and eggs.

Growing and Buying

Some families also kept beehives to provide a supply of honey and wax. Fish and trapped game added more variety to the general diet.
 
In the nineteenth century the poorer households bought only what they could not grow themselves. Tea, salt, sugar and whiskey, initially bought as infrequent luxury items, later became common purchases, as did baking soda, for making leavened bread.
 
The woman of the house was responsible for processing foods for cooking or storage. The grain had to be ground into meal, and meat and fish were preserved to extend their storage life.

Kitchen Implements

Specialised types of cooking equipment were needed to boil, grill, roast or bake food. Everything had to be cooked over the open fire at the hearth. The cook had to be adept at manipulating heavy pots and hearth equipment.
 
As only one item at a time could sit directly over the fire the other foods simmered or baked nearby making the order and timing of preparation critical.
 
Kettles and various sized cast iron three-legged pots were used for boiling liquids. Gridirons and toasting forks were used for grilling and frying pans were also common.
 
Traditional Irish bread iron
 
Bread irons were used for toasting oatcakes and the griddle was used for baking unleavened breads and cakes. Roasting was done on spits with adjustable settings so that the joint could be raised or lowered to distance it from the fire.
 
However, these were replaced by the end of the nineteenth century with the adoption of the versatile pot oven that could be used both to roast meat and to bake bread.