Change marked the post-Famine Irish diet - Account for the nature and extent of this change

Essay, 2011

7 Pages, Grade: unbenotet


The Great Famine between 1845 and 1849 was one of the main events, if not the essential event of Irish history. Not only in the context of demographic decline that was caused by mass starvation, death and emigration. The population of Ireland nearly cut in half from c. 8 million, in 1841, to c. 4 million people around 1910. An interesting fact is also, the Great Famine marks the watershed for Irish living situation. This view is supported by Kevin O’Rourke who identifies the post-Famine development of the Irish society in the following way: ‘Corresponding to this turnaround in population was a turnaround in living standards’ (O’Rourke, 1995: 410). As soon as Ireland was over the years of privation, conditions of life improved rapidly. Especially the post-Famine food consumption can be linked directly to the better living standard after 1849.

According to the literature of Leslie A. Clarkson/E. Margaret Crawford (2001) and others, this essay seeks to address the following questions: How did Irish dietary change proceeded? What did the Irish population consume and why did they consume these products? Finally, to what extent did Irish living standard altered in the decades after the Great Famine?

In the pages that follow, consequently, I attempt to trace back the radical changes of Irish lifestyle in terms of food consumption in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

The potato always had a major importance for the Irish population. In the years before the Great Famine, the potato was almost the sole food product in Irish diets. Arthur Young discribes in his record ‘A Tour of Ireland 1776-1779’, that especially ‘the Irish poor have a fair belly-full of potatoes’ (Young, 1970: 41). Thus, the failure of the potato crop had a huge impact on the Irish society. While in pre-Famine times, the potato was responsible for the demographic growth (cf. Sexton, 2005: 9). Hereafter, in the mid nineteenth century, this absolute reliance on the potato killed the people in Ireland. Leslie A. Clarkson and E. Margret Crawford assess, that the ‘calories provided by potatoes during the Famine years were only 23 percent of the level in the period, 1840-5’ (Clarkson/Crawford, 2001: 88). Furthermore, the authors explain: ‘Before the Famine, there was almost two tons of potatoes a year per person. After the Famine, the available per capita supply ranged between a half and threequarters of a ton’ (Clarkson/Crawford, 2001: 89). While the potato never disappeared from the Irish diet, it obviously lost its major importance and to survive the people were forced to find other foods.

In this time, the Irish diet began its makeover. Instead of the potato as the universal food, the nutrition, subsequently, became more diversified. Because of better facilities, higher wages and relatively low prices due to increased imports, the range of foods extended more and more. Apart from potatoes, one could find with increasing frequency baker’s bread, tea, sugar and meat on Irish dining tables. Taken together, the ‘survivors of the Great Famine and their successors found themselves in a changing world. Less of their food was grown on the farms and in the gardens of Ireland; more came from abroad and was purchased from shopkeepers and dealers’ (Clarkson/Crawford, 2001: 90).

Anyhow, not all parts of Ireland had the same decided improvement of living conditions. Particularly in the poor counties of the west, people still were depending on the potato as a very important food product. Even though their lives were better than those of their ancestors.

This regional disparity shows that the change in potato consumption was not only a phenomenon of a different nutritional behaviour in Ireland. It was also an indicator of the expanded gap of life conditions between Irish cities and Irish countrysides. However, the remote parts developed amongst others due to the ‘Congested Districts Board’, established by Sir Arthur Balfour in 1891. This board was founded for the purpose of remedy the distress in counties like Galway. By supporting social works and sponsoring local businesses in the west, Belfour tried to stop emigration and to enable the poor to participate in the better living conditions like the rest of the Irish population. Belfour accomplished this purpose, as we know now, because especially the living standard of the poor improved in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the years after Belfours board, shops opened in rural areas, and the commercialisation developed throughout Ireland. With the result that in ‘the first half of the twentieth century the rural diet, although increasingly susceptible to the influence of commercial forces, depended largely on home-produced goods and local produce. Potatoes, oatmeal, imported Indian meal, buttermilk, sour milk and butter were staples, along with home cured meats, and in particular pig meat remained standard’ (Sexton, 2005: 13). The Irish diet was a mix of homemade products and purchased items. Not all parts of Ireland had equal opportunities to develop, but every area did it on its own way – some more, some less.

As abovementioned, especially the large number of newly opened up shops all over the country supported the upgrade of Irish life conditions and the enlargement of the variety of goods. Henceforth, the Irish population had the choice between different types of bread such as ‘bread made from Indian meal, oatmeal, or wheaten flour, blends of meals were popular. Indian meal was mixed with oatmeal or wheaten meal. The Irish love of potatoes extended into bread making’ (Clarkson/Crawford, 2001: 101). As well as the usage of different kinds of flour, the use of sodium bicarbonate for the making of soda bread became more famous. The bread replaced the potato as a major food product.

Besides the change from potato to bread consumption, other food products were on increase. As the Irish diet was no more dominated by the potato, the Irish agriculture switched from tillage to pasture. Turner points out that the ‘arable sector most decidedly shrank, and there was an expansion of the animal sector...there was the rise of cattle and milk, and other livestock and livestock products. In land-use terms the country became greener’ (Turner, 1996: 15). The varied agriculture and nutritional behaviour of the Irish population had a huge impact on the social structure after 1849. The altered usage of land was one of the most ‘significant post-Famine adjustment in agricultural production’ (Turner, 1996: 107) and clearly shows the new living situation in a society with ‘reduced agricultural employment’ (cf. O’Rourke, 1991: 20).

Anyhow, Irish people ate more meat and butter, and drank more milk. While before the Famine, meat was a luxury good, only eaten on holidays or celebrations, it, subsequently, became a daily product in the decades after the Famine. Butter was eaten, but not from the poor, and the milk consumption showed two specific developments. ‘First, the old pattern in which buttermilk consumption was greater than that of whole milk reversed by the early twentieth century. Secondly, the combined consumption of buttermilk and fresh milk declined’ (Clarkson/Crawford, 2001: 102). In the same time, the consumption of tea was extremely high. This was a very special development, because the Irish population was still not living in wealth, but they did not hesitate to spend a lot of money for high quality tea. Tough, there were more tea drinkers in the cities than on landsides, tea was consumed everywhere. Everyone was willing to spend money freely for good tea blends: ‘In rural Ireland tea and sugar accounted for almost 20 percent of food expenditure in 1904. Ten years later, 14 percent of food spending in Dublin was on tea and sugar. Almost as much was spent on tea as on potatoes’ (Clarkson/Crawford, 2001: 104). As the milk consumption caused the increased tea drinking, tea consumption caused the increased demand on sugar. But sugar was not only used to sweeten tea, it was also used for baking bread. In brief, the carbohydrate nutrition increased highly in post-Famine Ireland.


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Change marked the post-Famine Irish diet - Account for the nature and extent of this change
University College Cork  (School of History)
An Introduction to Irish History
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change, irish, account
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B.A. Julia Krüger (Author), 2011, Change marked the post-Famine Irish diet - Account for the nature and extent of this change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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