Have you ever wondered what our ancestors ate for their Christmas dinners in the past? From the richest to the poorest, it would seem that we Irish have celebrated the festival with food and drink since earliest times. Here is a brief run-through of Christmas foods, taken from contemporary Irish accounts, from the fourteenth century to today.
The first entry is from Christmas Day 1396 by Ramon de Perellós. He was the guest of the O’ Neill household in Donegal, after his pilgrimage visit to Lough Derg:
‘And there were with the King three thousand horses, and many poor people, to whom the King gave great alms of ox flesh …Their food is of beef, and the great lords drink milk, and the others beef-tea, and the common people water, and they have excellent butter, since all their meats are of oxen and cows and good horses’.
In early 1603, Captain Josias Bodley and his fellow officers dined extremely well at a late Christmas celebration in the home of Captain Morrison, Lecale, County Down. The English officers were stationed in Ireland to fight the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’ Neill, Their Christmas had been delayed due to battle engagements. They had also fought at the Battle of Kinsale one year earlier:
‘There was a large and beautiful collar of brawn, With its accompaniments, to wit, mustard and Muscadel wine; there were well-stuffed geese, (such as the Lord Bishop is wont to eat at Ardbraccan,) the legs of which Captain Caulfield always laid hold of for himself; there were pies of venison and of various kinds of game; pasties also, some of marrow, with innumerable plums; others of it with coagulated milk ,- such as the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London almost always have at their feasts; others, which they call Tarts, of divers shapes, materials and colours, made of beef, mutton and veal.’
Fynes Moryson, Lord Mountjoy’s secretary at the beginning of the seventeenth century had little good to say about the country. However, he did approve of Irish whiskey of the time:
‘The Irish aqua vitae, commonly called usquebagh, is held the best in the world of that kind, which is made also in England, but nothing so good as that which is brought out of Ireland. And the usquebagh (uisce beatha) is preferred before our aqua vitae, because the mingling of raisins, fennel-seed, and other things mitigating the heat, and making the taste pleasant, makes it less inflame, and yet refresh the weak stomach with moderate heat and a good relish.’
Hannah Alexander’s Goose Pye in her 1680 cookbook did not take today’s culinary approach, being heavily laden with delicious butter:
‘Take a goose and break the bones thereof and a Couple of Rabbitts and stick cloves in the breast of your goose and season it very well and putt butter on the top and baste and bake it and fill it up well with butter.’
In 1720, Jonathan Swift wrote an English translation of the original Irish Pléarácha na Ruarach poem by Aodh Mac Gabhrain. The poem is about the Christmas revels at O’ Rourke’s castle in Dromahair, Leitrim in the 1580’s:
O’Rourke’s noble fare, will ne’er be forgot,
By those who were there, or those who were not.
His revels to keep, we sup and we dine
On seven score sheep, fat bullocks and swine.
Usquebaugh* to our feast, in pails was brought up
A hundred at least, and a madder* our cup.
‘Come harper, strike up, but first by your Favour
Boy, give us a Cup, ay, this has some Savour.
*Uisce Beatha/Whiskey; *Meither, a large hospitality cup. The Liam McCarthy Cup is based on this medieval vessel.
Arthur O’ Neill, the blind harpist, attended a Christmas feast hosted by Lord Kenmare in Kerry in the 1750’s. It was a magnificent occasion, celebrating the ancient Milesian Irish families living locally, with the best of wines. It turned out to be very much ‘a last man standing’ kind of party, in the best fashion:
‘When dinner was announced, very near a hundred of the O’s and Macs took their seat. My poor self, being blind, I did what blind men generally do; I groped a vacancy near the foot of the table. Such a noise arose of cutting, carving, roaring, laughing, shaking hands, and such language as generally occurs between friends, who only see each other once a year…Harmony was lost whenever the Port and Claret began to box each other in decanters at all parts of the table. Then the cloth was removed, and the carpet was generally the bed for the principal part of the visitors.’
In London 1875, Roscommon born Oliver Goldsmith mentions the new trend of removing the meat from mincemeat pies. He declares how great a loss the iconic pie would be:
‘But these notable housewives have still the consolation of hearing their guests commend the mince-pies without meat, which we are assured were made at home, and not like the ordinary heavy things from the pastry-cook’s. These good people would, indeed, look upon the absence of mince-pies as the highest violation of Christmas; and have remarked with concern the disregard that has been shewn of late years to that old English repast: for this excellent British olio is as essential to Christmas as pancake to Shrove Tuesday, tansy to Easter, furmity to Midlent Sunday, or goose to Michaelmas day.’
Christmas dinner in the Stafford household, Rathangan, Wexford in 1785 left nothing to chance. This long-standing Gaelic family continued to observe the old traditions:
‘But the dinner, sir, the dinner, was the opus magnum. Bacon and cutlin pudding, roast beef, boiled beef, ducks, chickens, pullets, and turkeys, with a string of et ceteras as long as a plough-chain. ‘Like master like man’ was the order of the day. Guests there were none; for who would dine from home on a Christmas Day? Oh! Sir, those were the times! Hunger was then confined to your pestilential cities; for the peasantry, at least the Irish peasantry, knew nothing of it. The evening, you may be sure, was devoted ‘to mirth and brown ale’; and ‘the wren – the wren, the king of all birds’, – ushered in St Stephen’s Day.’
While Christmas feasting and entertainment were generally provided by those who could best afford such luxuries, it was not quite the same for everyone. This is clear from Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin’s diary entry from December 24th 1828 in Callan, County Kilkenny:
‘Wednesday. Christmas Eve, a fast day. A thin–clouded morning. A mild south west wind. A blue-skied day, as fine as a May day. The poor people are buying pork chops, pigs’ heads, soggy beef, big joints of old sows’ loins, and small bits of old rams, as all the good meat has been already bought up by the well-off, well-fed people. He who comes last will be the loser, as usual…’
A passing but telling comment comes in a piece by Aubrey de Vere of Currachase House, Askeaton in 1826. As a boy he had been out walking with friends during the Christmas holidays near Adare and happened on a cottage:
‘Halfway down the hill stood a farmhouse. The farmer was most courteous, but, alas! there was not a morsel of food in his house. What he had he gave, and that was cider, for which, like the Irish peasant of that day, he would take no payment. Each of us drank only one cider glass of it, and we took our departure, cheered, but by no means invigorated.’
James Mooney writing in 1889 from America remembered earlier Christmases:
‘Even the poorest strive to have something better than common for the Christmas dinner, and this feeling is embodied in the Kerry proverb: ‘Christmas day and the day of the turf, Them are the days we’ll eat enough’, alluding to the day on which the turf is cut, on which occasion the farmers hire a number of the poverty-stricken laborers to assist them, and always make it a point to give them a good dinner for once…’
Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha wrote of Jimín Mháire Thaidhg in 1919 and his rendering of the family goose insensible with whiskey on Christmas Day, in the book Jimín:
‘Ansin chuimhnigh mé ar sheift eile. Fuair me dorn mine buí agus d’fhliuch mé leis an stuif as an mbuidéal é agus chuir mé sa bhuaile amuigh é ar phláta. Siúd chuige an gandal mór agus d’alp sé a raibh ann.
Níor bhraith mé faic air go ceann tamaill. Ansin chrom sé ar ghogalaigh. I gceann tamaill d’éirigh sé as sin agus chrom sé ar shiúl timpeall agus leathcheann air. Fáinne a bhí sé a dhéanamh agus é ag siúl. Ansin stad sé agus leath sé a dhá chois amach ó chéile agus bhí sé á shuaitheadh féin anonn is anall. Chuirfeadh sé na cait ag gáire.
Ansin luigh sé agus dhún sé na súile agus ní fhaca aon oidhre riamh ach é ar shean‒Diarmaid críonna anseo amuigh nuair a bhíonn sé ag titim dá chodladh sa chathaoir mhór os comhair na tine agus é ag míogarnaigh.’
‘Then I thought of something else. I got a fistful of yellow meal and I wetted it with the stuff from the goldie bottle and I put it out in the yard on a plate. Then along came the big gander who just swallowed the whole lot in one go.
I did not see any difference in him for a while. Then he began to cackle. After a bit he grew tired of that. Then he started walking around with his head tilted right over on its side with one eye looking at the ground and the other at the sky. He was going around in a funny kind of a circle as he walked. Then he stopped and spread his two legs wide apart and began swaying to and fro. It would make even the cats laugh.
Then he lay down and closed his eyes. He reminded me for all the world of our old Diarmaid when he is sitting in his big chair by the fire at night and the sleep coming over him.’
The young poet Michael Hartnett’s dinner-fare was frugal in Newcastle West, Limerick in the 1950’s:
The very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit-cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year.
What of today’s Christmas fare? Anne Enright wonderfully captured the Celtic Tiger years in her novel The Green Road:
‘Sausage and sage for the stuffing, an experimental bag of chestnuts, vacuum packed. Constance bought a case of Prosecco on special offer to wrap and leave on various doorsteps and threw in eight frozen pizzas in case the kids rolled up with friends. Frozen berries. Different ice creams. She got wine, sherry, whiskey, fresh nuts, salted nuts, crisps, bags and bags of apples, two mangoes, a melon, dark cherries for the fruit salad, root ginger, fresh mint, a wooden crate of satsumas, the fruit cold and promising sweet, each one with its own sprig of green, dark leaves. She got wrapping paper, red paper napkins, Sellotape, and – more out of habit, now the children were grown – packs and packs of batteries , triple A, double A, a few C’s. …The bill came to four hundred and ten euros, a new record. She thought she should have kept the receipt for posterity. Dessie would be almost proud.’
Written by Michael Houlihan December 2021
These extracts are from my book, ‘Nollaig, an Irish Christmas Reader.’
- The voyage of Count Ramon de Perellós, originally written in Catalan in 1397.
- Josias Bodley, Descripto itineris Capitani Josias Bodley in Lecaliam apud Ultoniensis, Anno 1602, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, First Series, Vol. 2 (1854), pp. 73-95
- Fynes Moryson, A history of Ireland from the year 1599 to 1603: with a short narration of the state of the kingdom from the year 1169, (2 vols, Dublin 1735).
- Deirdre Nuttall (ed.) A Book of Cookery for Dressing of Several Dishes of Meat and Making of Several Sauces and Seasoning for Meat or Fowl, by Hannah Alexander, Evertype, Westport, (Mayo 2014).
- The Poetical Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol I, William Pickering, London, 1833. pp 135-136.
- Arthur Ó Neill, The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill (1737-1818). They were dictated to Thomas Hughes, Edward Bunting’s copyist about 1810 and included in Bunting’s manuscripts.
- Robert Lynam (ed), The British Essayists: Oliver Goldsmith, The Connoisseur, J.F. Dove, (London 1827), pp 199-200.
- Mon Stafford, Christmas in Rathagan, The Dublin and London Magazine Joseph Robins, Jun. and Co., Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1825.
- Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, The Diary of an Irish Countryman, Tomás de Bhalraithe (ed.), Cork, 1979.
- Aubrey de Vere, Recollections of Aubrey de Vere, Arnold, New York, 1897.
- James Mooney, The Holiday Customs of Ireland, American Philosophical Society, (Philadelphia, 1889) pp 377-427.
- Michael Hartnett, Christmas in Newcastle West, The Old Limerick Journal, Vol xvii, winter 1974, p. 16.
- Anne Enright, The Green Road, Vintage, (London 2015), p 228.
- Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha, (An Seabhac), Jimín Mháire Thaidhg, Comhlucht Oideachais na hÉireann, 1919.