Study to examine Irish diet before the potato

By Lynne Kelleher

Exotic foods such as turkeys, pineapples, and artichokes were eaten by Ireland’s cultured classes in the 16th and 17th centuries — but a new study is set to forensically examine the diet of the masses 500 years ago.

The European Research Council have awarded funding of €1.5m to unearth details of early Irish diet in the first study of its kind.

Susan Flavin of Anglia Ruskin University, who is leading the five-year project, said she is hoping to show what was on Irish dinner tables before the arrival of the potato in Ireland.

Dr Flavin said: “There weren’t any potatoes in Ireland in the 16th century. I think the focus on the potato, and famine, even though obviously we should focus on the famine, means that we haven’t actually studied Irish diet beforehand.

“We have all these assumptions that people were malnourished because they all ate the same thing but there is no evidence for that because there has never been an academic study of what people ate.”

The project will bring together historians, archaeologists, and scientists to investigate the diet of a nation at a level of detail never before attempted in Europe.

Dr Flavin, senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin, said Ireland’s upper classes had a rich diet in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Foreign luxuries like sugar, turkeys, pineapples, and artichokes found their way into the homes of the elite,” she said. 

“Those are things that turn up in the household accounts of Dublin Castle and the Earl of Cork. We don’t know if diet was that exotic beyond that level.

“We also know that at the lower levels of society the European fashion for hopped beer, and with it continental drinking rituals, was embraced by both men and women.

“There is a perception that Ireland remained isolated from the major dietary changes that occurred across early modern Europe, but my research suggests a much more complex and integrated picture.”

Dr Flavin said researchers will be using forensic techniques on human remains in the study.

A database will also be developed to map the archaeological and dietary evidence across different regions of Ireland and different social contexts.

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