The Irish Pedigree of Corned Beef

Culinary Specialists Examine the Question

With the arrival imminent of the day of Saint Patrick (SPD), I remind of my March 19, 2016 blogpost. It cites evidence of substantial Irish attachment to corned beef in the 1800s, contrary to annual modern accounts that it is a faux-ethnic and national dish deriving from American cultural influence.

To be sure, countless food articles on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledge that corned beef is a favourite for SPD but often with a hint of exasperation, as if the dish really isn’t Irish.

In this regard, a 2011 academic study is worth noting, entitled Irish Corned Beef: a Culinary History. Published by the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), it was co-authored by Dr. Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire of the DIT and Padraic Og Gallagher. You may read it here.

The authors do not accept the “simplistic” explanation, one I had also found wanting, that the Irish connection to corned beef can be traced to emigrants’ exposure to Jewish corned beef in New York.

The authors show that corned beef, under various names, has had a long history in Ireland. Initially, it was a largely aristocratic or festive dish that had nothing to do with the British. Later, the Irish association expanded under British auspices, often to supply corned beef to HM ships or for other Empire needs. Cork city is important in this history as a production locale.

They argue that finally the dish became part of Irish cookery as such.

The authors are careful to note that corned beef and cabbage has had (as do many foods anywhere) a regional footprint in Ireland, and an irregular family pattern.

Their investigation, which collected personal testimonies, shows that some families never ate it, with bacon a frequent alternative, while many did choose corned beef especially for the main holidays. In the later 20th century corned beef fell in national favour with bacon enjoying an uptick. The authors suggest that relative cost was the main factor in this regard. Conversely, they suggest that the comparatively favourable price of beef in the U.S. encouraged its greater consumption there.

I found the three sources discussed in my 2016 post in just a few minutes, using Google Books. There must be, I would think, many other references attesting to the long use of corned beef in Ireland among different classes and ethnicities, especially in light of the study noted.

As I noted earlier, the Jewish ways with corned beef seem to me quite different to Irish preparations. Jews don’t serve boiled cabbage and boiled potato with it, for one thing, and hot or cold it is usually made into sandwiches versus the Irish way as a set dish. The meat isn’t quite the same either, in my experience again (the flavour).

At day’s end, the food world of the people carries on, and thousands of corned beef-and-cabbage dinners will be enjoyed across North America soon, with not a few in Ireland itself. This proceeds from the assumption that the dish is, quite naturally, Irish.

It will be satisfying for some that the popular assumption of an authentic Irish character may well be right.

N.B. I liked as well the largely jargon-free tone of the article referenced. The authors’ acknowledgement of non-academic literature is welcome, too, including writing by Myrtle Allen, Alan Davidson, and Mark Kurlansky.

Note re image: image shown above, entitled St. Patrick’s Day Icon Set Collection, is by mvolz, and was sourced from the Open Clip Art site. Image is believed in the public domain but any and all intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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