Is Corned Beef Really Irish?

The rise and fall and rise of the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal

Corned Beef and cabbage
Corned beef and cabbage Photo courtesy of flickr user TheCulinaryGeek

It’s hard to think of St. Patrick’s Day without glittered shamrocks, green beer, leprechauns and, of course, corned beef and cabbage. Yet, if you went to Ireland on St. Paddy’s Day, you would not find any of these things except maybe the glittered shamrocks. To begin with, leprechauns are not jolly, friendly cereal box characters but mischievous, nasty little fellows. And, just as much as the Irish would not pollute their beer with green dye, they would not eat corned beef, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. So why around the world, especially in the United States, is corned beef and cabbage synonymous with St. Paddy’s Day?

The unpopularity of corned beef in Ireland comes from the Irish's relationship with beef in general. From early on, cattle in Ireland were not used for their meat but for their strength in the fields, for their milk and for the dairy products produced. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal. Because of their sacred association, they were only killed for their meat if the cows were too old to work or produce milk. So, beef was not even a part of the diet for the majority of the population. Only the wealthy few were able to eat the meat during a celebration or festival. In these early times, the beef was “salted” to be preserved. The first salted beef in Ireland was actually not made with salt but with sea ash, the product of burning seaweed. The 12th-century poem “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne” shows that salted beef was eaten by the kings. This poem is one of the greatest parodies in the Irish language and pokes fun at the diet of King Cathal mac Finguine, an early Irish king, who is depicted as having a demon of gluttony stuck in his throat.

Wheatlet, son of Milklet,
Son of juicy Bacon,
Is mine own name.
Honeyed Butter-roll
Is the man’s
That bears my bag.
Haunch of Mutton
Is my dog’s name,
Of lovely leaps.
Lard my wife,
Sweetly smiles
Across the kale-top
Cheese-curds, my daughter,
Goes around the spit,
Fair is her fame.
Corned Beef, my son,
Whose mantle shines
Over a big tail.

As the poem mentions, juicy bacon or pork was also eaten. Pigs were the most prevalent animal bred only to be eaten; from ancient times to today, pork earned the reputation as the most eaten meat in Ireland.

Irish cow near Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland
An Irish cow near the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland Photo by author

The Irish diet and way of life stayed pretty much the same for centuries until England conquered most of the country. The British were the ones who changed the sacred cow into a commodity, fueled beef production and introduced the potato. The British had been a beef-eating culture since the invasion of the Roman armies. England had to outsource to Ireland, Scotland and eventually North America to satisfy the growing palate of its people. As Jeremy Rifkin writes in his book Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, “so beef-driven was England that it became the first nation in the world to identify with a beef symbol. From the outset of the colonial era, the 'roast beef' became synonymous with the well-fed British aristocracy and middle class.”

Herds of cattle were exported by the tens of thousands each year from Ireland to England. But the Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1667 were what fueled the Irish corned beef industry. These acts prohibited the export of live cattle to England, which drastically flooded the Irish market and lowered the cost of meat available for salted beef production. The British invented the term “corned beef” in the 17th century to describe the salt crystals used to cure the meat, which were the size of corn kernels. After the Cattle Acts, salt was the main reason Ireland became the hub for corned beef. Ireland’s salt tax was almost 1/10th that of England’s, and the Irish could import the highest-quality salt at an inexpensive price. With the large quantities of cattle and high-quality salt, Irish corned beef was the best on the market. It didn’t take long for Ireland to be supplying Europe and the Americas with its wares. But this corned beef was much different from what we call corned beef today. With the meat being cured with salt the size of corn kernels, the taste was much more salt than beef.

Irish corned beef had a stranglehold on the trans-Atlantic trade routes, supplying the French and British navies and the American and French colonies. It was at such a demand that even at war with France, England allowed French ships to stop in Ireland to purchase the corned beef. From a report published by the Dublin Institute of Technology’s School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology:

Anglo-Irish landlords saw exports to France, despite the fact that England and France were at war, as a means of profiting from the Cattle Acts. … During the 18th century, wars played a significant role in the growth of exports of Irish beef. These wars were mainly fought at sea and navies had a high demand for Irish salted beef for two reasons, firstly its longevity at sea and secondly its competitive price.

Ironically, the ones producing the corned beef, the Irish people, could not afford beef or corned beef for themselves. When England conquered Ireland, oppressive laws against the native Irish Catholic population began. Their land was confiscated, and feudal-style plantations were set up. If the Irish could afford any meat at all, salted pork or bacon was consumed. But what the Irish really relied on was the potato.

By the end of the 18th century, the demand for Irish corned beef began to decline as the North American colonies began producing their own. Over the next 50 years, the glory days of Irish corned beef ended. By 1845, a potato blight broke out in Ireland, completely destroying the food source for most of the Irish population, and the Great Famine began. Without help from the British government, the Irish people were forced to work to death, starve or immigrate. About a million people died, and another million immigrated on “coffin ships” to the U.S. To this day, the Irish population is still less than it was before the Great Famine.

Western Ireland
A view of the Aran Islands, in Ireland's westernmost region. Western Ireland was hit the hardest by the famine. Photo by author

In America, the Irish were once again faced with the challenges of prejudice. To make life easier, they settled together in mainly urban areas, with the largest numbers in New York City. Meanwhile, they were making more money than they had in Ireland under British rule. Which brings us back to corned beef. With more money for food, the Irish could afford meat for the first time. But instead of their beloved bacon, the Irish began eating beef. And the beef they could afford just happened to be corned beef, the thing their great-grandparents were famous for.

Yet the corned beef the Irish immigrants ate was much different from that produced in Ireland 200 years prior. The Irish immigrants almost solely bought their meat from kosher butchers. And what we think of today as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef thrown into a pot with cabbage and potatoes. The Jewish population in New York City at the time was made up of relatively new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. The corned beef they made was from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. Since brisket is a tougher cut, the salting and cooking processes transformed the meat into the extremely tender, flavorful corned beef we know of today.

The Irish may have been drawn to settling near Jewish neighborhoods and shopping at Jewish butchers because their cultures had many parallels. Both groups were scattered across the globe to escape oppression, had a sacred lost homeland, were discriminated against in the United States and had a love for the arts. There was an understanding between the two groups, which was a comfort to the newly arriving immigrants. This relationship can be seen in Irish, Irish American and Jewish American folklore. It is not a coincidence that James Joyce made the main character of his masterpiece Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, a man born to Jewish and Irish parents. And, as the two Tin Pan Alley songwriters William Jerome and Jean Schwartz wrote in their 1912 song “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews”:

On St. Patrick’s Day, Rosinsky pins a shamrock on his coat
There’s a sympathetic feeling between the Blooms and MacAdoos.

The infamous St. Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.
The infamous St. Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes Photo courtesy of flickr user jeffreyw

The Irish Americans transformed St. Patrick’s Day from a religious feast day to a celebration of their heritage and homeland. With the celebration came a celebratory meal. In honor of their culture, the immigrants splurged on their neighbors’ flavorful corned beef, which was accompanied by their beloved potato and the most affordable vegetable, cabbage. It didn’t take long for corned beef and cabbage to become associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it was on Abraham Lincoln’s mind when he chose the menu for his first Inaugural Luncheon on March 4, 1861, which was corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.

The popularity of corned beef and cabbage never crossed the Atlantic to the homeland. Instead of corned beef and cabbage, the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is lamb or bacon. In fact, many of what we consider St. Patrick’s Day celebrations didn’t make it there until recently. St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivals began in the U.S. And, until 1970, pubs were closed by law in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. It was originally a day about religion and family. Today in Ireland, thanks to Irish tourism and Guinness, you will find many of the Irish American traditions.

Beam in Guinness Storehouse in Dublin
A beam in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin bears the slogan "Everyone's Irish on March 17th" Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, if you are looking for a connection to the home country this holiday, there are many other ways to be authentic. For starters, know that the holiday is either St. Patrick’s Day or St. Paddy’s Day and not "St. Patty's Day." (Paddy is the proper nickname for Patrick, while Patty is a girl's name in Ireland.)

Editor's note, March 17, 2021: The last paragraph of this story has been edited to better reflect the proper nomenclature for celebrating St. Paddy's Day.

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