Skip to main content

Matt O'Keeffe

Dairy in our agricultural DNA

Muiris O’Sullivan and Liam Downey’s contribution to Archaeology Ireland’s latest publication highlights historic Irish dietary patterns.

Delving into data from as far back as the Neolithic period, the two historians provide a fascinating insight into what early settlers on the island consumed and, consequently, how they farmed thousands of years ago. As an aside, the latest addition to Ireland’s National Park inventory – The Dowth estate in Meath – provides ample evidence of the role of farming, including dairy production, in ancient Ireland.
O’Sullivan and Downey quote AT Lewis, a former director of the National Museum, from an article he wrote in 1960, in which Lewis outlined the centrality of corn and milk in the Irish diet: ‘From prehistoric times to the close of the 17th century, corn and milk were the mainstay of the national diet.’ The two authors of the Archaeology Ireland article built on that statement, to support their theme on the importance of milk production over thousands of years, by delving into a range of historical and archaeological sources. From prehistory, they conclude: “Cattle production was the dominant dimension of agriculture in Ireland. The vast bulk of the cattle population consisted of cows. The preoccupation with dairy cows is reflected in the prime importance of milk and dairy products in the general diet. Butter appears to have been a central part of the Irish diet from prehistoric times. Other forms of milk products, ranging from simple curds to cheese, were known from earlier times. Cheese of one kind or another appears to have formed an appreciable part of the Irish diet from at least as far back as the Early Christian period. Curds were one of the main components of ‘whitemeats’, a common food item in ancient and medieval Ireland.” 

The fat of the land

Muiris and Liam continued their exploration of the importance of Irish dairy over thousands of years: “The prominence of milk and dairy products, particularly butter, in the historical diet has been affirmed by a significant corpus of more recent research. The fat embedded in the matrix of Neolithic Irish pottery vessels has been identified by Smyth and Evershed (2015) as being largely composed of milk-fat residues. Accordingly, they concluded that ‘dairying in Ireland began in the Neolithic and that it was being practised by some of the earliest farming communities on the island’.” 

Bog butter

O’Sullivan and Downey point out "the general consumption of butter from prehistory has been further substantiated by radiocarbon dating of bog-butter finds (Archeology Ireland, Spring 2006; Synott and Sikora, 2018). Over half of the samples of bog butter were prehistoric in date, predominantly from the Iron Age, and a comparable proportion dates from the medieval period.” Even after the arrival of the potato, dairy continued to be a valuable nutrient in the Irish diet. William Petty was the author of the Down Survey, associated with the Cromwellian Land Settlement, and his writings in 1672 around the Irish diet of that period are quoted by O’Sullivan and Downey in their article: “The Irish feed chiefly upon milk and potatoes. The diet of these people is milk, sweet and sour, thick and thin, which is also their drink in summertime… in winter, eggs and butter made rancid in bogs.”
The cultural heritage of food is being increasingly seen as an important marketing attribute. Liam Downey and Muiris O’Sullivan have highlighted a wealth of evidence to support our reputation as an island that has an historical tradition of milk and meat production dating back to the earliest period of farming by our Irish ancestors.