The Pig in Irish Cuisine and Culture




Pig, Irish Cuisine, Culture, Gastronomy

How to Cite

Mac Con Iomaire, M. (2010). The Pig in Irish Cuisine and Culture. M/C Journal, 13(5).
Vol. 13 No. 5 (2010): pig
Published 2010-10-17

In Ireland today, we eat more pigmeat per capita, approximately 32.4 kilograms, than any other meat, yet you very seldom if ever see a pig (C.S.O.). Fat and flavour are two words that are synonymous with pig meat, yet scientists have spent the last thirty years cross breeding to produce leaner, low-fat pigs. Today’s pig professionals prefer to use the term “pig finishing” as opposed to the more traditional “pig fattening” (Tuite). The pig evokes many themes in relation to cuisine. Charles Lamb (1775-1834), in his essay Dissertation upon Roast Pig, cites Confucius in attributing the accidental discovery of the art of roasting to the humble pig. The pig has been singled out by many cultures as a food to be avoided or even abhorred, and Harris (1997) illustrates the environmental effect this avoidance can have by contrasting the landscape of Christian Albania with that of Muslim Albania.

This paper will focus on the pig in Irish cuisine and culture from ancient times to the present day. The inspiration for this paper comes from a folklore tale about how Saint Martin created the pig from a piece of fat. The story is one of a number recorded by Seán Ó Conaill, the famous Kerry storyteller and goes as follows:

From St Martin’s fat they were made. He was travelling around, and one night he came to a house and yard. At that time there were only cattle; there were no pigs or piglets. He asked the man of the house if there was anything to eat the chaff and the grain. The man replied there were only the cattle. St Martin said it was a great pity to have that much chaff going to waste. At night when they were going to bed, he handed a piece of fat to the servant-girl and told her to put it under a tub, and not to look at it at all until he would give her the word next day. The girl did so, but she kept a bit of the fat and put it under a keeler to find out what it would be.

When St Martin rose next day he asked her to go and lift up the tub. She lifted it up, and there under it were a sow and twelve piglets. It was a great wonder to them, as they had never before seen pig or piglet.

The girl then went to the keeler and lifted it, and it was full of mice and rats! As soon as the keeler was lifted, they went running about the house searching for any hole that they could go into. When St Martin saw them, he pulled off one of his mittens and threw it at them and made a cat with that throw. And that is why the cat ever since goes after mice and rats (Ó Conaill).

The place of the pig has long been established in Irish literature, and longer still in Irish topography. The word torc, a boar, like the word muc, a pig, is a common element of placenames, from Kanturk (boar’s head) in West Cork to Ros Muc (headland of pigs) in West Galway. The Irish pig had its place in literature well established long before George Orwell’s English pig, Major, headed the dictatorship in Animal Farm. It was a wild boar that killed the hero Diarmaid in the Fenian tale The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne, on top of Ben Bulben in County Sligo (Mac Con Iomaire). In Ancient and Medieval Ireland, wild boars were hunted with great fervour, and the prime cuts were reserved for the warrior classes, and certain other individuals. At a feast, a leg of pork was traditionally reserved for a king, a haunch for a queen, and a boar’s head for a charioteer. The champion warrior was given the best portion of meat (Curath Mhir or Champions’ Share), and fights often took place to decide who should receive it. Gantz (1981) describes how in the ninth century tale The story of Mac Dathó’s Pig, Cet mac Matach, got supremacy over the men of Ireland: “Moreover he flaunted his valour on high above the valour of the host, and took a knife in his hand and sat down beside the pig. “Let someone be found now among the men of Ireland”, said he, “to endure battle with me, or leave the pig for me to divide!”

It did not take long before the wild pigs were domesticated. Whereas cattle might be kept for milk and sheep for wool, the only reason for pig rearing was as a source of food. Until the late medieval period, the “domesticated” pigs were fattened on woodland mast, the fruit of the beech, oak, chestnut and whitethorn, giving their flesh a delicious flavour. So important was this resource that it is acknowledged by an entry in the Annals of Clonmacnoise for the year 1038: “There was such an abundance of ackornes this yeare that it fattened the pigges [runts] of pigges” (Sexton 45). In another mythological tale, two pig keepers, one called ‘friuch’ after the boars bristle (pig keeper to the king of Munster) and the other called ‘rucht’ after its grunt (pig keeper to the king of Connacht), were such good friends that the one from the north would bring his pigs south when there was a mast of oak and beech nuts in Munster. If the mast fell in Connacht, the pig-keeper from the south would travel northward. Competitive jealousy sparked by troublemakers led to the pig keepers casting spells on each other’s herds to the effect that no matter what mast they ate they would not grow fat. Both pig keepers were practised in the pagan arts and could form themselves into any shape, and having been dismissed by their kings for the leanness of their pig herds due to the spells, they eventually formed themselves into the two famous bulls that feature in the Irish Epic The Táin (Kinsella).

In the witty and satirical twelfth century text, The Vision of Mac Conglinne (Aisling Mhic Conglinne), many references are made to the various types of pig meat. Bacon, hams, sausages and puddings are often mentioned, and the gate to the fortress in the visionary land of plenty is described thus: “there was a gate of tallow to it, whereon was a bolt of sausage” (Jackson).

Although pigs were always popular in Ireland, the emergence of the potato resulted in an increase in both human and pig populations. The Irish were the first Europeans to seriously consider the potato as a staple food. By 1663 it was widely accepted in Ireland as an important food plant and by 1770 it was known as the Irish Potato (Mac Con Iomaire and Gallagher). The potato transformed Ireland from an under populated island of one million in the 1590s to 8.2 million in 1840, making it the most densely populated country in Europe. Two centuries of genetic evolution resulted in potato yields growing from two tons per acre in 1670 to ten tons per acre in 1800. A constant supply of potato, which was not seen as a commercial crop, ensured that even the smallest holding could keep a few pigs on a potato-rich diet. Pat Tuite, an expert on pigs with Teagasc, the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority, reminded me that the potatoes were cooked for the pigs and that they also enjoyed whey, the by product of both butter and cheese making (Tuite). The agronomist, Arthur Young, while travelling through Ireland, commented in 1770 that in the town of Mitchelstown in County Cork “there seemed to be more pigs than human beings”. So plentiful were pigs at this time that on the eve of the Great Famine in 1841 the pig population was calculated to be 1,412,813 (Sexton 46). Some of the pigs were kept for home consumption but the rest were a valuable source of income and were shown great respect as the gentleman who paid the rent. Until the early twentieth century most Irish rural households kept some pigs.

Pork was popular and was the main meat eaten at all feasts in the main houses; indeed a feast was considered incomplete without a whole roasted pig. In the poorer holdings, fresh pork was highly prized, as it was only available when a pig of their own was killed. Most of the pig was salted, placed in the brine barrel for a period or placed up the chimney for smoking.

Certain superstitions were observed concerning the time of killing. Pigs were traditionally killed only in months that contained the letter “r”, since the heat of the summer months caused the meat to turn foul. In some counties it was believed that pigs should be killed under the full moon (Mahon 58). The main breed of pig from the medieval period was the Razor Back or Greyhound Pig, which was very efficient in converting organic waste into meat (Fitzgerald). The killing of the pig was an important ritual and a social occasion in rural Ireland, for it meant full and plenty for all. Neighbours, who came to help, brought a handful of salt for the curing, and when the work was done each would get a share of the puddings and the fresh pork. There were a number of days where it was traditional to kill a pig, the Michaelmas feast (29 September), Saint Martins Day (11 November) and St Patrick’s Day (17 March). Olive Sharkey gives a vivid description of the killing of the barrow pig in rural Ireland during the 1930s. A barrow pig is a male pig castrated before puberty:

The local slaughterer (búistéir) a man experienced in the rustic art of pig killing, was approached to do the job, though some farmers killed their own pigs. When the búistéirarrived the whole family gathered round to watch the killing. His first job was to plunge the knife in the pig’s heart via the throat, using a special knife. The screeching during this performance was something awful, but the animal died instantly once the heart had been reached, usually to a round of applause from the onlookers. The animal was then draped across a pig-gib, a sort of bench, and had the fine hairs on its body scraped off. To make this a simple job the animal was immersed in hot water a number of times until the bristles were softened and easy to remove. If a few bristles were accidentally missed the bacon was known as ‘hairy bacon’!

During the killing of the pig it was imperative to draw a good flow of blood to ensure good quality meat. This blood was collected in a bucket for the making of puddings. The carcass would then be hung from a hook in the shed with a basin under its head to catch the drip, and a potato was often placed in the pig’s mouth to aid the dripping process. After a few days the carcass would be dissected. Sharkey recalls that her father maintained that each pound weight in the pig’s head corresponded to a stone weight in the body. The body was washed and then each piece that was to be preserved was carefully salted and placed neatly in a barrel and hermetically sealed. It was customary in parts of the midlands to add brown sugar to the barrel at this stage, while in other areas juniper berries were placed in the fire when hanging the hams and flitches (sides of bacon), wrapped in brown paper, in the chimney for smoking (Sharkey 166). While the killing was predominantly men’s work, it was the women who took most responsibility for the curing and smoking. Puddings have always been popular in Irish cuisine. The pig’s intestines were washed well and soaked in a stream, and a mixture of onions, lard, spices, oatmeal and flour were mixed with the blood and the mixture was stuffed into the casing and boiled for about an hour, cooled and the puddings were divided amongst the neighbours.

The pig was so palatable that the famous gastronomic writer Grimod de la Reyniere once claimed that the only piece you couldn’t eat was the “oink”. Sharkey remembers her father remarking that had they been able to catch the squeak they would have made tin whistles out of it! No part went to waste; the blood and offal were used, the trotters were known as crubeens (from crúb, hoof), and were boiled and eaten with cabbage. In Galway the knee joint was popular and known as the glúiníns (from glún, knee). The head was roasted whole or often boiled and pressed and prepared as Brawn. The chitterlings (small intestines) were meticulously prepared by continuous washing in cool water and the picking out of undigested food and faeces. Chitterlings were once a popular bar food in Dublin. Pig hair was used for paintbrushes and the bladder was occasionally inflated, using a goose quill, to be used as a football by the children. Meindertsma (2007) provides a pictorial review of the vast array of products derived from a single pig. These range from ammunition and porcelain to chewing gum.

From around the mid-eighteenth century, commercial salting of pork and bacon grew rapidly in Ireland. 1820 saw Henry Denny begin operation in Waterford where he both developed and patented several production techniques for bacon. Bacon curing became a very important industry in Munster culminating in the setting up of four large factories. Irish bacon was the brand leader and the Irish companies exported their expertise. Denny set up a plant in Denmark in 1894 and introduced the Irish techniques to the Danish industry, while O’Mara’s set up bacon curing facilities in Russia in 1891 (Cowan and Sexton). Ireland developed an extensive export trade in bacon to England, and hams were delivered to markets in Paris, India, North and South America. The “sandwich method” of curing, or “dry cure”, was used up until 1862 when the method of injecting strong brine into the meat by means of a pickling pump was adopted by Irish bacon-curers. 1887 saw the formation of the Bacon Curers’ Pig Improvement Association and they managed to introduce a new breed, the Large White Ulster into most regions by the turn of the century. This breed was suitable for the production of “Wiltshire” bacon. Cork, Waterford Dublin and Belfast were important centres for bacon but it was Limerick that dominated the industry and a Department of Agriculture document from 1902 suggests that the famous “Limerick cure” may have originated by chance:

1880 […] Limerick producers were short of money […] they produced what was considered meat in a half-cured condition. The unintentional cure proved extremely popular and others followed suit. By the turn of the century the mild cure procedure was brought to such perfection that meat could [… be] sent to tropical climates for consumption within a reasonable time (Cowan and Sexton).

Failure to modernise led to the decline of bacon production in Limerick in the 1960s and all four factories closed down. The Irish pig market was protected prior to joining the European Union. There were no imports, and exports were subsidised by the Pigs and Bacon Commission. The Department of Agriculture started pig testing in the early 1960s and imported breeds from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. The two main breeds were Large White and Landrace. Most farms kept pigs before joining the EU but after 1972, farmers were encouraged to rationalise and specialise. Grants were made available for facilities that would keep 3,000 pigs and these grants kick started the development of large units.

Pig keeping and production were not only rural occupations; Irish towns and cities also had their fair share. Pigs could easily be kept on swill from hotels, restaurants, not to mention the by-product and leftovers of the brewing and baking industries. Ed Hick, a fourth generation pork butcher from south County Dublin, recalls buying pigs from a local coal man and bus driver and other locals for whom it was a tradition to keep pigs on the side. They would keep some six or eight pigs at a time and feed them on swill collected locally. Legislation concerning the feeding of swill introduced in 1985 (S.I.153) and an amendment in 1987 (S.I.133) required all swill to be heat-treated and resulted in most small operators going out of business. Other EU directives led to the shutting down of thousands of slaughterhouses across Europe. Small producers like Hick who slaughtered at most 25 pigs a week in their family slaughterhouse, states that it was not any one rule but a series of them that forced them to close. It was not uncommon for three inspectors, a veterinarian, a meat inspector and a hygiene inspector, to supervise himself and his brother at work. Ed Hick describes the situation thus; “if we had taken them on in a game of football, we would have lost! We were seen as a huge waste of veterinary time and manpower”.

Sausages and rashers have long been popular in Dublin and are the main ingredients in the city’s most famous dish “Dublin Coddle.” Coddle is similar to an Irish stew except that it uses pork rashers and sausage instead of lamb. It was, traditionally, a Saturday night dish when the men came home from the public houses. Terry Fagan has a book on Dublin Folklore called Monto: Murder, Madams and Black Coddle. The black coddle resulted from soot falling down the chimney into the cauldron. James Joyce describes Denny’s sausages with relish in Ulysses, and like many other Irish emigrants, he would welcome visitors from home only if they brought Irish sausages and Irish whiskey with them. Even today, every family has its favourite brand of sausages: Byrne’s, Olhausens, Granby’s, Hafner’s, Denny’s Gold Medal, Kearns and Superquinn are among the most popular. Ironically the same James Joyce, who put Dublin pork kidneys on the world table in Ulysses, was later to call his native Ireland “the old sow that eats her own farrow” (184-5).

The last thirty years have seen a concerted effort to breed pigs that have less fat content and leaner meat. There are no pure breeds of Landrace or Large White in production today for they have been crossbred for litter size, fat content and leanness (Tuite). Many experts feel that they have become too lean, to the detriment of flavour and that the meat can tend to split when cooked. Pig production is now a complicated science and tighter margins have led to only large-scale operations being financially viable (Whittemore). The average size of herd has grown from 29 animals in 1973, to 846 animals in 1997, and the highest numbers are found in counties Cork and Cavan (Lafferty et al.). The main players in today’s pig production/processing are the large Irish Agribusiness Multinationals Glanbia, Kerry Foods and Dairygold. Tuite (2002) expressed worries among the industry that there may be no pig production in Ireland in twenty years time, with production moving to Eastern Europe where feed and labour are cheaper. When it comes to traceability, in the light of the Foot and Mouth, BSE and Dioxin scares, many feel that things were much better in the old days, when butchers like Ed Hick slaughtered animals that were reared locally and then sold them back to local consumers. Hick has recently killed pigs for friends who have begun keeping them for home consumption. This slaughtering remains legal as long as the meat is not offered for sale.

Although bacon and cabbage, and the full Irish breakfast with rashers, sausages and puddings, are considered to be some of Ireland’s most well known traditional dishes, there has been a growth in modern interpretations of traditional pork and bacon dishes in the repertoires of the seemingly ever growing number of talented Irish chefs. Michael Clifford popularised Clonakilty Black Pudding as a starter in his Cork restaurant Clifford’s in the late 1980s, and its use has become widespread since, as a starter or main course often partnered with either caramelised apples or red onion marmalade. Crubeens (pigs trotters) have been modernised “a la Pierre Kaufman” by a number of Irish chefs, who bone them out and stuff them with sweetbreads. Kevin Thornton, the first Irish chef to be awarded two Michelin stars, has roasted suckling pig as one of his signature dishes. Richard Corrigan is keeping the Irish flag flying in London in his Michelin starred Soho restaurant, Lindsay House, where traditional pork and bacon dishes from his childhood are creatively re-interpreted with simplicity and taste.

Pork, ham and bacon are, without doubt, the most traditional of all Irish foods, featuring in the diet since prehistoric times. Although these meats remain the most consumed per capita in post “Celtic Tiger” Ireland, there are a number of threats facing the country’s pig industry. Large-scale indoor production necessitates the use of antibiotics. European legislation and economic factors have contributed in the demise of the traditional art of pork butchery. Scientific advancements have resulted in leaner low-fat pigs, many argue, to the detriment of flavour. Alas, all is not lost. There is a growth in consumer demand for quality local food, and some producers like J. Hick & Sons, and Prue & David Rudd and Family are leading the way. The Rudds process and distribute branded antibiotic-free pig related products with the mission of “re-inventing the tastes of bygone days with the quality of modern day standards”. Few could argue with the late Irish writer John B. Keane (72): “When this kind of bacon is boiling with its old colleague, white cabbage, there is a gurgle from the pot that would tear the heart out of any hungry man”.


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Author Biography

Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, Dublin Institute of Technology

Dr. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire is a lecturer in Culinary Arts in the Dublin Institute of Technology. He was the first Irish chef to be awarded a Ph.D. for his research on the Influece of French Haute Cuisine on the Emergence and Development of Dublin Restaurants, using oral history. He his a regular attendee and contributor at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery. He is keen contributor to the media and has hosted two series of cookery programmes for Irish television. He is married and has two daughers.