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Arts & entertainment

An agricultural diet: What I ate growing up in rural Ireland

17 Nov 2022 | Written by By Mary Gorman

Photo from within a cow shed, the rear end of a dairy cow is visible from a side profileThe Joy Club member Mary Gorman takes a trip down memory lane, exploring the foods she ate growing up in rural Ireland and – more importantly – where they came from…


My mother used to say the way to a man’s heart is through his belly. Growing up in rural Ireland and our diet, coming from the land, I never really understood what she meant.  Now older and wiser, I understand it.  This came from The Book of Proverbs 18:20:  “From the fruit of his mouth, a man’s belly is filled with the harvest; from his lips he is satisfied.”

I feel these amazing words capture food and drink at a much deeper, sensuous level; embracing all our senses. 

Our diet growing up was mainly from the land, animals and birds. Living in rural Ireland, the nearest town was six miles away, so not having shops around us meant we had to rely on nature. My mother milked her cows, two of them, one called Daisy and the other Maisie. She milked the cows by hand aiming the teats into a bucket. She always kept a drinking mug beside her little stool and would fill it up as she went along. This would be drunk by her whilst she sat on the stool extolling the virtues of the protection the milk gave us from diseases.

I never liked this milk as it would be warm.  I avoided, where possible, milking time as she would insist on me drinking it. She also had a goat and would milk her as well. The goat’s milk was fed to the three cats and two dogs. The benefits now of goat’s milk are recognisable. Anyone who has lactose intolerance can consume goat’s milk with its many benefits. My mother’s nutritional wisdom was no doubt handed down, generation to generation. 

Once a week we made our butter. The whole milk was put into a butter churn and a wooden plunger was used to separate the milk and form butter.  We, the children, had to take turns churning the milk; an arduous task, which we disliked but didn’t have a choice. When the butter was extracted from the churn, buttermilk was decanted into jugs and again left for us to drink with even more healing properties, we were told. 

My daily task was collecting the eggs which had been laid by the chickens; so fresh that they – much like the milk – would still be warm. Eggs played a big part in our daily diet. Fried, boiled, scrambled, poached and dare I say it, raw. My parents would often have a raw egg, swallowing it whole. It was bad enough to watch and even with my mother’s assurance that this was the healthiest way of consuming them, I was never convinced enough to give it a try.

On my birthday my grandmother, who lived with us, would proudly call me in for breakfast.   She would present me with a cup that had two boiled eggs mashed up with butter, salt and pepper whilst singing happy birthday to me. No presents, no parties in those days just two boiled eggs. I remember those eggs from my grandmother with deep affection. My daily diet still contains at least one cooked egg; certainly never raw.

My grandmother’s speciality was nettle soup. Of course we now understand the benefits of nettle soup but as a child having to help my grandmother gather the nettles; the offending leaves that often left my legs stinging with red marks, was something that I didn’t enjoy.  However when the finished dish was set before me I enjoyed it as she had added herbs and onions along with the potato which, of course, was the staple ingredient in most dishes in Ireland at that time. 

My mother reared turkeys each year to give as gifts to her friends and families for Christmas. I was always mesmerised by the gratitude of these people when they would say that it was the best fresh turkey they had ever eaten. Having watched the wringing of the necks, the plucking of the feathers and the cleaning out of their insides, I was left many times not wanting to eat it. It hasn’t put me off turkey as a dish but I prefer to buy mine now from my local butcher, “Papa Franco,” as we call him.

On a Saturday evening the Butcher’s van would arrive and my mother would buy sausages and bacon from him. These ingredients provided us with our Sunday morning “Ulster Fry”. This was made up of fried bacon, egg, mushrooms, onions, bread and potatoes.   A very welcome meal on our return from Sunday morning Mass, especially as we had to fast from midnight the previous day to fulfil the rules of the Catholic Church if we wanted to partake in Holy Communion. This was the only time that we had red meat during the week. 

Whilst writing this, as I sojourned down memory lane, I could hear my mother’s voice saying “I told you Mary, the way to a man’s heart is through his belly.”

She was of course right, I know that now after being married for many years.


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