Project to unearth details of early Irish diet

Published: 3 August 2018 at 12:25

Dr Susan Flavin

€1.5million funding to examine Ireland’s food culture in the 16th and 17th century

The European Research Council have awarded funding of €1.5million for a major new study examining the diet and food culture of 16th and 17th century Ireland.

The five-year project, led by Dr Susan Flavin of Anglia Ruskin University, will bring together historians, archaeologists and scientists to investigate what was eaten, where, why, and by whom, at a level of detail never before attempted in Europe.

The 16th and 17th centuries witnessed significant changes in the Irish diet, with the introduction of new foreign foods – such as turkeys, pineapples and artichokes – to the dining tables of the elite. 

Dr Flavin, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University and author of Consumption and Culture in Sixteenth-Century Ireland, said: 

“Ireland presents a unique case study for understanding the dynamic role of food and drink in a society undergoing political and cultural change. 
“There is a perception that Ireland remained isolated from the major dietary changes that occurred across early modern Europe, but my research suggests a much more complex and integrated picture. 

“Trade was booming in 16th century Ireland, there was colonisation and immigration from England, Scotland, Wales, France and the Netherlands, and there is evidence that certain global tastes filtered into the country. 

“Foreign luxuries like sugar, turkeys, pineapples and artichokes found their way into the homes of the elite. We also know that at the lower levels of society the European fashion for hopped beer, and with it continental drinking rituals, was embraced by both men and women. At the same time, new ways of ‘civilised’ eating and drinking were accepted, even among some in the lower classes of society.”

Written records of consumption from this period, however, focus mainly on Ireland’s wealthy households and offer fewer details of the average diet.  Therefore Dr Flavin will be joined by archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, isotope and organic residue analysis experts, who will test pottery and bone to build a detailed picture of the Irish diet and its likely effects at an individual level.  A database will also be developed to map the archaeological and dietary evidence across different regions of Ireland and different social contexts. 

The €1.5million funding comes from a European Research Council Starting Grant, designed to support “outstanding researchers” lead ambitious projects.  Dr Flavin will be supported by academics from University College Dublin, the Institute of Technology Sligo, Durham University and the University of Bristol.