March 10, 2020

The History of Corned Beef and Cabbage: A St. Patrick’s Day Mystery

For many of us in NEPA, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes is a St. Patrick’s Day staple. But did you know that the dish is not as closely tied with actual Irish tradition as many claim it is? Take a look at the true history of corned beef and cabbage.

Cattle as Strength, Not Dinner

Because of corned beef, some may associate beef cattle with Ireland, though this is not an accurate representation of the animal’s purpose. In the beginning, cattle were used for their strength in the fields, along with their milk and the other dairy products that could be produced. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and considered sacred. The only time they would be consumed was if they were too old to work in the fields or could no longer produce milk. 

Also, when cattle were eaten, it was only during a celebration. During those times, the beef was salted to be preserved. 

Beef from England, Not Ireland

It was only after the British conquered most of Ireland that the average diet changed. In fact, the  British ate beef and introduced potatoes into diets. According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of 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.”

The Cattle Acts

According to The History of Parliament Trust, “The Irish Cattle Bill was introduced in the autumn of 1666 in order to benefit English landowners by prohibiting the import of cheap cattle from Ireland.” As a result, the cost of meat available for salted beef production was lowered. 

In the 17th century, the term corned beef was used by the British to describe the size of the salt used to cure the meat. Even after the Cattle Acts, because of salt in Ireland, the country still was the go-to for corned beef. In time, Ireland began supplying Europe and America with corned beef. However, the corned beef we know today is much different than the earliest forms, as that corned beef tasted saltier.

As the demand for beef dropped in the Americas, the struggles of the Great Famine began and many Irish immigrants made their way to America. It was then that corned beef as we know it was made.

Corned Beef: A Jewish-Irish Collaboration

As more Irish settled into urban areas of America, they, like the Jewish Americans, faced great prejudice. These two cultures, which had many similarities, tended to bond together. That being said, Irish immigrants purchased most of their meat from kosher butchers. What we know as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef, made together with cabbage and potatoes. 

St. Patrick’s Day Traditions: How Irish Are They?

Now that the history of corned beef with cabbage has been debunked, now comes the question: are the parades and festivals actually part of Irish tradition? Not really. 

The United States’ interest in parades and festivals was really the start of all the commotion. It wasn’t until 1970 that this changed in Ireland. Typically, bars were closed by law on the celebration of St. Patrick and many Irish Catholics abstain from alcohol because of Lenten tradition. But now, with the increase in tourism, many Irish-American traditions can be found in the home country.

Reserve Your Table at Grico’s This St. Patrick’s Day

Want to stay away from the action of St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivities and enjoy a quiet meal? Reserve your table at Grico’s!

We look forward to serving you at all of our fine establishments:                                      

The Beaumont Inn;

The River Street Jazz Cafe;



Cork Bar & Restaurant;

Le Manhattan Bistro;

Fire and Ice