It all began with the crane

Margaret Hickey

Food writer Margaret Hickey sees the history of Ireland differently - and it’s all through the prism of food and drink

It all began with the crane. In 1999, I resigned from Country Living magazine, where I'd been deputy editor with responsibility for food and drink, and moved to a house with no running water and no electricity. But it did have an enormous fireplace, complete with a crane that hinged out over the hearth. I acquired a chain, hooks, a bastable, kettle, griddle and a frying pan that weighed a ton, and I learned to cook using ancient practices. 

Unsurprisingly, I'd experienced a massive culture shock, moving from central London to a very rural part of east Galway. In those days an avocado was never seen in my local town. Indeed, the humble leek went unrecognised by many. However, at my local greengrocer's the variety of potato was discussed by staff and customers alike, and while butchers were a disappearing breed in England, here I was spoilt for choice and the beef was a revelation.

I began to ask myself questions. Why were there no savoury pies in the Irish tradition? (Aside from the little-known Dingle pies.) Why was food preserved by salting, not pickling? What had poor people eaten before the potato came along? The more I pondered, the more fascinated I became and before I knew it, I was pitching an idea to a London publisher.

I proposed to write the history of Ireland from as far back as I could go right up until the present day, all seen through the prism of food and drink. She liked it and I rushed away to write. Around the country I buzzed, from west Cork to Antrim, interviewing food producers, poring over folklore archives, inspecting a fulacht fiadh (ancient cooking pit) at Craggaunowen in Co Clare, visiting the Ceide Fields, the site of the oldest field system in the world (a thousand years older than the pyramids) and much more. I read extensively. And then the wheels came off the cart. A series of misfortunes, unrelated to me, saw the book unadopted and I put it in a drawer and moped. For years.

Chantrelles in October

Cut to a few months ago, when I heard about Unbound, the London publishers. I submitted my synopsis and a sample chapter, and in jig time they came back to me. They not only liked it, they thought it was – ahem! – wonderful. Unbound operates in a way that seems new. Before production begins, the writer needs to reach a financial target by urging people to select one of a range of pledges. While this notion of crowdfunding is part of today’s zeitgeist, a similar method was employed by Charles Dickens, whose crowdfunding was known as subscription.

In my (typical) case, a short video was made and put up on the Unbound website. In it I talk about Ireland’s Green Larder – a history, not a cookbook, although recipes are dotted here and there. It has been written for the general public and I've laced it with accounts of miracles, poems, extracts from diaries, letters and much more.

With St Patrick's Day in mind, I'd like to offer you this little snippet from my researches. Early in the twelfth century, a monk called Jocelin, in his account of the life of St Patrick, tells us how the saint, during his religious training, was tempted to eat meat and hid some pieces of pork to eat on the sly. But then he repented. 'St Patrick, rising from the earth, utterly renounced the eating of flesh-meat and humbly besought the Lord that he would manifest his Pardon. Then an Angel bade Patrick to bring forth the hidden meats and put them into Water. And the flesh-meat immediately became Fishes.'

Many people chose to interpret this miracle in a way that suited them well during the penitential period of Lent. They would plunge meat into water on the saint's feast day, and when it was taken out it was cooked and eaten under the name of the Fishes of Saint Patrick!

Details of the ultra-strict diet of the Culdee monastic communities contrast strikingly with an account of the lavish dinner given by a Mrs Delany in the 18th century, the first course alone consisting of a large joint of beef “tremblante”, garnished with small patés, two soups, pigeon pie, stuffed veal with parsley and cream, and casserole with vin de Bourgogne. (She wished to pique her guests’ appetite before the following two courses were brought on.)

That foray into the dealings of the Big House is a rarity in the book, though. My overriding concern was to examine the food that poor people produced, caught and ate. I spent happy hours suspending pots from that crane of mine, and poking around in the ashes of my turf fire.

Taking the precaution of piercing its shell, I buried an egg and raked it out after half an hour, to find the white had solidified but the yolk remained creamy, with a subtle, smoky taste. My kind farming neighbour Tommy gave me a carton of beestings to cook with, (scones rise like magic!) and I learned the economy of simple ingredients and minimal tools. All my researches strengthened my admiration for the fortitude, ingenuity and generosity of generations of Irish people who made do with little or less.

The Ireland I studied most closely was rural, but I also look at how the urban poor kept body and soul together, telling how Dean Swift roared at the duplicity of fishwives shouting Salmon! Alive and lepping! and how Brendan Behan, as a young lad, cooked a pig’s head for the granny and what happened next...

If you want to know more, it would do you no harm to watch my video and then swoop to the side of the page and pledge. Pledgers get access to the writer via regular “Shed” musings, plus the glow of knowing they’ve helped turn a dream into a reality. On the joyous day when the special edition of Ireland’s Green Larder is delivered, you’ll rip open the package and find your name printed at the back of the book you helped create. It’ll feel good.


Margaret Hickey

As deputy editor and food and drink editor at Country Living magazine, Margaret Hickey commissioned a range of food writers and chefs, including Richard Corrigan, Nigel Slater, Rick Stein and Darina Allen. In her freelance writing career she wrote on food, drink and travel for most of the national British press, including The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times.

In 1999 she moved to Ireland to complete a book commissioned by UK publisher Kyle Cathie. Irish Days, a collection of oral histories, received coverage in both Ireland and the UK and she was interviewed about it on the Pat Kenny Show, plus the TV3 morning show. The paperback version came out in 2003.

She has lectured at University College, London and University College, Limerick on the subject of oral history and had a weekly food and cookery slot on Premier Radio in London during the 1990s.

She is currently Vice Chairperson of Portumna Arts Group, which runs Shorelines, an annual arts festival, and for many years she has been a judge at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival.


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