Lost indigenous cheeses of Ireland

As it is St Patrick’s Day, I thought it would be nice to say a few words about the lost world of indigenous Irish cheeses. Unlike perhaps all other European countries and for the reasons outlined below, Ireland has no extant traditional indigenous cheese but rather makes variants of cheeses that originated elsewhere.

Cheese and other dairy products were consumed in ancient Ireland and apparently constituted a substantial portion of the diet. References to cheese are relatively common in the Gaelic literature but, unfortunately, only rarely is information available other than the name of the cheese and have extant no detailed description of any indigenous Irish cheese variety.

The modern Irish word for cheese, cáis, is derived via Norman French from the Latin caseus. When used without qualification, cáis appears to refer in the Gaelic literature to a pressed cheese. Tanag (and the similar Grus) is thought to have been a hard cheese, perhaps made from skim or semi-skimmed milk. There is an account of how the mythical Maeve, Queen of Connacht, was killed by her nephew who fired a piece of Tanag from a slingshot. Faisce Grotha (literally “compression of curds”) appears to refer to a relatively small curd-cheese which was moulded and probably consumed fresh. A story is told that an attempt was made on the life of St Patrick by giving him a piece of this cheese that had been poisoned. A number of names of unpressed cheeses also survive including Gruth, That, Millsen, Maothal, Mulchan and Gruthnuis.

None of the ancient indigenous cheeses of this island have survived into modern times. The feudal system, with its self-contained agricultural communities, which flourished on mainland Europe and developed many cheeses, did not become established in Ireland. Unlike their continental counterparts, Irish monasteries developed and declined earlier and were more scholastic and missionary in their outlook and thus contributed little to agricultural development. However, the major reason for the loss of the indigenous Irish varieties was the economic and social decline following the English conquest of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cheesemaking in Ireland declined further during the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of political instability and the imposition of the Cattle Acts (1663, 1669), which imposed tariffs on the export of cattle from Ireland to Britain and had the effect of encouraging the production of butter and pigs. Although buttermaking flourished, cheese manufacture in Ireland remained negligible until the early 20th century. Cheese production was substantial for a short period during the First World War but declined thereafter until about 1950 after which production began a steady increase. Ireland now produces in large centralised factories approximately 120,000 tonnes of cheese per annum and this figure is projected to increase substantially in the coming years due to abolition of milk quotas.

The drawing above is a famous depiction of a mediaeval banquet entitled “McSweeney Dines as the Bard Recites” and depicts a chieftain of the McSweeney (Mac Suibhne) clan, seated centre, being entertained by his bard. Perhaps one of the cheeses mentioned above was on the menu?

Further reading:

Ó Sé, M. (1948). Old Irish cheeses and other milk products. J. Cork Hist. Archeol. Soc. 53, 82.

McCarthy, J. (1992). History of the development of the Irish cheese industry. Proc 3rd Cheese Symp., Teagasc, Moorepark, Fermoy, Co. Cork, p. 1.