Fresh From the Sea
According to Larousse Gastronomique, the following recipe makes a typical traditional Irish dish – ‘Take a salt herring, open it out and remove the bone. Pour poteen over it and set it alight. When the flame dies down the herring is ready to eat.’ Some innocent researcher was surely unaware of the equally traditional Irish delight in pulling someone’s leg.
If the Irish now avoid rabbit and most other game, feathered or furred, and won’t eat offal, their coldest shoulder is reserved for fish and shellfish. For a great many Irish people, especially in rural areas, sea urchins, mussels and oysters are seen not as luxury items but as objects of revulsion.
In fact, throughout the centuries, the knack of enjoying fish is one that few Irish people ever really acquired. The historian Roy Foster points out that in the early 17th century ‘English observers were surprised that the rich and various resources of fish and wildfowl were not tapped by the natives: fishing, for instance, tended to be monopolised by foreigners. During the Desmond wars, an English soldier found Burrishoole on Clew Bay in Co Mayo “the best fishing place for herring and salmon in Ireland; where a ship of 500 tons could ride close to the shore and frequented annually by fifty Devonshire fishing smacks, the owners of which paid tribute to the O’Malleys.”’
Naturally, the bounty of the sea, the shore, the river and the lake were not totally ignored. Far from it. In ancient times hunters and fishermen relied greatly on fish, shellfish and seaweeds. Eels were an essential part of the diet of the early inhabitants of the island and continued to be so until very recent times. Sea birds were valued not only for their meat but also for the eggs in their nests, the gathering of which was often a perilous occupation, as anyone can well imagine who has stood shivering on the edge of the towering cliffs that ring the coast of Ireland.
Nevertheless, that intense love of seafood that one finds in Spain, for example, or in Japan, has never lodged itself into the Irish heart. The salmon and the trout may figure in the mythology and poetry of Ireland, but are essentially loved only by poets and game fishermen. It is ironic that one of the songs associated with Ireland worldwide is Molly Malone, for cockles and mussels are more eagerly sought out by immigrants to the country than by the Irish themselves. Molly may have wheeled her barrow through its streets, broad and narrow, but Dublin’s true native dishes are Dublin Coddle, and sheep’s head – both meaty treats for poor people until recent prosperity turned us all squeamish.
Some of the Irish lack of enthusiasm for fish is doubtless based on grim experience. Such cries as ‘Fresh herrings, large Dublin Bay Herrings alive here – Here’s a large fresh cod alive, here’s large sole or plaices alive, or fine Boyne salmon’ were woefully misleading. Even in Dublin, beside the sea, the fish were not actually alive and before transport was mechanised, the horse and cart carrying fish to such inland places as Athlone or Portlaoise could take days to reach its destination. In even mild, let alone hot, weather the fish soon started to stink, so it was little wonder that it was not viewed with favour. Dean Swift writes bitterly of the duplicitousness of fish-hawkers in Dublin:
‘The Affirmation solemnly made in the cry of Herrings, is directly against all Truth and Probability, Herrings alive, alive here…And, pray how is it possible that a Herring…should bear a Voyage in open Boats from Howth to Dublin, be tossed into twenty Hands, and preserve its Life in Sieves for several Hours? ...But this is not the worst. What can we think of those impious Wretches, who dare in the Face of the Sun, vouch the very same affirmative of their Salmon, and cry Salmon alive, alive; whereas, if you call the Woman who cryes it, she is not asham’d to turn back her Mantle and show you this individual Salmon cut into a dozen Pieces.’
It is striking that in The Vision of Mac Con Glinne, wherein the poet catalogues all the delectable foodstuffs that might constitute a feast, it is cream, butter, cheese and milk that are given most prominence, with fish figuring very little. When the 20th-century food writer Theodora Fitzgibbon admits, ‘Generally speaking, methods of cooking fish in Ireland are not elaborate or unusual; often it is cooked simply with plenty of good butter and cream’ one cannot help thinking that the butter and cream are more welcome than the fish itself.
There are, of course, instances of someone relishing the pleasures of fresh fish, simply cooked. A sportsman wrote in his diary in 1897:
Here I will describe a morning repast. First a large iron pot slung by three sticks over a good clear turf fire; well washed but not skinned potatoes, a perch, split and well-seasoned and a crimped trout, [crimped means slits out across the sides] of eleven pounds, hot even unto burning; plenty of lake water clear as crystal; and finally an infusion of the best Cork whiskey.
The sportsman, however, was English.
Another English writer on a visit to Ireland was bewildered by the native lack of interest in matters piscine. Jane Grigson spent a week or more in a Donegal village but although the fishermen were constantly plying their trade with lobster pots, not one lobster was ever spoken of, let alone put on the table, and she came away sourly wondering if the only thing the Irish ever ate was boiled bacon, cabbage and potatoes.
I can add to this catalogue of evidence from my own experience. I once lived near Paris and ate out a great deal. A favourite restaurant, the Brasserie Flo, was located in a mildly seamy part of the city and access to it was up an alleyway. Outside the doors stood men in rubber boots and aprons, engaged in the Sisyphean task of opening oysters for the diners inside.
A great friend from Dublin was visiting Paris, so I decided to take him out for a lavish lunch, and as a treat ordered the full plateau de fruits de mer, which duly arrived. The huge oval metal tray with its bed of seaweed was set on a stand in the middle of the table. Oysters on the half shell rubbed shoulders with lobster, clams, sea urchins, crab claws, prawns, shrimps and whelks. Denis took one horror-stricken look at this and exclaimed, ‘Jasus, there’s stuff there I’d be afraid to walk over, never mind eat!’
And when I first arrived in Ireland, before I knew any better, I took a cousin to Moran’s seafood house near Kilcolgan on the Galway coast, and watched as she desperately scoured the menu for something edible amongst all the horrid fishy things, settling finally, with great relief on the last item on the list, a ham salad, surely put there as an act of charity.
A Penitential Dish
I think that the basis of dislike lies in part in dreary methods of preparing and cooking fish. Boiled fish is unlikely to raise much enthusiasm, and fish well supplied with bones is even less appetising cooked that way. Peter Somerville-Large remembers ‘Huge bland pollock, which always tasted of tissue paper and pins.’ Many of the varieties of fish commonly found in Ireland are perfectly good, but a tendency to boil all fish has done less than justice to them. Perhaps because they could not afford to squander fat, the Irish poor seldom fried fish, although they did cook them on the griddle from time to time.
On the other hand, Thackeray wrote lyrically of some trout he ate in Ireland on a sporting holiday. ‘…Marcus, the boatman, commenced forthwith to gut the fish, and taking down some charred turf-ashes from the blazing fire, on which about a hundredweight of potatoes were boiling, he – Marcus – proceeded to grill on the floor some of the trout, which afterwards we ate with immeasurable satisfaction. They were such trouts as, when once tasted, remain for ever in the recollection of a commonly grateful mind – rich, flaky, creamy, full of flavour. A Parisian gourmand would have paid ten francs each for the smallest cooleen among them…they were red or salmon trouts – none of your white-fleshed brown-skinned river fellows.’
Likewise, an old man from Co Galway remembered similar enthusiasm for freshly caught fish. ‘Sometimes in Gort they bought a herring from the women who came over from Kinvara selling fish. The tongs were placed crossways over the fire and the whole fish placed on top. Jamesy remembered himself down on his two knees blowing on the embers of the fire to roast the fish. When the skillet of praiseach or gruel had boiled, they threw in the roasted herring and that would do the whole family. “I want the head! The head for me!” shouted the old folk.’
It is often proposed that fish became associated in the minds of Irish Catholics with penance and self-punishment. Since Fridays and holy days of obligation were days of fasting and abstinence whereby meat was forbidden, the main meal of the day was often based around fish, but I must demolish the notion that Catholics were obliged to eat fish on Fridays and other fast days – they were not.
Frank O’Connor’s short story Fish for Friday gives a wonderful little vignette of the Irish attitude to fish in the middle of the 20th century. Ned and Larry are looking back on their younger days when they fought in the same flying column. Ned is complaining about how they are now henpecked by their wives and cowed by the Church, and he takes as the very symbol of this emasculation the accursed routine of fish on Friday. Larry, not quite getting the point, claims he likes fish.
‘And yet I can remember you in Tramore, letting on to be a Protestant to get bacon and eggs on Friday,’ Ned said accusingly.
‘Oh, that’s the God’s truth,’ Larry said joyously. ‘I was a devil for meat, God forgive me. I used to go mad seeing the Protestants lowering it and me there with nothing only a boiled egg. And the waitress, Ned – do you remember the waitress that wouldn’t believe I was a Protestant till I said the Our Father the wrong way for her? She said I had too open a face for a Protestant. How well she’d know a thing like that about the Our Father, Ned!’
‘A woman would know anything she had to know to make you eat fish,’ Ned said, finishing his drink and turning away.
The catching of sea fish was always a fraught business, especially on the wild western coast, where the Atlantic rolls in over thousands of miles until it hits Ireland, the first landmass to check its force. The boats in which sailors ventured out were frail and Synge’s Riders to the Sea perfectly articulates the fatalistic acceptance of the Aran Islanders that the ocean must claim some of them from time to time.
Cecil Woodham Smith, in her classic work The Great Hunger, picks up on this vulnerability as a partial explanation of why fish did not play a bigger part in the diet of the people at a time when they were starving.
The national boat of Ireland is the ‘curragh’, a frail craft made of wickerwork, covered originally with stretched hides and latterly with tarred canvas. It was not suitable for the use of nets in deep-sea fishing. Since most of the deep-sea fish lay several miles out to sea in 40 fathoms of water, a vessel of at least 50 tons would be needed to go out there. If a gale blew from the east, the nearest port of refuge was Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Besides, when the potato failed, fishermen had pawned their equipment to get a little money to buy meal. There were hardly any fulltime fishermen – most had to grow potatoes for their families, because the chances of going to sea were so precarious.
The seas might be teeming with fish, but if they had not the equipment or if the weather was severe, the fish were inaccessible to them.