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A Saint’s Diet – the Untold Story of Patrick!

Saint Patrick set himself a tough task to convert the wild pagans that roamed our country during the 5th century.  He, himself, wrote “If I be worthy, I live for my God to teach the heathen, even though they may despise me.”  By all accounts, the thousand welcomes for which we are now famous were few and far between back then for the wandering cleric yet by the time he died around 462, it is said he had formed 300 churches and baptized over 100,000 Irish people.  Not a bad result for less than 30 years of ministry! 

Who was St. Partick?

Most accounts of his early years say that he was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates as a sixteen-year-old boy, taken from his home in Cumbria and spent six years minding sheep on the side of a hill in Mayo.  Following a vision, he escaped his captors and returned home to Britain to be reunited with his family.  He dedicated the next sixteen years of his life studying Christianity before returning to Ireland with his degree in theology, fluent Irish and the make of us!  It is hard to know which phase of his life was tougher – the time spent alone and in slavery as a young man or his arduous journeys around the Emerald Isle converting “the heathen”.  Saint Patrick himself, attributes his strength to his faith in God however looking at 5th century dining, he gained a lot of sustenance from his plate!


What did he eat?

The holy trinity of corned beef, cabbage and spuds is the celebrated dish of modern St. Patrick’s Day. Served up with a few boiled turnips, a pint of stout and a tweed cap, we Irish are recognizable all around the world!  Yet in the mid-400s, when St Patrick was roaming the country, he did not encounter that Irish icon and if he did, it surely would have been banished along with the snakes.  The diet of the time was lush, abundant and varied and although mostly dependent on the seasons was probably more nutritious than the typical Irish diet of today.  It was a milky fare, predominately made up of dairy products – the lush green pastures made way for healthy herds of cows in most communities which provided the locals with plenty of milk!  They drank fresh milk, sour milk, colostrum, buttermilk, fresh curds, old curds, something called “real curds” and whey mixed in water which was even more sour and thicker than the rest!  They loved their milk!  One historian described a yellow bubbling thick milk as the king of milks, the “swallowing of which needs chewing”.  When the milk dried up in the Winter and Spring, they had butter and hard cheeses to get them through the dry season.  Saint Patrick had plenty of protein, calcium, B vitamins and probiotics from all the natural fermented dairy products readily available in Ireland at that time.


Meat was more of a rarity and often only cured and kept for the Winter months when fishing or wild game hunting was not an option.  For most of the year, the rivers, lakes and sea provided a wealth of fresh fish – salmon, trout and eel, in particular.  Saint Patrick had no shortage of omega 3 as we see in today’s diet – his memory was phenomenal, his mood upbeat despite his demanding job and his joints held out well enough to walk up Croke Patrick and around Ireland several times over spreading his message. 

Cereals grown at the time, oats and barley, were plentiful and provided slow-release energy to keep St. Patrick going all day! Oats were cooked as a porridge-like gruel, often mixed with nuts and wild berries or pounded into flatbreads and cooked on an open griddle, the original oatcakes which St. Patrick kept under his green cloak for longer journeys.  Most of the barley grown in Ireland at the time was used for brewing ale.  St. Patrick liked a sup every now and then - it helped break the ice with the locals and made for great story telling, helping him convey his message to his pagan audience.  The one about the snakes was so good, it is still recounted today among pagans and Christians alike!


His Legacy is Green

The rest of his diet was made up of hen and goose eggs, honey, watercress, wild garlic, edible leaves and roots, apples and seaweeds – it is no wonder he had the energy to build all those churches, baptized the nation and still had time for reflection and designing the Celtic cross.  He ate all round him, wherever he went and if he couldn’t eat it, he used it in his teachings.  Lucky for us he made the shamrock his favourite because if he had it might have been a different story!


May the Irish hills caress you. May her lakes and rivers bless you. May the luck of the Irish enfold you. May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.

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