Irish bacon

Irish Bacon – Tradition Running Deep

The local love for Irish bacon is not just about taste, it’s far more deep-rooted than that. Pork now accounts for over 40% of all meat consumption worldwide, and Ireland is a major exporter of all things swine. Irish bacon has become a gold standard for the genre and you’ll find Irish sausage on your plate in Sydney, Santiago and Shanghai. But just like potatoes from Ireland, Irish pork might be exported in abundance but it also occupies a deeper, more atavistic place in Irish hearts.

And just like the natives’ devotion to Irish potatoes, the Irish bacon romance is also not the most straightforward of relationships. The Irish playing the role of loyal subjects to a sullied crown, maintaining allegiance to an emperor long since usurped. It involves passion and it involves shame. But there is certainly love there.

Irish bacon as cultural icon

Fiction is a good place to examine the regal role played by the pig in the Irish story. Francie Pig, the outcast child in The Butcher Boy instantly springs to mind, as does most any book from the 20th century comic Flann O’Brien. In O’Brien’s Irish-language classic An Béal Bocht (‘The Poor Mouth’), a government surveyor visits the potato farm of a bedraggled family of thirteen and tells them they are under no circumstances to continue to live alongside their pig. For reasons of sanitation and civilization they are to live separately, in the stone cottage and the barn.

A year passes and the inspector once more pays a visit, again finding both family and their source of Irish sausage living under the same roof. He demands an explanation from head of household Bonaparte O’Coonassa, who begs the official to give the family a pass. They indeed did as he ordered one year previous, but the winter was just so wet and wild they were scared they’d freeze to death if they carried on living in the barn. And so moved back in with the pig.

Satire though it may be, O’Brien is playing on the pivotal role the pig occupied in Irish life. For a poor family like the O’Coonassas whether the household’s pig thrives or not really meant the difference between life and death.

Irish Sausage Savings Bank

There is evidence of wild boar consumption on the island of Ireland dating to the first settlements on the island, but it was after the introduction of farming that the pig, alongside the cow, truly took pride of place in Irish life.

But, unlike their bovine brethren, pigs can’t be kept for their milk. Nor can their owner let them out to graze, expecting them to manage themselves until sundown. And whilst pigs can eat grass, they can’t live on it alone. This mean that a peasant farmer like O’Coonassa had to be most attentive to his little domestic overlord if he was to get his fix of Irish bacon, feeding it whatever grain or other sustenance he could spare.

Because, just like our human ancestors, in the wild pigs are foragers, eating tubers, fruits, berries. So in this sense, the pig is a competitor for the food of the human. And this is why their pet Irish sausage represented so much to the O’Coonassa family. It was an investment. Food supply permitting, it was to be kept alive and slaughtered only when necessary.

Think of that piggy bank you had as a child. Ever wonder why a pig? For a peasant farmer like O’Coonassa, only that diminutive Irish saint stood (or sprawled) between him and dark times.

Irish bacon

Irish saint lights up the dark

The Irish farmer lived in hope that if one day things weren’t looking so bright, he’d taken good care to have fattened his piggy enough for the Irish bacon to come a-rolling. Just like your piggy bank. You crack it open and hope the contents can cover the things you need. Or, in the case of the Irish farmer, that there’s enough inside to fetch a good price at market, so you can get the cash and buy the essentials with that.

Unsurprising then that, long before the global export of sought-after Irish rashers, the pig was known to natives as ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’. And whilst many Irish tenant farmers lived right on the brink, even the poorest would aim to host a pig, fattening it up during the plentiful summer months and selling it once winter came.

Pigs from Pennsylvania

But far from being an exclusively Celtic affair, this symbolism of the pig as hope for the future is seen wherever pork is consumed. Rich with fat and (the farmer’s) accumulated effort, the pig is still today slaughtered on auspicious occasions, a harvest festival or New Year’s celebration. Cashing in what you’ve held in store.

In the case of New Year’s, a piece of treasured folklore linked to the Pennsylvania Dutch is that with his snout situated where it is and his constant prowling forward, the pig is the ideal symbol for moving (headfirst) into the new year.

The pig played the dual role of bringing you fortune (sustenance and status) in the present and hope for future abundance

As with many folkloric traditions that have survived into our age of abundance, the reasoning here has become skewed with time. For in the traditions to which the Pennsylvania Deutsch are heir, the pig was far from but a trinket of fortune. It was the fortune. That which helped ensure your (upright) status. The pig was of course also a very fortunate creature, being well-fed, left largely to its own devices, and endowed with ever-vigilant carers and abundant offspring.

And as a farmer, this luck was your luck.

The pig played the dual role of bringing you fortune (sustenance and status) in the present and hope for future abundance (of swine). Buoyed by the succulent prosperity now in hand (and mouth) and the pig’s evident good luck as an animal, the slaughter found you looking ahead with a corresponding level of optimism.

In this way, just as in the Celtic context, pigs in the Germanic world and beyond came to signify wealth. And, humble as you were, in recognition of your part in a broader system you expressed your gratitude for what the land brought to your table. During the Germanic winter feast of Yule, pigs were ritually slaughtered and offerings made. The sacrifice of this animal sacred to the Norse god of Yule, Freyr, coming at the darkest time of year and representing abundance and fecundity – and enacted in the hope of a bumper crop to come.

After all, what you give is what you get. Your best bet was to pay the piper in quality product and hope for reciprocation. In this way, the Yule rituals performed a similar role to those seen during the New Year’s feast of the ancient Gaels – Samhain, or ‘Halloween’, where sacrifice and divination customs focused proceedings.

Pork and Sauerkraut

The practicality of slaughtering when temperatures were low and meat could be better stored is also at the heart of the winter killing, and in parts of Europe which have remained closer to their ancient customs, end-of-year slaughter festivals are still commonplace. Head to the Slavic world around New Year’s and you’ll likely partake in much fresh sausage(making).

Indeed, you’ll also find there the other half of the Pennsylvania Dutch good fortune combo meal. The pig’s progressive hide being served up alongside sauerkraut – or, in the Balkans, kiseli (‘sour’), or zimu (‘winter’), kupus (‘cabbage’), itself a kind of insurance policy in the piggy bank vein. You have cabbage in abundance, far too much to eat, so you store it away for a time when it is really needed..

And for the Slavs, just as for the Pennsylvania Dutch, might that time perhaps be when the ground is frozen solid and the days are at their darkest?

On the back of countless generations of human thinking and endeavor, with de Snee falling heavily outside, you find yourself warm and with your kin. Tucking into the taste of planning, prudence and (potential) prosperity. With the delicately crafted marzipan pigs – Glücksschweine (‘lucky pigs’) – you’ve been given as gifts decorating your table, to be eaten for dessert and good fortune.

Pork in Irish food traditions

The wealthier households of Ireland, having made enough rent money through their labor or crops, could afford to slaughter their dearest pet, spending glorious autumnal days pigging out on all that Irish bacon. Or they would participate in a kind of communal system, whereby each family in the neighborhood would kill their animal and share the spoils among them. This way, on an agreed roster, pork would periodically flow through the veins of the community; along with the offal meat dear to Irish cuisine and which we still see today in any good old fashioned liver and onions recipe.

This was before the days of refrigeration, remember, so it made sense to pitch together and everyone eat fresh Irish sausage rather than gobble up an entire pig or salt everything you could. The family taking their turn to slaughter their pig would get the best cuts, choosing those ideal for curing, the ribs, plus the pork liver perhaps, and whatever else they had their eye on. But each family would get their fair share.

The pig had earlier played a ritual role in sacrifices any time a major Celtic festival came around, but its real significance to the average Irish was in this very daily way – the most everyman way possible, through his stomach. Which in a sense made the pig even more sacred. Its fortunes were directly linked to those of its owners. When times were good little piggy got repaid for his loyalty, by paying the rent or serving up their host family a great feed of Irish sausage.

Irish Bacon - Tradition Running Deep
Hallowed hog

And as times got more filled with goodies, a plethora of Irish bacon and pork liver dishes became embedded in the national cuisine, which is where we find ourselves today. Not a bad way of worship, really. The world could do with more of such practical sanctity!

Porter beer and pork products

Today, Irish bacon, Irish sausage, Irish ham all spell premium product and are shipped across the world. Alongside favorites like a certain porter beer and world-renowned dairy products, Irish meat plays a significant role in food exports. Moreover, pork self-sufficiency in the Republic of Ireland is 240% (and a moommoth 683% for veal and beef), meaning the vast majority of what is produced ends up in foreign mouths. Yet, in terms of consumption, the Irish are in fact not the biggest consumers of pork.

East Asia’s consumption has rocketed in recent years, dwarfing all contenders, but even compared to its fellow European Union members Irish consumption is relatively low. And expanding the scope to include wider Europe makes the Irish look veritably vegetarian – in countries like Serbia and Montenegro, Mr Pig is nothing more than a living legend, invited to weddings, consulted whenever there’s a baby to be named.

Perhaps formidable Irish beef is the reason for this. Why seek silver when you have gold plenty in store, right? Or a frugal, don’t get high off your own supply approach to national exports (if only Irish leaders were capable of such oversight!). In recent years, scholars have traced a deeper root to this culinary preference, back to when Ireland was being shaped into a modern state.

The potato farm and the pigs

The potato farm of nineteenth century apart from being a cramped and treacherously disease-ridden place had certain distinctive olfactory attributes. Certain aromatic articles regularly cast to the wind but never quite whisked away. Perhaps this is the reason absentee landlords rarely visited their Irish estates: they stank.

Evacuating about three pounds of excrement per day (multiply this by the estimated 1.5 million pigs in the country on the eve of the Great Irish Famine)

Dung, silage, assorted muds, soils and sludges, spit stains on the furniture, decay of all types, including, but not limited to, animal, vegetal, soil, habitational, bed framal, spiritual and dental, the odd bed ridden child and droppings of varying ilks and textures. All brought to a full crescendo of fragrant vivacity by that esteemed of maestros, the Irish rain, which was ever present, but never quite abundant enough to wash away the stench.

Rural Ireland was a place where you instantly knew during your country jaunt whenever you were approaching the next village. You smelt it before you saw it.

And Irish bacon, though succulent and sweet, had a big hand in the sourness emanating from Erin’s Isle. Evacuating about three pounds of excrement per day (multiply this by the estimated 1.5 million pigs in the country on the eve of the Great Irish Famine, we dare ya), not even the sweet-scented flowers of Irish potatoes could take that musky porcine tang out of the air.

Irish bacon in the national psyche

And pretty soon the playful, devilishly ergophobic receptacle of Irish sausage was made pay for his uncouth behavior. Denounced by men of the clergy and state bent on banishing filth from Irish life, after the Great Irish Famine Mr Pig became the focus of a national witch hunt that would continue for decades. Envisioning a new, sparkling clean and perfectly perfect Ireland, the stenches of the farm were made shameful things, smacking of the backward peasant and all that was primitive, shameful and “wrong” about not being modern.

In Catholic Ireland, little piggy, that longtime Irish saint, was an easy target for the reformers, so historically entwined with the Irish was his Holiness. Singled out as the most disgusting of all farmyard characters, the iconic bedfellow of peasant farmers like the O’Coonassas in An Béal Bocht was made into but a mud-splashing beast basking in its own filth. The antithesis of the hygiene and domesticity to which the modern Irish citizen should aspire.

The Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes

What was the Irish peasant to do? Shamefully carry on his pure-hearted passion for pork or come to see the righteousness of a path more true?

Clinging to the only thing they had possessed for centuries, the tenant allotment and the Irish potatoes it sprung forth, Catholic Ireland had switched up the game on the peasant. The tenant farmer now receiving condemning news from town that made him aware of his stink. And that the once hallowed hog was no longer where it was at. The Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.