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The Tale of Corned Beef and Cabbage


It was a chilly day on March 17, 1821 in Rathanna, Co Carlow. In the two story stone house off of Murphy’s Lane the family of Morgan and Nancy Boyle Kavanagh were gathered. The house was crowded with the family of their oldest surviving child Mary, her husband Thomas Doyle and their children. Morgan and Nancy’s younger children: Morgan, Johanna, Edward and Patrick were all grown but unmarried. They had all attended mass earlier in the day and were anxiously awaiting the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage the smells of which wafted deliciously from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, this scene is probably quite correct except for one small detail. Corned beef was not a staple of the Irish diet. More likely, particularly for middle class families, a bacon joint and cabbage would have been the meal for a special day. There were no parades, shamrocks or green beer. It was the feast day of a Saint and was celebrated as such, sans corned beef.

The story of the connection between corned beef/cabbage, the Irish and St Patrick ’s Day is a convoluted and somewhat unclear one. It appears that this connection was American in origin rather than Irish. Organized St Patrick’s Day parades may have begun sometime around 1845 in the Northeast United States but there is no mention of corned beef connected to these early celebrations.

There are several theories or perhaps more correctly legends about the emergence of corned beef being associated with the Irish. One which seems to have a ring of authenticity about it asserts that this began occurring after the U. S. Civil War. As we know many thousands of Irish, many newly immigrated to America, fought on both sides. Corned Beef, which by it’s very making is designed to resist spoilage, was one of the staples of the military diet. The story goes on to suggest that many of the poor Irish were thus introduced to this delicacy (for them) and carried this taste back to their homes. Corned Beef being relatively cheap, ultimately became a staple on the tables of the Irish.

Others assert that Irish immigrants learned to use corned beef as a substitute for bacon from their Jewish neighbours in the tenements of New York City. Another theory is that this taste grew out of a comic book character proclaiming Corned Beef was his favourite Irish meal.

Whatever the origin Corned Beef and Cabbage is now and forever associated with the Irish and St Patrick’s Day. We can end with a bit of trivia. In the 1983 St Patrick’s Day celebration in Butte, Montana (for those who know it is full of Irish-American history) the revellers consumed 5,000 gallons of beer, 50,000 pounds of corned beef and 26,000 pounds of cabbage. Now that is a celebration!


Gary L. Cavanaugh, M.D. - Clann Member

The following resources were used in the prepartion of this article - History.Com


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