St. Patrick’s Day is fast approaching, and if you’re like the preponderance of Americans looking to eat like they’re Irish, you’re probably thinking about where you can indulge in some corned beef and cabbage. The thing is, maybe you should consider something else. After all, corned beef might not really be Irish. Plus, there are numerous dishes from the Emerald Isle worth your consideration. One such dish is shepherd’s pie. So, in preparation of your, perhaps, partaking in the pie, let’s look at its history.

You might be thinking, “Of all the Irish dishes, why are you focusing on shepherd’s pie?” Truth be told, when I think of a St. Paddy’s feast, corned beef is top of mind. There, I said it. Call me a basic lad. I guess I’m just like everyone else. But I covered the origins of corned beef last year, and I can’t very well write it again, now, can I? So, I thought about my alternate meal. The meal that I’d have if I were angling to celebrate with (at least so-called) Irish food, but wasn’t quite feeling corned beef. As I considered what that would be, it hit me—shepherd’s pie. So, that’s reason number one.

The second reason is that shepherd’s pie has as much claim to Ireland as any other food out there. Unlike current variations of corned beef and cabbage, shepherd’s pie actually is an Irish delicacy.

The third reason? It’s goooooooood. Look, I know St. Paddy’s is in March, which means, meteorologically, it’s spring, but let’s be real. It’s currently 33 degrees as I write this piece. We won’t be barbecuing any time soon. So, a hearty meal that warms you up while filling your belly is just what the doctor ordered after a day of parading and celebration. Given these three reasons, shepherd’s pie actually seems like the perfect St. Patrick’s Day food, even if it isn’t the most popular. As a result, it seems like a reasonable choice for an historical examination.

Recipe: Kohlrabi-Topped Shepherd’s Pie

The History of Shepherd’s Pie

The problem is, there isn’t much to the history—at least not in a straightforward way. There doesn’t seem to be a singular person, event, place, or circumstance that gave the world shepherd’s pie. Instead, there are bits and pieces of history that, together, and once interpreted, allow the emergence of shepherd’s pie to make sense. So, here’s a brief rundown of those facts:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland began in the 13th century, and sparked a tumultuous union between Ireland and England that would last for about 800 years (though, depending on who you ask, it’s still going on).
  • In the late 15th century, England had officially taken control of Ireland, and brought the island into the United Kingdom.
  • As an arm of the United Kingdom, Protestantism became the new official religion, despite Ireland being majority Catholic.
  • The British and Protestant Irish converts became ruling landowners, protected by the government. Irish Catholics became peasant land workers, sanctioned by the government. As a result, they were generally impoverished, living in humble homes called “cottages.”
  • In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland, and over time, the potato gained acceptance in Ireland as an edible, affordable piece of produce, particularly for the poor. 
  • The British loved beef, and sparked an increase in beef production in Ireland. The Irish were never big beef eaters. Regardless, they couldn’t really afford it while Ireland was under British control.

Those are the facts. Now, before I proceed, I want to make sure we’re clear on what precisely shepherd’s pie is. Here goes. It’s a hearty dish with origins in the United Kingdom and Ireland composed of a ground meat cooked in gravy, onions, carrots, celery, and a mashed potato crust (can be top and bottom, or just top). I told you. It’s a slam dunk meal for a cold St. Paddy’s dinner. Anyway, given the makeup of the dish, and the facts presented above, here’s what’s suspected to have sparked the origin of shepherd’s pie.

Recipe: Ground Beef Shepherd’s Pie

Cue: Cottage Pie

Sometime in the 18th century, a dish called “cottage pie” came about somewhere in the vast expanse of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It seems to have originated as a way for folks to make use of leftovers, in order to avoid waste, both of the food and money varieties. Simply put, after making a weekend roast, unused meat was repurposed into a pie using affordable potatoes as a crust. This frugal, albeit clever, meal suggests the name “cottage pie” referred to the consumers of the dish—poor Irish peasants (remember, they lived in cottages). Because the Irish, at the time, typically could not afford beef, I suspect the earliest forms of cottage pie contained mutton, since mutton was a cheaper and more flavorful alternative to either beef or lamb.

This cottage pie was the precursor to shepherd’s pie, which was coined in the middle of the 19th century. For a while it was used interchangeably with cottage pie. However, as time went on, a distinction was made: shepherd’s pie referred to a dish made with lamb (because sheep are tended to by shepherds!), and cottage pie referred to a dish made with beef.

Recipe: Anna Gass’s Cheesy Skillet Shepherd’s Pie

Since Ireland and the UK had such a long union, contentious as it was, both the British and Irish have love for shepherd’s pie, and claim its origins. That being said, if forced, I’d maintain the more traditionally Irish meal is the lamb-made dish known as shepherd’s pie, whereas the British version is the beef-made cottage pie. Why? Because historically the Irish weren’t big beef eaters, and the British were. Plus, this started as a way for folks to make use of sparse and/or inexpensive resources. At the time the dish was invented, given the socio-political context of the United Kingdom and Ireland, it seems likely that the Irish were among (if not predominantly) those who would be looking to make use of their leftovers in such a resourceful way.

There you have it! This St. Patrick’s Day, if you find yourself hankering for something other than corned beef, give shepherd’s pie a serious look. With a flavor profile similar to beef stew, or pot roast, it’s a hearty, warm, and delicious dish to help you refuel after a long day of…whatever it is you do to celebrate. Erin go bragh, and have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day!