With the mid-'90s economic boom, thousands of Irish citizens returned from cities around the world, bringing new cuisine with them.
Ireland's greatest novel, Ulysses, opens with a critique of Irish food. Early on June 16, 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan are eating breakfast in Martello Tower when Buck compliments the wares of an old milk-woman. "If we could only live on good food like that," Buck says. "We wouldn't have the country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts."
It took more than a century, but Ireland is finally starting to live on good food.
In Dublin, long more famous for drinking than eating, the best and often only option for eating out was stodgy bar fare. "Fine dining" meant stopping at the local pub for a pint and a pie -- like the traditional shepherd's pie served at Michael Finnegan's, for instance, just blocks from where Joyce set his Dalkey School scene.
Today, though, "Irish cuisine" is no longer an oxymoron. The nation at last has found the modern faith of Foodie-ism. In Dublin especially, food has finally become more than just a means to sop up ale and whiskey. Today the city's long, low, clean blocks of multicolored Georgian facades burst with new flavors and fresh attitudes. Dubliners have embraced eating out as not only a valid form of entertainment, but as an important statement of personal ethics and style.
Credit the Celtic Tiger. Thousands of Irish citizens living abroad came home, bringing new appetites back from London, Liverpool, or Chicago.
Credit the Celtic Tiger. The unprecedented economic boom that started in 1995 and lasted a decade radically reshaped the nation, transforming the Irish Republic from one of the poorest nations in Western Europe to one of its richest.
Culturally, the shift was tectonic. Doubly so for the gastronome.
For the first time in Ireland's epic, often tragic history, the island became a place that people moved to, rather than somewhere to escape from. Thousands of Irish citizens living abroad came home, bringing new appetites back from London, Liverpool, or Chicago. More dramatically, the homogenous, parochial little nation saw its first-ever large scale waves of global immigration -- from India, Vietnam, the Levant, and especially the newly-Unionized states of Eastern Europe. A particularly large flock came from also-predominantly-Catholic Poland, opening the specialty grocers Polski Sklep and Polonez which dot the city selling pickled versions of anything humans can consume.
Newly affluent and worldly, Ireland's menu choices bloomed. Diners began demanding meals of a a more varied palette, with more attractive presentation, made with fresher and more ethically-sourced ingredients.
"Ten years ago, it was hard to find sushi anywhere," said Polly Kilburn. A redhead drinking white wine at The Bar With No Name, Polly called herself "an unemployed graphic artist," letting a single strand of crimson hair fall across a single green eye. "Now you can get it anywhere, she said of the sushi. "Even at the grocer's!"
Irish food, in short, got globalized. Today the hero of Ulysses needn't feast on "the inner organs of beasts and fowls." Leopold Bloom could forgo the giblet soup and nutty gizzards for a healthier breakfast of, say, a bran muffin and the championship-winning cappuccino at Third Floor Espresso.
For lunch, Leopold can skip Davy's Pub, still standing at 21 Duke Street, for the questionable charms of a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich with "feety savour." Instead Leopold could lunch on kimchi at the Hophouse, replete with a sweet rice cake and fried lotus root dessert. He could cross the River Liffy, and hit the Temple Bar district for the tandoori-style cooking at Monty's of Katmandu.