Friday, November 20, 2015

An Irish Thanksgiving

by Sheila Connolly

All things willing (in these uncertain times), I am now in Ireland not celebrating Thanksgiving. In part that’s deliberate: I always think of the American version of Thanksgiving as an event that should be shared with friends and family and even hungry strangers. It is a celebration of survival under challenging circumstances. I applaud those early settlers (and the Indians who helped them) in Plymouth, close to my home. But I don’t have any family in the area, and I always forget to make a reservation at Plimoth Plantation for their annual dinner, because you have to sign up in June. So I take the easy way out and leave the country altogether.

Sorry, I couldn't resist--I saw this
in Dublin.

The Irish do not celebrate American Thanksgiving. They regard Samhain as their harvest festival, if they think about it at all. They do not eat turkey on any particular day in November, but save those birds for Christmas dinner.

But! There is a theory that without an Irish contribution, that first Thanksgiving wouldn’t have happened. Actually it was first held in February 1621 (the November date came along courtesy of Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century). The Pilgrims were starving, having landed only a couple of months before with inadequate supplies in the midst of a New England winter. They were saved by a ship called The Lyon bearing food…that sailed from Dublin! And this isn’t just Irish propaganda, nor did I make it up: it was the Boston Post newspaper that first reported it, decades ago. So let’s give the Irish at least a little credit.

Oh, you wanted a recipe? Have I mentioned before (a few dozen times) how good Irish food is these days? I want to take up residence in the Fields market in Skibbereen, with the occasional excursion to the year-round farmers’ market down the street. That’s one reason I like to rent a cottage with a kitchen—so I can take advantage of all the great fresh ingredients. And bread. And cakes.

But back to the point…one of the premier cooking schools in Ireland (and just about anywhere) is Ballymaloe Cookery School, which happens to be located in County Cork. (They even have an annual literary festival now—I’m still angling for an invitation.) It is managed by Darina Allen, and her recipes lean toward locally-grown, fresh products, simply prepared. So here’s a side-dish that you can use for Thanksgiving or Christmas or any time you want some Irish comfort food. (One note: this dish is said to have originated in Northern Ireland, but Ballymaloe is clearly at the south end of the country, so I’ll claim this version for County Cork!)

Pea and Parsley Champ

Champ is a traditional Irish dish, made with (you guessed it!) potatoes and butter and milk, and often scallions (aka green onions). This one is a little different. It’s a nice change if you’re bored with the usual plain mashed potatoes with your turkey.


2 pounds potatoes suitable for mashing (i.e., not the waxy ones but the floury ones like Russets, maybe with a few Yukon Gold thrown in)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-1/4 cups whole milk
1-1/2 cups small peas (fresh is best, but may be hard to find this time of year, but the frozen ones work fine—just thaw them first)
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2-4 Tblsp butter (Irish butter! Available everywhere!)

Wash the potatoes (do not peel). Put them in a large saucepan and cook in boiling salted water until they are tender (and a knife pierces them easily). Drain, then return to the pan and let them dry over low heat for a couple of minutes. Mash them while they’re hot. Since there are still skins, this won’t be a puree, exactly.

In another pan, bring the milk to a low boil and add the peas. Simmer just until the peas are done. Drop in the chopped parsley for a minute or so at the end. 

Add the milk mixture to the mashed potatoes and check for seasoning. Add the butter and beat until light and fluffy. The mixture should be moist. 

Serve immediately. (But to tell the truth, my mother used to make mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving and keep them in a large ceramic or glass bowl over a saucepan of barely boiling water. The potatoes didn’t cook any more, but they stayed nice and warm.)

And now you have a pretty green and white dish of fluffy potatoes to go with your turkey!

If I'm lucky, here's where I'll be celebrating my
Thanksgiving, in my favorite pub, Connolly's
of Leap, soon to celebrate their grand reopening!
And if you're looking for more stories about Connolly's, er, Sullivan's Pub, A Turn for the Bad will be released in February 2016!

Preorder it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.


  1. Thank you for the recipe and the picture of the cute Turkey T-shirt.

  2. Enjoy your trip!!! I have Rachel Allen's cook book and was so happy to see her cooking show on PBS ....and I loved watching her....the dishes were quick..simple..easy....and classy!!

  3. HI Sheila! This brings back memories - when I was growing up, my favorite dinner was mashed potatoes and peas, which I would mix together and was quite similar to your recipe. Thank you for sharing, and I'm looking forward to the new release. :-) Nicole

    1. Don't tell, but when my folks went out to dinner and my sister and I were left with a babysitter, I always hid my peas in my potatoes!

  4. I'm with Nicole. Childhood memories of mashed potatoes and peas. Together you didn't have to worry about losing any of those rolly peas!

    We are going on a pub tour next summer in western Ireland for the music. I'll have to check the itinerary to see how close we get to your favorite spots.

    1. How wonderful! I haven't made it to Galway and Connemara, but I hope to one day. I can't wait to see what the plans are for "my" pub (Connolly's of Leap), which will reopen as a music venue before the year's end. We're only a few miles from there now! (Easy to find--it's on the main road along the south coast.)

  5. Oh Sheila, to be in Ireland again would be grand! My family came to America during the Revolutionary War from Tyrone. I was lucky enough to visit our crypt. I love champ and turkey for Christmas is the best. We try to do as much Irish celebration as possible. My favorite are white and black pudding. Yum. Blessings and safe travels Sheila!

    1. I'm often told the best black pudding comes from Clonakilty, just down the road a few miles. I've been sampling!

  6. LOL! I'm glad I'm not the only one who remembers people mixing their peas with the mashed potatoes. I'll have to try it sometime! I love the skins in mashed potatoes. I know I'm weird, but that's may favorite part of a baked potato!

  7. This dish will be gracing our table next Thursday, thanks to you! Enjoy your Irish idyll.

  8. I definitely need to get caught up on this series! I loved the first book!

    1. I'm trying to keep it authentic, which leads to some very odd conversations. But the people are so nice here!

  9. already pre-ordered. have fun and thanks for the recipe

  10. Pretty much the way my Granma would do. She came to the states in the early 40's. Haven't thought of that in years. Thanks for the memories.
    Haven't read the pub series yet. Hope to soon though.
    Enjoy the sights.

  11. Thank you all! I'm having a grand time getting ingredients, and trying to figure out how the appliances in our rental kitchen work (no instructions, of course). But we're managing--and eating well!