Another Irish Country Dish (Colcannon)

Colcannon is a traditional Irish dish made with cabbage or kale and potatoes. The name comes from the Gaelic phrase “cal ceannan,” which means “white-headed cabbage”.

One of the earliest written references to colcannon comes from the diary of William Bulkeley, who wrote on October 31, 1735 while on a visit to Dublin: “Dined at Coz. Wm. Parry, and also supped there upon a Shoulder of Mutton rosted, and what they call there Coel Callen which is Cabbage boiled Potatoes & parsnips, all this mixed together, they eat well enough, and it is a Dish always had in this Kingdom on this night.”

William Bulkeley’s diary entry for October 31, 1735.

As William Bulkeley relates, colcannon was traditionally associated with Halloween. When made on that night, colcannon could be used for mystical purposes; charms were often hidden in bowls of colcannon, or unmarried girls would fill their stockings with spoonfuls of colcannon and hang them on the front door in the hopes that the first man to enter through the door would become their future husband (although I wonder how many people actually tried this – it’s hard to imagine someone who does their own laundry willingly filling their socks with mashed potatoes and cabbage).

While this particular recipe (published in an English cookbook in 1750) does not use the word “colcannon” in the title, the instructions for mashing together potatoes, parsnips, and cabbage match William Bulkeley’s description of the dish. Colcannon was introduced to England during the 18th century and became a popular dish there as well, explaining its presence in an English cookbook. The recipe does not give any measurements, so I went with roughly equal quantities of potatoes, parsnips, and cabbage, but it could be varied according to taste or what vegetables you have on hand.

An Irish Country Dish:

  • about 1 1/2 pounds potatoes
  • about 1 1/2 pounds parsnips
  • about 1 1/2 pounds green cabbage
  • about 1/2 cup milk, half and half, or cream
  • about 1/2 cup butter, plus more to serve
  • salt
  • pepper
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Peel the potatoes and parsnips and slice them into small chunks. Boil until soft, about 20 minutes.
  2. Drain the water from the potatoes and parsnips and return them to the pot. Add the milk or cream and mash them.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a second pot of salted water to boil. Shred the cabbage into small pieces and boil until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the cabbage and add it to the pot with the potatoes and parsnips. Add the butter.
  4. Mix everything together thoroughly in the pot, cooking over low heat to keep it warm. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with a pat of butter.

Tasting notes:

It’s pretty hard to go wrong with mashed potatoes and butter. While some colcannon recipes use just potatoes and cabbage, I really like the addition of parsnips in this version. The flavor of this dish isn’t particularly strong, however; while many modern recipes add leek or onion to colcannon, all of the 18th and 19th century recipes I could find were only flavored with salt, pepper, and butter. Some 19th century recipes also suggested browning the colcannon in an oven before serving, which sounds tasty too. However you choose to prepare it, colcannon makes an excellent and hearty side dish – but I wouldn’t recommend putting it in your socks.


Bulkeley, W. (ca. 1734-1760). Bulkeley diaries. Bangor University Archives.

Ellis, W. (1750). The country housewife’s family companion. London: James Hodges.

Sexton, R. (2006). Colcannon. In A. Davidson & T. Jaine (Eds.), The Oxford companion to food (pp. 202-203). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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