Ironically, the ones producing the corned beef, the Irish people, could not afford beef or corned beef for themselves. When England conquered Ireland, oppressive laws against the native Irish Catholic population began. Their land was confiscated and feudal like plantations were set up. If the Irish could afford any meat at all, salted pork or bacon was consumed. But, what the Irish really relied on was the potato.
By the end of the 18th century, the demand for Irish corned beef began to decline as the North American colonies began producing their own. Over the next 5o years, the glory days of Irish corned beef were over. By 1845, a potato blight broke out in Ireland completely destroying the food source for most of the Irish population, and The Great Famine began. Without help from the British government, the Irish people were forced to work to death, starve or immigrate. About a million people died and another million immigrated on “coffin ships” to the US. To this day, the Irish population is still less than it was before The Great Famine.
In America, the Irish were once again faced with the challenges of prejudice. To make it easier, they settled together in mainly urban areas with the largest numbers in New York City. However, they were making more money then they had in Ireland under British rule. Which brings us back to corned beef. With more money for food, the Irish could afford meat for the first time. But instead of their beloved bacon, the Irish began eating beef. And, the beef they could afford just happened to be corned beef, the thing their great grandparents were famous for.
Yet, the corned beef the Irish immigrants ate was much different than that produced in Ireland 200 years prior. The Irish immigrants almost solely bought their meat from kosher butchers. And what we think of today as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef thrown into a pot with cabbage and potatoes. The Jewish population in New York City at the time were relatively new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. The corned beef they made was from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. Since brisket is a tougher cut, the salting and cooking processes transformed the meat into the extremely tender, flavorful corned beef we know of today.