Ireland is not generally thought of as emblematic of tea. But it stands out as, first, having the highest per capita consumption in the world, along with Turkey and way ahead of England. It also developed the most distinctive black tea culture of any, spurred the largest government investigation of tea abuse, and boosted the emergence of the African tea industry.
Tea came to Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, via the wealthy upper class. It spread as a vital survival and social force in a country of poverty. Ireland was predominantly a rural population, living in a harsh climate and exploited by absentee English landowners. It was Catholic at a time when England represented the dominant Protestant opposition to the Spanish Empire and very much treated Ireland as a potential fifth column threat. There was no commitment to economic development and a dismissal of the Irish as a land of lazy peasants; the term “Beyond the Pale” meaning unacceptable behavior, came from the boundary – the Pale – that marked the divide between Episcopalian and cosmopolitan Anglo-Irish Dublin and the scattered tenantries. The Irish language was legally banned following the forced Union and it was only in the 1830s that Irish Catholics were granted any civil rights.
Ireland shared in the addiction to tea of the 18th century. The difference from English imports was that incomes were so low that only poor quality and weak leaf was affordable. The Irish response still remains as much the identity of its tea culture as English High Tea – the kettle on the hob that brews all day to bring out its flavor. The Irish taste has been for the very heaviest of teas, with plenty of milk and cream to soften the harshness. Tea was an expected invitation when visiting and acceptance equally obligatory. The main social ritual was “Elevenishs”, the late morning serving to a group at work or home.
The base for Irish tea was Assam, the fullest of all leaf; Darjeeling was dismissed as too light and as for green tea – what’s that? A small number of distinctly Irish brands emerged. They continue to make distinctive, plain, strong teas. Over time, they loosened their dependence on the English East India’s monopoly and the London Tea Auction. During World War II, Ireland’s policy of neutrality cut supplies from India and Ceylon by 75%. Government-business partnering led to direct buying from growers in, first, Kenya and then Rwanda.
Most African tea is deservedly anonymous even though Kenya is the largest exporter in the world, ahead of India and China. You won’t find Rwanda listed on the ingredients label of supermarket teas or as a whole leaf specialty. But this is prominently highlighted by the leading Irish brand. This is CTC tea and not fine whole leaf; it is eyebrow bleaching strength. Ireland has greatly improved the quality of Rwanda’s production in the Rift Valley, whose climate is perfect for tea.
Tea played a major role, as consequence not cause, in the pivotal event of Irish history: the Potato Famine of the 1840s. This is almost impossible to summarize beyond the trivial level. The potato formed the basis of the Irish diet. It required little tending and was plentiful. When blight wiped out two years of crops, the ordinary people had no resources to draw on. English policy was callous, moralistic, stupid, indefensible and deadly in its results. Needed food supplies were withheld, particularly cereals, and leading figures took the view that the Irish had brought this on themselves and were feckless and irresponsible. 2.2 million people died in under five years, out of a population of 8.4. A million starved to death in the streets or were killed by typhoid and dysentery. Two million left the country, most notably to the US. Evictions were epidemic and heartless. Unemployment was over 75%. As late as 1921 – eighty years later – the population was half that of before.
Tea became a survival food. One of the irritating and misleading elements in modern tea marketing has always been the images of aristocracy, high tea, snobbery and elegance. That was just part of the wider picture. The pert little televised housemaids of Downton Abbey were the sixteen year old waifs of the London slums, working eighty hours a week. The life expectancy of an urban boy in 1880 was 15.
There really is a need for a book on Tea and the Poor – the poor of London, the workers in the colonial plantations and the Irish – to respect and relate to what the English poet Thomas Gray so beautifully called “the humble annals of the poor” and the Irish master William Yeats as “cast your mind on other days that we may be still the indomitable Irishry.”
Tea took the edge off starvation, even as it added to malnutrition. (In passing, a simple explanation for the historically notorious standard of cooking in England and Ireland is that under 10% of homes nationally had any heating or oven.) It was the sole component of many peoples’ diet, with occasional bread. As Ireland struggled back to economic viability, tea became a “luxo-necessity” – unhealthy in its lack of balanced nutrition but cherished for its taste and energy boost. Towards the end of the 19th century, report after report pointed to a substantial rise in insanity among Irish women, accurately attributed to heavy tea drinking. This was investigated by many government Commissions, was a regular anti-Irish, anti-Catholic rant among political and religious groups, led to an expansion of asylums and even caused the New York Times to publish a major article on tea as Ireland’s scourge that was worse than even alcohol.
Here’s the consensual explanation from historians: the family. When food was in short supply, the protein and carbs were needed by the father to set him up for the daily rigors of farm or factory labor. The childrens’ health came next, especially milk and legumes. As for mother, well her job was to eke out the money and the meals, not to eat.
Those times are way in the past, of course, though they reshaped every area of Irish life. The transition to today’s Ireland was not a smooth one: The Easter Rising of 1916, the infamous Black and Tan troops sent in to crush and terrorize, and the Times of Troubles in the conflicts, bombing and assassinations of the 1980s.
What remains now is the charm of Ireland’s tea culture, famously captured in a story by the American novelist, CE Murphy, in 2005:
“In Ireland, you go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.
In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea.
I liked the Irish way better.”