Tea-drinking in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland

There is an interesting paper here by Dr Helen O’Connell, which discusses how tea-drinking in Ireland was viewed in the early nineteenth century.

Tea was first introduced to Ireland in the mid 18th century and at first its cost kept it a luxury that was confined to the upper class and aristocracy. The cost of tea fell significantly in the eighteenth century and the removal of tariffs in 1784, the price was halved again. Tea smuggling was widespread and it was the smuggled, cheaper tea that Irish peasants enjoyed. Its popularity grew quickly and by 1830s, tea was in staple in people’s diets and widespread amongst the poor. It seems that English reformers saw the pastime of tea-drinking as “reckless and uncontrollable” and something that could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The rural workers in Ireland were seen as decadent and lazy and tea-drinking promoted these flaws in the lower classes. It was deemed that the consumption of tea was something that would “deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland”. The practice was seen as particularly distracting for women and elimination was necessary so they could focus on their homely duties and the prospering of the economy.  Behind these objections seems to be a theory that tea drinking would make the Catholic Irish appear more Irish (and less English). In addition, the symbolic equality attained by tea-drinking “could only prepare the ground for the eventual attainment of actual equality” which might render the reform impossible.

Dr O’Connell says that “the prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women. If that wasn’t enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time.”

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

English reformers distributed pamphlets to peasant households that condemned the drink and highlighted its dangers.  They emphasized the frivolity of wasting money on a substance that had no nutritional or practical benefits.

Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, 1811

“Now if you both take to drinking tea, (and sure you can’t sit down to one thing, and he to another,) you must have a quarter of an ounce of tea, that is three half pence at the lowest; and two ounces of sugar, that is three half pence more; a four- penny loaf will be tight enough; two ounces of butter two pence; all that comes to nine pence, and hardly enough; and weak food for a man.”

While economic historians interpret tea drinking as a sign of wealth, Leadbeater attempts to interpret the practice as a sign of backwardness and an inability to manage the domestic economy.

Reference: O’Connell H. ‘A Raking Pot of Tea’: Consumption and Excess in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Literature & History. October 2012;21(2):32-47