Tea rituals of the world volume four - Ireland - Chanui

Tea rituals of the world volume four - Ireland

This week, we're headed to the Emerald Isle to explore Irish tea culture.

Ireland is the second biggest tea-drinking nation in the world per capita, consuming 2.19 kg of tea per person annually. That's equivalent to 3 cups of tea per day for every single person in Ireland. Keep in mind that some people don't drink any tea at all - like most babies. So the actual consumption of many people will be massive!

Surprisingly, researching and writing about Irish tea culture has proven to be a bit challenging. Perhaps being a predominantly English-speaking country has led to fewer English language discussions on the topic. It makes you wonder if there's an extensive work on the tea ceremonies of Ireland written in Mandarin or Italian that we will probably never see. 

We'll put the kettle on and do our best.

Irish Blends

Irish Breakfast Tea boasts a more robust and malty flavour than English Breakfast tea and typically contains more Assam, giving the brew a distinct reddish hue.

Assam, a state in northeastern India, has an ideal climate for cultivating tea and is the largest tea-producing region in the world. Assam tea is derived from the indigenous tea plant known as Camellia sinensis var, which has larger leaves compared to the Chinese variant, resulting in a naturally stronger flavour profile.

Sources conflict as to why the Irish prefer a more Assam-heavy blend, but the historical abundance of dairy in Ireland likely played a part with stronger flavours standing up to the richness of adding milk.

When did drinking tea in Ireland begin?

Regular readers won’t be shocked to find out that colonialism played a role in Irish tea culture. 

The import of tea into Ireland started with The British East India Company in the 1830s. Its consumption was initially limited to the upper classes and English landlords before gradually spreading to wider society as we’ll explore below.

The British practice of "taking tea" in the afternoon became popular among the Irish elite and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, further establishing tea as a symbol of refinement and social status.

But it wasn’t until the Great Famine of 1845-52 that tea began to play a huge role in the lives of the Irish population.

Tea becomes a staple

After the potato blight and subsequent famine exacerbated by British imposed trade laws, the Irish staple diet moved towards wheaten bread and black tea. 

Tea was affordable and its hunger suppressing attributes along with its caffeine content helped people get through labour intensive days.

It soon became a fundamental part of the diet of Irish people irrespective of class or nutritional status, thereby subverting the cultural norms surrounding tea’s usage. 

According to this study, Irish housewives would drink around 12 cups of strong black tea every day, often trading protein-rich foods like eggs for tea. Cheap tea at the time was also often adulterated with iron filings, dust, used tea leaves, and black lead.

Rather than looking to the socio-economic reasons for these dietary practices and the terrible health of people, physicians of the time saw the “indulgent, morally dangerous tea habits” as an issue fundamental to the character of the Irish people.

Very little mention was made of the crushing poverty and mass trauma of a policy-influenced famine that shrank the population by around a quarter. 

Phrases like ‘tea-mania’ and ‘tea-drunkards’ entered popular discourse in Ireland and its over-consumption was blamed for all manner of symptoms that we now know were caused by terrible living conditions and diet.

Not infused but stewed

According to a report from 1894, tea at the time was…

“not infused but stewed”…the usual mode of making it being to put a quantity of tea in the teapot early in the morning, water being added as required, and left to infuse at the fire all day” 

Stewing tea increases the tannin concentration which can inhibit the iron absorption of other foods, particularly while taken during meals. This was a major problem in Ireland at the time due to the already iron-poor diets people were subsisting on.

There is a generic variation found in around 10% of the Irish population that helps those who carry it conserve iron, making it a survival advantage in a time when people needed to conserve what little iron was present in their diets.

This study argues that the HFE gene variant allele C282Y which is found in Ireland more than anywhere else in the world, was maintained as a direct result of the nutritional stressors of that time meaning tea played a role (not a particularly positive one) in the very genetic make-up of the Irish population.

If you have time, that study is well worth a read. It is by far the best resource on the history of tea in Ireland that we came across. 

Irish tea customs today

The following observations are based on our personal experiences of visiting family in Ireland and have been sense-checked by Irish friends of Chanui. 

You can't run out of tea

Running out of tea is simply inconceivable under any circumstance. To paraphrase one contributor to this post:

"We always have at least one pack of Barry's in reserve. It's unthinkable for someone to pop by and you don't have any standard tea to offer them... It would be like someone asking to use your bathroom, and you have to tell them there's no toilet paper in the house. A big faux pas that you’d be judged harshly for and rightly so."

  • Emma, Cork

If you're invited in, you're offered tea

To be fair, this one isn't specific to Ireland, but if you didn't immediately offer someone a cup of tea, there would be a ghost of awkwardness sitting in the corner making everyone feel uncomfortable.

It is pretty much always tea time

The concern of drinking caffeine after a certain hour doesn't seem to have gripped most people in Ireland and literally any time of day is appropriate for a cup of tea.

The following is in answer to the question: 'Do you have any insight into the tea culture of Ireland?'

"They're obsessed.

Yes, after dinner is quite a big thing, even tea with dinner, depending on the tea.

Definitely tea with lunch."

  • Vanessa, Omagh

Apparently, there are "official" tea times, similar to those in Britain: Elevenses, afternoon tea, and high tea. However, the reality on the ground seems to be that tea time is at pretty much every possible opportunity.

If you do want to go for something a little more formal, there are tea rooms in most Irish cities offering you a wide selection of delicacies to eat with your tea. Speaking of which....

What food do people serve with tea in Ireland?

From the sounds of things, the answer is quite often: 'literally anything you fancy eating', but here are some of the more interesting, specifically Irish options.

Tea brack: Also known as "barmbrack," is a fruit-studded sweet yeasted bread often served sliced, toasted, and spread with butter during tea time.

Irish soda bread: Or... "Soda bread" to the locals, is made with buttermilk and leavened with sodium bicarbonate or "bread soda."

Tea cake: A simple cake flavoured with vanilla and sprinkled with icing sugar.

Scones: You know what a scone is? That, but sometimes made with buttermilk for added richness. 

Final thoughts

The practice of taking tea in Ireland was born out of extreme hardship and contributes to a cultural identity of generosity and hospitality known throughout the world.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Ireland and someone offers you a cup of tea, accept that offer. You will leave feeling refreshed, happier and well fed.

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