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Beyond the potato: dietary reform in post-Famine Ireland, c.1850–1950

August 17, 2012

By Ian Miller

Irish dietary habits adjusted dramatically following the Great Famine (1845–52). Previously, the potato had been ubiquitous. Less affluent communities relied upon it almost exclusively as a staple food. The potato blight severely disrupted this, and following the Famine, the popularity of the potato gradually waned. In its place, the Irish populace began consuming what, in many ways, might be considered a more modern diet. This story is commonplace within Irish historiography. But how exactly did this rapid conversion occur? Did the potato fall out of fashion simply as a natural response to lessons learned from the Famine, or was this transition more complex? What role did different communities play in guiding dietary change? And did anxieties about food consumption ever resurface as new foodstuffs became popular?

My work probes into the intricate process of post-Famine dietary change. Previously, historians have approached the matter through the lens of modern nutritional reasoning, charting the likely nutritional status of past Irish communities. Economic historians, meanwhile, have often depicted post-Famine dietary adjustment as a positive marker of Irish socioeconomic progress. Diminishing reliance upon the potato safeguarded against further major famines while simultaneously bringing the country in line with modern economic systems of producing, importing and exporting a mixture of basic food types. Yet few historians have paused to consider how smooth a process post-Famine dietary change may or may not have been, or to question how contemporaries viewed and responded to such a dramatic adjustment. Historians have also refrained from inquiring into which actors and social agents were involved in guiding and regulating diet, despite the period being characterised by food transforming into an increasingly ‘medicalised’ topic. This was exacerbated by an increasingly tense socioeconomic climate, which meant that all areas of Irish life – even the private world of consuming – could often be highly politicised.

Irish cookery class, early 20th century. Courtesy of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

Irish cookery class, early 20th century. Courtesy of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

A key objective of this project is to show that the Famine provided medical scientists, for the first time, with a crucial opportunity to influence Irish consumption patterns. Political economists had long castigated Ireland’s mono-crop culture for the country’s relatively underdeveloped socioeconomic condition. During the Famine, key medical and scientific figures took advantage of the apparent physio-sociological proof afforded by the Famine of the pitfalls of widespread potato consumption in order to impose new ideas of what to eat, and why. Armed with the fruits of Justus von Liebig’s sophisticated inquiries into the nutritional contents of foodstuffs (and their workings within the human body), scientific luminaries such as Robert Kane and leading Irish medical figures such as Dominic Corrigan made full use of their official roles on government schemes like the Scientific Commission and the Central Board of Health to propagate their visions of what foods the Irish should eat instead of the potato. Based on the most up-to-date scientific thinking, citizens were taught how to extract starch from diseased potatoes, grow new vegetable crops, and cook new goods such as Indian meal (cornmeal, now known as maize). Yet impoverished Irish communities knew little about how to grow or cook crops other than the potato, nor did they have plentiful access to them. At worst, some of the scientific advice dispensed was highly impractical.

Although unsuccessful, these state-directed efforts to harness nutritional expertise were in some ways remarkable for their time, given that Western governments tended not to intervene in the arenas of nutrition and diet to any considerable extent until after World War I. Yet state interest dwindled rapidly after the Famine, and opportunities were lost.

Popular enthusiasm for nutritional science also waned due to profound scepticism towards its practical utility in Ireland. Instead, when the state did attempt to apply forms of food science, it tended to focus upon areas such as agricultural education. This discipline often benefited cattle graziers who sold their cattle to British markets. In increasing numbers they profited from an ever-expanding urban demand in England. As nutritious meat products began to be exported in rising quantities, the Irish populace demonstrated an ingrained tendency to consume cheaper imported food products. Problematically, a system developed whereby nutritious foodstuffs (eggs, butter and meat) were exported out of the country, while less nutritious ones were imported for popular consumption.

The Irish poor certainly relied increasingly less upon the potato, yet this trend had noteworthy physical consequences for the ordinary populace. By 1900, middle-class critics were referring back to the pre- Famine era as a period of dietetic and nutritional health, not least because it seemed that the potato was being replaced by foodstuffs containing little nutritional value. Medical intervention in diet waned following the Famine, and little was achieved in terms of knowledge about a balanced diet. Tea, in particular, was very popular and increasingly castigated. Irish housewives were publicly blamed for their over-reliance on tea as a staple dietary article of little nutritional value because it was generally consumed with a few slices of processed white bread. Critics noted that asylum admissions were strongly rising, and there seemed to be a link between poor diet and the so-called development of a ‘nervous society’ in Ireland. Many argued that imported food products were a contributory factor. Leading Irish psychiatrists, including Thomas Drapes, medical superintendent of Enniscorthy Asylum, lamented the direction of food adjustment, fearing that the Irish populace knew little of cooking foodstuffs other than the potato – a scenario that was impacting detrimentally upon national physical and psychological wellbeing. Pseudo- medical diagnoses symbolised by ‘tea mania’ became a topic of lively debate, not least because it seemed to represent all that had gone wrong in terms of poor diet since the Famine.

Things did slowly improve from the early 20th century. Domestic education in national schools spread from 1900. Furthermore, the work of philanthropic groups such as the Women’s National Health Association did much to raise awareness of the nutritional value of milk among working-class mothers. In many ways, this followed trends evident in other countries whereby nutritional education for vulnerable populations became propagated by philanthropic groups. Uniquely, however, blame for chronic poverty, poor nutrition and insufficient cookery skills became increasingly directed towards the British government, which is unsurprising given the fraught political climate of these years. For instance, when revolutionary Maud Gonne (then lover of poet W B Yeats) campaigned for school dinners to be provided to schoolchildren to improve their physical and mental stamina, she did so by invoking the cultural memory of the Famine as part of her Republican propaganda. For Gonne, the alleged starvation of schoolchildren throughout the day within a government-sanctioned scheme of compulsory education echoed what she believed to be the state-sanctioned starving of Ireland in the 1840s.

Such claims were, of course, essentially rhetorical and propagandist in nature, yet they do reveal how food consumption was often conceptualised, and deeply entangled, within a wider nexus of tense Anglo-Irish relations. Once international food trading routes became disrupted at the start of World War I, the dangers of a food exchange system between England and Ireland were exposed once more. Ireland repeated historical trading patterns by exporting its nutritious goods to Britain while continuing to import less nutritious food. For many Irish contemporaries, Republican or otherwise, it appeared that Ireland could face renewed mass starvation. Sinn Féin propaganda lapped up the irony of the situation, resonant as it was with the Famine, as part of their strident campaign for Irish independence. They made daily claims following the Easter Rising that the British were seeking to starve Ireland into political submission. Even to less politically minded contemporaries, it seemed clear that the direction of post-Famine dietary change had gone askew, and that the country needed to produce its own foodstuffs, consume its own food supplies, and feed its own citizens nutritionally.

In post-Famine Ireland, the subjects of food, nutrition and dietetic health were frequently entangled with wider political issues, and with ongoing concerns regarding Britain’s presence in Ireland. A diverse range of actors – medical, scientific and political – became involved in food matters for an array of personal and professional reasons. These are the themes that I am using to produce a more nuanced picture of dietary change in post-Famine Ireland. My central concern is to trace the transition from a mono-crop potato culture, to uncover what was happening in terms of an intrinsically complex, multilayered and fragile diet-driven historical process. Unlike in many other Western countries, anxieties regarding nutritional health seemed less connected to urbanisation or modernisation, and were instead framed with reference to Ireland’s quasi-colonial status and the negative impact of a transition to international economic modernity. Although the declining popularity of the potato did indeed shield Ireland from future famines, new evidence suggests that dietary adjustment was complicated and could hardly be described as an entirely positive phenomenon. Nutritional standards dropped, and the ramifications of this were felt in social, medical and political circles, for many decades following the Famine.

Dr Ian Miller is an IRCHSS Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin (E His first book, A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric illness, medicine and British society, was published by Pickering and Chatto in 2011. The research featured in this article is part of a project that will result in a second book, Building a Healthy and Happy Nation: Dietary change in Ireland, 1850–1950, to be published by Manchester University Press in 2013.

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