“I’ll put the kettle on” is an all-encompassing statement employed in so many different situations in this country. For example, it can mean “we’re looking forward to seeing you”, “delighted you’re home”, “that’s terrible news” or “this is awkward, I’ll be back in a minute”. Announce any sort of crisis in an average Irish household and someone is bound to say it. Problems are aired, advice is bestowed and gossip is shared over endless cups of tea in Ireland. The TV character Mrs. Doyle, from the comedy series Father Ted, said it all about our affinity with this innocent beverage. When visiting my sister during her college years, she had one flat mate who had a teapot surgically attached to her right hand long before Mrs. Doyle was created. For her, making tea was a much loved hobby and any and all situations called for a brew. Indeed, as you read this column you might be enjoying a cup right now for all I know.
Tea was first imported to Ireland in 1835 where it became popular with the wealthy, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that it spread to rural areas. Ireland has the largest tea consumption per capita of any country in the world. It’s not really surprising considering that nothing happens here, be it a job, meeting, course, conference, wedding or wake that doesn’t allow for tea and tea breaks. We all know the soothing properties of a simple cup of tea after a long day at work or when you arrive home from a trip.
Given our penchant for tea I laughed out loud when I found an article by the London correspondent for the New York Times dated 1910, heralding the fact that the Irish people were on the brink of extinction because of their tea addiction! Not alcohol or drugs, but tea. It’s so funny I thought I’d share it. It bore the headline, ‘Tea Is Ireland’s Evil’ with the equally worrying sub heading, ‘Ranks Before Alcohol as an Enemy of the Public Health’; here is the article in full.
“Tea is the enemy of the Irish peasantry, according to reports from Inspectors of Irish National Schools which have just been issued in the form of a blue book. Referring to the teaching of cookery in the western district, one Inspector, JP Dalton says, “Of the many abuses that require correction, one in particular must be vigorously combated if the race is to be preserved from deterioration. The use of tea is now carried to such dangerous excess that it ranks before alcohol as an enemy to public health. To aggravate the situation, it is in the very poorest parts of the country that the tea evil is most active and hurtful. Outside the slums of the cities and larger towns there are no people in the British Islands who have to endure a more miserable lot than the congested population of the Connaught seaboard, and yet the carts and vans of the itinerant tea vendors are to be seen everyday going in and out among the most backward and inaccessible Connemara villages. It is only the cheap sorts of tea that reach these poor people, and let the quality be good or bad, the tea is so prepared for use that the liquid, when drunk, has the properties of a slow poison. The teapot stewing on the hearth all day long is kept literally on tap; the members of the family, young as well as old, resorting to it at discretion. I have spoken on the subject to many persons who have ample opportunities of judging – clergymen and members of the medical profession – and they proclaim with one voice that the most serious consequences are to be apprehended from this new and pernicious custom.” Mr. Dalton suggests that the cookery classes should spread a knowledge of the right modes of making and serving tea, and adds, “The class that could popularise a few nutritious vegetable soups among the housewives of its neighbourhood would do more than any other to promote the health and to merit the gratitude of the rising generation.”
Substitute the word tea for cocaine in the above and you have the bones of an up-to-date article. Who’d have believed that the words ‘tea’ and ‘evil’ could be used in the same sentence? Perhaps it was the ‘all day stewing’ that posed the problem for JP Dalton and as for the ‘pusher’ like position taken by the tea sellers, it was quite shocking the way they spread the ‘tea evil’ unhindered throughout the land. Maybe the mass emigration from the West of Ireland to America and the UK in the early part of the 20th century had little to do with poverty and overpopulation; rather they were all just getting away from their tea addiction or perhaps, as Mr. Dalton prophesied, they didn’t leave at all but died from tea poisoning and the tea industry paid to have such facts erased from the history books! Now there’s a conspiracy theory. Thankfully, JP Dalton’s ideas never took off. How time consuming would it be today if everywhere you went you were offered vegetable soup. “Hang on three hours, I’ll just make a fresh batch of vegetable soup, then you can tell me all the news”. Vegetable soup has its place and merit but not as a substitute for tea.
Recent studies however would have JP spinning in his grave as there is now evidence that tea drinking has actual health benefits. Tea contains antioxidants that can protect the body from the ravages of aging and the effects of pollution. Tea has less caffeine than coffee and it may also reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke as drinking tea helps to keep the arteries smooth and clog free. A large study in the Netherlands found a 70% lower risk of fatal heart attack in people who drank two to three cups of tea daily compared to non-tea drinkers. (It would appear that it is the sugar we put in and the obligatory biscuit that is harming us). There are many other benefits suggested by research and recently we have the celebrity phenomenon of Green Tea drinking leading to weight loss. Unlike other herbal teas, green tea comes from the same plant as black tea, your everyday cuppa.
I just wish we had the concerns of JP Dalton today. If only the newspaper headlines screamed of ‘Teenage Binge Tea Drinking’ or ‘Huge Stash of Tea Bags found in Inner City Flat’, our world would be a much better place. I’m off now to spread the ‘tea evil’ a little more. I’m looking forward to a cup of tea and a Hob Nob or four; one of life’s simple pleasures that we tend to take very much for granted.