The cup of tea is an Irish institution. Of course all cultures have tea ceremonies. The Japanese have their elaborate, intricate ritual of precision and beauty that opens the participants into the timeless tranquility of the moment. The English, historically, have their afternoon tea with its aristocratic associations and formality while American professionals go for “coffee”, an art-form taken to new heights by the so-called hipster generation.
The Irish cup of tea is distinct,if not entirely different, and here, just for fun, I want to try and pin the ritual down, knowing in advance my generalisations will ultimately fail and any attempt to define and even describe it will be like trying to hold a handfull of milk. For the ritual itself is liquid, expanding into the space it is put and flowing freely and easily across the boundaries of our lives.
Ultimately it is intimate; at the heart of family life. It invites conversation of a generally innocuous kind; the weather, kind-hearted gossip about others and practical considerations will form the main topics of conversation. But amongst family and friends there is the potential for more serious matters to be raised and shared, if neccessary. In offering tea you offer your attention, your listening, your small talk. Most of the time, people prefer to keep the conversation simple and innocous, avoiding contentious issues such as politics or religion but amongst friends there is space to venture into more personal matters but also no pressure.
In general the conversation is light and the atmosphere sympathetic. For better or worse many things will be left unsaid. But there is space to raise issues too, if you need it.
Among friends the intimacy will be just as strong or stronger but even among work colleagues who don’t know each other so well, a little of the intimacy remains.
There is still the shared space, the sympathetic conversation and
the banalities that bind. Such simple, saying nothing conversation, needs to be mastered or at least practiced. It is a bit of an art form.
The tea itself is almost always black, fermented tea with milk. The blend that emerged as favourite blends Assam tea from India with Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and is known as Irish breakfast tea. The Barry family in Cork were famous tea importers and while they traded in Cork from 1901 it wasn’t until the 1960’s that they cut out the English merchants and imported directly from Asia. They are a highly influential in politics and business to this tea and the Barrys brand carries the same comforting associations of home as Guinness stout or Tayto crisps for many.
The milk is crucial. Comforting. It can be strong or weak and everyone will have a preference. It is possible you will be judged as a particular type of person depending on how strong you like your tea! Builders tea, for example, is strong to the point of bitterness and has often been stewing so long that it has even cooled down a little. Any fussiness or fastidiousness about how one likes one’s tea will certainly be taken as an indication of either contrariness or conscientiousness.
The amount of milk added is also a highly personal matter and if making tea for someone else, you should allow them to add their own milk. People are very particular about thier tea !
Tea arrived in Ireland in the 1700’s. Initially confined to the aristocratic classes it became more widespread in the 1800’s as prices dropped and tea imports (often smuggled poor quality tea) increased. In fact, drinking tea was a rebellious and feminist activity. The aristocratic English viewed the Irish penchant for tea drinking, particularly among women as alarming and pamphlets distributed encouraging women to use both their time and their money more appropriately.
Who knew that tea drinking could have revolutionary connotations? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Irish tea story I have come across. The wealthy believed tea was their prerogative and despised its spread among the masses.
“Must not every poor mans wife work in and out of doors and do all she can to help her husband. And do you think you can afford tea at thirteen pence a day. Put that out of your head entirely Nancy and give up the tea for good” urged a pamphlet of the day.
Helen O Connell has done extensive research on attitudes towards tea drinking in Ireland by the l chattering classes and believes it was a common enough preoccupation amongst them. It was believed that tea drinking could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.
The social nature of the ritual, its connotations of social betterment and even plain enjoyment seemed to perturb them greatly. While reading articles from the period and imagining conditions of the time a picture emerges in my mind of people enjoying tea in pretty poor housing and in the midst of cold weather taking a revolutionary and illicit comfort in a cup of smuggled tea. The hot warm tea and the social banter form a quiet statement of equality and sensible materialism.
Its not quite the Boston tea party but perhaps a million Irish tea partys somehow fanned the flames of the many social movements towards the end of the 19th century. It is easy to assume that the humble pot of tea helped serve as a symbol of equality and betterment and helped a nation on its way.
Is this why we hold the humble pot of tea with such reverence and affection to this day ? we are certainly the biggest tea drinkers in the world.
And on a lighter note, Mrs Doyle is pretty passionate about her tea
while Eamon Kelly tells a hilarious story of a poor tay boy (tea seller) from times past.
Note: This article was produced with the assistance of two cups of coffee, one peppermint tea and one black tea without milk or sugar.