Food for the Poor in 19th and Early 20th Century Ireland


Letter from James Mourne from Coolbanagher

In 19th century Ireland, while the upper classes gorged themselves on a rich diet of tempting dishes, washed down by fine claret and port, the poor lived mainly on stirabout (porridge), potatoes and milk, supplemented with salted herrings. The potato had long been viewed as a valuable winter food for the poor, but by the late 18th century it had become their staple for much of the year, replacing older staples such as oatcakes. Potatoes were most often boiled in their skins on an open fire and served with milk and melted butter (when the latter was available). They were also the basis of traditional recipes such as boxty bread, stampy and Colcannon (potatoes, onion and kale or cabbage served with knobs of melted butter). When yields were bad or hard work was to be done, potatoes were eaten ‘with the moon’, i.e. half-boiled. As the uncooked crescent centre took longer to digest, it sustained workers through long hours of fasting. As potatoes are highly nutritious, supplying protein, carbohydrate, fats, minerals and vitamins, when eaten with milk or buttermilk they provided a balanced if somewhat monotonous diet.


Another favourite food of the masses was brawn, or collared pig’s head, which is still eaten in some parts of the country today. Although traditionally made from pig’s heads set in gelatine, it might also contain pieces of the feet, tongue or heart, and was therefore a convenient way of preserving offal. In the early 20th century, brawn could be bought from grocers such as that of George Ardill in Maryborough, whose 1911 advertisement in the Leinster Express also mentions that they took butter and eggs in exchange for goods. Brawn was often served with cabbage as a poorer substitute for bacon and cabbage. Tripe was also eaten by the poor and was a popular remedy for excess of alcohol.




The Famine, Soup Kitchens and Food Relief


By the mid-19th century, the poorer Irish had increasingly come to rely on the potato as their sole foodstuff. In pre-Famine Ireland, the average landless labourer consumed anything between 3 and 6 kg of potatoes per day. The variety known as the Lumper (due to its knobbly appearance) accounted for 90% of the potato crop by the 1840s. Originally introduced as cattle fodder, the Lumper was described as a “vile, watery bulb in which there is neither flavour nor nourishment”. Despite its inferior quality, it was increasingly relied upon because it produced higher yields. This reliance on the potato was to have devastating consequences, as successive failures of the crop led to widespread famine and starvation among the poor. An estimated one million Irish died during the Great Famine (1845-49) while a further two million were forced to emigrate.

In the early years, some lives were saved by the introduction of Indian maize (known as Peel’s Brimstone) and by the establishment of soup kitchens (following the ‘Temporary Relief Act/Soup Kitchen Act’ of 1847). The recommended daily ration to be doled out by the soup kitchens was two pints of soup thickened with meal and 4 oz of bread.


One of the soup recipes used was created by Alexis Soyer, a celebrated French chef from the London Reform Club, more used to handling truffles than poor broth, who was invited to Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant to install soup boilers there. Soyer’s Soup was a thin broth of inferior quality beef cooked with onions, celery, pearl barley, flour, dripping, salt and brown sugar. The soup had little nutritional value and many of those who ate it suffered intestinal problems as a result, but Soyer’s recipe and the success of his soup boiler helped spark a humanitarian movement among the upper classes to provide soup for the poor. The Earl of Portarlington, for example, gave generously to the local soup kitchen, contributing ₤94 in 1847 when the next highest donation was ₤20.


On many Irish country estates the practice of providing soup and bread for the poor was of older tradition however. At Abbeyleix, for example, a bound recipe book belonging to Viscountess de Vesci (dated 1839) contains recipes for ‘soup for poor people’ which would have been served to labourers and the local poor. While these recipes use beef, the household accounts show that poor veal (the head, sides and feet) was often substituted instead. As beef was expensive, it was a rare luxury for the poor, and was sometimes donated as a special treat. In 1863, for example, as a Poor Law Guardian, the Earl of Portarlington recommended that the impending wedding of the Prince of Wales should be celebrated by providing the poor of the workhouses with a substantial dinner of beef and pudding. On the day of the wedding, he treated his tenants, labourers and household to this hearty meal. Another typical Victorian charity food was ‘poor man’s pie’, which consisted of inferior meat cooked with dripping, tapioca, potatoes and onions. While this food paled in comparison to what was eaten by the rich, such handouts were no doubt gratefully received by the hungry poor of Victorian Ireland.




Letter from James Mourne from Coolbanagher concerning the Great Famine (dated 1849)


The following extract comes from a letter from James Mourne of Coolbanagher to his daughter in America. It was written in 1849, during the Great Famine.


          “..I got no tidings of you these twelve months past, although you say you wrote three (letters)…I am happy to inform you I got very good health…As you wish to know about the crops we had a very good harvest. Wheat, oats and barley in general throughout the kingdom (are) good but the prices of each are…almost impossible to pay…

          I am sorry to inform you the potatoes have failed again. We had a good sowing made but the one half of them in general are black, and I fear will be useless…

          Not hearing from you for so long left us all quite in a melancholy state, fearing you were dead on account of hearing of so much sickness and the papers mentioning so many deaths in America. Thank God you are alive and well, and may you both long enjoy good health and prosperity…

The prayer of your affectionate father”

(National Library of Ireland, Ms 4593)