“Anomaly Island”

From a food history standpoint Ireland has presented a puzzle in that certain foods which intuition would suggest are of long, continuous usage, are not.

Cheese is an example. For decades I’ve read in popular and other studies that cheese-making was revived only in the last generation, from a dead letter. See e.g. this article from the blog British Food in America, “The Fall and Rise of Irish Cheese”, and her references.

Cheese, hard and soft, had enjoyed ascendancy with other cream-based products at a much earlier period including when Ireland was a multiplicity of kingdoms. But from the 1700s the cheese tradition declined precipitously. Apparently, no one really knows why.

Butter remained popular, so the materials to make cheese, even at artisan level, were available. For some reason the taste died out. Today Irish cheeses are lauded and I had two very good ones the other day at a stout-tasting. They were most complementary. It’s not as if an antimony is at work in the vitals of both foods that made Ireland choose, so to speak!

Another example is fish. Here, I quote journalist Hugh Butler writing in an American newspaper who visited the Free State in 1930:

Of one thing there can be no doubt. Ireland should be called Anomaly Is­land. Can you imagine an island surrounded by waters abounding in edible fish, where the islanders do not fish or eat fish that others catch? With rivers full of salmon and trout caught only for sport by visitors from abroad?

The lingering disinclination is recorded in this Irish Times story of a few years ago. Certainly in coastal regions fish was consumed, the proposition is meant, as all such, in a relative sense.

Many reasons have been suggested for the fish aversion. One is the idea linking fish with Friday and penance. Another is that the British never encouraged development of fishing, preferring to concentrate resources in England and Scotland. (As to Ulster? I don’t know).

The difficulty of internal transportation and cooling was perhaps another factor.

Sometimes there are complex cultural reasons for these developments, not easy to deconstruct. One thing is certain: all cultures decide what to eat, and what not to eat, or eat much of.

The journalist’s overall point was that Ireland was modernizing in ways unheard of in previous decades. He cites the rise of a sugar industry and Ford tractor-manufacture, and of course Guinness brewery as the oldest-established large industry in Ireland.

The title of this post, Anomaly Island, is a quote from his article.

The article has much else of interest. Butler hears a citizen named Murphy muse with clenched pipe that Ulster is the detached fourth leaf on the Irish clover. Writes the journalist:

One day I was leaning over the bridge which spans the Shannon just below the new hydro-electric works at Ardnacrusha, Limerick. “Ireland never had any luck. She’s got only three leaves on her clover—Leinster, Munster and Connaught — but there’s no making a four-leaf clover out for her by attachin’ Ulster.” I could just catch the words in broad Irish brogue from between his teeth, clenching the inevitable, short-stemmed clay pipe. Patrick Murphy was his name, of course.

“Whether it’s a case of luck or not I can’t make sure.” I thought as we looked over the lazy scene together.

Despite Guinness’s “wealth”, Butler claimed that prior to its recent introduction of commercial advertising “production and exports” from St. James Gate were falling. After modern advertising came in, a spurt in both occurred. Butler clearly liked the beer, although somewhat churlishly he found it expensive.

(Clearly, a Buffalo, NY newspaperman’s expense account went only so far).

Thus, modernity saved the day, as he hoped the sugar and vehicle industries would, “dropp[ing] like falling meteors out of the blue” on the ancient small-holding country.

Today, as any visitor records, it’s all changed. The Irish Tiger may have mellowed a bit, but despite periodic slumps – Canada enjoyed an influx of Irish carpenters and other craftsmen a few years ago – the place goes from strength to strength.

Remember the old line from newly enfranchised Mad Men in interwar Dublin? “Guinness for strength”.

Maybe there was something in that beyond the fevers of marketing brains.



2 thoughts on ““Anomaly Island””

  1. Well, the ads would have been commissioned, conceived and produced in the UK, for a British audience. By the ’30s I doubt Guinness needed to advertise in Dublin. The fish thing is completely true and definitely anomalous, though.

    • Thanks, it did occur to me London was involved even though I wrote Dublin, but anyway he did write that exports were boosted, so the overall point may be true.

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