Having a “cuppa and a chat”, is a favourite pastime of the Irish people. A cup of Irish tea in Gaelic is ‘cuppa tae” or the more English version “cuppa tay”.
As soon as you enter an Irish home you will hear “Would you like a cup of tea?” “Oh, why not?” Tea is a conversation starter, a chance to sit and listen, in some circles a chance for a bit of gossip and no doubt a laugh.
Have you heard the expression ” A cuppa tea in the hand?’ It is another rather odd Irish custom to offer a Cuppa tea in the hand when the hostess of a house doesn’t want to push the visitor to sit down for Tea.
It means she knows the person is busy and she doesn’t mind if the visitor drinks the Tea quickly as it were – on the run! The hidden intent is that the guest does sit down for a lengthy chat and gossip of course.
Although the Irish love Jameson’s Whisky & Guinness they also appear to love their Tea and are said to be the second-highest drinkers of Tea in the world ( Surprisingly Turkey is first). The Irish drink about 5-7 cups a day and all pubs are expected by law to serve Tea. I wonder if this is the origin of the word “tea totaller”? And those who abstained from alcoholic drinks in the pub must have drunk Tea.
Tea is ubiquitous in Ireland to the extent that is a social faux pas to not drink tea and offering a cup of tea is a symbol of their hospitality, kindliness and friendship. It is a great way to keep cheerful in the cold Irish weather and a chance to make friends or visitors feel welcome. The ritual of putting the kettle on takes away any awkwardness in the initial moments of unexpected guests arriving and it gives you something to do as you start a conversation. It’s a great leveller and creates a sense of warmth and generosity that breaks down social barriers.
What we know today as Irish breakfast Tea has a rich history that began in the middle of the 18th century. The Tea available in Ireland was not of good quality because the English would take the best quality tea first and ship the rest to Ireland when the first East India Trading Company shipped supplies of Tea from the Far East.
The Irish made their Tea with masses of milk to cover up the taste so they made it quite strong because the milk diluted the Tea. This tradition continues today and Irish Tea is much stronger than English.
Tea was very expensive and only available to the wealthy so drinking Tea became a status symbol as it was beyond the reach of most people. Being invited to an Irish home to drink tea was seen as a step up the social ladder. The tradition of always offering tea in an Irish home harks back to this early sense of tea being a status symbol.
The high cost of Tea was due to the control imposed by the East India Company and others who imported the tea to the UK and the shipping costs were high in tariffs. Around 1835 an entrepreneur and merchant Samuel Bewley decided to cut the middleman out and attempt to make tea more affordable. It was a risky move when Samuel and his son Charles took on the large companies and imported tea directly to Ireland onboard the ship Hellas. The first ship to import directly from Canton China to Dublin with 2099 chests of Tea. It was a success and meant they were able to supply Tea at a reduced rate and stopped the East India Company’s monopoly. By the middle of the 1800s, Ireland had the best quality tea and Tea became popular throughout the country for all.
Three Tea companies in Ireland, Barry’s, Lyon’s, and Bewley’s, decided to join together and after the 2nd World war bought their country’s supply of Tea directly from India and Sri Lanka. The blend they crafted became known as Irish Breakfast Tea. A robust tea called Assam from India that gives body, briskness and a malt flavour and a varied amount of lighter style Ceylon Tea from Sri Lanka gave it a golden colour intense flavour. The tea is strong so usually made with a liberal splashing of full cream milk. As is the case elsewhere some people add sugar.
In 1914 the Army Service Corps of 320,000 men and 12,000 officers were catering for 5 million British troops. Their ration included 5/8 oz of tea. In 1940 Churchill said that
Then the Irish Government created Eire – Tea Importers Ltd. which meant tea was imported directly from the country of origin. In fact, until Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, all other types of trade were prohibited resulting in Ireland having the very best fine quality tea in the world.
The Rules of Irish Tea
- Tea must have milk and quite a lot.
- Tea must be made with boiling water
- Tea must never run out in an Irish home.
- If you make yourself a cup of tea, you must offer to make tea for everyone in the house.
- Irish hospitality means as soon as a guest walks through the door, the host must offer a cup of tay!
Content Di Baker 2020 with courtesy to Marcus Samuelsson for the History.
Images Wikimedia and Unsplash
Header Image painting by Edward Antoon Portielje, 1861-1949