Tea and a Chat

“In Ireland, you go to someone’s house, and you are asked if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.
In America,someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no,and then you don’t get any damned tea.
I like the Irish way better” C E Murphy

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.

“Ah sure, you’ll just have a quick cuppa tea in the hand.”

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.

“A cup of tea and a packet of assorted biscuits”. Twopence the tea, twopence the biscuits, a perfectly balanced meal.

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 Time” by Tom McEwan, 1846-1914

Tea should be strong enough for a mouse to trot on!”

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.

Life is like a cup of tea; it’s all in how you make it 

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

‘tea was more important than bullets’.

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.

Tea though, he loved his cup of tea; twenty bleedin’ cups.
He had a mug for work that he’d had for years; he still had it. It was a big plain white one, no cracks, no stupid slogans. He put two teabags into it; used two. My God, he’d never forget the taste of the first cup of tea in the morning, usually in a bare room in a new house with muck and dirt everywhere, freezing; fuck me, was great; it scalded him on the way down; he could feel it all the way. And the taste it left; brilliant; brilliant. He always used two bags, squeezed the bejesus out of them. The mug was so big it warmed more than just his hands. It was like sitting in front of a fire. After a few gulps he’d sip at it and turn around and look at his work.” Roddy Doyle

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