Irish women drinking tea 'viewed as irresponsible as whiskey drinkers'
In early 19th-century, poor Irish women who drank tea were viewed as irresponsible as whisky drinkers, new research by Durham University has revealed.
Critics at the time declared that the practice of tea drinking was contributing to the stifling of Ireland's economic growth, and was clearly presented as reckless and uncontrollable.
Pamphlets published in England at the time suggest that the concerns about tea drinking were also felt widely outside Ireland. Some believed it threatened the wholesome diet of British peasants and symbolised damage to the social order and hierarchies.
The Durham University study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, revealed that reformers singled out tea drinking amongst peasant women as a practice, which needed to be stamped out to improve the Irish economy and society.
"Peasant women were condemned for putting their feet up with a cup of tea when they should be getting a hearty evening meal ready for their hard-working husbands," said author Dr Helen O'Connell, Lecturer in English Studies at Durham University, who analysed pamphlets and literature from that time.
"The reformers, who were middle to upper-class, were trying to get the peasant women to change their ways, albeit in a somewhat patronising way, for the greater good of the country. The reformers made it clear they saw tea-drinking as reckless and uncontrollable," she stated.
Pamphlets the reformers distributed to peasant households lambasted tea drinking as a luxury poor women could not afford and which could even cause addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies.
It was also said that tea drinking could even be akin to being a member of a secret society, a belief which heightened political anxieties at a time of counter revolution within the Union of Britain and Ireland.
English reformers were equally worried about sugar - tea was always sweetened then - and its connotations with slavery and the controversial plantations of the West Indies.
Dr Helen O'Connell said: "The prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women.
"If that wasn't enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time.
"It is unsurprising that tea consumption would generate considerable anxiety in Ireland in this period," she asserted.
The Durham University paper was published in the academic journal Literature and History.