The Politics of Food and Alcohol

  • Martyn J. Powell


Irish consumption of food and alcohol – notably the potato, whiskey and Guinness – has played an important role in defining Irish identity. In the eighteenth century this type of consumption created bonds and divisions within Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain. William Drennan noted a general Irish love of drink, but with a divide between ‘the habits of the people, high and low … with the one half, wine the chief good, and with the other whisky’.1 Richard Twiss, visiting Cork, argued that ‘the forte of the citizens does not lie in the sciences of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, or such trifles, but in the more essential arts relative to eating and drinking; such as the slaughter of hogs, oxen, and sheep, in order to exchange the superfluous pork, beef, and mutton, for wine’.2 If Twiss, a hostile commentator, is to be believed, then Irish consumption had a number of associations: with impoliteness, lack of material and artistic culture and an unrestrained appetite for alcohol. The majority of the inhabitants of Cork were Catholics, and thus these traits might have been connected in Twiss’s mind with Catholicism and the ‘old’ Irish. Yet just as Ascendancy attitudes towards the ‘old’ Irish metamorphosed during this period, so did attitudes towards certain aspects of their consumer culture. Irish buttermilk, for example, had ‘old’-Irish impolite connotations, but also health-giving properties, partly due to the perceived robustness of the Irish peasantry. Of course this image existed alongside that of the English or Irish macaroni, whose effeminate drink of choice was milk.3


Eighteenth Century Public House Modest Proposal Merchant Guild Free Citizen 
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© Martyn J. Powell 2005

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  • Martyn J. Powell

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