2015 Press Releases

Cork 1849: a city of feasts and famine

19 Oct 2015
Regina Sexton, Food and Culinary Historian, UCC and the George Boole Sweet Puddings Image: Clare Keogh taken in the kitchens of Fota House

A 19th century recipe book and the letters of George Boole, show that Ireland’s food and dining customs at end of the Famine were far more complex than previously thought.

According to Regina Sexton, food and culinary historian at UCC Cork was literally a city of feast and famine as revealed in Boole’s letters home to his family where he describes dining on turtle soup and champagne while being aware of the deprivation all around.

In his first Irish letter home to his sister Maryann in October 1849 Boole describes the air of utter destitution and abandonment over the whole country on his train journey from Dublin to Cork.  ‘For miles and miles you see nothing but fields overgrown with weed’ and he saw ‘scarcely a human being by the way or a herd of cattle in the fields.’

Boole was a regular dinner guest in the home of the city’s notables including the Bishops of Cork and Major Ludlow Beamish. He was a man of strong social conscience and describes a dinner at which he was a guest beginning with ‘turtle soup and champagne’ which troubled him.  He writes ‘considering the disastrous state of the country a more humble style of entertainment would be more suitable and in better taste.’  

In one of his early letters he noted that the provisions in the city were plentiful and cheap, in particular salmon and fowl.  In the same letter he described the profusion of dishes supplied to his table and the mix of meat and fowl in the one course.

“Mrs O’Brien, our landlady supplies our table most abundantly.  Mother would be surprised at some of our customs turkey with beef, roast goose with roasted bacon, cheese invariably accompanied with butter & excellent apple tarts.”

Boole’s references to dining are numerous: he liked, for example, to meet with students over breakfast and to invite his colleagues to dinner.  In a letter of November 1849 he wrote of entertaining university colleagues and receiving a gift of three snipe.

“George Boole’s letters are important documents,” says UCC food and culinary historian Regina Sexton “as they contribute to our understanding of the city’s food and dining customs and the nature of Irish hospitality from a newcomer’s perspective.  Boole’s observations support the view that the food culture of mid-nineteenth Victorian Cork was far more complex than is generally realised,” she says.

Boole’s active social life outside the university pained him somewhat as it interfered with his work and he wrote home in March 1850 saying he had resolved to limit his entertainments to the tea rather than the dinner table. A wise decision on his part as he may never otherwise have written his seminal work The Laws of Thought whose algebra and symbolic logic pioneered a new mathematics which was the foundation stone of the information age. 

Boole’s experience of Cork’s lavish food culture is also borne out by a 19th century unpublished handwritten recipe book held in UCC.  The recipe book belonged to a Kinsale landowner, Mary Honner, and it illustrates the elaborate dishes that George Boole would most likely have encountered in the dinner tables of Cork’s elite.  The reasonably priced salmon and fowl are well represented in recipes for pickled salmon, salted salmon and in the popular dish of duck and peas and fowl ‘in the French style’.  Mary Honner’s book contains over 170 recipes most of which are culinary recipes.  Sweet and savoury puddings of both a baked and boiled variety are the most numerous recipes followed by recipes for preserved fruits, meat, fish and oysters. The Honner family seem to have had a taste for spicy dishes and the collection contains recipes for curry dishes with meat, curried eggs and instructions for making ‘East India Curry Powder.’  

“The recipe book is typical of the handwritten collections that started to appear in Ireland from the late 17th century,” comments Sexton.  “It contains the usual medley of culinary and medicinal recipes (such as snail tea or broth for consumption, colds and lung congestion) together with household tips, instruction for the care of animals and a few recipes of a cosmetic nature such as ‘tincture for the teeth’ and  ‘to prevent hair falling’.    Dishes typical of an Irish tradition, such as potato and soda bread recipes appear alongside those that are representative of Britain’s Imperial status.”

Below is 47 second demonstration on how to cook the George Boole Sweet Puddings:

According to Regina Sexton the food situation during the Famine and afterwards was very mixed in Cork.  People starved while others had plenty.   As the potato crops failed, grain was exported and as George Boole found there was no shortage of food to be had if you had the money to buy it.  “Boole’s observations are a reminder of the complexities of the Great Famine and they throw up issues such as food security and food poverty, which are very relevant today,” says Sexton.  “In addition, his writings together with the Mary Honner collection of recipes encourage us to re-think our notions of the nature of Irish traditional food. These works lead us to question what is Irish traditional food, how was Ireland’s food culture developed and shaped and how much of it can be taken as being specifically Irish?”

Regina Sexton’s interest in the 19th century food culture was sparked in part by the fact that she comes from generations of Cork bakers whose business was started under the reign of Queen Victoria.  “I grew up in a household where food and bread in particular was a part of our daily conversations,” says Sexton. 

Over 150 years after the Famine UCC has a thriving Food and Nutritional Sciences faculty whose graduates lead the major global food industries based in Munster. The artisan food producers in Cork who have established the city as the food capital of Ireland have nearly all had training in UCC taking full advantage or the rich agricultural hinterland. In addition, UCC is one of only Irish universities to recognise the importance of food and culinary history and its application to Ireland’s food industry in developing product with a tangible link to place and tradition and in promoting an authentic sense of Irish food identity. 

A version of this story appeared in the George Boole Chronicles edited by Olivia Frawley and available from the Visitors Centre in UCC for €15  http://uccshop.ie/george-boole.html

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

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