Irish Studies x Food Studies

© Jane McGaughey

Content Warning: Food-related trauma

For those of us working at the intersection of food studies and Irish studies, this is an incredibly exciting time.  The range and scope of work being conducted on any number of topics—including but not limited to Irish food-related practices as intangible cultural heritage, manuscript cookbooks, culinary tourism, materiality and food in domestic spaces, and literary representations of food—represents a robust challenge to problematic claims made about Ireland supposedly lacking an elaborate food culture, as well as a different direction from research that previously centred on the experience and legacy of famine.  In my own doctoral work, at a nascent stage but perhaps (hopefully!) beginning to crystallize around plant-based food, medicine, and artistic practice as part of Ireland’s cultural heritage within the theoretical frames of feminist food studies, ethnobotany, and cultural geography (finally takes a breath), has been contending with the ethical considerations of the field’s reality: how does one, at once, celebrate a vibrant and abundant food history while appropriately making space for the important roles of lack, starvation and its related illnesses, and food-related trauma? 

Call it recency bias if you will, but I see food-related themes and patterns everywhere in Irish history, even in the modern military and political histories to which my previous studies were dedicated.  Hunger striking has been part of key moments and events in Irish history from the Irish Revolution up through the Troubles.  Butter in the co-operative movement, agricultural prices at the heart of the Land War.  I’ve also noticed how food factors into the stuff of the GMM project.  During rounds on August 16, 1847, at the makeshift sheds set up on Grosse Île to cope with the influx of Irish immigrants suffering from typhus, a Dr. Landry was appalled by the diet offered to those in the sheds.  Apparently, the food was offered most late, in one case lunch was served after 3 :00pm.  The food itself is usually a “mix” of things, and patients often just preferred “clear water” to what was on offer.  In addition, milk was not readily available for the sick’s children, as their provider could not keep up with demand, nor was rice water or barley water, both of which are better for diarrhea and dysentery than plain water.  Dr. Landry reports receiving many complaints, particularly re: the “mix,” himself.  People usually didn’t want supper on account of how badly prepared it was.  When asked why these other two milk alternatives were not available, in-charges told Dr. Landry, that he should wait until the Hospital was served, and if there was anything left, then the sheds would get some (BAnQ P155-S2-SS5-SSS2-D2 Hôpital de la Marine et des Émigrés 1847-48).  I think I’m starting to sound like a bit of a broken record here with all of the blog posts suggesting the “history is now” theme, but this brings to mind countless social media posts taken by hospital patients or their loved ones dismayed by the food served to those in fragile states of health.  The same can be said for food served in penitentiaries. 

In an attempt to begin to answer the question posted in this post’s first paragraph, a few things come to mind as I embark on this food studies journey, both in my own doctoral work and examining this within the context of GMM.  Food is politics; knowledge of and access to it, and what constitutes “healthy” or “health-promoting” food, is a privilege beyond measure.  Food is memory; just as Proust’s madeleine conjures nostalgia for past times, food can trigger trauma associated to lack thereof.  Finally, food is power; those in particular positions can control its quality and distribution, prioritizing some eaters over others, just as food can be a key activator of social change and transformation.


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