Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: Privileged Lives, a social history of middle-class Ireland 1882-1989 by Tony Farmar

A&A Farmar, €19.95

Brighid Hourican

Published 30/01/2011 | 05:00

THEN AND NOW: Over the generations the size of the typical Irish middle-class family meal has shrunk dramatically - in 1878, five-courses were the norm - yet our waistlines have grown
Photo first published between 1904 and 1910, courtesy National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive
THEN AND NOW: Over the generations the size of the typical Irish middle-class family meal has shrunk dramatically - in 1878, five-courses were the norm - yet our waistlines have grown Photo first published between 1904 and 1910, courtesy National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive

A typical mid-week dinner for an Irish middle-class family in 1878: Tapioca soup, whiting with plain butter sauce, boiled steaks of mutton, cold beef, salad, apple Charlotte, macaroni and cheese. What a lot of food. What a lot of flesh! And all ending with macaroni and cheese instead of crackers and cheese ...

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Two generations on, 1943, and the Irish middle classes are eating three-course rather than five-course dinners, but still have red meat every day (except Fridays) and dessert too.

Move on to 2011 and the middle classes now have small dinners, not generally including dessert and limiting red meat to a few times a week (but are still more likely to be overweight than their ancestors).

What's with our obsession about the way they ate then? There's no social history without food. Tony Farmar knows this and doesn't deny us the fascinating culinary details, reprinting in full the Irish Medical Association's 1882 banquet: turtle soup, goslings, foie gras, turbot and lobster sauce being only the most exotic items. He is also excellent on what he calls "the valued social goods including housing, diet, clothing, health".

The middle classes always have money but how they spend it is always changing. In 1932 they spent twice as much on food as on housing (most were still renting) and paid a maximum 4.5 per cent income tax; by 1989 house prices had jumped 80 per cent in a decade.

The value attached to different professions also veers wildly: 1907 was a good year to be a poet -- WB Yeats then earned more than a top retail manager and five times more than a dispensary doctor; in 1956 bank managers earned only 30 per cent more than school teachers; the top earners in 1967 were pilots, who made three times more than engineers and architects. Credit sloshes round the ages, like water finding its own level.

Farmar has a large story to tell: a hundred years of the Irish middle classes. His first concern is to establish that Ireland has, and had, a class system. I can't imagine anyone arguing that now, but apparently classlessness was a point of pride in the 20th Century. Farmar quotes sources such as Todd Andrews (founder of the Andrews political dynasty), "There was no social immobility based on birth or inherited wealth"; the author Ulick O'Connor, "We have an aristocracy of personality. There is a kind of classlessness in Irish society because we are more interested in a man's mind or personality than his title or income", and a 1963 Limerick judge who refused to accept counsel's argument that there was a class difference between farmers and farm labourers.

What Farmar thinks of this wishful thinking is indicated in his title, and his stats: in the Thirties there were half a million pupils in primary schools, and 30,000 in secondary schools.

To condense his tale, Farmar shines the light on five key years, each representing a generational shift. He starts in 1882, the year after the Land Act which began the transfer of land from the Ascendancy to the middle classes, and his other key years are 1907, 1932, 1963 and 1989.

For each date he looks at aspects of middle-class life, with particular emphasis on the role of women. His research is extensive and varied, using stats, parliamentary debates/committees, health commissions, novels, diaries, cookbooks, etc.

You will mine this book for those revealing asides which confound the history you thought you knew -- 1907 was the year of the Playboy Riots but the Abbey's seats were often empty and the middle classes more likely to be enjoying farces and pantos at the Theatre Royal and the Tivoli; as early as 1932 cancer was the third leading cause of death and killed almost as many as tuberculosis (I thought it a much more modern ill).

But as a book, the parts work better than the whole. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of the method -- focusing on five capsule years encourages a piecemeal approach. Between 1907 and 1932 came the First World War, independence, the Civil War, and the Wall Street crash -- all these affected the middle classes, but not in ways Farmar goes into.

Then, while it may seem unfair to blame him on the one hand for too little information and on the other for too much, he does have a tendency to cram in his facts and stats and anecdotes and quotes so that on some pages you can feel as bloated as after an 1878 banquet. And he might have been better putting "Dublin" instead of Ireland in the title because his focus is overwhelmingly on the capital.

He stops on the eve of the Tiger and forgoes a conclusion. Someone else -- or him in a later book? -- will have to tell the story of the next 20 years, the most exciting period for the Irish middle class life since the Land Act.

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