Saturday 24 March 2018

The sad and happy tales of Ireland's love for a good cup of tea

A way to unwind: Author Juanita Brown carried out 130 interviews to find out why the Irish are the world's biggest tea drinkers
A way to unwind: Author Juanita Brown carried out 130 interviews to find out why the Irish are the world's biggest tea drinkers
Memories: The late Michaela Harte with her husband John McAreavey

Graham Clifford

Since the early 1800s, it's oiled the mechanics of our chatterbox nation. Having the cup of tea, which was first introduced to Ireland by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, is not so much the desire for a hot tasty beverage as it is to take part in a social ritual.

Incredibly Ireland is the leading consumer of tea per capita on the planet. We consume 2.71kg – or 1,200 cups – each year.

When JFK visited his home place in New Ross in 1963, he was handed a cup of tea and in more recent years Mrs Doyle banged a familiar drum on Father Ted, asking all in sundry if they'd have a cup – and not taking no for an answer. Some say it calms the nerves, others that it has medicinal properties. One thing everyone can agree on is that it's accompanied millions of fireside chats through the years in Irish homes.

When author Juanita Browne decided to write a book about our nation's obsession, she anticipated hearing about people's passionate, if somewhat irrational, systems for making their own perfect cup of tea.

"When I was working on a wildlife documentary project a few years ago, I noticed a sign on the wall of the kitchen that listed the tea-making instructions for each member of staff. It didn't matter who volunteered to make the tea, the 'Tea List' ensured that everyone got the cup they wanted. It just intrigued me that all these people had their own ways of making the same thing," she said.

As she started carrying out interviews for Put the Kettle On, she quickly realised it wasn't the tea itself, and our loyalty towards it, that was intriguing, but more the memories we associate with it.

"Sometimes we forget about the ritual. Even when someone passes away you might have all the women in the kitchen making the tea for those who call around to offer their condolences. The process involves movement, question-asking and familiarity in a difficult time – it makes people feel comfortable."

Juanita chose a diverse group of tea drinkers to meet across the country – she carried out 130 interviews over a year. Amongst them was John McAreavey. The husband of the late Michaela Harte gives a charming account of student days at Queen's University when his bride-to-be lived in what became known as 'the Tea House'.

After nights out, students would drop in for a cuppa and a chat. "You wouldn't get anything stronger than tea there and maybe toast and biscuits. I think the girls (Michaela and her best friend Edel) liked this idea: that they might be sobering a few people up before they headed home."

John hopes that the Michaela Foundation Centre will be built in Tyrone before long and he plans to call its café 'the Tea House' in memory of the social hub Michaela and her friends created during their college days in Belfast.

Derry City FC manager Roddy Collins told Juanita how his granny used to read the tea leaves up by the fire in her house on Dublin's South Circular Road.

"She'd always look into the cup and say 'Jesus, I see a big tall, dark handsome man . . . he looks like a film star'. The next week it would be, 'oh, there's going to be a tragedy' and my ma and aunties would shout 'I don't want to know'."

Put the Kettle On is packed with personal tales from famous names, which include celebrity chef Catherine Fulvio and former Glenroe star Mary McEvoy to your everyday tea drinker. There are tea addicts, teabag haters, connoisseurs and even a teapot collector.

Juanita feels we shouldn't under-estimate the positive impact tea has on us. "In staff rooms, hospitals, and homes across Ireland everyday people are slowing down when the tea is ready. They know it's time to talk, to share and maybe to offload."

In Galway's Corrib House Tea Rooms, David Bohan sees the tea-drinkers pop in for a chat once the morning rush has passed over. "Nowadays we'd sell a lot of coffee first thing with people on their way to work, but as the day progresses the pots of tea are ordered and customers take their time drinking them – often in deep discussion with someone else. The younger customers tend to be into the different varieties of coffee but those aged 30 and over are still loyal to the tea."

In Tralee, too, at Mary Anne's Tea Rooms on Denny Street, the hustle and bustle of town life is left behind. "There's nothing really like the karma of the tea room," explains owner Eileen Nolan. "It's the perfect way to spend an hour or more, drinking tea and catching up – sure it's the Irish way."

Put the Kettle On by Juanita Browne is published by Collins Press and retails at €19.99. Available through all good book shops.

Irish Independent

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