Archive for the ‘The Irish’ Category

Irish Whiskey Has a Surprising Past

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

For some reason, the other day I had to look up Irish whiskey to see whether it was spelled with an “e,” and while I was checking the spelling, I learned about the history of Irish whiskey, too. It was interesting enough to inspire me to share (the knowledge, not my stash of liquor. I’m not that generous.)Kate Dolan writes about the history of Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is one of the very oldest European distilled spirits. Legend has it that monks took the knowledge of distilling perfume from Mediterranean culture and altered the technology to create ardent spirits sometime around A.D. 1200. The name “whisky” even comes from the Irish branch of the Gaelic language –  uisce beatha, which roughly translates as “water of life.” Those monks knew they were onto something.

Early records of whiskey distilling in Ireland are scarce, but there was enough of it going on that the English Parliament felt a need to pass a law in 1556 restricting distillation to “gentleman” unless the distiller had a license. This law was promptly ignored. In 1661, Great Britain instituted a tax on whiskey distillers, but registering to pay the tax was voluntary, and not surprisingly, few volunteered. Finally, in the 1761 started to get serious about collecting taxes from producers, and whiskey was then divided into two types – “parliamentary whiskey” and poitín (often spelled “poteen”) small pot-stilled liquor produced and sold illegally.

The popularity of the drink grew phenomenally fast and by the the end of the 1700s, the whiskey sold better in Ireland than rum, brandy and gin combined. By the 1820s, the distilleries in Dublin were among the biggest in the world and for a time Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit worldwide, far surpassing Scotch whisky.  Irish distillers even added an “e” to the word to differentiate their product from the inferior version produced in Scotland.

But this popularity didn’t last. Changes in distillation processes and aggressive moves by Scotch distillers cut into the market. Then the market virtually disappeared as Ireland engaged in a series of conflicts with it’s biggest market, the U.K., then engaged in civil war with itself, and then saw its American market plowed under the blanket of a ten year prohibition. By the 1930s, there was virtually nothing left of the booming industry and the decline continued until there were only five distillers remaining by the 1950s. When those consolidated, there were only two left in the 1970s-and they were both owned by the same company.

Frankly, I think if it hadn’t been for Irish coffee, the world would have forgotten about Irish whiskey.

But fortunately in the late 1980s, the trend slowly started to reverse. A new distillery opened for the first time in 100 years. Others followed and the market share has been steadily growing. However, it’s hard to imagine it will ever catch up to Scotch whisky, which today sells 15-16 times better.

But who knows? America is a big market, and we don’t hold huge drinking festivals to celebrate any Scottish saints. So maybe it’s just a matter of time until Irish whiskey regains its title.

I know I’m doing my part to make that goal a reality.

Slainte! And Happy Patrick’s Day

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Much of the information about the history of Irish whiskey came from Masters of Malt (https://www.masterofmalt.com/blog/post/irish-whiskey-everything-you-need-to-know-part-1.aspx)

If you enjoy reading about fictional characters who drink a lot of Irish whiskey or whatever else they can get their hands on, you might like my 18th Century historical stories Restitution, Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure (although the pirates in that book drank far more brandy than whiskey.) And the characters Jack McCready (Restitution) and Edward Talbot (Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure) both happen to be from Ireland as well.

Potato, Patata–and Stay Away from Green Ones

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

I can believe that some people say “to-mah-to” but I always thought that when Ira Gershwin wrote “You like potato, and I like potahto,” in the classic tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was just being lazy with his rhyme scheme.
Turns out he was being historically accurate. Sort of.
Potatoes were introduced into European culture by the Spanish, who discovered the crop in Peru. They called it the “patata” (maybe to go with the “tomata”). In any case, they still use the word, so the Gershwin lyric holds up. I’m sure you find that a relief!Kate Dolan warns everyone about deadly potatoes
But you should call the whole thing off if the potato is green. That’s because green potatoes are loaded with a poisonous substancen known as solanine. It’s a bitter-tasting chemical found in the leaves, stems and shoots of potatoes, and it protects the plants from being devoured by insects. When potato tubers (the part we eat) are exposed to light while growing, they turn green and fill with solanine as a means of protection. But what protects the plant is harmful to anyone who consumes it. Fortunately, because of the bitter taste, most people stop before they eat enough to cause major problems. But solanine poisoning can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmares, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice, hypothermia and even death. Obviously this is rare, and it tends to happen only in places where famine is so severe that people are willing to eat something that tastes as bad as a solanine-infused potato.
And this made me think of the Irish potato famine. From 1845 until 1851, starvation caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop caused death of a million people in Ireland. I imagine those people would have been tempted to eat green potatoes, so I wondered if solanine played any part in the deaths. I haven’t been able to find any connection so far, and from the descriptions of the blight that ruined the crops, I imagine the potatoes turned to black mush before they had the chance to turn green.
It’s a pretty depressing topic for contemplation, and if you’d like to feel even worse, there’s a miserably informative series of articles about the famine starting here: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/introduction.htm
After reading about the devastating blight and the “relief” measures that pretty much succeeded in destroying whatever the potato fungus left behind, you might want to have a drink to forget your troubles.
It’s okay if your beer is green. But only on March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Corned Beef and Cabbage is as Irish as St. Patrick—in other words, not so much

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, tonight my son hung Irish flags on the wall and we ate corned beef for dinner.  But my mom always told me that corned beef wasn’t Irish and I never saw any during the six months that I Iived with a family in the Dublin suburbs. I buy corned beef around St. Patrick’s Day every year only because stores put it on sale.Kate Dolan's Irish potato basket

But why do they? Why do we associate this un-Irish food with an Irish holiday?

It makes sense, actually.

Neither the holiday nor the saint are Irish, so it’s only fitting that we celebrate with food that isn’t either. St. Patrick was the son of a 4th Century Roman official, and although historians disagree as to whether his homeland was in modern day France or England, it wasn’t in Ireland. He was dragged to the Emerald Isle as a prisoner and escaped as soon as he could. (For more on Patrick, see my post here.) Centuries later, in 1762, other men who’d fled the green shores hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. That’s right, the first rowdy celebrants of Ireland’s patron saint were not Irish but American. And they still are. Dubliners come out in droves to see the “Patrick’s Day” parade, and they come to see the show put on by the crazy Americans with green hair drinking green beer. (For more about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, see my post here.) So we have an American holiday created to honor a Roman saint. Why not celebrate it with a Jewish culinary staple?

At the time the vast majority of Irish emigrated to America in the 1800s, most people in Ireland were not eating beef, corned or otherwise. They couldn’t afford it. Pork was much more common, and it was heavily cured with salt. When Irish arrived in cities like New York, they found beef to be cheaper than pork and they also found their Jewish neighbors serving a salt cured beef that tasted similar to the bacon they enjoyed back in Ireland (which is not much like American “streaky bacon”). So did the Irish immigrants eat corned beef because it was as close as they could get to back-home cooking or because it was the cheapest meat they could find? I think the answer is “yes.” They ate what was cheapest back in Ireland as well as in their new homeland. Good food is important. But it’s also important to save money so you have enough left to buy beer. In fact, you buy the beer first. Then after a while you don’t care what the meat is.  And the cabbage? Another U.S. substitution. Potatoes were relatively cheap, but cabbage was cheaper.  Again, more money for beer.

And that brings us to the one aspect of the holiday that is Irish – the drinking.  I don’t think the Irish drink any more than Americans do—in fact, I think most of them drink less. But in Ireland there is a culture of drinking and socializing in pubs—going out to drink rather than sitting down with a six-pack at home—and that is one aspect of Irish culture that we Americans copy on St. Patrick’s Day. People who would normally head home after work on a Tuesday will head to a bar instead just because it’s March 17. Hopefully they will meet up with friends, laugh, and have a “good bit of craic” as my host mom in Dublin used to say.  (Craic or crack meaning loud boisterous fun talk, not a drug derived from cocaine.) They say that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and in an Irish bar, that’s really true.

So if the alcohol is more Irish than the corned beef and cabbage, why aren’t the stores putting Irish whiskey on sale?

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In the interests of authenticity, the author consumed beer whilst writing the above article. During the editing and photography session, she killed a bottle of Jameson’s and was excited to discover half a bottle of Tullamore Dew behind it in the liquor cabinet. The photo is of an “Irish potato basket” said to be the type used by the poor to both drain and serve the potatoes. Without plates or utensils, the family would gather around the basket to eat potatoes with their fingers. It is a sobering reminder of the hardships endured by my ancestors during the famine years. Did I say “sobering?” Well, it’s a reminder, at any rate.

What Does Your Irish Name Mean?

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

It’s a rather arrogant exaggeration to say that everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but it is true that those with some family ties to Ireland are more likely to remember them around March 17. And it’s a great excuse to drink Irish whiskey or the most popular beer served when I was in Ireland, Heineken, which if not Irish, at least comes in a green bottle.

My Dad ordered this T shirt for me last March from one of those catalogs that sells Irish name stuff

My Dad ordered this T shirt for me last March from one of those catalogs that sells Irish name stuff

Last year about this time I came across a website with information about Irish surnames and I thought it would make a great blog post. And it’s only taken twelve months to delve into the topic. Since anybody with internet access can post an article online, there’s no guarantee that what’s out there on the subject of Irish names is accurate or even a good guess. But it’s still fun to look. Here’s what I found:

  • The Irish Times newspaper website has a “surname search” tool that seems almost too good to be true. You type in a surname and it gives you a map showing the number of households in each county with someone of that name during the years 1848-64 (based on a property valuation survey). It also provides spelling variations, associated names, history of the name and other information. But if you want a lot of detail, you need to subscribe to their Irish Ancestors service. http://www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/surname/.
  • Another site, operated by an enterprising man from the suburbs south of Dublin named Michael Green, is looking to sell you all kinds of merchandise with your family crest on it. But there’s a lot of information tucked into the site as well, including the history of Irish surnames in general.  In the Gaelic clans, first names were generally sufficient until about the 11th and 12th Centuries.  The earliest were simply MacName or O’Name, which meant “son of” or “grandson of.” Mr. Green says that the Gaelic Scots all originally came from Ireland (and “Scotus is supposed to be Latin for “Irishman). So when the Scots later came back to populate northern Ireland in conjunction with English subjugation of the land, many of them were returning to their homeland without realizing it. Today, most Irish names can be classified as Gaelic Irish, Anglo Irish, or Cambro-Norman. Supposedly. He also gives the meaning of the name “Fitzpatrick” as someone devoted to St. Patrick, whereas I’d been told by a professor years ago that “Fitz” meant “bastard son of” and therefore Fitzpatrick would be Patrick’s out-of-wedlock child. Presumably a different Patrick.  You can check out this website at http://www.ireland-information.com/heraldichall/irishsurnames.htm.
  • For a real quick look (like looking up a name in a baby name book) visit http://surnames.behindthename.com/names/usage/irish. This site cover many other nationalities as well. But it’s quick, not thorough. For instance, the site told me my last name means “unlucky.” But the Irish Times site said that’s a regional and less common version of the Irish spelling of my name. So I hope I’m from the common side of the family.
  • “Irish Central” discusses the history and family movement of the 100 most popular Irish names. Many of them are different from the 100 most popular Irish names I found on Michael Green’s. So the lesson here is if you don’t find your name on one site, keep looking. The name “Disney” made the top 100 even though it’s apparently derived from a place in France. I should have checked to see if this website was supported by advertising with a cartoon mouse theme. http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/top-100-irish-last-names-explained-103125099-237791581.html
  • Finally, this no-frills site lists Gaelic names, their Anglo versions and information about early clan location and origins. I’m inclined to trust it more because it’s not fancy and not trying to sell anything. The main part of the site has a collection of fabulous maps showing how the island was settled during the different centuries. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlkik/ihm/irenames.htm

Whether or not any of this is accurate or applies to me, it has definitely inspired an interest in learning more about the clans of Ireland and life before the Viking raiders and English armies charged in and changed the power structure.

I will probably never be able to pronounce my name as it would sound in Gaelic, but I can “sign” it.

—Catraoine Ó Connalláin Ó Dubhhláin

When the luck of the Irish fell off

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Even in broad daylight, Dunluce Castle is a rather eerie place. Stark stone ruins reach toward the sky like skeletal fingers digging up their way up out of the ground. But that description fits at least half the castle ruins in Ireland, a place where stone ruins are about as common as McDonalds golden arches are in America. Dunluce sits precariously on stone outcroppings high above the ocean, but that’s not terribly unusual in Ireland either. Maybe what gives Dunluce it’s unique mournful quality is the part of it that is not sitting precariously on stone outcroppings above the ocean–because it fell into the ocean during the middle of a party.Kate Dolan wrote about the collapse of Dunluce Castle

The tragedy has been embellished over time, so it’s hard to know exactly what happened that night. It was in 1639, a few years after the second Earl of Antrim took up residence in the castle. (more…)

Beyond the Statue of Liberty

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Some people are excited to go to New York to see a Broadway show. Some plan elaborate shopping trips. Some come to see famous sights like the Statue of Liberty.

But the last time I traveled to New York, I went to see an old tenement, or more specifically, an old tenement building that has been turned into a museum. Kate Dolan recommends the Tenement Museum

The word “tenement” has an ugly connotation these days, but it really just means apartment or apartment building. It brings to mind much more than that, though. We think of long dark hallways, dingy rooms with stained wallpaper, appalling sanitation and immigrants living in dire poverty. (more…)

How the other half lived

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

On this day in 1870, Jacob Riis stepped off a ship from Denmark to begin a new life in New York. The immigration office found him a job in western Pennsylvania, but news of a war in Europe prompted him to soon return to New York City to volunteer to serve in the French Army.

The French Army didn’t want him. He had sold everything down to his boots to pay for the trip to New York, so now he was destitute and homeless. During the summer, he was able to find some seasonal work just outside the city, but when those jobs ended in the fall, he “joined the great army of tramps…fighting at night with vagrant curs or outcasts as miserable as myself for the protection of some sheltering ash-bin or doorway.”Jacob Riis - Bandit's Roost He spent weeks sleeping in doorways or alleys in the most notorious neighborhood in the country, Five Points. He was even evicted from the police station and put on a ferry to Jersey City. (more…)

No Guinness in the Old Brewery

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

When Irish landlords started shipping their starving tenants to North America in the mid-19th Century (either to help the tenants or to help themselves by avoiding the extra poor tax), most of the immigrants chose to go to New York. It soon became much cheaper to send them to Canada (see my earlier post on the “coffin ships”) so some landed in Quebec instead. But many of them soon made their way to New York anyway, because they already had friends or families there. In New York they could be sure to find people from their home county, or even their home neighborhood.

Unfortunately, they would most likely find those friends in Five Points, the most notorious neighborhood slum in the world.The Old Brewery in Five Points (more…)

Was St. Patrick Irish?

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. And that’s a good thing, because otherwise, St. Patrick wouldn’t be Irish.St Patrick and Shamrock

He was the son of a Roman official, probably born sometime between the years 390 and 420. Legend gives his homeland as Taruanna (now spelled Thérouanne) which is in modern day France, but the settlement he lists as his home, Bannavem Taburniae, is now thought to have been somewhere in England or Wales. Whatever the case, he wasn’t from Ireland.

In his mid-teens, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland where he was sold into slavery and worked as a shepherd for six years. Then he escaped. (more…)

The Flintstone Leprechauns

Monday, March 14th, 2011

The term “Celtic” is often seen as synonymous with Irish, but the Celts were not really Irish. Not originally, at least. The original Irish people were a Stone Age culture that thrived (okay, no one knows if they did that well, but at least they existed) on the island nearly as far back as 9000 B.C. This Mesolithic culture was replaced by a “New Stone Age” culture around 3000 B.C. I’m wondering if these guys were like a cross between the Flintstones and the Lucky Charms leprechaun, the modern stone age family with funny accents. Anyway, the people of this Neolithic culture created elaborate stone burial mounds such as Newgrange, built about 500 years before the pyramids. This and similar burial mounds are aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice. (more…)