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'An uncontrollable drug that destroys families and stifles the economy'

Published 10/12/2012

Andrea McKernon

THE question of taking 'a wee drop of tea in yer hand' brewed strong feeling in 19th century Ireland when housewives were frowned upon for supping too much Rosie Lea.

A Durham University academic has poured out a sample of the tea drinking habits of the poor over a hundred years ago.

She found consternation among the ruling classes of the time concerning any woman who made herself a cup of tea.

Pamphlets were once distributed to Irish households warning that teadrinking among peasant women was stifling economic growth because time was being wasted imbibing on tea leaves, according to the Sunday Times.

The literature told the women that they were ignoring the needs of their families, homes and husbands by their tea drinking habits.

Published in England, the mail drop said women were shirking their domestic duties which reformers felt were vital to improving Ireland's economy.

Lecturer Helen O'Connell discovered the anti-tea drinking campaign when researching short works of fiction published by reformers who felt the need to offer advice on morality and good, clean living.

"Peasant women were condemned for putting their feet up with a cup of tea when they should be getting a hearty evening meal ready for their hard-working husbands," Ms O'Connell said.

"The reformers who were middle to upper-class, were trying to get the peasant women to change their ways - albeit in a somewhat patronising way - for the greater good of the country.

"The reformers made it clear they saw tea drinking as reckless and uncontrollable."

The ruling classes felt that women congregating in the newly-formed union of Britain and Ireland might cause a feminist revolution.

They also considered tea an expensive and extravagant luxury not for the likes of the poorer classes.

Tea was also thought to be highly addictive with women described as "hankering after tea".

"There were supposedly drug-like qualities in tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time," Ms O'Connell said.

With Ireland coming tops in the world tea-drinking stakes followed by Britain and Turkey, it would appear the anti-tea drinking campaign was a teapot short of a spout. ■ GO ON...: The character of Mrs Doyle in TV comedy Father Ted is famous for her obsession with tea but in the 19th century she would have been accused of being in the grasp of a drug addiction and stifling economic growth by shirking her domestic duties to make a cup of tea