Medicine, science and improvement, 1845–1922
Author: Ian Miller

Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland: Medicine, science and improvement, 1845-1922 is the first dedicated study of how and why Irish eating habits dramatically transformed between the Famine and independence. It also investigates the simultaneous reshaping of Irish food production after the Famine. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the book draws from the diverse methodological disciplines of medical history, history of science, cultural studies, Irish studies, gender studies and food studies. Making use of an impressive range of sources, it maps the pivotal role of food in the reshaping of Irish society onto a political and social backdrop of famine, Land Wars, political turbulence, the First World War and the struggle for independence. It is of interest to historians of medicine and science as well as historians of modern Irish social, economic, political and cultural history.

Abstract only
Ian Miller

The introduction provides an overview of the monograph, introducing key themes such as the complex relationship between post-Famine Ireland and Britain, the development of socially active medical and scientific communities in Ireland and the complex circulation of power relations that impacted on perceptions of Irish consumption and production practices between 1845 and 1922. It maintains that food continued to occupy a problematic position in Ireland for some decades after the Famine, serving as a contentious socio-economic issue that often served as a prism through which to understand Anglo-Irish relations in a period of political and social turbulence. The introduction outlines the theoretical methodologies employed in this monograph and provides a chapter outline.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Nutritional discourse and dietary transformation
Ian Miller

This chapter explores scientific interest in the Irish potato diet in pre-Famine Ireland and how scientific ideas were used in broader debates on Irish dietary conditions and national dietary reform. This theme is explored through an examination of the ideas that underpinned famine relief activities between 1845 and 1847; a period when a new nutritional consciousness emerged in Ireland. This chapter also explores the surfacing of public resistance to nutritional science, a discipline that became popularly dismissed during the Famine as a woefully inadequate tool being used by a state disinterested in forming an adequate response to widespread starvation. Overall, this chapter explores the mid-century production of empirical knowledge on the potato, the complex ways in which it was applied for the purpose of improving and the layers of resistance that formed to medico-scientific ideas during the Famine.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Agricultural science and education
Ian Miller

The immediate post-Famine period was marked by profound optimism about the potential of Irish agricultural development. For some improvers, agricultural practice offered a fertile ground upon which to plant the seeds of modernisation to facilitate fuller Irish integration into an international capitalist market economy. This chapter suggests that post-Famine agriculturists promoted new understandings of how to productively harness biological agro-material found on Irish farms during and after the Famine. It examines post-Famine scientific readings of the biology and physiology of crops, plants and animals and their subsequent promotion as an aid to Irish food production. In the 1850s, agricultural science was institutionalised via a state-supported network of agricultural schools and model farms aimed at all social classes. Ultimately, however, small farmers exhibited resistance and apathy towards these educational schemes for an assortment of social, political and practical reasons, a factor that restricted the socio-economic effectiveness of agricultural schools. By exploring these themes, this chapter reveals further connections made between food and national improvement while demonstrating that food production, as with consumption, evolved into a site of deep contestation between different Irish social groups and, sometimes, between colonising and colonised powers.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Ian Miller

The late nineteenth century was marked by profound concern about national physical well-being. Despite initial post-Famine optimism in the 1850s about the prospects of national dietary reconstruction and agricultural prosperity, pessimism about the Irish condition quickly re-emerged. To introduce this theme, this chapter focuses on mid-century feeding in institutions and maintains that critics of institutional dietary policies invoked this seemingly internal institutional matter as a concern with national implications. Following the Famine, physicians paid closer attention to the issues of nutritional quality and deficiency and established firm links between an insufficient diet and permanent physical and mental weakening. Institutions provided opportunities for physicians and medical witnesses to witness, monitor and better understand the negative physical and mental effects of poor nutrition. Their well-publicised observations drew public attention to the idea that a nutritionally inadequate diet encouraged the onset of bodily conditions such as scrofula (or tuberculosis of the neck) and ophthalmia (or conjunctivitis). This chapter explores these themes by analysing dietary arrangements in mid-century prisons, workhouses, reformatories and industrial schools.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Tea, bread and nutritional decline
Ian Miller

Did the Irish diet improve following the Famine? This culturally charged question troubled many late nineteenth-century contemporaries who referred back to the pre-Famine era as one when the Irish populace had enjoyed fuller nutritional health. In contrast, for critics, the poor had since existed in an unremitting condition of physical and psychological decay that seemed to be perpetually worsening. The commercialised economic system that evolved after the Famine differed profoundly from that predicted in the sanguine hopes of political economists and scientists who had idyllically envisioned a self-sufficient post-Famine population producing and consuming vegetables, meat and crops to attain the high levels of nutrition once obtained from the potato. This chapter identifies ongoing concern about food consumption and posits that physicians and other actors continued to problematise the Irish body through the lens of dietary intake long after the Famine. The decline of Ireland’s mono-crop culture produced new sets of food discourses that were drawn upon to explain a lack of socio-economic development. As a case study, this chapter focuses on the problem of excessive tea drinking in post-Famine Ireland; a problem associated with rising national levels of insanity and physical degeneration among the poor.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Ian Miller

In the late nineteenth-century, steps were taken to tackle food adulteration in Ireland as the concept of purity to be upheld as a new safety standard. This activity coincided with the post-Famine evolution of a consumerist culture. This chapter demonstrates that the advance of consumerism in Ireland was met with new forms of scientific engagement with consumers and producers that encouraged food quality to be considered in new ways. From the 1860s, public health officials made concerted efforts to delineate the boundaries between purity and impurity and to impose relevant legal standards. The war on impure food was fought on various fronts ranging from cattle raising to butchering and dairy production. Resistance played out on two interconnected levels. Producers contested the need for scientific standards of purity because these threatened to displace long-standing butchering and food production practices. In addition, resistance emerged in the fraught context of late nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish economic relations as anti-adulteration legislation, coupled with an absence of policies to protect the Irish economy, allowed Irish traders and politicians to openly question whether state legislation pertaining to food production was truly benefiting Irish economic life. This pessimistic narrative reflected mounting concern over the economic implications of British rule.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Ian Miller

By 1900, it seemed to many contemporaries that post-Famine Ireland was in an unremitting condition of physical, social and economic decline. Ireland’s food economy remained hindered by an inability to modernise while the poor seemed chronically underfed. This chapter argues that turn-of-the-century educational reformers harnessed the Irish education system to ensure that teachers offered practical agricultural and domestic training, a step taken to address and resolve pressing post-Famine food concerns. Their intervention formed part of an ambitious social reform that promised to lay the foundations of a stable, prosperous Irish society. This chapter explores the reconfiguration of Irish agricultural and domestic education in 1900 and identifies the motivations that underpinned this radical overhaul. Reformers advocated adjustment in both agricultural and domestic instruction as they saw these as complementary and mutually reinforcing elements of the broader project of improving the nation. This mindset allowed reformers to focus on, and attempt to intervene in, two key decaying sites: the agricultural workplace and the home.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Ian Miller

Who ought to assume responsibility for feeding the young? Were mothers who failed to do so neglectful individuals or simply lacking in dietetic and nutritional knowledge? And what role should the state adopt in relation to infant and child welfare? Questions such as these were pivotal to a prominent turn-of-the-century Irish food discourse and raised concerns that were simultaneously personal, biological and socio-political. Furthermore, they formed the basis of a new array of improving strategies designed to improve the health of the young. This chapter explores the ideas and work of two voluntary groups: the Women’s National Health Association and the Ladies School Dinners Committee. Although these groups held contrasting political agendas, they united around the precept that feeding the young was a matter of national importance and strove, in different ways, to increase state intervention. Nonetheless, the quest to enact nutritional improvement ultimately remained confined to voluntary schemes rather than state action. This allowed nationalist opponents to British rule to ask whether imperial governance was in fact helping to determine the conditions that had caused Irish national decline rather than helping to remove them.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland
Consumption, production and resistance during the First World War
Ian Miller

This chapter explores the centrality of food in debates about national existence during the First World War. It suggests that conflict forced a rethinking of the post-Famine evolution of Irish food networks. According to critics, the post-Famine economy had primarily benefited imperial needs while weakening the Irish physical condition. This chapter also posits that the exigencies of conflict encouraged closer governance of Irish food production as state bodies attempted to mobilise national resources. However, the state’s primary interest was in boosting agricultural productivity. State bodies put relatively few measures in place to ensure that the Irish populace retained access to a nutritionally adequate diet, fortifying nationalist claims that Ireland’s positioning within a broader imperial system had impacted adversely on national physical well-being. However, wartime Irish discussion of food is best conceived as a forum of discussion where pre-existing debates on nutritional health and food production were revisited and lent urgency. Questions about female domesticity, milk supplies, infant welfare, education, agricultural modernisation, national physical health and the Famine all flowed into wartime anxieties about national vitality, a confluence that sparked fresh perspectives on why and how Ireland could be, and should be, politically and economically independent.

in Reforming food in post-Famine Ireland