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J R Soc Med. 2002 March; 95(3): 160–161.
PMCID: PMC1279494

Feast and Famine: a History of Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920

Reviewed by John Garrow

L A Clarkson, E Margaret Crawford
325 pp Price £25 ISBN 01-19-822751-5
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 .

The historical period covered by this book is one in which the English oppressed Ireland in politics, economy and theology. Before 1500 both England and Ireland acknowledged that the head of the Christian Church was the Pope in Rome, but when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England this was unacceptable to Irish people at all levels of society. For four centuries the Irish rebelled against the tyranny of the English, who campaigned repeatedly to subdue the Catholics or transfer their land to incomers. As we know, the problem is still not resolved, but in 1921 an agreement ending the Anglo-Irish war gave independent status to the Republic of Ireland and formally ended the English domination of all but the north-eastern counties of Ulster. These were predominantly Protestant and remain part of the UK.

Clarkson and Crawford are social historians, and their mission is to show that ‘Food and nutrition should be part of the mainstream of social history’. They trace the history of food and famine in Ireland, and provide a context for the Great Famine which between 1846 and 1851 caused a million deaths (about 12% of the population) and the loss of a similar number by emigration, mostly to the United States. The immediate cause of the famine was potato blight (Phytophthora infestans), which severely decreased the yield of the potato crop in the years 1845, 1846 and 1848, when about 30% of the population were dependent on a diet of potato and milk. The authors show that the potato diet was no sudden switch in national cuisine. Until the late 16th century farmland was mainly pasture, but with an increasing population a switch to tillage became necessary to obtain higher yields of food from the available land. The moist, mild climate of Ireland was ideal for growing potatoes, even on the poorer ground that was available to those lowest in the social structure. With a potato patch and a cow a man could provide food to support his family, and if he raised pigs or poultry these would be sold to enable him to buy other necessities. Thus in the mid 19th century, while the gentry had a varied diet similar to that in other European countries, the monotonous but nutritionally adequate diet of the labourer was greatly dependent on the potato harvest.

The preface tells us that Clarkson and Crawford spent nearly two decades writing their book, and their scholarly industry is indisputable: the massive bibliography shows that they have scoured account books of great families and of workhouses, of armies and of almshouses, of schools and of hospitals. They quote profusely from contemporary letters, diaries, sermons and speeches in parliament. They have done everything possible to learn what people in various social classes in Ireland were eating, and the effect on their nutrition and health, over four centuries. The reader will agree with their thesis that food and nutrition should be part of the mainstream of social history, especially in an area like Ireland where an agricultural disaster 150 years ago led to such important political and economic repercussions.

A two-decade gestation period gives time for scholarly delving, but it also brings some disadvantages. Some of the reference books which they cite are out of date: the 4th edition of Composition of Foods (1978) is now replaced by the 5th edition (1991). The dietary requirements they use have been superseded by reports that give much lower energy requirements for very active adults. The authors assume that the reader is familiar with historical and economic terms but quite ignorant of nutrition or medicine. For example the phrase ‘after the Restoration’ is used without any explanation that this refers to the return of Charles II of England in 1660; however, it is thought useful to explain that ‘Energy is obtained by the oxidation of proteins, fats and carbohydrates’ (no mention is made of alcohol as an energy source). Medical readers will already know that ‘Tuberculosis is caused by a micro-organism, tubercle bacillus which can attack several sites in the body, the most common being the lungs’. As a nutritionist, I am unhappy about the extent to which the authors expect that changes in health of the population of Ireland could be reliably related to changes in reported diet. It is often difficult to obtain a reliable picture of the habitual diet of people, or to explain their state of health on the basis of this diet, even when face to face with intelligent and cooperative patients. It must be still more difficult to establish this relationship if estimates of diet and health must be made from archival data about people who died many years ago. To summarize: Feast and Famine presents a large amount of detailed and fully referenced data about the diets consumed by various social groups in Ireland since 1500, but has little to offer the reader who hopes to learn more about the effect of diet on health.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press