Thursday, 9 January 2014

Domestic instruction and cookery classes in early twentieth-century Ireland by Ian Miller

In this month's blog post, Dr Ian Miller, Wellcome Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University of Ulster, writes about domestic instruction and cookery classes in Irish schools in the early twentieth century.

Deep concern about declining nutritional health in Ireland emerged after the Famine. The potato diet, despite the sustained criticism which it had been subjected to, had at least granted the less affluent in Ireland access to a nutritious diet. Although initially welcomed, its gradual replacement with a varied diet created new food-related concerns. Criticism of the seemingly dismal culinary skills of the Irish poor was rife. Working-class women across Ireland found themselves subject to sustained criticism due to their apparent obsession with tea. Over-reliance upon the substance was undoubtedly a symptom of post-Famine poverty and a lack of access to a nutritious diet. Nonetheless, in the late nineteenth century individuals rather than poverty tended to be blamed for poor personal and familial health. It is against this backdrop that the idea that Irish schools could provide regular domestic instruction gained currency.

Sisters of Charity Cookery Class, late 19th century.
Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland. REF:P_WP_4616
Educational reform

At the turn of the twentieth century, National School provision was limited. Cookery was offered as an extra, optional subject from 1855. In 1884, it was offered by just fourteen schools. This figure had risen dramatically by 1894 to fifty-five. Nonetheless, the availability of cooking facilities failed to match this rising demand. National schools tended not to have the luxuries of space or spare classrooms in which to teach cookery. As Miss Coulter of Carrickfergus Model School lamented in 1899:

While the cookery classes are in operation the smell pervades the whole department… there is only one small gallery, I cannot dispense with it so, as soon as, the cookery lessons are over, it must be used for the ordinary English classes. This is unhealthy for the pupils and myself.

Cookery instruction remained predominantly theoretical due to a lack of equipment and space. In 1895, one school inspector wrote that ‘in many parts of Connaught the people are exceedingly poor, and it seemed strange to see grown girls fairly advanced in grammar, geography, and arithmetic but left wholly unacquainted with plain cookery, management of poultry, dairy management, &c’.

Arguments for improved provision contained important gendered dimensions. The format of cookery instruction proposed was essentially intended to train girls as housewives. For instance, the Bishop of Limerick, Edward Thomas, asserted in 1900 that if Irish women knew how to keep their homes bright and clean, and provided their husbands with comfortable, savoury meals, then domestic happiness would ensue. Similarly, the Irish Homestead argued in 1898 that:

When a young artisan, when the time for mating comes, chooses her or her comely face and bright spirits, none of this knowledge [of cookery] or capacity does he find in his wife. The consequences are disastrous to them both. How often does the working man in an Irish city, when he gets up in the early morning, find that there is no appetising breakfast in a cheery and tidy room prepared for him to start him on his day’s work. The ever hospitable ‘pub’ is open, however, and, as the man must have some nourishment, he turns in and takes ‘eating and drinking’ in the form of a pint of stout. A day so begun is not calculated to develop and close propitiously.

Restructuring education

Domestic education reform was formally initiated in 1900. By July 1901, fifty-six teaching centres had been formed across Ireland. During 1904, sixty-three domestic instructresses delivered a total of 360 courses, with an average attendance of forty-two pupils, complemented by 300 house visits. Courses of instruction lasted for seven weeks, five of which were devoted to cookery and two to laundry.

Nonetheless, upon returning from training most teachers faced a dearth of funding which would have allowed them to purchase utensils and materials. Many of them relied upon using the facilities of convent schools. This restrictive scenario was condemned throughout the echelons of educational administration. One senior inspector insisted that ‘the want of funds will, I fear, prevent the introduction of cookery and laundry work into the great majority of schools, unless the Commissioners can see their way to make an equipment grant to each school’. To clarify his point, he observed that only one school had been able to commence cookery instruction in his city despite the training of fifteen teachers in the previous year.

Miss Crowe and Mr Gildea with their pupils at Kilglass National School, Ahascragh,
Co.Galway, c.1902.
Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland. REF: CLON836
If space was unavailable in schools, then it had to be sought elsewhere. In Kilkenny, cookery classes were delivered in abandoned houses, rented rooms and cramped, poorly ventilated converted dwelling houses. Throughout Co. Wexford, teaching was undertaken in an array of unsuitable sites including unoccupied dwelling homes, courthouses, a security room attached to a church, a stockroom, a spare room in a disused mill, a joiner’s workshop, and even in barns and coach-houses. In 1903, the Irish Technical Journal asserted that ‘the pupils who attend regularly under these conditions are heroes without knowing it. Neither the teachers nor the pupils, however, can do the best work when their work is done in a vitiated atmosphere’. The article was concluded by declaring: ‘it is absurd to give courses of lectures on Hygiene in a ‘Black Hole’’.

It was only in 1907 that the Chief Secretary of Ireland agreed to receive a deputation on the matter. Reverend Father Dowling vociferously asserted at this:

If you preach technical instruction as the cause of the economic salvation of the country and then point to an old jail or some such building as the centre from whence this panacea of the wants of Ireland were to come, it creates a bad impression.

And what of the teaching itself? In 1903, one District School Inspector reported positively that ‘the children are very fond of cookery, which, through the habits of cleanliness and attention to details which it induces, is likely to have a permanent beneficial effect on the social condition of the country’. In the same year, Miss Fitzgerald confidently announced that parents were pleased with the instruction of their children in cookery, adding that they considered it to be ‘the most useful thing that has ever been taught, and will bring comfort to our homes’.

Despite these sanguine assertions, cookery instruction for younger pupils was not as encompassing as originally hoped. Infants in the first class learnt only matters of personal cleanliness and hygiene. Similarly, the second class was marked by an emphasis on cleanliness, although students were taught how to prepare potatoes and cabbage for cooking, the purposes of salt and how to toast bread. It was only in the third class when pupils were actually allowed to cook their potatoes and cabbage and to make colcannon, tea, coffee and cocoa, boiled eggs and fried potatoes. Remaining years were devoted to more advanced, but useful, forms of cookery involving bacon, sausages, mutton and beef.

The implementation of cookery instruction ultimately failed to live up to its aspirations. The principle that cookery instruction held high social value failed to be met in Ireland with a corresponding allocation of material resources that might have cemented that idyllic vision.


Podcast of a lecture 'Reforming Diet in Post-Famine Ireland' by Dr. Ian Miller, given as part of the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (CHOMI, UCD) Seminar Series, 2 February 2012

Ian Miller is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University of Ulster. His publications include A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011) and Reforming Food in Post-Famine Ireland: Medicine, Science and Improvement c.1845-1922 (Manchester University Press, 2014). He is currently co-editing a volume on medicine and war in twentieth-century Ireland with David Durnin.