Policy Papers

Addressing food poverty in Ireland: historical perspectives

Ian Miller |

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Executive Summary

  • Recent reports and historical evidence suggest that economic downturns can have an adverse impact on the ability of low-income households to procure a healthy diet.
  • In Ireland, the nutritional wellbeing of those experiencing poverty transformed into a topic of public concern during the economic decline of the late nineteenth century. Similar concerns have resurfaced in Ireland during the current and more sustained global recession.
  • Agreement has never been fully reached in Ireland on whether food poverty is best resolved at an individual and household level or through direct state intervention.
  • Issues of personal responsibility and state accountability (often replete with gendered implications) have permeated public debate on how to address food poverty, both historically and presently. This is evident in the blame often placed on female family members for failing to adequately budget and purchase food of high nutritional value. This perspective demonstrates the extent to which stereotypes of working-class women can influence policy.
  • Ireland maintains a strong tradition of reliance on the voluntary sector to resolve nutritional problems in impoverished communities. In many ways, this has de-politicised the issue and encouraged state bodies to adopt a limited role in ameliorating food access problems.
  • Food poverty needs to be addressed by a range of measures at both community and policy level and be recognised as an outcome of structural issues such as low incomes.


During the current economic recession, the phrase 'food poverty' has been routinely applied to refer to the inability of an individual or household to gain access to a nutritionally adequate diet, with detrimental implications for physical and mental wellbeing. Although the issue has caused unease on an international level, it has attracted particular attention in many of the smaller European countries affected by the ongoing recession. Using Ireland as a case study, this policy paper examines food poverty and the discourses that historically surrounded it as a means of illuminating key aspects of the problem and to inform current policy debates. In doing so, it demonstrates that analysis of the historical dimensions of food policy bears important implications for present-day welfare policies in all countries where the current recession has created, or deepened, conditions of poverty. As scholars such as Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have demonstrated using historical evidence, if robust welfare provision is made available and accessible, the worst effects of unemployment can be avoided and the food supplies of the less affluent maintained. This is not always a policy priority in times of austerity.

In January 2013, independent TD (Member of Parliament) John Halligan conveyed to the Dáil (the principal chamber of the Irish Parliament) the concerns and despondence of Irish school principals about having to bring food into their schools to feed hungry pupils. In the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny retorted that his government was already spending 37 million Euros per annum on the state-funded school dinners scheme and that a considerable amount of this food was being thrown away untouched due to poor school management. In response, Halligan claimed that 270,000 children across Ireland had recently experienced some degree of poverty and insisted that the Taoiseach meet immediately with school principals to discuss the problem and respond to a potential health crisis. Kenny swiftly ruled this out arguing that childhood hunger could not be resolved by meeting school principals but instead by ensuring that school staff made better use of their resources and cease 'wasting good food'.

This heated exchange raises various questions about the nutritional wellbeing of the young in Ireland during periods of sustained unemployment:

  • What impact does poverty have on the physical health of the less affluent and their families?
  • What level of responsibility should state bodies assume to support the nutritional health of citizens during economic downturns?
  • Are individuals to blame for not making efficient use of resources in periods when austerity is expected, or planning for hard times?
  • Who should take the lead in resolving issues relating to access to food: individuals, voluntary groups or the state?
  • To what extent is a lack of public access to food a moral or state concern?

Discussion of these issues has international relevance. In June 2013, UK charities urged the Government to take better steps to tackle poverty after a report was published which claimed that food poverty levels had reached 18% in the country. Problematically, policies such as free school meals for all children are not scheduled to be implemented until 2016. Earlier that year, various charities had warned that the Government was in danger of failing to meet its international human rights obligations because of the extent of poverty-related hunger in Britain. Elsewhere, The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 50 million Americans were using food stamps in 2013, while the use of foodbanks had risen dramatically in countries including France and Germany.

To engage with the questions outlined above, it is useful to examine nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish contexts, when high levels of poverty also resulted from severe economic decline. Although the extent and spread of unemployment-related social problems differ in these two periods, a comparable rhetoric common to both raised questions about how to maintain the nutritional health of families affected by economic uncertainty.

Nutrition and nineteenth century poverty

When did nutritional wellbeing and poverty first become inextricably linked? Although an inability to access food is an age-old problem, in many ways the late nineteenth century can be seen as a watershed. Public anxiety about starvation peaked in the 1840s; a decade marked in Ireland by the Great Famine, which killed approximately one million people, and by widespread hunger in many other western countries. However, as famines became gradually less common, at least in Europe, apprehension about hunger and starvation gave way to new concerns about the poor quality of food purchased and consumed by impoverished families who were not going hungry but were thought to be suffering from under-nutrition. This perspective was underpinned by shifting priorities in medical and scientific knowledge. From the 1830s, prominent German chemist Justus von Liebig and others analysed the nutrients in foods - including protein, carbohydrates and fat - for the first time. This new understanding stimulated radically new definitions of what constituted an appropriate diet.

In 1873 a sustained period of economic downturn began in Ireland, with lasting social implications. Although Ireland was more firmly integrated into a free trade area than it had been prior to the Famine, people were now exposed to the effects of international economic competition. From the 1870s, agricultural recession created widespread poverty and distress in rural communities. This had a knock-on effect in Irish cities including Dublin where wealth depended upon Irish agricultural exports. A sustained depression marked by deep levels of poverty persisted well into the following century.

Excessive tea drinking

In this context the nutritional wellbeing of Irish families became a public scandal. The development of new food technologies such as roller milling to produce white bread were seen as a key factor in encouraging poorer households to purchase cheap, poor quality food. During the 1860s and 1870s, prominent Belfast surgeon William MacCormac rigorously campaigned to improve the physical condition of Belfast's poor by lecturing regularly on the evils of cheap processed white bread.

However, it was a seemingly widespread reliance upon tea as a dietary staple that generated significant public alarm. Commentary on Irish tea drinking habits featured internationally in publications including the British Medical Journal and The Lancet. Contemporary physicians understood tea as a nervous stimulant, with limited nutritional benefits. When relied upon almost exclusively as a staple food, the inevitable outcome, doctors warned, was nervous excitability and physical over-stimulation. Physicians also cautioned that tea was being widely consumed in Ireland for the sole purpose of sensory stimulation; a custom which they denigrated for further depleting nervous energy supplies and physical stamina. Tea's damaging sway on the nervous system was believed to tarnish physical, mental and emotional existence. Alarmist articles in the Freeman's Journal, Belfast Newsletter and Irish Times reported Irish housewives leaving tea stewing all day on their stoves, becoming slowly addicted and consuming virtually nothing else. According to these newspapers, tea was an unsuitable staple food for adults and was particularly harmful for children subsisting upon little else. Journalists insisted that the humbler classes ought to consume oatmeal and milk rather than persist in the morally decadent practice of over-indulgence in tea.

Concern about excessive tea drinking crescendoed in the 1890s upon the publication of an official investigation by the Inspectors of Lunatics George Plunkett O'Farrell and E. Maziere Courtenay into a nationwide rise in asylum admissions. O'Farrell and Courtenay agreed that widespread enthusiasm for tea was the most likely explanation for rising incidences of insanity. Over-reliance on tea had produced chronic indigestion, in turn causing widespread neurotic disturbance, mental depression, constitutional weakness and psychological decay, as well as anaemia and scrofula.

This pessimistic discourse served as a potent expression of contemporary anxiety about the nutritional effects of economic downturn and the poverty which it had created. It also reflected a relatively new impulse in expert thought on food: the idea that the working classes might not necessarily be at risk of hunger or starvation but that a moral hazard existed whereby this social group could not be trusted to make the right consumption choices, which left them vulnerable to nutritional deficiency and its consequences. The debates that surfaced in the nineteenth century focused principally on the diet of the poor and, in many ways, have continued to do so.

Impact on domestic life

Historically, food poverty was often considered an issue of personal responsibility; a problem whose roots lay in poor purchasing decisions confounded by inadequate cooking skills and limited nutritional knowledge. This perspective was evident in Edward Smith's dietary surveys published in 1864, which castigated many housewives in Britain and Ireland for misusing their family budgets to purchase foods of limited nutritional value. The charge of choosing to buy poor quality food continues to be levelled today at lower socio-economic groups. This emphasis detracts attention from the role that the state might play in addressing citizen rights to a nutritionally balanced diet. In late-nineteenth century Ireland, food poverty was blamed on working-class housewives. Apprehension about the damaging effects of excessive tea drinking surfaced when gendered divisions were being reinforced; at a time when the domestic work of the Irish housewife was exalted as a key to social progress and when women's ability to find jobs was dramatically narrowing as they became gradually excluded from traditional female areas of work such as dairying. More than ever, housewives were expected to nurture, feed and preserve the health of their family. Those who failed to do so risked public castigation, especially if seen as wasting their days intoxicated with tea.

Emotive journalistic accounts proliferated of washerwomen, kitchen girls and mothers filling the out-patient departments of Belfast's hospitals complaining of headache, nausea, loss of appetite, physical distress and chronic dizziness as they had consumed virtually nothing but tea. In 1887 the Belfast Newsletter depicted a cycle of events where the tea-obsessed housewife gradually lost her appetite, slowly coming to loathe food and eventually seeking daily solace in the tea-cup. Once addicted, she turned to methods of tea preparation that allowed her to secure as much tannin (or tannic acid) as possible to quell her ever-intensifying physical cravings. Ultimately, she became afflicted with a damaging array of nervous complaints that caused the health and wellbeing of herself and her family members to suffer as she gradually began caring for little else but procuring her favourite substance.

Working-class female perspectives

The issue of excessive tea-drinking in Ireland was widely discussed in various contexts ranging from official commissions and reports to psychiatric and medical literature. The public war on working-class diets that emerged in this period mostly obscures the domestic realities of many housewives who might see 'going without' as a necessary self-sacrifice that protects the health of their husbands and their children. Certainly, late nineteenth-century Irish culture was marked by a normalisation of the idea that child welfare should be the principal responsibility of women. Increasingly, women were blamed for the poor health of their children. Those who criticised working-class females for having failed to uphold familial health were relatively indifferent to the physical and mental wellbeing of the housewife, and became more intent on reprimands for her neglectful and decadent, rather than nurturing, behaviour.

Women have also been blamed in more recent episodes of economic downturn. Critics focus more on the harmful impact of food poverty on children than, for example, unemployed individuals and older family members. In addition, the implication persists that food poverty is best resolved by changing women's food purchases, budgeting and cooking. Historical analysis demonstrates that blaming individuals was common in Ireland considering that food poverty was rarely seen as a result of inappropriate social, economic and political structures. Certainly, the content of both historical and current thought on the nutritional health of impoverished families raises pertinent questions about accountability, responsibility and the individual and collective levels on which food poverty could be resolved. It also points to the importance of recognising the strong gendered bias in current discussions of food poverty that divert blame onto mothers instead of the state.

Voluntarism and the Women's National Health Association

In Ireland, recent responses to food poverty have involved the direct provision of food, often by voluntary groups. Historically, those concerned about declining working-class nutrition tended to be affluent. For instance, Countess of Aberdeen Ishbel Gordon (popularly known as Lady Aberdeen) founded the Women's National Health Association (WHNA) in 1907. Aberdeen was the wife of Ireland's Lord Lieutenant John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon. The organisation's 19,000 members quickly established branches across Ireland with the admirable intention of stemming high infant mortality rates, promoting child health and welfare and tackling tuberculosis.

The nutritional health of impoverished people was a key concern of the WNHA. From 1907, the Association opened milk depots, established baby clubs and provide nutritional and domestic education on a national level. However, the WNHA reached an impasse when it attempted to adapt its voluntary work into a more systematic state-supported scheme. The Association's voluntary milk depots were intended as a visible model for a state-assisted system. This became evident during the proceedings of the Vice-Regal Commission on the Irish Milk Supply, appointed in May 1911 and presided over by Lady Aberdeen's husband Hamilton-Gordon. Some Commission members referred to the WNHA's success when justifying their belief that the state should award Irish municipalities and urban authorities powers to contribute to milk depots from the rates. However, despite having gathered persuasive evidence about the reasons for low milk consumption (including Irish meat producers rearing cattle that were not strong milkers and the commercialisation of the creamery industry), the Commission rejected lack of availability as the root cause of milk's unpopularity. Milk, they asserted, was not purchased widely even in those regions with high availability. Low consumption levels were ascribed to the ignorance of mothers about the nutritional value of milk and their preference for tea, which supported the notion that food poverty was an individual, rather than state, matter. Accordingly, personal reform, rather than political, social or economic reform, continued to be recommended.

Maud Gonne's Ladies School Dinners Committee

Other voluntary groups in Ireland adopted a much more antagonistic stance by pressuring state bodies to intervene directly via public funds. The Ladies School Dinners Committee (LSDC), formed in 1910, vociferously rallied against an absence of school meals policies in Ireland. School meals became a topical subject after the Irish Education Act of 1892, which made school compulsory for pupils aged 6-14 on at least 75 days of each half year. The measure aroused opposition as it removed younger children from the family during the day and because no provision was made for school meals. Interest resurfaced in 1906 when the Education (Provision of Meals) Act was implemented across the rest of the British Isles.

Some prominent nationalist organisations including the United Irishwomen resolutely opposed the idea of school meals, seeing it as unwarranted state intrusion into personal and domestic life, which would encourage working-class mothers to take even less responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their children. The Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh, warned of the dangers of indiscriminate assistance and undeserving children being provided with food using the rhetoric of the 'undeserving poor' that had been in use since the New Poor Law of the 1830s. However, these perspectives failed to convince many of those working in the school system who witnessed hungry children on a daily basis. Confronted with an absence of state provision, some Irish schools opted to voluntarily serve free meals.

Those concerned with the problem of underfed children stressed that school feeding was too large an undertaking to be managed through private initiative alone and that, accordingly, it demanded state organisation. In the midst of these heated debates, the LSDC was formed in 1910. Their rhetoric of 'school-day starvation' offered an evocative platform from which to attack the legitimacy of imperial state influence in Ireland. According to the LSDC, the state had effectively forced children out of the home without considering how they were to be fed. They argued it was state legislation (or omissions within it) rather than deficient working-class motherhood that had damaged the nutritional health of the Irish young, contesting notions that ignorant, tea-addicted mothers were to blame for the precarious health of children.

Unlike the Women's National Health Association (WNHA), the LSDC adopted a very confrontational approach. Its founder was revolutionary feminist and actress Maud Gonne, best remembered for her turbulent relationship with poet W. B. Yeats and a central female nationalist icon. Gonne's reflections were recorded in the Irish Review in 1911 when she wrote:

a great wrong is being done in our midst. Hundreds of child lives are being sacrificed; thousands of Irish boys and girls are being condemned to life-long physical suffering and mental inefficiency by school-day starvation.


Later, she announced that 'it is no unusual thing for a child to faint from hunger in an Irish National School' and declared that 'some of our Irish National Schools appear terrible and tragic factories for the destruction of the race'.

Despite the propagandist, anti-imperialist tone of Gonne's writing, her arguments did point to pertinent social issues. Many children in poverty stricken districts were underfed and would have benefitted from school meals. Yet Gonne directed blame away from the working-class mother, by presenting her as a caring, compassionate individual whose disadvantageous circumstances dictated hunger, not a lack of emotional feeling towards her children. 'No mothers are tenderer than the Irish mothers', Gonne wrote in nationalist newspaper Bean hÉireann, 'and it is absurd to suppose a mother would let her children go hungry if she saw any way of preventing it'.

While Gonne's defence of working class mothers had limited success, her views attracted considerable public attention. The problem was partially resolved by the introduction of the Education (Provision of Meals) (Ireland) Act of 1914 which enabled (but did not compel) local authorities to provide school meals via a central School Meals Committee. School dinner schemes went some way towards alleviating problems of childhood hunger. However, as the exchange between John Halligan and Enda Kenny suggests, they have often failed to fully address broader issues of access to food, which become acute in periods of rising food prices and taxation. As well as creating nutritional problems, the Irish Primary Principals' Network said in 2013 that a lack of proper feeding (in and out of school) means that many children arrive at school suffering from depression, emotional disturbance, attention disorders and violent behaviour.

School dinner schemes have also directed attention away from the nutritional health concerns of older family members such as mothers, or children below school age. In addition, recipients of publicly-funded school meals have often been exposed to stigmatisation by pupils whose families could afford to pay for school meals. The Irish school meals system continues to be criticised for failing to reach the desired target groups, for lacking nutritional goals and mandatory standards, and for its poor coordination.


In April 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency castigated Ireland for being the fifth most wasteful country in the world after estimating that 250,000 tonnes of food is wasted per year (another 250,000 tonnes are wasted per annum by businesses). This rhetoric of blame has historical parallels. Food poverty is a historically-rooted issue that first captured public attention in Ireland in the last quarter of the nineteenth-century, a comparable period of sustained economic downturn. Since then, ideas on how to resolve food poverty have been polarised between blaming mothers and households or criticising the reluctance of state bodies to act. In Ireland, both historically and presently, food poverty interventions have been predominantly dependent on the voluntary and community sector. This could be argued to have encouraged a de-politicisation of food poverty. State bodies have remained content with placing relief in the hands of voluntary effort.

Historically, voluntary groups including the WNHA struggled to bridge the gap between voluntarism and state action or to convince the state to assume greater responsibility. Recently, campaigns such as Healthy Food For All (which incorporates Northern Ireland) have promoted community food initiatives and gardens, and focused education on individual food choices. While the campaign's influence on policy has been relatively limited, it has stimulated action at individual and community levels. Similarly, non-profit organisation Grow It Yourself has highlighted the potential of home-grown food to help lift people out of food poverty if sufficient land was made available for allotments and community gardens. Such organisations promote state action and community efforts, but tend to be more effective with the latter.

Recent reports in Ireland have perpetuated a sense that reform should occur at an individual level by suggesting that low-income households often:

  • Spend a greater proportion of their income on food than high-income households
  • Consume diets that are not nutritionally balanced and, consequently, are prone to developing chronic diseases
  • Purchase food at local convenience stores where prices are higher and where the variety of food is limited
  • Prepare food with limited cooking skills and storage facilities
  • Tend not to purchase the most nutritious food, despite an awareness of healthier options, due to financial and physical constraints

Childhood health has featured prominently in most of these reports, an approach that draws attention to family behaviour. For instance, the 2010 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey found that 21% of children in Ireland went to school or bed hungry due to insufficient food at home (an increase from 16.6% in 2006). Most reports on Irish food poverty are ambivalent about the potential role of state-led action in resolving the various physical problems associated with food poverty.

This approach has been questioned in a recent sociological study in Ireland by Deirdre O'Connor, Sara Cantillon and Judy Walsh. They concluded that food poverty would be best addressed by understanding food access as a problem managed through state action, based on principles of social justice and human rights. They also argued that the Irish state is obliged, due to the ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), to tackle food poverty through a human rights framework, to implement measures that improve people's enjoyment of life, and to ensure that the costs associated with acquiring food for a nutritionally adequate diet does not threaten or compromise the satisfaction of other basic needs. This more robust, state-led approach is displaced in Ireland by a persistent reliance on voluntary initiative and a pervasive culture of blame that promotes reform of food systems at individual and community levels. Enda Kenny's lambasting of wastage by school authorities and his unwillingness to discuss the extent of Irish food poverty indicates that politicians want individuals or households to take responsibility for family nutrition, rather than the state. Historical evidence suggests that the challenging critiques of Irish food poverty by Maud Gonne and the LSDC have not lost their force a century later.

Further Reading

Bartley, M., Authorities and Partisans: Debate on Unemployment and Health (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992).

Clarkson, L. A. and Crawford, E. M., Feast and Famine: A History of Food in Ireland, 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Drèze, J. and Sen, A., Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1989).

Mac Lellan, A. and Mauger, A. (eds), Growing Pains: Childhood Illness in Ireland, 1750-1950 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013).

Miller, I., Reforming Food in Post-Famine Ireland: Medicine, Science and Improvement, 1845-1922 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014).

O'Connor, D., Cantillon, S. and Walsh, J., Rights-Based Approaches to Food Poverty in Ireland, Combat Poverty Agency Working Paper Series 11/01, 2008.

Vernon, J., Hunger: A Modern History (London: Belknap Press, 2007).


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