Tea – The Disreputable Drink?

Over the centuries tea has been many things to many people. Early on, in Asia, it was mostly the drink of emperors and other nobility. When it first came to Europe it was so expensive, due in large part to relatively scarce supplies, that no one but the rich and powerful could afford it.

Irish Tea for One (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
Irish Tea for One (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Even as tea supplies increased and prices started to come down, it was largely a beverage that had something of a genteel reputation. To this day one still tends to picture it as a cultured beverage consumed by well-dressed ladies of a certain age, who sip it ever so politely from the most delicate China, and of course with their pinkies extended. Even now, with specialty tea making its way to a wider audience and positioning itself as a hipper alternative to that other hot drink, it has a reputation as something of a kinder, gentler drink.

Which is why it might come as something of a shock to realize that in certain times and places tea drinking was not all that highly regarded. Take nineteenth century Ireland, for instance. And before we go on, let’s point out that the Irish have historically been one of the greatest tea-loving peoples of them all.

None of which stopped certain members of Irish society from looking down their nose at tea drinkers, according to a recent research study. The study was conducted by Dr. Helen O’Connell, of Durham University, in the United Kingdom. She found that not everyone in nineteenth century Ireland was so enamored of tea’s potential virtues and many of those didn’t hesitate to make their opinions known.

Unlike earlier times in Europe, when some commentators attacked this newish beverage on the grounds that it was supposedly unhealthy for those who drank it, the sources that O’Connell examined objected to tea drinking more on the grounds that it was thought to be a needless luxury, not to mention a bit irresponsible and perhaps even a bit hoity-toity (my words, in this latter case).

Not that it did much good, as I’ve already noted, since the numbers show that the Irish are and have been for some time some of the world’s top tea drinkers. O’Connell’s research apparently won’t appear until sometime in 2013, so you can read another take on it in this article.

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