A Pint of Plain: Betjeman, Flann O’Brien, and how stout shaped the history of Ireland

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 13 January 2016

A pint of ‘plain’: London may be the birthplace of porter, but Ireland became the home of stout.

After five weeks of waiting, the moment has come. Under the cover of darkness, we lift out the barrel from its cavernous location. The deep-brown liquid lurches behind the air-locked, frosted pane of the vessel. How will it be? There is a mild nervousness to this moment. Did we get it right? Please say we got it right. None of us will say it for fear of somehow jinxing ourselves, but there’s a good feeling about this batch.

Beer. Well, specifically, a porter. A deep, hearty, near-sweet dark-brown liquid, and the lifeblood of many a nation. Porter, and its burlier brother stout, remain an enduring link between London and Ireland, and locally distinctive varieties are celebrated in both places. If London was the birthplace of this tenebrous ale [1], however, Ireland became its home – and it remains serious business to this day [2]. It’s no coincidence the Irish Rover set out to New York with seven million barrels of it.

In Mallow, Co. Cork, where I spent much of my childhood, the drinking of stout was a serious business. No self-respecting Corkman would be caught dead with his hand wrapped around a glass of Guinness. It had to be Murphy’s. You could try and order a Beamish, but let’s just say that you wouldn’t start making friends fast. You could read a person’s allegiances by their choice of the dark stuff. There is no guessing where those of the family-run Murphy’s lay, built on the site of a holy well [3]. It was a catholic drink in both senses of the word: a universal drink for the workers and the rebels, who were, for the most part, Catholics. Had he not lived in Dublin, the heartland of Guinness, I would swear blind that Flann O’Brien had written The Workman’s Friend for a pint of Murphy’s. The poem, featured in At Swim Two Birds, explores the comfort of the velvet brew in the face of all kinds of quotidian miseries with the refrain “a pint of plain is your only man” [4]:

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

The link here isn’t coincidental: the poem could well be a microcosm of Ireland’s modern history. Since the eighteenth century, the fortune of the Irish people has run hand-in-hand with that of its brewing industry:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

And go wrong they did, for a while.

Throughout the long struggle for Irish independence, stout, and the breweries that made it, played a strategic role on both sides. At least four pubs tied to the Murphy’s brewery were fire-bombed and destroyed through UK government action in 1920 [5] – with a number of British Auxiliary Officers leading charges on public houses, looting drink in the process [6]. British military officers joined in the looting at Murphy’s [7] during this period of incredible British state-sanctioned violence that came to be known as the Burning of Cork. (In the years that followed,Lady Carin Beamish, descendant of the Beamish dyntasty, had married Hermann Goering and joined the Nazi party, rendering the shade of that particular stout somewhat darker.)

Two decades later, after Ireland had gained de facto independence, stout proved to be vital to de Valera in thwarting Churchill’s efforts to punish the young country for its stance of neutrality during the Second World War – a stance that Churchill saw as a betrayal of the terms set out in the Anglo-Irish Treaty [8]. Ireland’s lack of ships and dependence upon British trade was a cause of great concern for the Irish government. De Valera reflected on the situation mournfully: “No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships, most of which had been sunk, which virtually cut all links with our normal sources of supply” [9]. In a letter from the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs to de Valera in August 1940, it was noted that a German blockade would “draw attention to the vital importance of trade with Britain to our national economy” [10]. Churchill was not unaware of this, and throughout 1941 attempted“to deliver a death blow” to the Irish economy by completely cutting off its supply of agricultural feed and fertilisers [11] (integral to de Valera’s agrarian dream of an Ireland filled with “cosy homesteads”[12]), as well as petrol and coal.

The misery of the squeeze of Churchill’s measures can be felt in the letters of John Betjeman, writing from Dublin during his time as a press attaché: “All pubs are the same. Guinness Good. Sherry good. No wine. No coal. No petrol. No gas. No electric. No paraffin.” [13] The key to de Valera’s success, Dr Evans claims, lies here. Ireland may not have had much, but it did have Guinness. Despite reservations about a group that was perceived as an “Anglo brewing dynasty … viewed with suspicion by officials …who worried that the company’s sympathies lay with England” [14], de Valera knew the drink was a crucial ingredient in the maintaining of the spirits of troops over the Northern border [15]: “…by 1942, with tens of thousands of thirsty American and British troops in Northern Ireland requiring alcohol to sustain morale, Ireland halted Guinness exports. It only revived them in return for tractors and agricultural chemicals from Britain.” [16][17].

For all the historical and political significance and differences between Ireland’s major stout-brewing dynasties, little difference remains between them today. Both Beamish and Murphy’s are now run by Heineken International. Murphy’s was taken over in 1983, and the Beamish and Crawford Brewery closed in 2009. In a strange twist of historical irony, Beamish is now brewed at the former Murphy’s plant alongside its historic rival.

Despite concerted drives by Heineken to market both stouts internationally, neither has managed to make major inroads on the Guinness global market share. Last year alone, Heineken sealed a £20 million sponsorship deal that would make Murphy’s the exclusive drink of the Rugby World Cup. The story was spun in the Daily Mail and subsequent churn articles as a “ban” on Guinness inflicted by Heineken “despite being favourite with rugby fans”. Despite the claims to the contrary, Heineken is reported to have lost out from the deal. Given the prominent brand imagery throughout some of these pieces, one can but wonder where the ‘news’ of this otherwise anodyne deal might have come from.

The battle of the big brands over revenues brings to mind the words of Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation: “Industrial brews have captured ever-growing market shares, but with economic repercussions…mass-producers of food concentrate wealth, erase cultural difference, render vital cultural knowledge and skills obsolete, breed dependency, and decontextualize our food” [18]. Given the declining domestic market for stout [19], one can only hope that these mighty historical markers don’t get left in Heineken’s store cupboard of assets to decline and gather dust.

But there is hope, as, thankfully, there’s far more to Irish stout than the trinity of Guinness, Murphy’s, and Beamish. As Ireland’s traditional pubs (and the brewers they were tied to) started to fall into decline, people in Ireland started to do something about it. Lamenting their stakes living in “a land rich in [a] culture of drinking but totally dominated by large global drinks companies”, Liam LaHart and Oliver Hughes opened Ireland’s first independent “brew pub” [20]. The group, Porterhouse, specialises in the production of stout (a “plain”, nonetheless, like that mentioned in the Flann O’Brien), and has won multiple gold medals in the Brewing Industry International Awards over the years [21].

Though the prevalence of stout may appear to be on the wane in Ireland, craft beer is booming. In 2013, the production of beer by Irish microbreweries grew by 32% in volume 49,000hl, only to expand by a further 35% in 2014 to 71,000hl [22]. Hopefully with the support of organisations such as Beoir – Ireland’s answer to CAMRA, founded in 2010 – we will continue to see these endeavours blossom and flourish.

(Our brew did turn out well incidentally, though I finished this article with a bottle of McGargles Uncle Jim’s stout,)

[1] Oliver, G. (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer. New York: Oxford University Press, p.494.

[2] Drinksindustryireland.ie, (2016). Beer a fifth of all beverage exports. [online] Available at: http://www.drinksindustryireland.ie/beer-a-fifth-of-all-beverage-exports/ [Accessed 4 Jan. 2016].

[3]   Corkancestry.com, (2016). James Jeremiah Murphy. [online] Available at: http://www.corkancestry.com/Families%20of%20Note/Murphy/JamesJeremiahMidletonBrewery.aspx [Accessed 7 Dec. 2015].

[4]  O’Brien, F. At Swim-Two-Birds.

[5]  Oliver, G. (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer.

[6]  Archive.org, (2016). Full text of “Who burnt Cork City? a tale of arson, loot, and murder; the evidence of over seventy witnesses”. [online] Available at: https://archive.org/stream/whoburntcorkcity00dubl/whoburntcorkcity00dubl_djvu.txt [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Gibbons, F. (2000). How verse saved poet laureate from the IRA. [online] The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/apr/22/books.booksnews [Accessed 2 Jan. 2016].

[9]  Widely attributed to De Valera’s Christmas 1940 broadcast to the United States, although I was unable to find a copy of the recording itself. I could, however, find one reference to the speech in Forde, F. (1981). The long watch. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

[10]  http://www.fusio.net, F. (1940). Cover letter and Memorandum by Walshe from Joseph P. Walshe – 19 August 1940 – Documents on IRISH FOREIGN POLICY. [online] Difp.ie. Available at: http://www.difp.ie/docs/1940/Impact-of-German-blockade-on-Britain-on-Irish-trade-and-shipping/3264.htm [Accessed 9 Jan. 2016].

[11]  Evans, B. (2014). Guinness Saved Ireland. [online] drbryceevans. Available at: https://drbryceevans.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/guinness-saved-ireland/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[12] de Valera, É. (17 March 1943). “That Ireland which we dreamed of.”. In: R. Aldous, ed., Great Irish Speeches, 2nd ed (2009).

[13] Betjeman, J. and Lycett Green, C. (1994). John Betjeman letters. London: Methuen, p.314.

[14]  Evans, B. (2015). Food and Drink at the 1939 World’s Fair: National Rivalry and Irish Aspiration. In: N. Teughels and P. Scholliers, ed., A Taste of Progress: Food at International and World Exhibitions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1st ed. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p.233.

[15] Evans, B. (2014) Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave Manchester University Press, pp. 25-26, p.179..

[16] Evans, B. (2014). Guinness Saved Ireland. [online] drbryceevans. Available at: https://drbryceevans.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/guinness-saved-ireland/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[17]  Evans, B. (2015). Food and Drink at the 1939 World’s Fair: National Rivalry and Irish Aspiration. In: N. Teughels and P. Scholliers, ed., A Taste of Progress: Food at International and World Exhibitions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1st ed. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, p.233.

[18]  Katz, S. and Pollan, M. (2012) . The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, p.256.

[19] Notte, J. (2016). Guinness can’t afford to alienate loyalists as beer sales fall. [online] MarketWatch. Available at: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/guinness-cant-afford-to-alienate-loyalists-as-beer-sales-fall-2015-11-12 [Accessed 12 Jan. 2016].

[20]  Theporterhouse.ie, (2016). Porterhouse – About. [online] Available at: http://www.theporterhouse.ie/about.php [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

[21]  Theporterhouse.ie, (2016). Porterhouse. [online] Available at: http://www.theporterhouse.ie/beers-plain.php [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

[22]  http://www.accaglobal.com, A. (2016). Ireland’s craft beer industry | ACCA Global. [online] Accaglobal.com. Available at: http://www.accaglobal.com/vn/en/member/accounting-business/corporate/craft-beer.html [Accessed 10 Jan. 2016].


Food For Thought: The Meaning of Foraging

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 23rd May 2015

foraged salad leaves and flowers

No, I should love the city less
Even than this, my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.

The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins [1]

It is the end of May, and my kitchen is alive with bubbling decoctions of blossoms as the hawthorn starts to fade and elderflower sprays take its place. The pale blush of oak apples teases in the distance; the inedible galls a cheerful reminder of the bounty to come in the months ahead. The season of abundance is upon us, and, it seems, many kitchens across the country are keen to make the most of the nation’s new­found love for wild food.

My first forays happened in childhood, inadvertently trampling blankets of alium ursinum on walks with my aunt, and being astounded by the pungent smell of garlic that rose up from the woodland floor. I felt as though I had discovered a great secret, and wanted to learn how I might cultivate it for myself. Then I started to learn about the habits of plants, their seasons, their stories, and how to read the land – town or country – by the types of plants that choose to grow there. The outdoors became a movable feast in the truest sense; a series of little treasures to be enjoyed within reach of whence they sprang, or stowed with squirrel­-like jealousy – dried or in jars – for the months ahead.

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A Quick Note on Wild Garlic, Foraging & Pickling

wild garlic buds pickled in vinegar
Wild garlic buds pickled in homemade cider vinegar. Deliciously piquant, and completely free to produce. Pickling is a cheap and simple way to preserve the flavours of plentiful times for the months to come.

Wild garlic is perhaps one of my favourite plants to forage, and was certainly one of my first. The leaves are wonderfully versatile, and can be used in anything from salads to lactoferments (the latter of which I use as a vegan-friendly ‘trotter gear’ to flavour soups and stews). For me, they are the true flavour of Spring. It is worth noting, however, that the leaves are not the only part of the plant that can be used, though they are, arguably, the most sustainable.

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A Sordid History of Seeds Part II: The Soil Association

I’m pleased to announce that I have been commissioned to write about seeds, how they are legislated, and their history for the Soil Association; you can read my piece here. This post was inspired by, and partly based on, some writing that I did last month.

I am very glad that these articles have resonated so well with the growing community, and would love to hear people’s experiences elsewhere in the world, particularly from growers who save seed.

If you care about food, then you should care about seeds: who owns them, who controls them, and how it affects our lives and our environment.

I will be delving into this subject more deeply in the near future: how seed hegemony keeps developing countries in poverty cycles, how the number of leaves on a head of lettuce can be patented, how small groups of innovative growers have been circumventing these laws and keeping stronger, indigenous varieties alive, and ensuring we have good food stock for the future.

Incidentally, if you are based in or near South London and you are interested in saving seed, then visit Glengall Wharf Garden, a community garden that has pledged to become a safe haven for open pollinated, non hybridised GMO free seeds. They will be holding a seed swap at the end of the month — March 22nd — they are very friendly, and you will learn an awful lot, so do go along!

Green Manures: Why Don’t We Learn From Old Wisdom?

clover green manure crop nutrients soil leguminous nitrogen-fixing
Above: clover, a common nitrogen-fixing green manure crop used to return nutrients to the soil

Approaching a new plot of land is a daunting matter. Particularly in London. I have heard of people uncovering mattresses, televisions, and all manner of things lodged deep in this damp, clay soil.

Sadly, at a time when ‘vintage’ remains vogue, I doubt I am going to uncover any butler sinks any time soon. A shame, as they are lovely things in which to grow more vigorous species, like mint and nasturtiums.

The garden to which I’m tending this year is less than ten years old. The soil, whilst full of happy, healthy worms and traces of mycorrhiza (the parts of mushrooms we don’t tend to see), is very clay, clumpy, and generally in need of a lot of love. I can see where the garden is trying to come into its own, and have observed which species are doing well, but it could still do with a helping hand when it comes to building the soil.

It is no accident that we are starting to pay more attention to our soils and the way that we grow our crops, at a time when we are having to refine our growing and farming practices to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and climate change.  We are only just beginning to examine soil composition and its flora and fauna in earnest, and it is perhaps our increased understanding of these relationships that has led to zero-till and no-dig methods gaining popularity. Both are topics that I will examine in future.

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A Sordid History of Seeds: Swapping, Swindling & Why We Must Save for the Future

swap seeds: borlotti, painted lady, carlin peas, mr bounds
Seeds swapped and saved this year, including (L-R): Borlotti, Painted Lady, uknown, Carlin Peas and Mr Bounds

Despite the biting cold and the snow, February is a time of year that I always look forward to. It is the time when the scribbles and marginalia of the previous year’s notebooks start to turn into the shoots and leaves that will eventually make the crops of the coming year. It is a time when I get to enjoy the excitement of cracking open last year’s bean pods, enjoying each little snap of nature’s answer to bubble wrap. It is also the time of year that major seed companies most look forward to, as growers around the world buy seed in anticipation of Spring.

The unquestioned hegemony of seed companies over what people grow is something that I have always found very strange. When so much of what we grow willingly offers its seed, it seems weird and wasteful to buy new seed year after year. So why do we do it? Well, naturally, the problem started with the Victorians. The Industrial Revolution led to a number of major advancements in the practice of agriculture and horticulture, including the mass-production of glass, the invention of chemical fertilizers, and the birth of the large-scale seed supplier. The impact of these changes was unprecedented, allowing growers around the world to produce bigger, more resilient crops earlier in the year.

The scientific spirit of some of these plant breeders was commendable, with a number of their observations contributing to our current understanding of botany and plant reproduction. Some of them even enjoyed correspondence Charles Darwin.

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Sapindus, saponins, toxicity & why nature isn’t always best

horsechestnuts aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum, more commonly known as the horse chestnut. Contains high concentrations of the saponin aescin, which has proved useful in the treatment of inflammatory and venous ailments.

After yesterday’s post about sapindus and soap nuts, I thought it important to write a short aside about why natural is not always best, even if this runs contrary to the modern mantra. Yesterday evening, I received a message from a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a biophysicist.

Whilst I knew that saponins were renowned for their frothing properties, I was not familiar with some of their other attributes. As my friend put it, saponins are made up of amphiphilic molecules – half of the molecule likes to be in water, whilst the other likes to be in lipids. This allows them to solubilize lipids and oils, cleaning up grease”. Great. What these chemicals are also capable of doing, however, is destroying cells by altering their membranes. As said friend affirms, “they are probably used by the plant in defence against bacteria and fungi” and, like other soap-like chemicals, are a bit toxic to the environment. In fact, so effective are some saponins at killing fish, that they are employed by indigenous peoples for fishing to this day, in places ranging from Guyana to the Indian subcontinent.

So where does this leave us on the subject of soap nuts as an alternative to washing detergent? Well, firstly, I would be interested in running a comparative toxicity test to determine whether all things are equal. Presuming that they are, as my friend says, I can still see advantages in soap nuts, not only for their affordability, but also for their reduction in processing, packaging, and the possibility of composting them once spent. I presume that not all saponins are made equal, and that interesting, more local alternatives could be found in soapwort, saponaria officinalis, or the humble horse chestnut, aesculus hippocastanum (yes, I was glad to find out that they were good for something, too!). So I have some experimenting to do. Continue reading

In Praise of the Quince

quince fruit peckham
Quinces foraged in Peckham, South London, 2014.

The first time I stumbled upon a quince tree, I thought that I had discovered the Holy Grail of pears. Golden against grey Cambridgeshire skies, they looked like the juiciest, sweetest fruit that I had ever come across in a city. Frustrated with my diminutive stature, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to reach them (despite numerous attempts with the crook of my umbrella), and began to concoct a plan for how I might.

Several weeks later, walking through the streets of South London, I came across the mythical fruit once more. Ever tempting (and ever out of reach) I was beginning to understand why the fruit was believed to be the temptation of Eve.

I returned with the aid of two strong arms and a picking device, crudely and ingeniously fashioned from the remains of an invasive buddleia plant and a plastic bottle. To our delight, the device worked, and while we worried about our merry missiles bouncing off car roofs, we savored the sweetly-ripe smell that arose from their downy, waxen skin. But this is where the magic ended. As I sunk my teeth into the flesh and brought the fruit around my tongue, I was met with a fluffy, floury texture and thought that I had in fact bitten into some kind of deceptively delicious-smelling fruit hybrid. Despite my sadness at the hoard of bad apples, I kept the fruit, deciding that they would probably work well in a pickle or a preserve irrespective of the texture. I was right.

A little reading revealed that the fruit I had picked were in fact quinces, and that my instincts to pickle them had been correct. The quince does not yield its gifts willingly, and the heady bouquet of flavors that tempts us in the first place needs coaxing from its flesh. We owe the name of one of our most prized preserves—marmalade—to the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, derived from the Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, or “honey fruit”). It was the Greeks who first discovered that cooking quince over a low heat with sugar or acid would cause the resultant reduction to set, and it is from this point that we can trace most modern jams and pickles.

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Urban Gardening & Homemade Seed Plugs

One of the main challenges I’ve faced living in London is that I have had to move around a lot. Whilst this has had some benefits (ummm…?), the main set-back is that I have had to plan my growing on a temporary basis. Restricted outdoor space means getting creative, too. However, even when I’ve had little more than a windowsill, I have managed to yield some excellent results, so don’t let this hold you back. It’s just a matter of planning and picking the right crops to suit your space. On one windowsill a few years ago, I grew salad, spring onions, calendula, cornflowers, radishes and herbs with great success. It’ll depend which way your window is facing, amongst other things, but a little research can go a long way.

broad bean seeds
Above, seeds from last year’s broad beans. Community gardens are a great place to exchange seeds with locals and to get growing advice.

A good resource at your disposal is your local community garden. Most boroughs have them, and many of them hold courses with opportunities for hands-on practice that will push your skills to the next level.  If you are in South East London, I cannot recommend Glengall Wharf Garden enough. They are kind, patient, interested and interesting, and have provided me with a wealth of invaluable information. They hold a number of courses throughout the year, and provide gentle, encouraging guidance to everyone from the most seasoned gardeners to complete beginners.

Although I have done a lot of sowing-and-growing during my relatively short time on this planet, I like to consult books on even the most basic of things just to familiarize myself with alternative methods. It provides me with a way to troubleshoot if and when things go wrong (they often do!), and it is very satisfying when new, experimental methods work out well. We all have something new to learn, and, it seems, even the experts miss a trick every now and again. I came across one such instance recently when reading through the Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No.4. Diacono often talks about using Jiffy propagation plugsto start his seeds off. Whilst these are indeed effective (and perhaps useful for growing on a commercial scale), it seemed silly to me, because there’s a resource available in most households (except, perhaps, some vegan households!) that is superior, and a good reuse of household waste: egg shells.

egg shell seed propagation plugs
Egg shells make for great seed propagation plugs. Above, a dozen broad bean seed plugs I made a couple of days ago.

Making an egg shell seed starter is easy, read on for my guide to making your own.

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Urban Apples and Cider Vinegar

Urban Apples and Cider Vinegar

I. On Apples

People are often surprised by just how much it is possible to forage in a city, even in the depths of winter. The above pictures are the fruits of a recent foray in Leicester with M and R, and there were a lot more left on the trees. Many cities – London especially – have built over and around former orchards, and it is not hard to find trees that have risen from discarded apple cores along the roadside or the banks of canals. I was delighted to find one set of trees in Lincolnshire recently that I initially thought had been decorated with Christmas lights, but were in fact laden with apples. Often, it is just a case of looking a little closer.


Unfortunately, supermarket conditioning has left us wary of fruit that isn’t uniformly shaped and coloured. I use ‘uniformly’ over any other adjective, as I believe a fruit can be described as ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect’ even if it does not adhere to supermarket standards. It worries and angers me in equal measure to see kilos of fruit left to rot at the base of a tree on a street, only to see people buying them at an extortionate price from the supermarket. If you are lucky enough to have such a resource in your community, please use it, and encourage others to do so. There are few things more lovely than to see a box of fruit left out with a notice encouraging people to take some home with them.

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