From the late seventeenth century, women of the elite classes in Ireland began to share culinary and medicinal information with loved ones across the country and, frequently, across the Irish Sea. Over the course of the Ascendancy period recipe sharing became an increasingly important practice, and the proliferation of recipe books in this period tells us as much about the tells us as much about the lives and worldviews of authors, as it does what they ate.
While the Ascendancy period is mostly associated eighteenth century, its roots lie in the wake of the Tudor reconquest of Ireland, and the cultural, social, demographic, and political upheaval, not to mention conflict that followed. This violence led to the dispossession of many Catholic landholders, and the elite classes who rose to power in this period came to be known as the Protestant Ascendancy (or simply the ‘Ascendancy’). Although they were drawn primarily from ‘New English’ families who had come to Ireland from Britain, this class also included families of Gaelic and ‘Old English’ (Anglo-Norman) origin who were able to maintain power and landholding status. Marriage was also an important way of protecting and safeguarding the interests of families, and so over the course of the period increasing numbers of women crossed the Irish Sea. With them, came their domestic and culinary cultures, and importantly, their recipes.
Recipes—known more accurately as ‘receipts’ until the nineteenth century—allowed women to conjure familiar tastes of home and concoct trusted cures. Elite families were often separated from loved ones over increasing distances, be it the Irish Sea or the Atlantic, and kinship connections played a critical role in maintaining status and even safety in a precarious political climate. Previous research has shown that, from the seventeenth century, recipe writing was one way for elite British women to establish their domestic, medical and culinary cultures in Ireland. But, there is also an important personal dimension of this process that needs to be explored.
While many of the patterns identified within Irish manuscript recipe collections are similar to British examples in terms of form and contents, the turbulent political context in which they were produced, which was marked by ongoing colonial conflict, was not. Considering recipes as cultural imports and affective objects helps us to understand the meaning that they held for families in the political climate of Ireland at this time. Circulating recipes helped to bring about change in culinary and gendered practice, but they also held cultural and personal meaning for the women and families who kept them. They may have simultaneously been comforting reminders of home in a sometimes hostile and foreign environment, instructive objects that helped to entrench new culinary norms or registers to reaffirm networks, connections and identities in a time and place where they were never more important.
Exchanging recipes, especially cures, through letters was the fastest way for medical and culinary information to be shared across ever-expanding horizons. The immediacy of letter writing helped circulate knowledge through complex networks, and allowed women to maintain contact with one another and a presence in each other’s daily lives. One example can be found in the papers of the O’Hara family, held in the National Library of Ireland (NLI). The letter is addressed to a Mrs Trench, who was likely Charlotte Trench (née O’Hara). Charlotte married Eyre Trench of Ashford, County Roscommon in 1768, but the O’Hara collection includes many of her letters and papers. The letter in question, referring to a recipe for ‘meath’ (mead), is as follows:
Dear Mrs Trench,
I send you a Rect. for Meath, & I fancy it was Mrs Goodwin’s as I got it from my Mother’s Receipt Book, I sincerely wish it may be of service to your friend, I have many valuable Receipts … shou’d your friend want them, or anything under my roof, freely send to me, for I am truly yours
A honey-based alcohol, ‘meath’ remained a popular drink throughout the eighteenth century,. It was also believed to have medicinal properties and was sometimes thought to assist fertility, so makes regular appearances in recipe exchange networks between women at this time.
Bound volumes – that is handwritten recipe books either added to over time, or created as ‘fair copies’ in a single episode – also played a role. These volumes include rough working household notebooks, as well as much more elaborate affairs, but they helped to create a rootedness and connectedness at a time when families were becoming increasingly dispersed. The shared use of inherited recipe volumes bound together women from different generations and those from different families who were marrying-in. As heirloom objects bearing the contributions of people spanning great distances and multiple generations, recipe books became a type of communal place in which familial and kinship knowledge, legacy and networks were maintained over time. The National Library of Ireland’s collection even has some examples were added to in different phases for over a century. The collection of the Smythe family of Barbavilla contains several fascinating volumes demonstrating this pattern of use over time. One of the volumes within their collection appears to have been brought with the family to Ireland. It includes earlier non-recipe related sixteenth and seventeenth century documents, such as a property indenture dated to 1564. Recipes dating to the later seventeenth century then follow this earlier section, but some are even added into the margins of these earlier documents. Recipes such as ‘How to cure an Ague by Simpathy’, ‘How to make a drink called shrub’, ‘Another Cake’, ‘A Good Cake’ ‘A Caraway Cake’ are squeezed into the available space.
By handing these volumes down through families, using them daily and adding to them over decades, women constructed, strengthened and celebrated their relationships and matrilineal genealogies. As cherished items of property, bequeathing a recipe book may have been a sign of affection, but it was also a gift of valuable practical knowledge. The information contained within, covering subjects from food preservation to infertility treatments was critical to the health and well-being of the family in the future. And, as this vital knowledge accumulated over years and generations, a manuscript may have become deeply embedded with personal, familial and cultural memories. Exchanging recipes, both through letter writing and the gifting of inherited volumes, enabled women to share the details of their day-to-day lives and concerns and to maintain an active involvement in the care and nourishment of one another and their families.
Madeline Shanahan completed her PhD at University College Dublin where she was awarded an Ad Astra Scholarship with the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies. Specialising in Irish food history, she practises as a heritage consultant in Sydney and is an Honorary Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New England.
You can read the full-length version of this article in the 2021 open-access edition of Lilith.