If you think of Ireland you think of beer. But there is another beverage that is part of Irish way of life: tea.
Less than in the Fifties, when, according to Heinrich Böll in his Irish Journal, Ireland was first with almost 5 kilos per person per year: enough tea to fill a small swimming pool…
As the Italish followers know very well, Ireland is also a Country that consumes (and produces…) outstanding literature. And if literature is also something about the everyday life, in Irish literature there is not only a lot of beer, but a lot of tea too.
This post is written by a guy who loves tea almost as much as loves Ireland and it is a homage to some Irish writers who put the tea in their books. It is, probably, a work in progress… Anyway: the water is boiling, the kettle has finished its task. Now, let’s dive in! Are you ready to drown in a cup of Irish tea?
Samuel Beckett’s tea
A Guinness drinker, fond of (and player too!) of Rugby, cyclist: for me, the perfect author! Beckett writes about (green) tea in Play. The green one is not exactly… My cup, and the situation is quite turbid: M imagines W1 and W2 having tea together, in a place where M has been with the both of them.
In Murphy tea is almost a character. It’s a prize. Even more! It’s a sacred object, a liquid communion wafer:
Miss Carridge’s day had a nucleus, the nice strong cup of tea that she took in the afternoon. It sometimes happened that she sat down to this elixir with the conviction of having left undone none of thos things that paid and done none of those things that did not pay.
An elixir brought (to Celia, in her room) with unspeakable carefulness and gentleness, according to a ritual (the careful and silent transport; the appreciation of the flavour of the Choisest Lapsang Souchong [wood and pine needles: my favourite!]; the timing compliance: Drink it before it coagulates).
It’s the liquid half of a perfect daily livelihood:
“A cup of tea and a packed of assorted biscuits”. Twopence the tea, twopence the biscuits, a perfectly balanced meal.
James Joyce would have been the first in this list, by birth. But I have a soft spot for Sammy… Nevertheless, tea has its great moments in Ulysses.
Ulysses starts (almost) with a breakfast:
– When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.
-By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.
Stephen easily get three cuppas, an occasion for Joyce to play with adjectives:
Stephen filled a third cup, a spoonful of tea colouring faintly the thick rich milk.
And, if Joyce claimed that if Dublin were to be destroyed in some catastrophe it could be rebuilt, using Ulysses as a model, he tells us where to buy tea:
In Westland row he halted before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read the legends of leadpapered packets: choice blend, finest quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea.
The dandy Banville’s tea
In John Banville works tea is often mentioned too. In Quirke’s books the meetings between Quirke himself and his daughter Phoebe are ever dictated and punctuated by the tea, which get cold while Quirke’s alcoholic thirst burns.
Perhaps the Lapsang in Elegy For April is the very same Choisest Lapsang Souchong from Beckett’s Murphy…
But it is in Ghosts that Banville writes a veritable ode to the tea:
Tea. Talk about tea. For me the taking of tea is a ceremonial and solitary pleasure. I prefer a superior Darjeeling; there was a firm of merchants in Paris – what were they called? – who did a superb blend, an ounce or two of which they would part with in exchange for a lakh of rupees. Otherwise a really fine Keemun is acceptable, at a pinch. Then there is the matter of the cup: even the worst of Licht’s stewed sludge will taste like something halfway decent if it is served in, say, an antique fluted gold-rimmed piece of bird’s-egg-blue Royal Doulton. I love bone china, the very idea of it, I want to take the whole thing, cup and saucer and all, into my mouth and crack it lingeringly between my teeth, like meringue. Tea tastes of other lives.
Working class tea: Roddy Doyle
I often wonder how it is possible that I love so much two (Doyle and Banville) such different author. Maybe because we are… – I am – a bit schizophrenic.
Doyle has been my literary introduction to Ireland, so I owe him a lot. My absolutely top favorite passage in his books is one from The Van. In it Jimmy Rabbite Senior tell us something great about tea:
Tea though, he loved his cup of tea; twenty bleedin’ cups.
He had a mug for work that he’d had for years; he still had it. It was a big plain white one, no cracks, no stupid slogans. He put two teabags into it; used two. My God, he’d never forget the taste of the first cup of tea in the morning, usually in a bare room in a new house with muck and dirt everywhere, freezing; fuck me, was great; it scalded him on the way down; he could feel it all the way. And the taste it left; brilliant; brilliant. He always used two bags, squeezed the bejesus out of them. The mug was so big it warmed more than just his hands. It was like sitting in front of a fire. After a few gulps he’d sip at it and turn around and look at his work.
Pure poetry. Tea tastes of other lives, quoting Banville. In the tea there is the warmth of hope and toil, quoting Doyle. What’s in the coffee? At most a tea…spoon of sugar… ;-)