Book Review: Put the Kettle On, The Irish Love Affair with Tea

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“Put the Kettle On, The Irish Love Affair With Tea” by Juanita Browne, is a book around tea rather than a book about tea. It is a gathering of memories and associations, an acknowledgement of rituals and an observation on how we communicate through the simple act of making tea. Throughout the book, the author (Juanita Browne) steps back to allow these themes to emerge naturally without commentary, influence or analysis. The result is open, unspoilt recollections and thoughts from 65 people who are diverse in age and backgrounds but united in their love of tea.

“I can still recall the refreshing taste of tea during those times of heavy work”- Peter Brady

“The tea on the bog was the best of the lot”- Declan Egan

It is not surprising that nostalgia features heavily in the book. Tea is an interesting method for evoking memories: the sound of kettles, the smell of the brew, the sight of a cups or teapots and of course the taste, all contribute to a reminiscent force where memories come flooding back and loved ones are remembered. Tea breaks in hayfields and bogs are featured throughout the book as well as glass bottles of tea in the classroom and tea rations during the war. Through the memories and associations with tea, we get interesting insights into the contributors’ day-to-day lives in bygone times.

 “We don’t have many rituals any more…now the only welcoming ritual we have is to make a cup of tea for someone.” Mary McEvoy

Ritual is a word that is mentioned or alluded to by many in the book. I have always believed that rituals are needed to help us cope with fear, anxiousness, loneliness and frustration. They offer relaxation and respite from busy lifestyles and in carrying out daily rituals our minds are offered a little relief. In the past, we wrote letters, mended clothes and of course harvested and prepared food and these daily soul-nurturing, rituals formed a huge part of our lives. Convenience and efficiency have created a fast-paced world but taking time to prepare a hot cup of tea can create a brief connection with something that nurtures. The ritual of making tea can be needed more than the caffeine or the heat and this was evident in many of the narratives.

“It is so packed with meaning: a sense of comfort and care and a salve to a body unable to help itself.” -Maria Dowling

The theme of communication is another one that runs through the book. It seems that the offering of tea is a medium through which we can express our love and empathy without having to directly address the emotions at play. The act of serving someone tea symbolises an offer of help and is universally understood.

The other side of communication is a humorous one: for all that Irish people are an easy-going, laid-back lot, there is extraordinary sensitivity around the timing of the first offer of tea, the pace of the second proposal, the manner of acceptance and the timing of refills. Most of these “rules” are mentioned in the book but the author has the good sense to resist any search for logic!

“Put the Kettle On” is a light, enjoyable read that explores Ireland’s deep attachment to the beverage of tea. It is available from The Collins Press.

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