JIM REES takes a look at our historical association with tea and tea-drinking

Brendan Behan once quipped that when the action in an Abbey play fell flat, one of the cast would stand up and put the kettle on just to give a semblance of life on the stage. They were, he said, among the best fed actors in the world.

But maybe the Abbey had it right. After all, it had been established to give Irish life a dramatic voice – and what is more Irish than a cup of tea?

It’s at weddings and wakes, moments of triumph and disaster. It’s a relaxant, a stimulant, a celebration and a consolation.

Unfortunately, we also have a justified reputation for lashing into stronger stuff, but despite what we hear, read and witness ourselves, booze is in the ha’penny place to the real brew.

Tea has been with us for so long that we can almost imagine the tomb builders at Newgrange eyeing the sundial, counting the shadows to tea-break. Surely St Patrick stuck a bag in a mug after a hard day’s preaching?

The truth is, the story of the Irish love affair with tea is a fairly short one.

In the 17th century, Portugal had more trading links with the Far East than any other European power. One of its trading partners was China, the main producer of a refreshing beverage called ‘cha’, which soon became the tipple of fashion in the Portuguese court.

When England’s Charles II was crowned in 1660, he found the coffers were empty. His advisors looked around for a young bride whose dowry would go a long way towards replenishing them. They settled on Catherine of Braganza, a daughter of the king of Portugal.

The deal was done and included in the price was a chest of Chinese cha, a very exotic – and therefore expensive – little extra.

Even today it is embarrassingly obvious how fawning the aspiring classes can be. If someone with a title wears a particular dress, hat, shoes, or piece of jewellery, the designer of said item is on to a winner, at least until the titled one has a change of heart, and the fawners miraculously undergo a similar change of taste.

It was the same back then. Because Charles II’s missus enjoyed a cup of this new fangled stuff, everyone in her orbit claimed a taste for it as well. Soon, the fashion filtered down through the social strata.

Catherine didn’t introduce tea to Britain; she only made it fashionable. The first recorded advertisement for tea in London had appeared a few years earlier in 1658.

One commentator wrote: ‘Coffee, chocolate, and a kind of drink called tee, were sold in almost every street in 1659’. Tea was known as the ‘China drink’, while chocolate was advertised as ‘an excellent West Indies drink’.

The diarist Samuel Pepys also referred to that ‘excellent and by all Physicians, approved, China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay, alias Tee.’

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