During the course of my PhD research, one of the most remarkable books I have read is John K. Walton’s Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. Ostensibly, it has less than nothing to do with my research on sport in Munster between 1880-1930. But when I read the book, it opened up previously unimaginable vistas and themes for exploration to me as a historian.
By taking such an ephemeral part of life, and examining it from a huge range of viewpoints – from those of the fishfriers and their trade, as part of the burgeoning seaside holiday resorts of Britain, as an indicator of class and status and so on, Walton showed in the best way, that from something so small, so much could be learned. In an interview last year, Walton describing it as one his most fulfilling academic projects, said:
…I enjoyed some of the reactions even more: appearing in Pseuds’ Corner for impeccable reasons (such as suggesting that fish and chips had a politics), and provoking a colleague’s wife to exclaim in outrage, ‘But surely even you can’t spin out fish and chips into a whole book’. Oh yes I could; and the sustained hostility from unimaginative historians who had not read the book provided endless further entertainment.
Such an imaginative power, to be able to ‘spin out’ of fish and chips something much more substantial is one of the books, and Walton’s, achievements. My own resulting interests in Fish ‘n’ Chips for my own research, tangential though it is, arises from considering whether this humblest of humble luxury items was relatively expensive in 1920s Ireland. Whether it might be that in a tossup between fish ‘n’ chips by the seaside, entry to a match, or a few hours in the warmth of the cinema, there could only be one winner. And so I went trawling through the papers in search of early signs that fish ‘n’ chips had a similar presence in Irish life to that of Britain. One thing which I found, which I wasn’t expecting to was that fish ‘n’ chips was frequently mentioned in the preambles of witnesses giving testimony in courts about various fights and rows that took place throughout the country.
Take for instance, the case of the father-and-son pair, Frederick and Laurence Coppolla and their associates Angelo Santi and Rauche Eteglio all of whom were brought before court on charges of siphoning off oil that belonged to the British Margarine Company located in Dublin’s North Wall, to the tune of £250 in 1910. One of their customers, who gave witness in court, was another Italian Anthony Rabbaiotti, of 4 Wexford Street where he kept a fish ‘n’ chip shop. He got barrels of oil for his business through the Coppollas, but as far as can be figured from the report wasn’t implicated in the illegal means of procuring it!
Fish ‘n’ chips even make some appearances in the Bureau of Military History Archives. In the testimony of Frank Thornton of Booterstown, Dublin he tells a story of how British secret service men, in this case an Irish plant by the name of Dave Neligan, would meet with touts for information – and the occasion that Thornton relates in his testimony to the Bureau is of an amusing meeting with some of these English touts in Rabbiatti’s on Marlboro’ Street, having a supper of fish ‘n’ chips, where the English touts are amazed at the quality of the Irish accents Thornton and his friends have when they couldn’t imitate it after a year in the country.
In the Irish Independent in July 1924, a small story appeared about another Italian fishfrier, Carl Morelli on Talbot Street, who was in Police Court and fined ten shillings and put on personal bail for 12 months after assaulting a customer by the name of Stone with hammer when Stone entered the premises looking to hand out other customers’ fish ‘n’ chips so that he could get his own for free. From the Irish Times, many years later in 1938, we get a report of a young boy in Derry who is sentenced to a term in an Industrial school charged with stealing twenty four shillings from several apartments – we are informed that the boy ‘went to the cinema with the money and bought sweets there and after the pictures bought more sweets and fish and chips.’
In Waterford, in August 1931, a sitting of the District Court heard of another fight between someone serving behind the counter and a customer. On this occasion the row occurred in July of that year when some customers, two of them drunk, one sober we’re told, got into a row with James Jackson over the price of the fish ‘n’ chips. The row was caused by some considerable confusion about the difference in value due to the introduction of new Irish coinage – indeed the row continued, much to the amusement of those present, in the courtroom – with the Justice intervening between the men saying ‘Don’t turn this into a Fish-and-Chip shop’ to roars of laughter from the people there to witness the proceedings.
A similar incident also occurred in Tramore, Co. Waterford in 1937 when another Italian fish ‘n’ chip shop owner, Stephen Casoni this time, where again drink and high spirits caused trouble when some customers, the defendants, insisted on being served first above everyone else in the chipper during a peak period.
These are just a small few stories that revolve in some way around fish ‘n’ chips and help to give us a little insight into the social world of Ireland in the early twentieth century through them. We encountered in that handful of examples the spy network of British intelligence in Ireland, the criminal activities of immigrants, the spending habits of young delinquents over which hung the oppressive air of the dreaded industrial school and lastly, we saw the day-to-day problems faced by those, often Italian, businessmen who ran the fish ‘n’ chip shops –we’ve seen life being lived, through food served up on newspaper.
 Irish Times, 17 November 1910
 WS Ref #: 615 , Witness: Frank Thorton, Member IRB & IV Dublin, 1913-16; Deputy Assistant Director of Intelligence, IRA 1919-21: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0615.pdf
 Irish Times, 9 February 1938
 Munster Express, 14 August 1931
 Munster Express, 12 November 1931