Best of 2018

Here’s a list of some of the stuff I saw, did, heard, read – and a few of the places I ate and drank – in 2018 that I really enjoyed. As ever, it’s not necessarily the case that these things were produced, made, opened or published this year, it’s just when I got around to them.

Without a doubt, my album of 2018 was Shape of Silence by the amazing duo Saint SisterI was lucky enough to hear them live supporting Hozier in Oslo only a few weeks ago at an absolutely barn-storming gig. Saying that though, my gig of the year was Lankum when they played Riksscenen, the main venue in Oslo for folk music. The set was powerful, charming, and raucous good fun. The encore of “Fall down Billy O’Shea” was top class.

In terms of books, some of the best books I read were Christine Murray’s bind – probably the best book of poetry I picked up all year, in fact. Sally Rooney’s Normal People, her second novel was a stunningly good read and I absolutely flew through it. I also finally got around to reading Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Other books that had an impact on me this year were Mendoza and Peter Manson’s Windsuckers & Onsetters: SONNOTS for Griffithsfrom Materials; STEDET / DETTE by Gunnar Berge, published by House of Foundation; The English translation of Kjersti Skomsvold’s Monstermenneske, Monsterhuman, published by Dalkey Archives Press as part of their Norwegian Literature Series; Mathias Enard’s novel ZONE from Fitzcarraldo Editions was another standout and I finally got around to reading Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams from Verso.

At the Munch Museum this year, I really enjoyed the exhibition Mellom Klokken og Sengen (Between the Clock and the Bed). It was great especially to see Munch’s representation of The Death of Marat especially.

Places I enjoyed going to for coffee and other things in Oslo definitely include Galgen, San Francisco Bread Bowl, Egget Kafe and also Skippergata 22.



Takk for maten: Norway’s food

Michael Pollan, in the introduction to his book Cooked (which also inspired the Netflix show) writes that ‘Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place.’ That ritualisation, that invented tradition – of dinnertime, of the family meal , its romantic and platonic equivalents – is central in some way to who we are as people. Certainly, it is a mark of a particular kind of modernity. Cooking, some have argued, is the key to our being human. Claude Levi-Strauss as far back as 1964 argued in  that it was cooking which ‘establishes the difference btween animals and people.’ Richard Wrangham in his study, Catching Fire , writes ‘around that fire we became tamer.’ The idea of a group sharing a hearth from which sustenance comes is a seductive one.

Sharing meals with friends and families has become a defining marker of sociability, social status and indeed social capital. Eating alone is considered a sad enterprise, though it need not always be, of course. Sometimes eating alone can be a pleasurable experience, even having the sense of the transgressive about it. In his comical but accurate The Social Guidebook to Norway, Julien S. Bourrelle writes that ‘They also eat alone / You do not need to talk / And it is a practical and efficient way to feed oneself quickly / You can then go home early / Or go training / alone’. Such glib humour has a ring of the true about it, but, so far at least, my experiences of Norwegian food culture have been in some respects highly communal.

Not only communal, but as so many food cultures, deeply rooted in both land and sea. In the 1981 book Norsk Mat the opening lines are:

den gamle norsk matkultur er sprunget fram av selvforsyningsprinsippet, og ble bestemt av den tilgang av matemner som landsdelen og garden kunne gi.

The old Norwegian food culture springs from the prinicple of self-sufficiency, and was determined by the food sources a region and garden could provide.

In the first chapter, ‘Norsk Matskikk’, ‘Norwegian food practices’, Hilmar Stigum notes that

Historien om norsk mat gir oss variert bilde med lysog og skyggesider. Vårt folk har spist den mat de hadde. Det falt ikke alltid sammen med hva de hadde mest lyst på, og maten innholdt ikke alltid de ingredienser som kroppen trengte. Det er en historie om fylte stabbur med kornbinger som innholdt så mye korn at det ville vare for flere år  fremover, og med rekker av delvis gulnede fleskeskinker  som var en følge  av overskuddet fra tidligere år. På mindre gårder var stubberene ikke fullt så innholdsrike , men oftest så fulle at innholdte ville rekke til nest års avling ble bragt i hus. Endelig får vi husmenn og småkårsfolk hvor forrådet ofte lå i underkant av det nødvendige  og some til tider var helt utilstrekkelig. Vi får også  høre om uår  flere år  på rad så katastrofale følger at det gjør  ondt å lese om det.

The story of Norwegian food gives us varied picture with light and shade. Our people ate what they had. It was not always what they wanted, and the food did not always have the ingredients that the body needed. It is a story about overflowing storehouses with grain bins that contained so much grain that it would last for several years, and with rows of partly yellowed pork hams which was the result of profits from previous years. On smaller farms the grain bins were not quite so rich, but often so full tthat next year’s crop was brought in house. Finally we get crofters and common people whose nourishment was just on the line and some at times was totally inadequate. We’ll also hear about crop failure for several years so catastrophic that it does evil just to read about it.

In a harsh landscape that was often far from suitable to farming, people eked out a subsistence living. As Karen Larsen’s A History of Norway notes of the mid-18th century:

Thousands of crofters were settled on the outlying parts of the larger farms, and they with their families cleared large stretches of land… Their lot was poverty and endless toil, often for hard masters and without economic security…

While a law to improve their lot was passed in 1750, itt is no wonder perhaps that in the coming century, some 800,000 Norwegians should begin to emigrate to the United States. And it is also perhaps, no wonder either, that Norway’s most famous novel by it’s most famous novelist, Knut Hamsun, should be called Sult (Hunger). The hunger of Hamsun’s character is both intellectual and physical and forms part of the long standing tradition of the flaneur wandering the streets hungry for many things. So feast and famine, hunger and fullness are part of the Norwegian food culture.

In every age however, food was shaped by outside as well interior forces. Larsen writes of the Viking age that ‘new vegetables, such as turnips and cabbage, were introduced from the British Isles and also new breeds of stock. The Norwegians also learned better methods of agriculture, which the English, and Irish had inherited from the Romans.’

The gelatinous, lye-soaked lutefisk is much improved by the addition of fried bacon and grease. A shot of aquavit also helps!

Fish of course was central not alone to subsistence and survival but also to commerce. Larsen again notes that for Bergen ‘more important [than iron mining] was the wealth of herring and cod [in the 17th century]. Nor was the salmon fishing in the many streams by any means negligible. The schools of herring came and went in the most unaccountable way, a gift of God in a special sense, it was felt, which might be withdrawn at any time as a punishment for sin.’ This fear of the potential dearth in the cold northern lands is perhaps at least a partial explanation for the practical methods of preservation that are such a mark of Norwegian fish eating – from the lye soaked cod or burbot of lutefisk and the fermented trout or char that makes up rakfisk. Nothing is wasted.

Chanterelle mushrooms, a firm favourite in Norway.

Picking berries and mushrooms from the wild growth of the vast forests is still very much a part of Norwegian eating. We are entering mushroom season, and so popular is it that in some places, at car parks near forests where people begin their hikes in search of mushrooms there is even a Soppkontroll (Mushroom Control). These volunteers advise people on their return of whether or not the mushrooms they have picked are safe for eating or poisonous. There are also plenty of ripe berries to be picked – cloudberries (moltebær), blueberries and something very unusual: markbær, a wild berry that is for all the world a tiny strawberry that tastes sweet and grows wild only for a short time. Self-sufficiency is still very much a part of the culture of food here.

A country’s food culture is a vital part of getting to know it. If cooking, and the rituals that spring up around the meal, are indeed what helps to make us human, then getting to know a country’s food culture is an excellent way to get to the heart of the place.




From The Archives: Ireland v Yugoslavia 1955, When Football Became a Mortal Sin

One of the great bogey-men of the Irish twentieth century is former Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.  His considerable influence is summed up neatly in  John Cooney’s 1999 biography, Ruler of Catholic Ireland where Cooney writes

Continue reading “From The Archives: Ireland v Yugoslavia 1955, When Football Became a Mortal Sin”

From The Archives: Ireland v Germany 1936

By David Toms

With the European hangover well and truly recovered from, and the World Cup qualifying campaign due to start in the not-too-distant future, it’s time to take a look back to when Ireland thrashed Germany 5-2. If nothing else, it might help to get the belief up after a fairly deflating summer on the international front. Famous now as much for the remarkable newsreel footage of the game and the infamous match-day programme displaying the Nazi flag, the game was an important victory for the Irish side and for the organisers of the game in the country. Continue reading “From The Archives: Ireland v Germany 1936”

From the Archives: Irish Free State League v Welsh League

Today, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm passed away at the age of 95. Hobsbawm’s quest for writing history that mattered led him to write about everything from shoemakers, tradition, jazz and sports while also providing us with one of the greatest multi-volume histories of Europe ever produced and ever likely to be produced. Continue reading “From the Archives: Irish Free State League v Welsh League”

A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. Continue reading “A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929”

Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford

In popular representations of Irish culture, few things are more celebrated, while all at once, shrouded in mystery than our death rituals. Between removals, wakes, masses and burials, there is scope for rich tradition and variation in seeing off our dead. Famously of course, the Irish wake has taken on something of a life of its own, immortalised in song and story, from Finnegan’s Wake to Johnny Jump Up, two songs where the life-giving properties of whiskey are extolled in raucous fashion. Continue reading “Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford”

By The Hill of Carbally: Cockles in Waterford, a social history

With the splendid sunshine in recent times, I spent some time home in Waterford. This past Saturday afternoon was spent on the Back Strand of Tramore, when the tide was lowest, digging in the muddy bed of the strand for cockles. Cockles, along with dillisk and periwinkles are plentiful around the south-east coast during the summertime. I’ve mentioned dillisk before in another post, but going cockle picking made me think about those (more often than not) women who made their living in Waterford picking cockles, boiling them and selling them in Michael Street and Peter Street in the city centre. They may not have songs written for them, these real-life Molly Malones, but this blog post I hope will give some insight into the place of seafood like cockles in Waterford life in the first half of the twentieth century.

A quick look at the online census returns in Ireland reveals that as far back as 1901, there were women who  considered their principle occupation  to be cockle pickers or sellers – a mother and daughter who worked together being just two such women, who lived in the lanes of Waterford. The 1911 census reveals more women, in fact all of them women, who worked as cockle pickers and sellers – in all there were twenty in Waterford county who listed this as their occupation.  Many of these women were either single or widowed, though some were married, doing this work to supplement the income of their husbands incomes.

This was hard, back-breaking, to say nothing of dangerous work, and usually for poor pay. In 1911, a poor relief case was brought before Dungarvan Union of a Mrs. Tobin, a cockle picker, who because she had only one child could not under the strictures of the law, which the guardians weren’t keen to bend, be granted poor relief. This, despite the fact that a Mr Byrne, one of the Poor Law Guardians acknowledging that “it was a very deserving [case].” He said that “she was a very industrious woman…on a winter’s day it was a pity to see her coming from the Cunnigar streaming with water with her bag on her back.”

The lot of cockle pickers around Waterford doesn’t appear to have much improved in Free State Ireland either, if some newspaper reports in the middle of the 1920s are anything to go by. Under the Towns Improvement Act in 1926, the fish market in the city was moved from Michael Street to Peter Street, and several women were brought before the local courts during the transitionary period for, in the phrasing of the courts, “exposing for sale cockles so as to create an impediment or annoyance to free passage”. The case of one particular woman, reported in the Munster Express on 20 August 1926 is instructive enough about the place of these women. A case was brought that a cockle seller, Kathleen Dwyer had created an impediment or annoyance on Peter Street. She described to the court her set up – two porter boxes, one for her cockles, and one she used as a seat. Asked by the prosecution if she thought she caused an obstruction, he also inferred that she was a heavy woman and this would add to her ability to obstruct saying she was “a substantial size of a woman”. She replied baldly that “nobody interferes with me.”

A witness for the defence, a lady by the name of Ellen O’Brien, 64, noted that Peter Street had always been a cockle market, and that she had been doing that work there for 50 years (stretching back to the mid-1870s) and that her parents and grandparents had done likewise. O’Brien argued that they should not be moved  to the fish market on the street since no one would buy cockles in the newly established fish market, they always having traded seperately. The issue didn’t seem to have been resolved since only a fortnight later, Dwyer, O’Brien and twelve others were summonsed to court for sale of cockles on the public street.

These same women would be prosecuted for this same offence again and again right through to November, when they were given a three-month amnesty by the Town Clerk and Judge to see if they would “behave themselves”. In February of 1927, the cases were revived but adjourned again with a different judge in the chair who acknowledged he knew nothing of the cases, and seemed uninterested in hearing them all again in full. The defending solicitor attempted to elicit sympathy for the cockle sellers cause by pointing out their poverty and the hard work of travelling sixteen-mile round trips to Tramore to pick the cockles they would sell.

At the end of the 1930s, when one cockle seller died at the age of 73, Statia Walsh, there was astonishment at the discovery of some £1,700 found in all the nooks and crannies of her house – the woman it was noted made “her living dealing in poultry and in the sale of cockles, which she gathered on the Back Strand, Tramore.” She was apparently also regarded locally “as being of somewhat eccentric habits”. Eccentric habits, perhaps, but thrifty nonetheless.

The cockle selling, picking and eating habits in Waterford took a dive in this period as there were many public health warnings issued about contamination of the shellfish, linked to typhoid outbreaks, caused by the poor sanitary conditions of the water around the Back Strand due to run off from houses in the Riverstown area. The Munster Express wanted to know what it would take before the Health Board would insist on improving the sanitary conditions of many of the wooden Riverstown houses that were thought to be the cause of the issue. In the summer of 1939, an official warning from the Town Clerk was printed in the local press to warn people to boil the cockles sufficiently so as to ensure that they would not suffer any infections or disease.

By 1940, guidelines were issued on the subject by the Corporation and the Minsister for Local Government and Public Health, effective May 1st of that year. Under the new Public Health (Waterford Shellfish Laying) Regulations, 1940, people were liable to prosecution and a fine of £100 if they wilfully sold or distributed cockles and other shellfish which had not been either

(a) relayed and thoroughly washed in sterilised sea water by a method for a period and in an apparatus approved by the County Medical Officer of Health, or;

(b) relayed during a continuous period of not less than ten days in clean water of a suitable salinity in a site approved by the County Medical Officer of Health

The measures also put an end, for a while at least, to public harvesting of cockles from the Back Strand. Even after the introduction of these measures the bad name gained by Tramore cockles during this period still extended to those who gathered theirs in the Passage and Woodstown area of the county, and notice was made in the local press that those sellers from that end got their cockles from elsewhere and public needn’t have any worries.

Despite these changes, the introduction of such regulations and rules, the local press continued to abound in the 40s and 50s with stories  of cockle picking: of near fatalities as inexperienced cockle pickers on holiday spent too much time at the Back Strand and narrowly averted the rising currents; of women, casual street traders, prosecuted for selling their wares after hours of picking; of casual pickers making a few bob on the sly during the summer months. More than just warming the cockles of your heart, it brings to life again a world depicted in this short poem about Carbally Hill, in the pages of the Munster Express on 6 February 1959, where:

…flows the Saleen tide

On whose banks  I have oft cockles picked

With boyish heart and glee

And played quare pranks and carefree tricks

On the Hill of Carbally

Fists ‘n’ Chips

This post owes something of a debt to another history blog, Come Here To Me! It has provided inspiration with their line in blog posts on pizzerias, Chinese restaurants and the like in recent times.

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. Continue reading “Fists ‘n’ Chips”