When we think of the years of misery that we now know as ‘The Great Hunger’ from 1845 onwards, it is not necessarily Dublin we think of instantly but rather the impoverished and miserable west of the country, where death and emigration were both at their highest levels. Dublin has its own famine stories to tell however, and one of few places on the island of Ireland where the population increased, as the starving masses flocked into urban areas in search of employment and food.
One of the most interesting little stories involving Dublin and the famine is that of ‘Soyer’s soup kitchen’, a temporary structure erected at Croppies Acre for the purpose of feeding the starving masses of the city. My interest in this story was sparked by an Illustrated London News illustration from April 1847, showing a showpiece soup kitchen that was opened in Dublin by a famed French chef, in an attempt at providing much-needed relief to the suffering Irish people.
Alexis Soyer, born in 1809, was a high-profile French chef, indeed it has been argued he was among the first ‘celebrity chefs’. In The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America, Jillian Strang and Joyce Toomre note that Soyer as an “affable and eccentric chef with a strong sense of showmanship and a flair for publicity. Soyer loved to dazzle, and to do the seeming impossible.” As chef of the Reform Club in London from 1837, Soyer’s food would have been enjoyed by members of the political class in Britain, though he was greatly moved by the reported suffering of the Irish starving workers and peasantry, and was approached by authorities with the aim of establishing a model soup kitchen in Dublin. Soyer had written to the press in England on the question of the misery in Ireland and what response should be taken to it. Soyer sent recipes to the press which he believed were sufficient to provide nutritional value for those in dire need. Below is one recipe which was published in The Times:
Soyer was capable of making up to 100 gallons of soup for under £1, a remarkable achievement, though the soup itself was often derided in the press, with some contemporary commentators noting it was not so much soup for the poor man as it was just poor soup.Regardless, Soyer was warmly welcomed in the Dublin of 1847,and within weeks a temporary structure was erected in front of the Royal Barracks for the task of feeding the masses. A wooden structure, described in contemporary reports as being about forty foot in length, the spoons within the structure were bound by chains to the bowls and tables, to prevent them from being stolen. Frank Hopkins has noted that:
The poor were admitted to the hall in shifts of 100 at a time by the ringing of a bell. When they had finished the soup, they were handed a piece of bread and left by the second door. The bowls were then cleaned and the next batch of people were summoned, again by bell.
The Lord Mayor and the Lord Lieutenant were among those to attend the opening of the soup kitchen, though a hugely controversial feature of the site was manner in which the elite of Dublin were charged to observe the spectacle, with historian Mike Cronin noting that one contemporary newspaper found this so ethically dubious they compared it with a day out at Dublin Zoo. The Freeman’s Journal had little good to say of the event, noting that “of all the impudent and insulting humbugs that ever were perpetrated against a suffering people, we hold the exhibition of yesterday, at the Royal Barracks, to have been the most outrageous.” The newspapers condemnation of Soyer’s experiment was straight to the point:
Five shillings each to see paupers feed!—five shillings each to watch the burning blush of shame chasing pallidness from poverty’s wan cheek!—five shillings each! when the animals at the Zoological Gardens may be inspected at feeding time for sixpence! We hope that, as these “five shillings each” were to be given in charity, the poor unfortunates who earned them with scalding tears and bitter humiliation and galling shame were not forgotten; and that on this occasion they were presented, when the performance was over, with something more than a “fine cake”!
The kitchen served thousands of people on a daily basis during its short existence in 1847, with most accounts suggesting as many as 5,000 people a day were fed. While the health benefits of the soup was questioned, it remains one of the most interesting chapters in the very dark story of Ireland’s famine years. One nineteenth century source gives an interesting account of the reception Soyer received on returning home, though in retrospect perhaps a lavish gentleman’s dinner was not the most fitting of tributes in the context of the times. “On Soyer’s return from Dublin, another public dinner was given to him at the London Tavern, to commemorate his philanthropic….efforts for the relief of the starving Irish. More than 150 gentlemen sat down….It was a most fitting ovation to the unbought talents of the chef.”
Soyer died in 1858, and the Frenchman was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. You can learn more about him here.