We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Department of English Studies


Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Helen O'Connell

O'Connell, Helen (2018). Bleak Food: William Wilde, Famine and Gastronomy. Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 41: 156-178.

Author(s) from Durham


Gastronomy might appear to be an unlikely context for any consideration of William Wilde’s well-known 1854 essay, “the Food of the Irish.” After all, that essay is primarily preoccupied by the recent Famine and the presumed absence of any culinary skill amongst the pre-Famine population. The essay itself depicts the pre-Famine Irish as stubbornly subsisting on a monotonous and restrictive diet of potatoes in ways that supposedly typify a generally backward condition. However, gastronomy is a crucial context for understanding Wilde’s reflections on food and famine in the 1850s. Through allusion to a range of French and english gastronomic texts, Wilde suggests that the existence in Ireland of elaborate and developed culinary techniques—of gastronomy—would have provided an effective defence against the threat of Famine. Fully acknowledging that the potato-eating poor of the pre-Famine period were joyful and strong in a manner that would be impossible in post-Famine dietary conditions, Wilde links nourishment with backwardness. by exploring Wilde’s “The Food of the Irish” in the context of his work on the 1851 Census, it becomes apparent that progress gets positively equated in his work with a malnourishing gastronomy and perpetual dissatisfaction.

Support Staff