My grandmother, an inflatable doll & a toupee


I’ve been writing about my Grandmother quite a lot recently. Today would have been her 105th birthday. Here’s one story that won’t be in the book…

Every time I left the house Nana would assume that some awful fate would befall me. A stack of books might collapse on me in the library, I’d catch my death sitting at the wrong angle at an open window, if I sat on the grass I’d catch a chill I’d never recover from.

While I lived with her I drove her ancient Fiat Uno. It had a sunroof that a previous owner had cut inexpertly into the roof. It leaked prodigiously when it rained (but only on the passenger side). I drove it across Dublin to UCD every day and Nana was convinced that as soon as darkness fell the city streets were lined with men just waiting for a lone woman to pull up at traffic lights so they could hop into the car and make off with them.

But she had a solution that would save me from such a fate – I should get an inflatable doll and strap it to the damp passenger seat. She’d dress it in her Clare hurling jersey and place her dead brother’s toupee on its plastic bald head. My safety would be guaranteed. My safety perhaps, my sanity was a whole other matter!


Famine Soup


On a cold autumn day it seemed like a good idea to make some soup. Three hours later as I sat at the table reluctantly spooning sludgy soup into my mouth I was beginning to regret it.

During my trips around Ireland visiting exhibitions about the famine one of the very few artefacts that appeared time and again was the soup pot. The pots are scattered across the country – in museums, thrown about in yards, re-purposed as flower pots. It’s not a surprise that so many of them still exist for they were durable and plentiful. In July 1847 nearly three million people were dependent on a bowl of soup every day. Thousands of soup pots, large black cast iron cauldrons, were required, each one capable of holding hundreds of litres of soup. I decided to see what Victorian philanthropy tasted like and so I made my own famine soup. I’d seen a number of different recipes reproduced in exhibitions and books but settled on Alexis Soyer’s recipe at least in part because he was the only chef to proudly lay claim to a ‘famine soup’. Surely it must have been the tastiest and most nutritious.


Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer was one of the first celebrity chefs. A flamboyant showman he was chef at the Reform Club in London and regularly cooked for the rich and famous. On the morning of Queen Victoria’s coronation he rustled up breakfast for 2,000 guests. Like modern celebrity chefs he had his own range of kitchen products, sauces and recipe books for sale. His breaded lamb cutlet recipe is still served at the Reform Club.

Long before Jamie Oliver attempted to revolutionise school meals Soyer claimed he could provide cheap nutritious soup on a large scale for the starving Irish and in April 1847 he set up his ‘model’ soup kitchen at Croppies Acre in Dublin. It was a large tented wooden structure with a fabric roof. Long benches and tables were placed around the edge while at the centre was the cooking area. The was also space for spectators to gather for Soyer had decided to charge an entry fee for the rich. The well-heeled paid 5 shillings to amble about peering at the poor as they ate their soup (using spoons attached by chains to the table). The dining experience was far removed from that of the Reform Club – at Croppies Acre one hundred people were fed every six minutes. At maximum capacity the soup kitchen was feeding over 8,000 people a day.

soup kitchen

Soyer’s Soup Kitchen

The grand opening of the soup kitchen in April 1847 was an incongruously glittery affair. Soyer, was there dressed wearing his trademark red velvet hat at a jaunty angle, accompanied by the Mayor, the Lord Lieutenant and the elite of Dublin society. The soup kitchen may have been well intentioned but it was also exploitative and the Freeman’s Journal was outraged and compared it to paying to watch feeding time at the Zoo: ‘Five shillings each to see paupers feed!…five shillings each! when the animals at the Zoological Gardens may be inspected at feeding time for sixpence!’ The criticism appeared not to bother Soyer (partly he had flitted into Ireland for a few days and while the Irish press were critical his efforts were largely lauded in the British papers) and he continued to provide charity, though he restricted it to raising money rather than setting up more soup kitchens for all the kitchens were closed by the autumn of 1847. Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, or the Poor Man’s Regenerator was published in 1847 and a penny from every sale was given to charities working with the poor. The book contained 23 ‘nutritious’ recipes as well as a guide to creating a ‘model’ kitchen. Although few of those most in need would have had the money to buy the book, the literacy in English to read it, or the capability of obtaining the ingredients for dishes including Oyster Porridge, Curry Fish, Meagre Pea Soup or Cabbage Stirabout the money raised may have been of some benefit.

Receipt no 1

I made the soup that Soyer had dispensed in his Dublin Soup Kitchen. There’s no name for this soup – it’s simply ‘Receipt No. 1’. The recipe called for 2 gallons (c.9 litres) of water which was beyond the capability of any pot I own. As I wasn’t planning to feed anyone but myself and a less than enthusiastic MEH, I divided Soyer’s quantities by six. My soup consisted of:

  • 10 grams of beef
  • 1/3 of a turnip
  • 1/3 of an onion
  • 2½ sticks of celery
  • 1/3 of a leek
  • 40g of pearl barley
  • 40g of plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • A tiny pinch of brown sugar
  • A tiny amount of dripping
  • 1.5 litres of water


Preparation was straightforward. I chopped the vegetables and put them in the pot with the tiny scrap of meat (10g of beef fits on a thumb). I let them soften before adding the flour, barley and water and then left it to simmer for more than 2 hours. As I waited for the soup to cook I half-regretted not paying €25 for the miniature ‘replica famine pot’ I’d seen at one exhibition, the ideal size for a bowl of famine soup. By the time the soup was ready to eat it had the colour and consistency of wallpaper paste. I ladled out portions. It was edible – grey sludge with a faint hint of turnip, reminiscent of the worst sort of school dinner. Still, taste was largely beside the point. Perhaps the soup made up for what it lacked in taste with great nutritional value. It didn’t – each serving provided less than 75 calories. Today an average woman needs about 2,000 calories per day. Nutritionally Soyer’s soup was almost useless, and certainly not worth walking miles to get. Coincidentally, as I ate my soup I read a newspaper article which claimed that a spoonful of mashed potato was just as good for providing an energy boast as the sickly sweet energy gels marathon runners use. One potato, had it been available, would have provided more nutrition than a bowl of Soyer’s soup.

Processed with MOLDIV

In the absence of artefacts I’d tried to recreate something of the past. An impossible task. I couldn’t (nor would I want to) recreate the conditions that forced millions of desperate, starving, ill people to travel miles in search of a bowl of soup. All I could do was attempt to recreate the smell, taste and texture of what they might have eaten.

soup pot westport

Soup Pot, Westport House







“One of the ghastliest and most curious crimes”: The Murder of Dr Cronin – 4 May 1889


Today is the 130th anniversary of the murder of Dr Patrick Cronin. On 4 May 1889 an anxious young man ran in a doctor’s surgery in north Chicago. He was agitated and desperate for help. A man had been seriously injured and needed immediate attention. The doctor packed his medical case, hopped into a waiting carriage and was never seen alive again.
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A Soapbox


I was busy standing on two of my many soapboxes last week – this time in relation to teaching history in schools and exhibitions in museums.

The Year they Cancelled St Patrick’s Day

I wrote this a while ago for History News Network and

The Year They Cancelled St. Patrick’s Day

Gillian O’Brien is a senior lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University and the author of “Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago” (Chicago, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @gillianmobrien or her personal blog:

Related Link HNN Hot Topic:  St. Patrick’s Day 


Today Saint Patrick’s Day is a broadly inclusive festival associated with fun, frivolity and, in Chicago, turning the river green.  Chicago’s first Saint Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1843 when the city was a mere six years old and the population about 8,000. By 1890, Chicago’s population had swollen to over one million and 17 percent of the city (or almost 180,000 people) were either Irish-born or had one parent born in Ireland.
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From Stretcher to Railing

benhill road - g

Former World War II stretchers now in use as railings on Benhill Road, Camberwell, London

On a walk to Ruskin Park at the weekend I wandered along Benhill Road in Camberwell and noticed that the railings were made out of old stretchers. During World War II about 600,000 steel stretchers were manufactured for use in the Blitz. They were used by ARP (Air Raid Precaution) wardens after bombing raids.

stretcher in use

After the war many of these stretchers were re-purposed as railings and used in lots of estates in South London. Most people pass them by without a second glace. They are a secret and silent memorial to a tragic past. They also prove that recycling isn’t a new phenomenon!

The stretchers were made from steel so that they could be easily washed down after use and used again when necessary. They had a wire mesh within the frame and two indents either side so that they were raised slightly off the ground if they had to be set down while an injured person was being transported. Most were painted green when used as stretchers, but are black in their recycled life as railings.

stretcher - museum of st john

Photo from the Museum of the Order of St John

Many are in poor condition now (and many have been replaced). In recent years a campaign has begun (led by the Stretcher Railing Society)  to raise awareness of these stretcher railings in the hope that they will be protected and treasured as an important part of London history.

benhill road

Benhill Road with Stretcher Railings (from Google Maps)

More on History & Education


Sticking with an education theme this week.

On Sunday evening RTE Radio 1 broadcast the third episode of ‘Brainstorm’. I was a guest (alongside Maria Murphy of Maynooth University, Vittorio Bufacchi and Frank Crowley (both of UCC). Topics covered included fake news, post truth and the housing crisis, while I talked about the importance of learning history (generally) & of making sure that history is core for the Junior Cycle.

You can listen to the show here: Brainstorm – 16 December 2018

For a more detailed piece on the teaching and learning of history in schools, museums & heritage sites here’s a link to my IAPH keynote: A Rag-Bag of Pointless Information

It’s heartening to see more letters in the paper in support of restoring History as a core subject & to hear Diarmuid Ferriter give another sterling performance supporting a reversal of the decision on the Ryan Tubridy Show. Here’s hoping the decision makers listen.








Talks & Travels


Taking the slow and very scenic road from Doagh Famine Village to Fort Dunree, Donegal

I’ve been busy visiting Dark Tourism sites, teaching and talking about convents & nuns at conferences so haven’t had time to blog recently…but I’ve seen lots of great sites in Sligo, Donegal, Derry & Tyrone and I will get round to writing something about them soon.  I’m back on the road again in a couple of weeks so if anyone has suggestions for Dark Tourism places in Tipperary, Westmeath, Kilkenny & Limerick do let me know either here or via twitter (@gillianmobrien) or instagram (gillianmobrien) or email ( Continue reading

The famine in cheery technicolour

Yesterday a number of presidential hopefuls gave presentations to Kildare County Council in the hopes of securing a nomination to help them on their way to Áras an Uachtaráin. Among them was the artist Kevin Sharkey.

Today’s Irish Times reports that among other things Sharkey ‘criticised how motorways have cut off small rural towns and suggested opening Famine villages to draw tourists. All villages should have a girl with red hair playing a harp in the corner, someone cooking cabbage or someone burying someone outside like they used to do in the old days, he said. “This is a gold nugget that we are sitting on.”’

A whole set of Famine Villages would certainly expand my Dark Tourism trip around Ireland. While it’s amusing to imagine the Ireland of the 1840s being full of red-haired, harp-plucking, cabbage-eating colleens busy burying their dead, it’s also disappointing to think that someone who wants to become the representative of the Irish people has such a limited grasp of Irish history. Continue reading