How fish and chips enriched a nation

Tue, Nov 3, 2009, 00:00

There’s nothing more Irish than a fish supper – apart from its Italian roots. In this extract from his new book ‘ The Irish ( Other Foreigners)’ SHANE HEGARTYcharts the arrival of Ireland’s first Italian migrants and how by reinventing themselves they also reinvented our eating habits

IRISH VISITORS to Italy will no doubt have noticed that its national dish is not burger and chips. You do not swing onto Rome’s Via del Corso to be met by the smell of boiling oil. You do not sit down for dinner, and choose an antipasto of batter burger and onion rings. Which has always made it somewhat curious that the Italians in Ireland became renowned for their chippers, and that many of the names that were serving fish and chips half a century ago will still be serving snack boxes to peckish or drunken Irish this and every weekend.

It began sometime in the 1880s, when an Italian, Giuseppe Cervi, stepped off an American-bound boat that had stopped in Cobh and kept walking until he reached Dublin. There, he worked as a labourer until he earned enough money to buy a coal-fired cooker and a hand-cart, from which he sold chips outside pubs.

Soon after, he found a permanent spot on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), where his wife Palma would ask customers ‘Uno di questo, uno di quello?’, meaning ‘one of this and one of the other?’ In doing so, Palma helped to coin a Dublin phrase, ‘one and one’, which is still a common way of asking for fish and chips. The shop, meanwhile, had launched an industry.

Much of what is known about the history of the chipper is detailed in the wonderful work of John K Walton, a professor of social history at the University of Central Lancashire. In 1994, he wrote a book, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1940, and it is an invaluable addition to the admittedly small library of chipper histories.

In it, we learn that, by 1909, there were 20 fish and chip shops in Dublin, serving a population of only 290,000. This, though, was nothing compared with the size of the trade in British cities, where the relationship between chippers and Italians originated.

In 1905, there was a fish and chip shop for every 400 citizens of Leeds and Bradford.

The chipper had first become popular in the north of England, as a happy amalgam of fried fish and cooked potato trades that had grown separately during the mid-1800s. ‘It is not clear which area, and still less which individual, deserves the credit for bringing about the momentous marriage of fish and chips,‘ writes Walton. ‘This is a matter of murky and probably insoluble dispute.‘ However, it is guessed that it happened sometime between the 1860s and 1890s.

It was in Scotland that the Italians began to make the fish and chip trade their own. Why they were so taken by the business isn’t clear, though Walton suggests that it may have been because they saw the fish and chip shops of London as they passed through there on their way north. With Italians leading the way, Scotland was home to 4,500 chippers by 1914. In Glasgow alone, an estimated 800,000 fish suppers were being sold every week.

Naturally, the shops often doubled as ice-cream parlours.

With the Italian immigrants to Ireland, then, came the chip shops. These were not the first Italians to make an impression in Ireland. Stucco workers had been imported to work on the big houses of the country; the tiling, glasswork and ornamental woodwork in Belfast’s glorious Crown Bar were created by Italians moonlighting in between working on Catholic churches.

Others were brought here as musicians and dancers.

But for individual impact few Italian immigrants could rival Charles Bianconi. Originally a purveyor of gilded frames, Bianconi realised that there had to be an alternative to lugging the goods around on his back. So, in 1815, he set up a coach service, with the first route running from Clonmel, Co Tipperary to Cahir, Co Waterford. By the middle of the century, his routes criss-crossed the island and he had become a very wealthy man indeed. By the time Bianconi died, in 1875, the railway was well on its way to killing the coach business, but he had been responsible for the country’s first integrated transport system.

Still, it is through their chippers that the Italian population in Ireland served up an example of how a relatively small number of newcomers could imprint themselves on the national culture, psyche and, in this case, stomach.

Almost all of the Italian chipper families in Ireland come from a district of six villages in the province of Frosinone, and they originally came here as the subdivision of land at home led to mass migration from rural Italy. Families such as the Borzas, Caffellos and Macaris are still the names on the Guinness-blackened tongues of Saturday nights.

These Italians came to Dublin via Paris, then Scotland or resorts in the south of England, where they would no doubt have seen the success their compatriots had had in the fish and chip trade there. In Ireland, they managed to replicate that success, although some regions proved hard to crack. Walton points out that, given how the migration chain would have gone from Scotland through the north of Ireland, it is odd that Belfast ‘provided inhospitable soil for Italian fish friers in the early twentieth century’. Belfast remained resolutely keen on oysters and shrimps instead of fried fish. The post-pub trade in oysters has clearly not lasted. Instead, it was Dublin and Cork in which the chippers first took hold, although it’s worth noting that Ireland’s well-known fish and chip shop, Beshoff, was set up by a Ukrainian immigrant, Ivan Beshov, who had taken part in the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin and fled west through Turkey and London, until he landed in Ireland where he was first arrested and interned in the Curragh camp on suspicion of being a German spy.

Once he became free, he set up a chip shop with the help of Italian friends, and had to restart it after it was destroyed in a bombing of Dublin’s North Strand by the Germans in 1941. It went on to become something of a Dublin institution. When he died in 1987, his birth certificate said he was 102 years old, but he had insisted that he was 104.

The Chinese in Ireland, also a small population for most of the twentieth century, had an impact on the taste buds and street fronts of a great many Irish towns and villages. The Chinese migrants of the 1950s to 1970s came mostly from Hong Kong, leaving their homes because of economic pressures brought about by a collapse in the local rice farming industry.

They travelled through Britain and on to the north of Ireland, because their status as Commonwealth citizens allowed them free movement until a change in the law in 1962 limited the flow of immigrants.

With them came the Chinese restaurant that had grown in popularity in Britain during the post-war years. Ireland’s first opened in 1957, in a house on Leeson Street. There are now about 6,000 Chinese restaurants in the country. The first Chinese restaurant opened only a year after the first Indian restaurant, the Golden Orient, was also opened on Leeson Street. Its proprietor, Mike Butt, was an East African Indian who had come to Ireland from Kenya, and upon opening he found that most Irish people just wanted to order steak. So he served steak, but the Golden Orient survived as an Indian restaurant for those looking for a little culinary adventure.

THE NUMBER OF INDIAN RESTAURANTS did not explode in the way that Chinese restaurants did, and certainly not as they did in the UK, although this is largely down to how little Asian migration there was to Ireland. Still, the two countries share certain trends. Even now, when most people in Britain or Ireland go for Indian food, they are probably eating in a Bangladeshi restaurant, as it is they who have popularised the cuisine of the subcontinent of which their country used to be part.

Although, this is not always true. Some are run by Pakistanis.

All of these culinary offcuts might seem like a bit of a diversion, but they also serve as peculiar reminders of how a small influx of migrants – even a single migrant – can have an impact on a national culture that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen at the time.

The Irish ( & Other Foreigners) – From the First People to the Polesby Shane Hegarty is published by Gill and Macmillan