Where does the phrase 'taking the soup' come from?

In the village of Swatragh in south Derry, the local dispensary doctor, Daniel Mooney and his wife Sarah are fondly remembered for their role in establishing a soup kitchen during the Famine years, writes Dr Ciarán Reilly, Arts and Humanities Institute

The Mooneys' exertions in providing soup through a window in their house saved countless lives in the late 1840s. Today, the ‘soup pot’ which they used remains on display in a local public house, Friels.

Such efforts were replicated across the country as individuals and committees of all religions came together to try and stem the tide of hunger. These were remarkable acts of kindness.

But the benevolence of many is long forgotten or overshadowed because the very word – soup - soon became contentious in relation to the memory of the Famine. There are few more derogatory terms in Irish history than ‘Souper’ or the accusation that one ‘took the soup’. Indeed, over 170 years later the taunt ‘they took the soup’ is widely used, although many are unaware of the origins of the phrase.

Those who conscientiously provided soup kitchens were often tarred with the brush of proselytising and accused of allegedly insisting that people convert to another religion in order to receive relief. The reality is that the vast majority were given soup as a means of survival during the Great Famine without any requirement to abandon one’s religious faith.

Just where the phrase ‘took the soup’ originated though is not clear. Certainly, in the pre-Famine period some areas of the country gained notoriety for proselytising such as Dingle in Co Kerry and Achill, Co Mayo ,where the term ‘souper’ took hold. Here, as Miriam Moffitt, Patricia Byrne, Bryan MacMahon and others have shown, the actions of the ‘converts’, or those ‘who took the soup’, were widely resented, especially where they were deemed to have benefited economically because of conversion.

Why does the phrase ‘they took soup’ pervade to this day? Much of the social memory of such acts in other parts of the country stems not directly from Famine sources, but can be found in the pages of the Irish Folklore Commission which were compiled in the 1930s. A Co Tipperary respondent to the commission noted that ‘to speak of a person as a ‘souper’ in our district was tantamount to the greatest taunt and insult’. In Limerick, a group of people were derogatively known as the ‘Ballingarry soupers’, while the ‘soupers’ and those who renounced their faith in Co Cavan were said to have ‘ate Lord Farnham's bacon’.

In Clare, some families were referred to as the ‘Cat Breacs (speckled cats)’, an insult which referred to souperism and also to the teaching of English amongst the Irish speaking population. While this insult might now seem difficult to decipher, there was no confusion in the Co Longford ditty or rhyme: ‘they sold their souls for penny rolls, for soup and hairy bacon’.

Some of the stories submitted to the folklore commission may have been embellished over time, such as the claim by a Co Cork man, born in the 1880s, that 'some of the Protestant ladies tried to buy the babies in the district’ in Famine times in return for food and clothing. Likewise, the claim by a Co Wexford man that he had never heard of soup being given out without someone renouncing their faith was both disingenuous and also reflected poorly on those who had endeavoured to provide relief for the people of the county during the Famine.

However, perhaps the presence of the phrase, or a direct reference to the act of conversion, in 19th-century Irish novels set in and about the Famine has more to do with it lingering to this day. There are many examples of this as Dr Chris Cusack of Radboud University in the Netherlands points out. As early as 1853, the Co Cavan-born Mary Anne Sadlier in her novel, New Lights, references such a taunt in the following passage: "before the woman could answer, a man standing by exclaimed: ‘Don't mind her, your reverence, she gets soup from the Bible-readers—she's not to be trusted, Father O'Driscoll'. 'Well!', said the priest calmly, 'I must hear what she has to say- tis it true, Katty, that you take 'the soup’."

Other 19th century writers, including Emily Bowles in her 1864 novel, Irish Diamonds, also refer to ‘Souping’. Later in the century, Jane Barlow wrote of "The Souper's Widow" where the woman in question blames herself for her husband’s decision to convert, noting that he would never had done it if she had said nothing about the family’s misfortunes.

In the Irish-American writer PJ Coleman’s "O’Carroll’s Quest" (1902), the main character is a 'souper’ who regrets the choices he has made and seeks redemption. A similarly devout 20th century story is Máire Ní Chillín's ‘On the Bog Road’, about a ‘Souper’ school, which concludes ‘Bad times do not matter [...] if we keep true to the faith that is in us’.

Undoubtedly, both folklore and literature have influenced how the issue of 'souperism' has been remembered long after the Famine. Today, the taunt ‘they took the soup’ is used in a myriad of ways, but usually to denounce those who go against traditional orthodoxy.

One of my ancestors survived by stealing turnips from a neighbour’s garden, the same neighbour that they had lived beside for half a century before, and indeed, for more than a century after the Famine. They were brought before the courts and fined for their actions, but avoided a jail sentence. Perhaps it was the fear of ‘taking the soup’ which drove them to stealing turnips in the first place. I wonder what stigma, if any, was attached to this action in the local community afterwards?

(Front photo: ​Photo by Hanna May on Unsplash)

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2021/1012/1253213-taking-the-soup-ireland-famine-history/