Remembering Myrtle Allen, a cultural icon

As UCC prepares to host a memorial lecture honouring Myrtle Allen, KATE RYAN talks to food historian Regina Sexton
Remembering Myrtle Allen, a cultural icon
Regina Sexton with Myrtle Allen.

WHEN conjuring up the image of an activist, a farmer’’ wife, quiet yet steely, often dressed in a twin-set and pearls, is not what would immediately spring to mind.

And when scanning for a modern day Irish cultural icon, often we may land upon a poet, a rebel leader or a sportsperson.

What we may not recognise in all this is the significance of our food culture... and there is only one person that perfectly embodies what it meant to be an activist and a cultural icon: Myrtle Allen.

Myrtle Allen, Ballymaloe.
Myrtle Allen, Ballymaloe.

Mrs Allen, who passed away in June, 2018, is most recognisable as the person who established Ballymaloe House and made it a beacon of excellent Irish food and hospitality around the world.

What people may be less aware of is how she tirelessly, selflessly and with great humility carried out her mission throughout all of her life to campaign for good food as the right of many, not the few.

“With Myrtle’s passing, there is an opportunity to either forget or remember, so hopefully we’ll keep remembering and the more we do, the more we’ll learn; and that’s very important because I don’t think her contribution has been explored at all really.” So says an impassioned Regina Sexton, food historian based in UCC, author of A Little History of Irish Food and broadcaster.

Regina Sexton. Picture Clare Keogh
Regina Sexton. Picture Clare Keogh

Next Thursday, May 9 at 7pm, UCC will host the inaugural Myrtle Allen Memorial Lecture with key note speaker Claudia Roden, an exceptional food write noted for her work on the cultural significance of recipes; and talks by food writer John McKenna, Michelin-starred chef Ross Lewis (a Corkonian and former UCC Alumnus), and Regina herself.

“I want to try and make an event of it, given it’s the first one,” says Regina of the Memorial Lecture — something that will be hosted annually with a changing guard of speakers and exploring different facets of Irish food culture.

“When Myrtle passed away last year, I thought it would be something nice to do. I spoke to the Allen family and they were very supportive. I also wanted to blend it in with our new Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture — a new two-year course with a dedicated focus on Irish Food Culture, something that didn’t exist before now.

Claudia Roden, the keynote speaker at the upcoming memorial lecture.
Claudia Roden, the keynote speaker at the upcoming memorial lecture.

“And then I thought, if we were going to focus on Irish food, it would be really nice to have an icon of Irish food associated with it, and to set up the Memorial Lecture for her. The first lecture will be dedicated to Myrtle, and it will always be in her memory.”

Regina’s determination to elevate Mrs Allen’s legacy has its genesis in a chance encounter with the Allen family in 1990, and sparked a friendship that has endured, and inspired, ever since.

“I was living in Barryscourt Castle in 1990 as castle caretaker, and the deal was we could live there rent free if we opened a café and a craft shop. One Sunday in April, before our summer opening, a car pulled in and three people wrapped in blankets got out and started climbing out onto the castle. I was thinking, who were these people? So I went out, started talking to them and it turned out to be Myrtle, her husband Ivan and their daughter Wendy.

“I knew who Myrtle was obviously, so I was a bit in awe. I invited them in and gave them a cup of tea and I had made a rhubarb pie. Myrtle said to me “Well, at least anyway you can make a rhubarb pie!” I was overwhelmed!

“When we eventually opened the café and shop in the summer, they would send an envoy over to see what we were doing. The envoy was Ivan, Myrtle’s grandson, Wendy’s son. We got friendly with Ivan and the link was made then between Ballymaloe and myself.

“I had been living in Paris, and had come back to Ireland to do my early medieval food post-grad work. Around the same time, Myrtle had started the Cork Free Choice Consumer Group, meeting the last Thursday of every month in the Crawford Art Gallery. It was a forum that people could come to learn about small food producers, where they could access ingredients or the foods discussed at the meetings. In the late 1990s, the fetish about food wasn’t as it is now, so they were considered a radical group of alternative people.

Ross Lewis will also feature in the memorial lecture.
Ross Lewis will also feature in the memorial lecture.

“Myrtle set this up off her own back, it was food activism, locally based, a forum for education and highlighting what producers were doing. It was ahead of its time with a serious mission to raise profiles, and educate.”

The Cork Free Choice Consumer Group was set up in response to the difficulties faced by two small French cheese-makers from West Cork and selling their produce in the English Market. Rules and regulations being laid down by the EHO’s at the time were driving these cheesemakers to the point where things were looking bleak for them. They found it very difficult to sell their produce, Myrtle took their cause on to try and help them. They were facing the threat of going out of business, and people loved their cheese — it was something alternative and Irish farmhouse cheeses didn’t have the platform that they do now.

“She took them under her wing and that gave rise to the group. She was their voice in many ways, offering support and validation.”

In the early days of EuroToque Europe, Myrtle was invited to be a part of the establishing committee, “by people like Paul Bocuse, because he recognised what Myrtle was doing, and of course she then became president of EuroToques Ireland,” says Regina.

This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg of what Mrs Allen was able to achieve in her lifetime, working on her own brand of quiet, yet effective, activism. For Regina, it is one of the many reasons why she liked and respected her so much, and still does.

Myrtle Allen, Darina Allen and Rachel Allen.
Myrtle Allen, Darina Allen and Rachel Allen.

“She was very unassuming and unpretentious, but steely in character behind it all. Some of the people involved in food now, it’s all hype and social media. Myrtle was quite the opposite of that which was really refreshing. There was a very sincere and genuine approach to food that people recognised.”

The Myrtle Allen Memorial Lecture will be held in the old Dairy Science building, now the Geography building, chosen because it was designed by Myrtle’s father.

“Her family were all architects, and Myrtle’s father would have lectured some of the time. The lecture theatre is tiered and very beautiful.”

No doubt, Mrs Allen would have appreciated the gesture.

Regina’s wish is to invite people to think about Myrtle’s contribution to Irish food culture over the past two generations. Although hugely important and significant, Myrtle’s influence stretches far beyond the estate walls of Ballymaloe House, and without her many contributions there simply wouldn’t be a modern Irish food culture.

Myrtle worked with lots of different groups: Macra ni Feirme, EuroToques and Slow Food Ireland, but there was also all the unspoken about advice and support to small food producers, people starting restaurants and chefs.

Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House in 2013. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House in 2013. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“She had all of that network within her activities as well — a whole food community,” says Regina. “The way she approached local, traditional and seasonal food, highlighting the dignity of the ingredient — all of these things that we now take as mantras — all started with her at a time when saying these things were controversial, alternative or dismissed.

“Ballymaloe was a farm (the school still is); Myrtle was a farmer’s wife, had six children, was self-taught, the first Michelin-starred chef in Ireland — a woman in a male dominated society of chefs going against the norm, and yet had all this influence and consequence. What we want to do is fill up that understanding better. Ireland deserves a cultural icon like her, and she needs to be recognised for that.

“Irish Food Culture — an academic approach UCC has a strong reputation for, with the schools of food science and food business, so hosting the lecture and recognising the cultural significance of food is a gesture worthy of acknowledgment.

“It has also paved the way for a brand new Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture, three years in the making, and preparing for its first intake in the new academic year.

“The two-year Diploma has three different dimensions to it and focuses solely on exploring Irish food culture. This is an opportunity for academic study that has never existed in Ireland before, and yet food culture is something that is eulogised about in food writing, tourism and food production daily.

“I thought it would be good to start thinking about the culture of food,” says Regina. “I wanted to develop a contemporary dimension looking at how the current Irish food system works in terms of food system, policy and concepts of sustainability and the environment.

“Secondly, to develop the Heritage dimension: where we’ve come from, history of food and culinary history, what food means to people on an everyday level — an ethnographic view of food. Finally, a nutrition and health aspect bridging past and present, to see beyond the conflicting misinformation and pseudo-science in connecting the contemporary with the past.

“All the modules are brand new and are transdisciplinary with inputs from an array of different colleges all with different viewpoints but coming together over the same project.

“The School of Celtic Studies, Geography, History, Folklore, College of Nutritional Sciences, and BEES (Biological, Environmental and Earth Sciences), have developed the programme — even the School of Music and Theatre to explore food and creative practice, great for developing different ideas around food or a food business in terms of identity and branding.”

A dedicated team of academics have all been involved from the start, and although transdisciplinary in nature, the programme will be academically placed in the Department of Folklore & Ethnography.

“Culture and Folklore fit together well because we’re looking at the everyday lives of people, because that’s what we do — we ‘do’ food every day.”

The Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture is suited for anyone with an existing connection to food, to develop their interest in food with a qualification for food business, such as culinary tourism, food events, food trails; small and speciality food producers who want to develop identity for product in terms of building a brand, and those with a pure and simple interest in food.

The course will introduce students to the study of food, teach research skills, gain substance to develop product, and develop critical thinking in relation to food and how that might express itself; to become masterful and fluent in all aspects of Irish food with an academic foundation.

Entry criteria is flexible with either a degree or equivalent work/life experience in a food related industry, and for mature students over the age of 21 as part of UCC’s Adult Continuing Education programme. Beyond course completion, students will have the option of a 30 credit thesis and then onto study for a Masters.

To facilitate people who are working, the course will run one evening a week with a three hour classroom session plus independent study running through the academic year, with additional weekend seminars and field trips. Online applications are now open for the first intake in September, 2019.


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