Souperism was a phenomenon of the Irish Potato Famine. Protestant Bible societies set up schools in which starving children were fed, on the condition of receiving Protestant based religious instruction at the same time. Its practitioners were reviled by the Catholic families who had to choose between their faith and starvation. People who converted for food were known as soupers, a derogatory epithet that continued to be applied and featured in the press well into the 1870s. In the words of their peers: they "took the soup".
One example of souperism was the Reverend Edward Nagle, who instituted 34 schools where religious instruction and meals were provided. However, souperism was rarely that simple, and not all non-Catholics made being subject to proselytisation a condition of food aid. Several Anglicans, including the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, decried the practice; many Anglicans set up soup kitchens that did no proselytising; and the Quakers, whose soup kitchens were concerned solely with charitable work, were never associated with the practice (which causes them to be held in high regard in Ireland even today, with many Irish remembering the Quakers with the remark "They fed us in the famine.").[clarification needed]
Souperist practices, reported at the time, included serving meat soups on Fridays – which Catholics were forbidden by their faith from consuming, and by the fact that they couldn't afford meat in the first place.
Soupers were frequently ostracised by their own community, and were strongly denounced from the pulpit by the Catholic priesthood. On occasion, soupers had to be protected by British soldiers from other Catholics.
The idea of Souperism has become a leitmotif of fiction written about the Famine, and folklore and Irish literature are replete with depictions of souperism. This may have served to exaggerate the extent that it actually occurred. Both Bowen and Whelan (listed in Further reading) note that the fear of souperism was very real, and state that the practice did indeed occur. But they point out that there is very little actual evidence that the practice was widespread. Whelan states that, given the highly charged atmosphere of the 1840s, contemporary accounts cannot be taken at face value. Much of what surrounds the story of souperism is its perception, rather than its reality. The popular myth that the few souperists engendered has largely eclipsed the impartial philanthropic aid that was given by genuinely altruistic organisations at the time.
One of the effects of the perceptions surrounding Souperism was that, to avoid its stigma and avoid becoming embroiled in the war of words between Protestants and Catholics, many charities decided to only serve those whose religious persuasions matched their own. For examples: In Dublin, Mercer's Endowed Boarding School for Girls provided education for "girls of respectable Protestant parents", and the Magdalen Asylum on Lower Leeson St aided "Protestant women after a first fall" and "those who were to become mothers"; whereas the St Joseph's Reformatory School for Catholic Girls provided education for Catholic girls and the Catholic Rotunda Girls Aid Society aided unmarried Catholic mothers. Barret, whose Guide to Dublin Charities listed many overlapping charities, decried the "wasteful overlapping of work" and begged such charities to work together, to improve the overall amount of aid that could be given. (Williams, publisher of Dublin Charities: A Handbook, expressed similar sentiments about the state of disorganisation.) However, she herself ran a charity, Cottage Home for Little Children, aimed at providing shelter for "the very young children of the industrious Protestant poor". The reasons for the disorganised and duplicated efforts were not solely sectarian, and can also be attributed to a general unwillingness amongst charities to co-operate with one another.
The term has had a resurgence as a derogatory political epithet in New England politics. It has been used for Republican politicians from Irish-Catholic backgrounds who cite their Irish Catholic heritage to connect with the many Roman Catholic conservative voters while neglecting to mention that they have left the Church for Protestant churches.
- Thomas Edward Jordan (1998). Ireland's Children: Quality of Life, Stress, and Child Development in the Famine Era. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 72. ISBN 9780313307522.
- Carolyn Conley (1999). Melancholy Accidents. Lexington Books. p. 170. ISBN 9780739100073.
- Celia Keenan (2003). "Narrative Challenges: The Great Irish Famine in Recent Stories for Children". In Ann Lawson Lucas. The Presence of the Past in Children's Literature. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 116. ISBN 9780313324833.
- Irene Whelan (2006). "Religious Rivalry and the Making of Irish-American Identity". In Joseph Lee and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American. NYU Press. pp. 278–279. ISBN 9780814752081.
- Helen Elizabeth Hatton (1993). The Largest Amount of Good. McGill–Queen's Press. p. 265. ISBN 9780773509597.
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- Christine Kinealy and Gerard MacAtasney (2000). The Hidden Famine. Pluto Press. pp. 136–137. ISBN 9780745313719.
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- Cormac O'Grada (2000). Black '47 and Beyond. Princeton University Press. p. 274. ISBN 9780691070155.
- Desmond Bowen (1970). Souperism: Myth Or Reality: A Study in Souperism. Mercier Press.
- Susan Campbell Bartoletti (2005). Black Potatoes. HMCo Children's Books. pp. 78–80. ISBN 9780618548835.
- Melissa Fegan (2002). Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845–1919. Oxford University Press. pp. 217–225. ISBN 9780199254644.
- Irene Whelan (1995). "The stigma of souperism". In C. Poirtéir. The great Irish famine. Dublin: Mercier Press.