Irwin, Florence (1883–1965), educator, was born 27 April 1883 in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, to Thomas Irwin, yarn merchant, and Catherine Irwin (née Ross). She was educated at Methodist College, Belfast, and then trained in cookery, laundry and housewifery at the Edinburgh School of Cookery (Atholl Crescent), graduating with a first-class diploma.
In 1905 Irwin was appointed by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) as a domestic science ‘instructress’ for Co. Down, the first to be appointed in the province. Her salary was £80 per annum, out of which she was expected to pay for her uniform, laundry, outerwear and bicycle. By contrast, Mr James Auld was appointed to the position of manual instructor at the same time at a salary of £120. Irwin’s first classes were held in Dundonald, later classes were held at the Salvation Army Barracks, Downpatrick, and subsequently at Derrycraw and Mayobridge. She would spend six to eight weeks in a town or village, carrying with her an American stove and equipment for teaching classes of twenty or so women (sometimes children) for cooking, laundry-work and dressmaking. Her popularity as an instructor is amply attested to in many newspaper articles, one reporter remarking that ‘the instructress makes everybody alike, and as a consequence no class distinctions prevail. There is an entire absence of even the shadow of caste, or upper or lower seats’ (Newry Reporter, 22 Feb. 1906). Following on from this role, in 1913 she was appointed house matron at Dumbarton House Hospital, Gilford, Co. Down.
In July 1915 Ruth Duffin, warden of Riddel College in Belfast, appointed Irwin as matron of Riddel Hall at a salary of £70 per annum. Riddel Hall was the hostel for protestant women students at Queen’s University. The appointment was based on Duffin’s regard for Irwin’s columns in the Northern Whig, which she regarded as practical and well-presented. The articles were published twice-weekly for fifty years: on Tuesdays on the women’s page under the pseudonym ‘Housewife’, and on Saturdays as simple step-by-step guides for children, with the tagline ‘simple cookery for little folk’. In 1922 she was appointed as the first warden at Stranmillis teacher-training college by the government of Northern Ireland. She retired from that post in 1948. Irwin was a commandant in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade at Holywood, Co. Down, during the second world war, and acted as a food adviser when up to 5,000 evacuees from Gibraltar – originally evacuated to London – were sent to seventeen camps across Northern Ireland.
In 1927 she published Recipes for Drs. Minot and Murphy's liver diet. This pamphlet brought Irwin’s professional training to bear, in a practical way, on the work of the two doctors who had discovered the link between the consumption of liver in the diet and a cure for pernicious anaemia. Together with George Whipple, the doctors were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1934 for their work on finding a cure for the disease. Irish country recipes was published in 1937 and The cookin’ woman was published in 1949, with an introduction by St John Ervine (qv). In this book Irwin has left an invaluable account of her time spent travelling through the province in her capacity as an instructor, bringing to life the people of rural Ulster with acute observations and reminiscences. The cookin’ woman expanded on the style of Irish country recipes, allowing for the inclusion of more personal reminiscences. In 1951 the last of her recipes went to print as an appendix of oatmeal cookery recipes in A hundred years a-milling.
Through her documentation of local foodways and individual recipes, Irwin was a pioneer in the historiography of Irish food, uniquely placed by virtue of her professional training and her formative experience as a travelling domestic science instructress. Her two books represent an important historical resource for nineteenth-century cooking in rural Ulster. The cookin’ woman remained widely used throughout the twentieth century and was reissued by Blackstaff Press in 1986 and again in 1992. Resident latterly in Cranmore Avenue, Belfast, Florence Irwin died at Purdystown Hospital, Belfast, on 16 July 1965 and was buried in the City Cemetery, Belfast. Her will disposed of £10,374 after tax and after her debts were settled.