Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions
In this series of articles titled Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions we take an extensive look into the role Irish potatoes have played historically, and continue to play, in Irish food traditions across the island. Because, simply put, for the Irish it is truly a matter of love. And Passion. Something in the blood.
But how did this New World castaway penetrate so deep into Irish life?
And once embedded as traditional Irish food, why did ‘Irish’ potatoes stay there? What made potatoes so important, coming to hold the aspirations of millions in their earthy grip? And why were so many made suffer on account of their underperformance?
It is such questions that these articles explore, in an attempt to understand what the potato means to the Irish. Uncovering how the potato farm shaped the Irish mindset. And how the Irish have imprinted a deep watermark on this unassuming vegetable.
We chart the meteoric rise of Irish potatoes, from their introduction as animal feed through to the central role they still play in Irish food today. Because even the cosmopolitan Ireland of our era maintains its enduring focus on these unlikeliest of heroes, the adoration of Mister Spud continuing unabashed.
In this first part, the question of how the potato came to Ireland is considered. We examine its historical pathways to Irish shores, and its widespread adoption as a food for the poorest on the island.
Part I :
In which Irish Potatoes Weather the Atlantic
to become Traditional Irish Food
Irish potatoes for Irish life
There are few foods that a human could solely survive on, without any other source of nourishment. The potato is one of them. Living on spuds alone is of course in the long-term likely to produce various vitamin and mineral deficiencies. But you wouldn’t die. Cheap, abundant and flexible, it is with good reason that these days the potato is a staple of urban and rural populations the world over.
For a European, the Irish peasant farmer of bygone centuries was just a little ahead of the game. He knew staying power when he saw it. In the early 1800s, Irish potatoes were, in effect, the sole source of sustenance for one-third of Ireland’s bulging population.
As history shows, the Irish experiment highlights that in a situation where you’re forced to survive on an all-potato diet, lacking some vitamins won’t be your most immediate concern.
Death from not having enough potatoes will be far more worrying.
So, your mentality must become geared. Get the spuds in. At all costs. If you manage that, you’ll try to find the odd slice of Irish bacon. For the Irish farmer, their relationship with the potato had by then become the most important one he had.
Because without spuds there could be no you. And without you, there could be no one to produce the spuds that would feed the family you’d built…The family you’d managed to build because you had spuds.
In this way, the fate of the potato crop and that of its cultivator were combined. It became a central part of Irish folk culture and, for better or worse, a way of life in its own right. It’s no wonder that even today many natives see the potato as typical Irish food. Eternally so.
But how did this all come about?
What planted a South American staple so deep in Irish life?
And why the Irish farmer’s fixation?
Potatoes in Ireland – Staying Power
The idea of living solely on potatoes seems a good point to start. After all Ireland, so green and flat, can sustain plenty of nourishing produce. Surely you don’t have to consume only one thing? And if you do, why simple and plain Irish potatoes and not something more fun?
Stop by a Dublin pub to ask the after-work crowd and you’ll be told the second Irish entry for the Eat Only One Thing Award. But there are health concerns (not to mention certain cerebral drawbacks) connected with living on just the black stuff.
The superfood in a pint traded as Guinness will also run you a pretty penny should you adopt it as your sole source of sustenance. But potatoes were cheap farmer fuel, well up to the job of powering a functioning human apparatus, whilst leaving your motor skills unimpaired. Nor has dulled Spud Almighty’s place among the elite of sustaining foods. A headstrong Australian man, no doubt eager to get back to his Irish roots, recently lived on potatoes alone for a year – losing 115 pounds in the process.
Because Spud is just so nourishing.
Secret Recipe beneath
Yet just take a look at a potato. You see a bland, awkward plop of a vegetable, right?
Now take a real look. Encourage yourself to truly observe what sits before you. Can you see it? Did you just catch a glimpse?…
….A NUTRIENT BOMB! Now you get it.
A little ugly blob stuffed to bulging point with a host of minerals and vitamins – as well as lots of other goodies your nutritionist recommends. That’s the potato’s secret recipe. Hideous on the outside, turbocharged under the hood.
And it’s virtually fat-free.
Unsurprising then that the ugliest bloke on the farm has risen from backwater South American obscurity to worldwide kitchen fame. Because looks aren’t everything – just ask your stomach. Which would you prefer for supper, old chum? This dainty pink tulip that’s filling the air with luscious scents or this horse-into-ya, filthy fresh potato dripping mud all over the carpet?
Try it, there’ll be only one winner on the tummy rumble meter. Your belly always recognizes good game, even when your eyes don’t.
Belly wisdom has also ensured that the potato is now the world’s most produced vegetable – and the biggest crop outright after the major cereals (rice, wheat and maize). And, of course, Spud’s power has long been in the sights of the Establishment, eager to harness its glory. The American Journal of Potato Research was first published in 1924 and is still going strong. Most of the nations on earth have a research institute dedicated to potato issues and organizations like PotatoPro provide copious amounts of technical data to the burgeoning potato industry.
A) Potato farms of beautiful Erin’s Isle?
B) Land that has been producing spuds longer than Ireland has had people?
With such an excellent ratio between cost (and ease) of production and the number of calories it contains, the potato is of particular importance to the developing world. Global consumption is on the up, and already by 2005 the developing world was producing more potatoes than the developed. The most recent figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization show that China and India produce 38 % of the world’s potatoes – a heavy, I’d-better-take-plastic-not-paper 148 million tons! Those wise humans of the East.
Spanish ships come a-sailing
Of course the Irish have long been the Western gurus of Potato Power, being one of the first Europeans to come in contact with the spud. As the 1500s opened, ships full of civilizing Spaniards headed ever deeper into the Americas, out to strip land and locals of as much as they could carry.
The discovery of mysterious, potentially dangerous, underground complexes of what appeared to be eggs containing savages’ young shocked the newly instated landowners. What was this doohickey? Naturally enough, they initially refrained from handling them. But scurvy and nicotine poisoning can make one exaggerate and by the late sixteenth century, the uprooted potato had landed in Europe.
In Spain, oddly enough, and Ireland.
With conquistadors in the colonies deeming it unfit for consumption, potatoes were by that time being used to feed the lesser inhabitants (animals, laborers, conscripts) of the colonies. They were also sometimes used on board ships, due to the long period they could be held in stow; Stored in total darkness, a (dry) potato will last up to six months.
After its ability to help stave off scurvy was discovered (due to its vitamin C content), the potato became a more common ship ration.
At some point, the potato found their way onto Irish land. (See it in your mind’s eye: a frail, withered spud root, having long ago watched its body wither away, desperately urges forth the life instinct, knowing that if it can just make it off the ship it’ll change the history of a people forever.)
But the definitive version of how little Spud got there is still open to debate. And there remains some contestation as to the most likely route.
Among the most viable explanations of origin posited by historians is via leftover tubers from a Spanish naval vessel, perhaps during the landfall of the Spanish Armada sent by King Philip II to invade England in 1588. Meeting with violent storms in the Atlantic, over 20 warships crashed along the West coast (stranding seamen who are said to have spiced up the Irish gene pool, producing (at least the myth of) the ‘Black Irish’).
There was also a lively commodity trade between Ireland and Spain at this time, especially around seaports such as Waterford and Cobh. So, this may in fact have been the point of entry. Another plausible candidate is via Basque fishermen on the Atlantic route, who would stop at Irish ports to dry their cod.
Linguistic evidence supports the case for an Iberian introduction, with some dialects of Irish using the term An Spáinneach (literally meaning ‘the Spaniard’) as a way of referring to what became the little Irish honeypot.
The Crown fits Irish Potatoes
Alas, with crown forces now well and truly getting their pummel on across the island of Ireland such claims were not to last. Even today the English are usually credited with bringing the crop to Irish shores, with the only controversy being over precisely which bloodthirsty privateer was the first to do so.
As the centuries plowed on, Walter Raleigh, John Drake or Thomas Cavendish (Sir, Sir and Sir, respectively) usually got the credit. Much depended on which of them the reigning British monarch thought did the best job of suppressing the narrative on the actual introduction of the crop to Ireland.
Replacing that other dangerous tuber propaganda, quite obviously being spread as part of an Irish-Spanish Catholic conspiracy. By the time the Sirs’ claims had been accredited (and any suggestions to the contrary wiped from the record), it was the 17th century and the poaching of the Americas was in full swing.
Seventeenth century human solidarity
Alongside the turkey shoot came the chalk for cheese philanthropy between Europe and the Americas, now called the Columbian Exchange. So mutually beneficial was the interaction between the two worlds that it is still today considered the archetypal definition of ‘sharing is caring’.
In came: The bounty of the fascinating ‘new’ continent – priceless artifacts, unique flora, precious metals.
Out went: The dregs of European civilization – disease, slavery and a flare for slaughter.
It was this irreversible flow that took the potato to Ireland. But just as the pathways brought this extraordinary source of sustenance to the poor Irish peasant, so would they later take it away.
At a most inopportune time.
..This is location B)
10,000 kilometers separate Peruvian and Irish potatoes…and 10,000 years of cultivation.
Paddy makes a new friend
But, at least for now, the potato meant improved conditions for the Irish. Only that at first the Irish receiving the benefits were of the animal ilk, as it was being used as a fodder crop.
However, it was eventually discovered by whichever British Crown Clown running the place at the time that hunger was getting the better of the indigenous human animals, too. They had taken to stealing from the livestock, and had now developed a hankering for Spud’s starchy tones.
The potato was put into wider circulation and by the late 17th century had become part of Irish food traditions across the island, as a common supplementary food. The focus of traditional Irish food remained on grain (especially oats) and dairy (milk, curds, butter, cheeses), and these continued to make up the bulk of the diet.
But potatoes had gotten a foothold, the love affair had begun. And nowhere made for a steamier boudoir than the foggy Irish countryside, where the wet, rich earth made for ideal growing conditions.
It was far from an open relationship, mind. Of the hundreds of potato types, very few found their way into Irish soils, with the weapon of choice being the Irish Lumper. White in color, waxy in texture, it could be easily cultivated in lazy beds cut into Ireland’s innumerable peat bogs.
Colossal yields were soon seen throughout the country. Much of this still went to feed livestock, but access to such a cheap source of calories was a tremendous boon for the Irish peasantry, especially the very poor.
The Lumper was now a mainstay in most every Irish household. But although the Irish farmer greeted its straightforward cultivation and reliability with much cheer, in their disproportionate focus on a single type of potato they were unwittingly sowing the seed of tragedy.
Read Part II of Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions. The second article in this series explores how massive potato consumption in Ireland led to a population explosion that pushed the country to its limits, at a most inopportune time.