Potato Farm: Before the Great Irish Famine
The potato farm and its dominance of Irish life forms the focus of this fourth part in the series Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions. Getting to the heart of the deepest Irish romance! We’ve seen Spud getting acquainted with his hungry hosts, the lovers’ tiff that cost half a million Irish lives one stormy winter in the 18th century, and Part III on the power dynamics of Irish potatoes.
Now let’s get even more intimate!
Part IV depicts conditions on the typical potato farm in the lead-up to the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849), giving you a glimpse of what it would’ve been like for the embattled Irish peasant. The role of Irish potatoes in fueling the powerful British Empire also find a place in this up close and personal probe of a passion deep in the hearts of Irish near and abroad.
Part IV – In which the potato farm and the destitute conditions of the Irish farmer are described in gory detail
Potato Farm Economy
When we last saw Paddy on his potato farm in Part III, he had a great big smile on his face. Surrounded by kith and kin, the typical potato farmer of early 19th century Ireland was getting stuck in. Abundance flowing forth from his well-moistened fields, he was finally a wealthy man. Potatoes peeping out from all pockets!
Although poverty and overcrowding were the norm, thanks to the potato patch out front, starvation was no longer a daily threat. Irish potatoes had become the hottest stock on the market, and in the soup pot. Paddy’s consumption of his beloved Spud soared through the roof, with yields following suit. In his tenant shack, children tucked into every cranny, a hard worker was succeeding where many previous of forefathers had failed: he was feeding himself.
But Irish potatoes, that green manna, had brought problems, too. Paddy’s potatoes now held disproportionate significance in the rural economy and the Irish way of life. And indeed in the power structure governing the Irish Catholic peasant.
Irish Potatoes, a Deep Obsession
This intense focus on potatoes in Ireland was also to the detriment of other crops. And even ruled out other approaches to life, if you weren’t all about the spuds you simply weren’t where it was at. (Hear here a 19th century, Irish accented ghetto anthem – can’t knock the hustle, homey, let’s get this potato y’all.)
But it was true! The homegrown were themselves becoming a mono crop, a breed apart, their wild-eyed gaze eternally fixed on Almighty Spud. Pulses set racing at the thoughts of what you were going to do once you got these feisty creatures into the house. Irish life was about Irish potatoes.
It was this fanatical streamlining that was to cause such devastating horror farther down the line. Not least because finally given the opportunity to procreate to their hearts’ content, potatoes from Ireland were along with porter beer the greatest national obsession. But both these Irish favorites had a contender for the country’s number one product.
Because Ireland’s greatest export has long been her people. And settled into life on the potato farm, vast yields of this human resource were now being seen. Too much in fact. More than conditions encouraged, allowed or would ultimately abide.
A nexus of growth, Irish potatoes and Irish humans, had been locked in. It was natural. The population boomed as the potato bloomed: and the potato bloomed as the population boomed. Yet this co-flourishing of human and vegetable was becoming increasingly defined by toxicity rather than symbiosis.
The Potato Farmer as Cog in a Larger Wheel
Alas, potatoes from Ireland were much needed by Peasant locals and Protestant leaders alike.
By the early 1800s, the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland) was the dominant world power. Conquered and incorporated into the UK, Ireland would be held to its role as supplier of agricultural output.
The world was there for the picking and the British Empire needed all the resources it could (feign to) beg, steal or “borrow”. Paddy’s potato farm turned a cog in a much larger wheel. And his island could provide all manner of nourishment for empiric appetites.
Ireland’s Flag in a British Empire
Ireland’s bountiful land not only fed animals and produced crops supplying British combatants with the strength to fight, it also provided excellent human fodder. Systematically impoverished and oppressed by Protestant rule, many desperate Catholic males found themselves caught in the claws of a diabolical question.
Better to struggle and/or die in your potato field (now rented back to you by your enemy)? Or fight and/or die for your enemy (in whatever field he sent you to)?
Of these two bad options many chose the latter – at least it paid. The original green flag with harp became the standard flown by the Royal Irish Regiment as they fought British crown battles.
Irish soldiers were no doubt also psyched at the chance to inflict rather than receive pain for once, and barring this could at least give the opposition something to use up their ammunition on. Before other, more Protestant, regiments engaged.
But such is it.
There will always be 1) People who pit fellow humans against one another, sending them to fight.
There will always be 2) People who simply want to fight.
There will always be 3) (a lot more) People who have no option but to fight.
An apt analogy for the three classes Western society is divided into, perhaps. Or, at a stretch, the three waves of human travelers described in The ANTIblog Manifesto.
Potato Farms Expanding the Celtic Empire
Far away from Oriental fields of cotton and blood, the teeming Irish countryside was reaching full throttle. Census data shows that by 1841 the population of the island was at least 8.2 million. By way of comparison, the population of the entire USA had only reached this level a couple of decades previous.
In terms of Ireland regaining its power as a contender to the neighboring island, this stunning growth had serious implications, as England only had 13.5 million inhabitants at this time. And with the Catholic baby machine well lubricated and showing no signs of stopping, the power dynamic could potentially swing in the future.
The reason for the exorbitant population growth lay not only in the proliferation of Irish potatoes, but also in the societal structure that Super Spud enabled. For the first time since British occupation, the life of the Irish peasant had attained some kind of steadiness and those families that stayed in the homeland were quite settled. Bored, impoverished, and a little too used to the taste of Irish potato soup, but settled. Unable to do much else, smallholders either emigrated or stayed put in their village, whipping up a range of Irish potato dishes and pumping out Irish babies.
Potatoes from Ireland Fueling an Empire elsewhere
The British Empire had hit full stride during this period and was out invading the most of the world. So from London’s perspective it was best to just leave the Irish wellspring running. The western island of the UK, or simply the nearest British colony, depending on your take on history, had not seen a serious population cull for a hundred years. A level of predictability, if not quite complete stability had entered Irish life, producing massive agricultural yields. Potatoes in Ireland for the locals, and all manner of exports for Britain and other parts of the Empire.
So, Irish potatoes had become pretty important in the grand scheme of things. And to the natives, the humble South American that washed up on Irish shores was now the star of a civilization.
All the British had to do was construct and maintain the systems that would best harness this renewable energy source. The tenant system that emerged in Ireland after British conquest did the job quite well. And arguably resembled more indentured servitude than anything related to the free market system the British were singing the praises of across the globe (with Artillery, Racism, and Loveless and Merciless Enforcement of God’s Love and Mercy the other voices in a four-part harmony).
Potato farmer and Protestant landlord
The setup that had kept the Irish chained to the potato farm worked like this:
Protestant landlord, Wilfred or Rafferty, say, owned the estate, and Paddy peasant and his family of potato eaters were allotted a parcel of land to work.
Paddy then raised livestock and crops in order to pay the rent owed his sire (on account of having the misfortune of occupying said parcel in a period chronologically following its theft by a predecessor of said sire).
When he died from his toil, Paddy could not legally pass on the plot to his children, even though they may have worked it their entire lives.
In effect, the Irish potato farmer was worse off than many serfs, centuries after the abolishment of feudalism.
Many of Ireland’s farm complexes were sprawling plantations of over 50,000 acres, owned by absentee landlords living in Britain. Which meant that the Lord of the Manor, living the high life in London or Bristol, would often have never even seen his Irish estate.
Indeed, rural discontent rumbled so intensely that in many cases it wasn’t feasible for the landlord to visit his property. A Lord wishing to come and view his toiling minions in all their destitution took his life in his hands. Proxy rule was thus a natural choice if you were to keep your head – and your eyes unscathed by the wretched conditions you were inflicting on so many human beings.
The British plan for Ireland was the same on both the country and citizen levels. The land was to be squeezed as tight as possible and the Irish native was to be sucked dry. And once dry, put through the wringer another time, lest a drop of extra nourishment remain in Irish bodies. As much as the toiling farmer could physically produce was to be taken. And only the absolute minimal was to be put back into infrastructure – just enough to keep the whole kleptocracy ticking over nicely.
Already wilting under the strain, in the 18th century the Irish peasant’s bind had been tightened further. A middleman system emerged whereby an agent would rent large tracts of land from the absentee landlord and then structure the estate as he saw most efficient. That is, in whatever way produced the most rent.
This led to the division of arable land into smaller and smaller parcels. Like someone who sublets you an apartment then continues to sublet to more and more people, at the expense of your space and well-being.
Potatoes in Ireland, green fields abroad
For potato farmers, it had long been the tightest grind. The rise of Irish potatoes meant they could feed themselves, but the rural setting was still very much a place of widespread misery. Constant toil, zero mobility, lack of education, disease, huge infant mortality, little infrastructure apart from what facilitated the British extraction and kept British rule. This was hardcore living, or at the least, if you found a way to go on, hardcore desire to live. But the latest population boom enabled by potatoes in Ireland was making these destitute conditions even worse.
By the time the Great Potato Famine hit in the 1840s, the poorest one quarter of Irish tenant farmers were working tiny plots, of between 1 and 5 acres. With the bulk of tenants having the ‘luxury’ of plots of between 5 and 15 acres. The family working the plot typically lived in shoddy cabins or crumbling cottages. Which would often house 20 people.Twenty human beings.
Faced with ever tightening hardship, emigration was seen as a way out.
And with the expansion of the British Empire what had started as a trickle had become a steady pour. Estimates put 1.5 million Irish as leaving their homeland during the thirty years before the Great Potato Famine – a million of them bound for North America.
Conditions eventually become so wretched that even the British Crown was concerned, establishing the Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes in Ireland to ascertain the extent of the poverty.
The Commission’s Third Report (1836) gives a taste of what the living environment must have been like for Irish tenants:
A great portion of them are insufficiently provided at any time with the commonest necessaries of life. Their habitations are wretched hovels, several of a family sleep together upon straw or upon the bare ground, sometimes with a blanket, sometimes even without so much to cover them.
Writing of the nutrition that allowed them to cope with their (at least) 70-hour working week, the report goes on:
Their food commonly consists of dry potatoes, and with these they are at times so scantily supplied as to be obliged to stint themselves to one spare meal in the day. There are even instances of persons being driven by hunger to seek sustenance in wild herbs. They sometimes get a herring, or a little milk, but they never get meat, except, at Christmas, Easter, and Shrovetide.
Irish Potatoes too potent
As the Commission’s report points out, by this time there were more agricultural laborers in Ireland than in the whole of Great Britain (which is nearly three times the size of Ireland). The British government had reached its goal of using the country as a feeder, potatoes in Ireland were lapped up by the locals while the spoils of grain, meat and fish headed elsewhere.
But they’d been too successful. The island now bulged at the seams and (systematic) structural underdevelopment meant that two-thirds of the population were impoverished tenants, with little right or recourse to do anything but work the potato farm. Something had to be done.
Down to the last Drop
As dire as the situation had been before, the latest land squeeze caused by the subletting system meant the Irish peasant was being asked to bear the unbearable. However, long blind to their suffering, and set on drawing every last drop of profit, their overlords continued to turn the screw.
Tenant land continued to be divided multiple times over. Holdings were often made so small that the potato represented the only crop that could both feed a family and manage the rent. The typical farming family raised several crops, even livestock, but they lived on what was cheap and abundant. Giving up the rest in exchange for the right to farm and live on potatoes.
Already high, rents would often be haphazardly raised by the landlord/middleman. If the farmer couldn’t hack the new price, there were plenty more willing to take his place. Tenants rarely received anything near a working wage and naturally worked any patch they could, in order to eat.
Yet the potato farmer often thought themselves lucky – there were many who didn’t have any land to work. It was just the way things were. This was the system that had emerged, propped up by the rise of the potato and the exponential population growth it enabled. It was extortion.
But what was the alternative? Act up and get kicked off your land? The right to work a(ny) plot basically meant the right to live, as opposed to its binary alternative.
In a system like this, monocropping naturally occurred. And such was the level of dependency that even partial failure of the potato crop could lead to mass hunger in a particular part of the island. In a country that on the whole, thanks to the sheer prowess of Irish potatoes, was being fed.
Fungal or viral diseases, or even just unusual levels of frost, could rapidly plunge an entire region into a state of hunger. And while in the period after the Irish Famine 1740-41 such outbreaks may not have resulted in starvation on the national level, it was clear that crown policy was putting Irish stomachs in a precarious position. A policy of such inhumane cynicism that even today it can evoke torrents of emotion.
Witness, for example, the furor sparked in 2018 over comments by British Secretary for International Development (of all things!) Priti Patel that seemingly suggested using threats to Ireland’s food supply as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations.
Patel’s comments met with outcry not just on the Western side of the Irish Sea, with high profile figures and fellow MPs lamenting her apparent aggravation of historic wounds. Reacting to Patel’s comments and speaking in reference to the Great Irish Famine Labour MP David Lammy noted that: “The starvation of innocent Irish men, women and children was one of the most shameful episodes in British colonial history.”
But that’s now.
170 years ago, the Starve Ireland Policy was still very much a weapon of choice. As long as it didn’t interfere with the Suck Ireland Dry Policy, that is. Let the rabble work, and if they keel over, pack in another from the pile.
Because, let’s be real, these potato eaters are but a source of produce. Why care what happens to such abundantly available – and readily expendable – capital goods?
Although British policy didn’t waver, more liberal minds of the era were calling attention to the cruel injustice millions of UK citizens were being forced to bear. In many of his poems, Lord Byron turned his searing pen to ‘The Irish Question’, speaking to his compatriots, and the decrepit ruling class at the court of King George IV. Pointing out the weighty imbalance that had emerged between the eastern and western lands of the Kingdom, in 1823 he wrote:
Howe’er the mighty locust, Desolation,(from Don Juan, Canto viii, Stanza 126)
Strip your green fields, and to your harvests cling,
Gaunt famine never shall approach the throne-
Though Ireland starve, great George weigh twenty stone.
More than even in the period before the famine of 1740-41, Irish potatoes were literally a way of life. And a system of exchange. And a political instrument. An obsession. A lover. Perhaps even a worldview. And just as in the lead-up to that famine, this bind the farmer found himself in meant he produced more potatoes. Which of course in turn made him and those like him ever more dependent on the crop for survival.
But with each fresh divot he made in the land the Irish farmer was digging his own grave, and the grave of his people.
“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
But in the scheme of things, plowing on ahead was the most preferable path.
If you’re laboring every daylight hour to feed yourself, you can’t afford to worry about the larger picture. You don’t have that luxury. It can’t even come onto the spectrum. All you know is that times are bad. But they will be seriously bad – or there will be no times at all – if you don’t hustle with whatever you got.
And so you go on. As long as nothing stops you from your constant toiling, there will be food on the table and hope for better days to come.
Unfortunately for the industrious potato farmers of Erin’s Isle, no amount of effort on their part could prevent the horror that was to beset them.
Join us for Part V of this series Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions…yes, part FIVE! Because the love for Irish potatoes cuts deeper than even a thousand phone books could cover. Did you think it could be otherwise? It doesn’t take a (Romano-Greco) genius to see such an epic romance requires epic proportions.
The fifth part depicts the horror of the Great Potato Famine and the dent it made in the Irish psyche, changing the landscape of a country and a people forever.
Should you still call it ‘famine’? Is the Irish Genocide perhaps a more accurate term?