Potatoes from Ireland

Potatoes from Ireland:
Sealed with a Kiss

This is the second in the series of articles Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions exploring the Irish love affair with the potato. Part I covered the introduction of the crop in the 16th century from South America and the expansion of potatoes from Ireland as a staple of the poor. In this part we examine the potato’s seizing of daily life, how it took hold of the Irish psyche. Shaping their outlook, exploding the population, and driving the Irish towards destruction.

Part II: In which potatoes from Ireland spring forth, spreading their roots deep into the populace

The most enduring of Irish food traditions

Left unhindered, the island of Ireland is a truly bountiful place. Its well-watered land is rich in nutrients and all regions are suited for agriculture. Even the rockier parts of the North, although not always ideal for crop cultivation, present a great space for herding. Today, Erin’s Isle is a strong exporter of food, generating a wide variety of produce, hardy potatoes from Ireland among them.

So how did a single crop become so dominant?

The Irish didn’t start out dependent on potatoes, nuisances like British colonialism and rampant impoverishment tended to scupper variety. Maintaining any kind of diet, balanced or otherwise, was often a struggle. And the period of the potato’s introduction to the country was particularly unstable. Part of a broader struggle within Ireland and Britain, from 1550 to 1700 the smaller island was a near-constant theater of war. And war waged on Irish soil usually involved exactly that, as burning or otherwise destroying crops and land was standard wartime strategy.

By the time Spud appeared on the scene, the systematic use of scorched earth tactics was already causing outbreaks of hunger. The 1582-83 Munster Famine, for example, saw the population of that province reduced by one-third. But it was to get worse: the 17th century opening with widespread famine in the rebellious North of the country. War and the use of starvation to subdue resistance were severely impacting the population. Unsurprising then that a reliable staple like the potato would take on greater significance.

And Spud’s fame kept pace, growing alongside this kind of demographic devastation, which was to continue periodically. Mid-century, the Irish Rebellion of 1641 sparked the Irish Confederate Wars, ultimately ended by English leader Oliver Cromwell’s emphatic conquest of Catholic Ireland. Estimates for this eleven-year period alone put the combined death toll for famine, disease and murder at up to 40% of the population (see note 1 below).

Paddy’s partner produces potato planters

But it’s true that humans are slow to learn their lesson. Because no matter how great the loss of personnel, the Catholic baby machine meant Ireland & Co. was soon back to full strength. Perhaps its something to do with Freud’s mythical categorizing of the two types of human psychology – Irish and non-Irish. Because things do tend to work a little differently on the island. At the very least, cause and effect is not always a binary affair.

So it was not strictly illogical that the indomitable Irish female continued in her role as prolific bearer of offspring. Seemingly unfazed by a distinct lack of variety in the fates being dealt Ireland’s sons and daughters. If anything, the shortened odds seemed to only gall her, stiffening her will to procreate.

So quick-to-breed were the Irish of this period that by 1700 the decimated demographic left by Cromwell was flourishing once again. It now even surpassed pre-Cromwell levels, by some estimates nearing the three-million mark. (The population of England at this time is put at 4.5 million, New England 100,000). Irish women indeed married young and had a minimum of five children. But baby output alone doesn’t account for the explosion, for full comprehension potato output must be factored in. And whilst the amount of potatoes from Ireland being shipped to other parts was already high, this paled in comparison to the mega piles being wolfed down by the natives.

Breeding space

Spud’s ascent was also helped by an easing of hardship levels in the Irish countryside. As is often the case after a dip in population, a ‘demographic trough’ had emerged in Ireland. Where population pressure has eased, due to there being less people competing for (the same) resources, things tend to be a little easier. Land is more available, rents are lower, and wages are higher, due to the shortage of labor (see note 2). There was room for Spud to expand its roots.

Not that the countryside had become a place of luxury – in the Irish context, surviving to middle age was something to be heralded. But the falloff in population following widespread famine or disease did mean at least less competition among the poor masses. And with the spread of potato planting enabling greater subsistence, starvation was, at least in theory, not the most pressing concern.

The small farmer now diligently nurtured what became the traditional Irish food. A cheap and abundant crop he could live off, whilst selling his other, more lucrative, crops. In this way, the rent on the land could be paid and the risk of death by malnutrition diminished. The farmer had economic, nutritious fuel for his family which was always plenty in store. Potatoes became embedded in all kinds of traditional Irish recipes, from the truly rural Irish potato and leek soup to more urban dishes like coddle. Eaten in all quarters, the love of Spud Almighty propelled the country’s population forward.

Potatoes from Ireland’s lush fields provide refuge

And why wouldn’t the Irish peasant grow in number? The Penal Laws were by that time in full effect, forbidding natives from attending Catholic schools, buying land, living in towns, entering a profession, voting, owning a horse worth more than £5. Or doing anything much, really. It was natural that the majority were likely to be out in the mud working their spuds off, or eating the day’s takings with the fam.

But as the population of the British Isles rocketed, so too did its reliance on potatoes from Ireland. And as more little Irish popped out, more little Irish grew up to spend their days planting, harvesting, and gnashing on taters. The life of the citizen above ground and that of their subterranean compatriot packed in below became intertwined. A life of rote, with the spud being the fulcrum turning it: get them in ground, eat the last crop while waiting for the next, dig them from ground, eat them from ground.

…All so that you could stay alive and have enough energy to get spuds in ground, eat spuds while waiting, dig spuds from ground.

Potatoes from Ireland, freshly plowed fields
Potato field plowed by 500 horse (and Paddy) power machine

Mastering Irish dinner

They say it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at anything. Want to become an accomplished violinist, pianist, orator? Put in 10,000 hours of practice. And because the Irish (being allowed a) life equated to potato life, far more than 10,000 hours went in per man. The potato became the tenant farmer’s instrument, with ceaseless labor fine-tuning his art and making him ever more adept.

And being good at what he did, the farmer now had a viable livelihood. Ensuring the constant churn of potatoes from Irish soil had become instrumental for all landholders. So much so that it’s difficult to overstate the role the potato played in society, difficult for us to fathom the extent of the fixation. In an era where corner stores are stocked better than the pantries of bygone Emperors, it takes some stretching of the imagination to comprehend the mindset.

Potato logic

Because for the Irish of this period, the potato was intertwined with their being. It wasn’t a food preference, or an allegiance to a certain type or brand of produce, it was what drove you. Drove you to toil in the fields until you dropped. The Source. That which gave you all, gave you enough sustenance to live, and carry on working the fields. Like rice in East Asia, or yams in West Africa, it was the commodity that centered peasant life. A mark of wealth, a unit of trade. An obsession, an addiction.

The Irish farm had become the setting for a symbiotic relationship between man and vegetable, where the survival of one depended on the survival of the other. Creator and offspring, master and subject – but so enmeshed that it was hard to say exactly who commanded and who obeyed. The potato was the thing that allowed you to carry on seeing the light of day, with unfavorable weather meaning darkness. The Irish version of Yin and Yang, perhaps. Or Ancient Egypt’s Set and Horace – toiling together side by side, both rise up and succeed.

Not to frame the muddy drizzle of a windswept field in terms of the epic. But what is epic if not human beings fully engaging with their daily trudge? Pushing themselves, determined to do what they can. With whatever they’ve been given, mundane though it may be.

Besides, the hard figures for this period show the epic that was unfolding.

Romancing the spud

It is estimated that by this time the typical Irish person ate 6-7 lbs (that’s 2.7-3.2 kg) of potatoes per day!

PER DAY!! Surely that’s Rome-conquering (pro)portions of epic?! Times 7 lbs each by a family of 12 and you get 84 lbs. Multiply by 30 days’ feeding and you’re up to 1.27 tons of potatoes!..Consumed by just that one family in that one month! Stack all the spuds an Irish village ate in a year and you could create every type of building imaginable. Replicate Rome, knock up a few Babylons. Make your favorite megacity overnight! Mind you, it’d probably be for just that, one night – they’d wither and melt in the rain..Actually, odds are they wouldn’t even last that long, the locals would gobble them up on sight, unable to bear to watch poor Spud come to such an unfitting (and tasteless!) end.

And while there were still other foods being consumed by the masses, these varied greatly according to locality and income. What is certain is that potatoes were now embedded at the heart of Irish food traditions, in all parts of the island. Roasties for dinner in Donegal, a darling plate of mash from Meath, or Irish snacks in the pockets of teary-eyed sailors as they watch the county of Cork disappear from view.

But for the third of the population for whom Irish potatoes now comprised their sole sustenance, they were far from Irish snacks eaten lightly. They meant life. One can only imagine how many pounds of spuds such families chugged per day. Spud smoothies for breakfast! Spud sports drinks for your field workout fatigue! Snorting sly bumps of ground tuber when the barman isn’t looking.

Life on Erin’s Isle was now truly all about the Benjamins – except the Benjis were more 3-D in shape, and rounder at the edges. And spurred on by the wealth flowing from its fields of gold, the country’s population continued to soar.

Hewing Potatoes from Ireland

Engaged with this endeavor from morning to night, almost every day of the year, the Irish farmer soon become a master craftsman ten times over. Just do the math, the tenant’s life easily produced 100,000 hours of potato practice. Terms like ‘virtuoso’ or ‘maestro’ couldn’t describe such a specimen. He had simply attained a supercharged wizardry in his field scarcely seen by humankind.

But engaged in this way, Potato Power was to prove a particularly unstable source of energy. Potent it seemed to be. Environmentally friendly it surely was. And it unquestionably encouraged virility – it’s a wonder modern Ireland doesn’t brand Potato Aphrodisiac to sell in pharmacies. Spud’s drawback as a fuel source was that it was too powerful. It couldn’t keep up with its own gains. The expansive Potato Empire that had taken over Catholic Ireland was becoming overstretched. And what happened next was either perfect irony or ultimate logic.

For it was the Irish farmer’s very dexterity and dedication to his art that engineered his downfall. (But then again, isn’t an artiste extraordinaire often destroyed by the thing they love the most?) Something was about to crack. The Irish farmer’s distinction in his field was just too great, his dedication too single minded.

In the middle of the 18th century, the wake up call arrived. A devastatingly harsh blow. But, as history shows, a blow that in the long term was to go unheeded. The densely packed powder keg that was Irish potatoes seemed bent on burning itself out in a flurry.

Paddy caught cold

After decades of mild winters, in 1739 some kind of climactic shock hit Europe. The cause still isn’t fully understood, but scholars suggest it was due to the closing of the ‘Little Ice Age’ (1400-1800), which saw lower temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere. In Ireland, turbulent weather marked by extreme temperatures resulted in poor grain harvests and a subsequent dairy shortage. The ‘Great Frost’ then destroyed any potatoes kept in store. The masses were starving again.

Their eyes fixed on the potato prize, climate change had not been on the peasant agenda and the conditions threw them into flux. Not least because, if you can stick the rain, the Irish climate is quite a mild one. And thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream flowing across the Atlantic, it usually doesn’t snow – few sustained periods of sub-zero temperatures have been recorded. One can only imagine what it felt like for scantily clad peasant families to be dropped into Arctic temperatures overnight. Panic stations all around.

With the seasons spinning out of flux and bitter winds blowing in from the Atlantic, the brutal winter of 1739 turned to spring. But for once Ireland remained rain-free. Drought compounded the spreading famine and summer 1740 saw food riots across the island. Disorder reigned in all areas. However, the situation was eased by the partial success of harvests that autumn. It appeared that the havoc wreaked by the tempest had been tempered, and a level of calm restored.

And then the snow came back.

Blizzards, flash flooding. Mini icebergs floating down Dublin’s River Liffey, careening into ships. The Apocalypse was now.

Leaving one abyss for another

By the time normal weather returned, half a million lay dead. Killed by famine, or the typhus and dysentery that followed in its wake. But the devastation seen in Bliain an Áir (‘Year of the Slaughter’) was not only due to the freak weather. Central to the carnage was the dependency on potatoes from Ireland’s fertile soil that had emerged over the previous century. Just as during Cromwell’s conquest, the Irish population had again been reduced by up to 40%. In a matter of months.

But as decimating as the Irish Famine 1740-41 was, the lessons it taught were to go unheeded. Spurred by massive potato consumption and yields, population would soon pick up again. And even worse tragedy was to enter the Irish-Potato relationship.

Onward into history we ate.

The next installment in the series Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions is here! Part III takes a longer historical perspective on the Irish relationship with potatoes, explaining the backstory to how potatoes from Ireland took on such a significant power dynamic in the Irish-British relations of later centuries.

Note 1. Large numbers were also transported during Cromwell’s campaign, sent abroad as slaves, prisoners or indentured servants. Many of them to the Caribbean. The mixing of people can be seen in many dishes from that region. Barbadian cuisine, for example, is true fusion food: a mix of Irish, African, Indian, British and Creole food heritage.

There’s a growing number of books written on this side of the Irish story, especially on the role of played by Irish immigrants to Latin America. The controversial To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by Sean O’Callaghan caused a sensation when it came out two decades ago. And more recently has spawned an unlikely sequel in the form of Miki Garcia’s The Caribbean Irish: How the Slave Myth Was Made, written in response to the misguided debate sparked by O’Callaghan’s book and others like it.

Note 2. It is still the same in modern times. Recent popular books covering the subject include Outliers, in which Malcolm Gladwell analyses what it takes for a generation to be successful. Writing of the generation that grew up immediately after the Great Depression in the US, Gladwell suggests that much of the reason they thrived was due to a relative lack of competition.

Because better opportunities can be afforded a smaller demographic. Societal structures built to serve a greater amount of people are still in place, but the number of people they serve has shrunk. Thus, like the Irish peasant’s increased access to land and lower rents, in Gladwell’s example many Americans whom in other eras may have struggled to find work or get into college in fact had a host of opportunities open to them.