Potatoes in Ireland: Roots of Romance
Part III in the series of articles Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish Food Traditions. The first part saw the first planting of potatoes in Ireland, while the article charts the crop’s meteoric rise as a food for the poor. Taking a longer historical perspective, this third part examines the power dynamic embedded in Irish potatoes.
Because not so long ago, potatoes in Ireland meant power over human destinies. For the Irish peasant farmer this was the power to feed his family, to survive. For Ireland’s Protestant landowners and the British government, the power to profit from the peasant’s toil and retain a tight control over the country.
But how did this imbalance come about?
Aren’t the Irish a fearsome people, ready to stubbornly battle against all odds?
Why always English landowner and Irish worker then? When was the die cast?
Part III – In which the role of potatoes in Ireland is placed in historical context
Our deep exploration of potatoes in Ireland has focused on the beginnings of the Irish-Spud romance. Spud boards a ship from South America, bringing with him a hearty welcome feast for the soaring Irish population. But this is already a story after a story.
It jumps ahead, skipping over key factors in understanding this truly Irish love affair. If you are to comprehend the role of potatoes in Ireland, and their place in the Irish psyche, it’s not enough to only look at more recent eras.
The structures and systems that governed the enamored peasant of the 18th century already extended much deeper. Their roots in the farther past. And so, to truly understand the (ongoing) obsession with potatoes, and the Irish food traditions they embody, you must first go back into history. Examine the island’s path of development from the time when Celtic peoples were heading for her green hills, attempting to escape turmoil.
Fado, fado, before there were potatoes in Ireland…
Long before the dependency on Irish potatoes and manipulation of this as an act of war, Ireland’s Celtic population was already a thorn in the British side. The natural nemeses of those who came to dominate the neighboring island, the Anglo-Saxons. Who the Celts lovingly called Sassenach, one of those Irish terms for which the English translation (simply ‘English’, or ‘English person’) could never communicate the intense emotion of the original.
For the island of Ireland represented the last bastion of the Celtic people. A refuge for the final remnants of those clans who had migrated into Europe millennia before from the Black Sea or, as recent DNA evidence suggests, the Middle East. Choosing as their heartland the fertile western and central parts of the continent.
Although a loosely knit collection of clans, taken together these tribes amounted to a Celtic Empire, encompassing Europe from east to west. The Irish branch of this Celtic family, the Gaels, were thus by heritage some of the last torchbearers of a civilization that had spanned the breadth of the continent, from the Galatians of Central Turkey to the Celtici in Western Portugal.
But before the rise of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons and the domination of their culture in Britain, both Ireland and Britain were home to this endangered species called the Celt. For a time, these two islands on the western shores of Europe had fostered intensely Celtic societies, some of the last on the planet.
Back on mainland Europe, the Romans were placing under their dominion, slaughtering, subsuming or chasing away the continent’s hundreds of Celtic tribes. And they were doing a seriously efficient job of it. Seeing what was in the wind, the typical Celt yielded to Roman rule and got on with life. The local Celtic elite functioned as a bridge between the two worlds and, over time, the inhabitants of what had been the heartland of the Celtic culture assimilated to Roman ways.
The Republic now replaced by the all-conquering Empire, Rome was far from the power that had been crushed by the Senones – a migrant Celtic tribe that left Gaul to settle on the east coast of Italy. Under their fearless chieftain Brennus, in 390 the Senones defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Alliaa, before chasing the vanquished back to town.
Murderous looting of Rome carried on day and night, senators were slaughtered by the bench load (See Note 1) and the magnanimous Romans do seem to have eventually salvaged what remained of their moderately sized town. By presenting their new neighbors with a welcome gift, in the form of an extortionate ransom.
In her commendably readable SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, classicist Mary Beard suggests that the wounds inflicted by Brennus & Co. were so great that Rome’s leaders were on the verge of declaring their settlement a write-off and upping sticks to the next town over. Hurriedly rebuilt in the aftermath, Rome would quickly become a heavily fortified settlement, protected by a thick defensive wall, some parts of which still stand.
Prof. Beard also points to the increased Roman militarization in the decades that followed as a direct response to the Celtic onslaught. An ante-upping that was ultimately to shape the known world.
By the time Julius Caesar took to clearing house in the 1st century BCE, Rome was rampant, and but limited leniency would be shown the Celtic tribes. You could bow to Rome, you could die, or you could run like the wind. The severity of your range of choices depending on the level of manpower Rome mustered in your area, or the particular deal they gave the local elite.
Choosing the flee option, and following in the path of the earlier waves of migration, a swell of Celtic cousins now flowed into the British Isles. A surprise, but ultimately permanent, visit. For those escaping Roman expansion, these wind-battered lands represented the hope of sanctuary.
But a hundred years after Julius Caesar had pursued the fleeing Celts across the English Channel, the ruthless Romans now formally conquered Britain, too. Most of the island would remain under Roman rule until the collapse of the Empire, nearly four centuries later.
Celtic Empire curtailed
Always a ruling minority, by the time the Romans did finally fall in 410, the British masses – the ‘Britons’ – were still predominantly Celtic in culture. But in terms of self-government, only Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man had Celtic rulers (See Note 2).
With geography and stormy sea borders on its side, the Irish Celts managed to live aloof during this period, the Romans leaving in peace the mysterious and hallowed land their scribes called Insula Sacra (‘Sacred Island’).
But more likely the Romans were simply too scared they’d get their southern legs wet, mercilessly rained on in the Atlantic storms walloping what others knew as Hibernia (‘Land of Eternal Winter’). After all, if you’ve ever seen rain in Rome you’ve witnessed grown men racing to the nearest newspaper kiosk for their largest broadsheet.
Then prance down the street with it flailing over their head. (The corners of the sports section hiding Munch-Scream mouths and disbelieving why-me? tears.)
Whatever the reason, once they’d made it to the smaller island, Celtic culture had been mostly left to its own devices. The knowledge and expertise of a civilization that had dominated vast tracts of Europe flowed into a much smaller area. They kept livestock and grew grain, made babies. Occasionally cooked the most wonderfully organic, grass-fed beef liver.
The archaeological evidence from this period suggests that once settled, the Gaels appear to have enthusiastically gotten down to doing very little for the next three or four hundred years. Worn out from centuries as culture vultures on the European arts scene, perhaps.
Or with an inkling that they best catch a bit of a breather while they had the chance. Because after this you’re going to see a solid two thousand years of turmoil, Paddy!
One thing the Gaels do appear to have gotten up to was cattle raiding. And although spared external threats, vicious infighting between rival clans marked this period. Irish Celts were also well situated to launch lucrative raids on neighboring Britain. And the regular injections of wealth these brought appear to have been their secret recipe for boosting an otherwise stagnant economy.
It was on one such raid in circa 400 that a lusty British sixteen-year-old was kidnapped and taken to Ireland. A teenager who would become the Irish saint still celebrated so enthusiastically in that special March festival each year. Forced into slavery on the smaller island, Patrick’s abduction was typical of the era and the Irish saint would’ve been held captive by distant relatives, for Britain remained largely inhabited by Celtic peoples.
Celtic Empire concentrated
Before it had been compelled to up sticks, the Celtic realm had embodied a set of sophisticated social systems, with a particular style of art, an indigenous religion and various languages. In effect, a complete worldview. A distinct, codified, vibrant way of living and seeing the world that had emerged over millennia, and which was now concentrated in the insular setting of the Atlantic.
But while Ireland remained calm, toward the end of the 4th century Roman power in Britain was falling to pieces, with the reigning debris raining in all directions. By the turn of the century, significant disorder had taken the reins. And by the time the Romans cut their losses and left, His Royal Highness Rex Outright Riot reigned across the larger island.
Yet, Ireland continued to enjoy relative stability – not counting the mandatory infighting, of course.
By the time Roman rule in Britain finally fizzled out in 410, the pathways opened by the departing rulers had become of much interest to the waves of Anglo-Saxons streaming into the island from the Germanic world beyond. After three hundred years of strict Roman rule and the final collapse of the Empire, war inside and invasion from outside was the British norm.
Feeling they could achieve great things under such conditions, Irish Celts launched raid after raid on the neighboring island, and the once segregated Picts in Scotland now stormed south of the border walls erected by the Romans. Britain became a patchwork of tribal warlords and adventurers of all breeds. And it appeared that once the free-for-all had tapered, the island would once again come under Celtic rule.
The Sassenachs arrive
But seeing the fabric of society continued to rip all around them, the Barbarian invaders also had their eyes on domination. And constant waves of Germanic migrants meant their numbers continued to rise. With their stern outlook and frugal way of life, the Anglo-Saxon was here to regiment the chaotic Celtic party.
But although keen on following in Roman tracks, if they were to dominate Britain, the Anglo-Saxon knew the ferocious Celt would first have to be subdued. In this way the Anglo-Saxons succeeded the Romans as the arch foe of the Celts, and their sterile efficiency would contrast with the ebullient Celts forevermore.
But life in the new land was tough going for these White, Anglo-Saxon, (not yet) Protestant migrant workers. The newcomers toiled hard and fought to carve out territory, but at many points were on the brink of extinction – and taking the English language into the grave with them. For Britain remained as it long had, a mostly Celtic island.
Strange though it may appear to the modern observer, it was of course the Anglo-Saxon that represented the variation on this Celtic mainstream. After all, the British Isles had by this time been inhabited by Celtic peoples for many centuries.
And the Anglo-Saxons knew it: the word ‘Britain’ comes from the Britons, one of the early Celtic groups to settle on the island. The way they saw it, only suppression of the Celts would allow Anglo-Saxon culture to thrive.
So it started, and so it continued into modern times..
Centuries of conflict, colonialism and suffering were to follow, with the Anglo-Saxons coming to rule Britain and increase their influence over the Gaels of Ireland. Being blotted in the shade of time, historians put forward two main theories for how the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate the Celts.
The traditional narrative is that they took up intense rivalry with the indigenous Briton cultures and through land takeovers, slavery, mass extermination, and forced resettlement eventually subdued the native peoples, cultures and languages. The other theory is that the Britons gradually assimilated Anglo-Saxon culture, language and ways, in a society where the Germanic newcomers came to form the elite.
Whichever may have been the case in Britain, imposing Anglo-Saxon rule on Ireland was a different kettle of fish altogether. A society that had developed separately – and where outlanders made up only the tiniest sliver of the population – would be no easy scalp. Lacking a foothold in the country, you also couldn’t count on the Gaels gradually coming to see the financial or social benefits of adopting your language or plowing methods. You would have to cut much deeper than that, into the heart of the land.
Force was your only option.
As one contemporary historian fittingly surmises the relationship that emerged: Ireland was too close to Britain to be left alone, yet too far away to fully control.
Celtic Empire of the mind
At first, Ireland was to remain a strong and thoroughly Celtic island. Even experiencing an unlikely high point in the story of the Celts, a Golden Era stemming from the explosion of learning that took place in Irish monasteries.
As the Dark Ages descended upon Europe, scholars and scribes from all parts of the old continent came to Christian Ireland. As during this period after the fall of the Roman Empire, things had gone from bad to worse and the entire European continent was experiencing huge volatility and disruption to daily life.
At a certain point, the free-for-all got so unpredictable that for many institutions holding manuscripts or works of art there were two main choices: 1. Let the artifacts be burnt, desecrated or otherwise devoured by the marauding Germanic, Hun and miscellaneous hordes slashing their way through the old world, or 2. Send them to Ireland.
Many chose Option 2. At least until the heat of battle blew over.
And after Latin and Greek, Irish now became Europe’s most common written language, in which scribes, ecclesiasts and other elites could communicate across borders. (And Europe’s leading language in terms of vernacular literature.)
But once things returned to normal in Europe, a new picture had emerged all around. Germanic power had swiftly consolidated and held sway over many areas, not least, Britain. And with its own house in order, steely blue eyes soon set their stare in Ireland’s direction.
The Vikings were first in. The Anglo-Normans were next to arrive, but ultimately found that both plague and being Irish are contagious, their numbers diminished by disease or intermarrying with the locals.
By the 15th century, that dull period between being murdered on sight and the introduction of the potato, the Irish were effectively ruling themselves once again.
Underpinning the power of potatoes in Ireland
Arguably, it was at this point that the Irish developed their unique brand of non-plussed, which still endures today. “I hear there’s another set of savage invaders come swinging in the door, down at the shore.” “Oh, is that so? I hadn’t heard. Best make sure to wear a jacket today, and have my best quips and one-liners all lined up and ready to go.”
Alas, in the Tudor King Henry VIII of England those carriers of the infectious condition known as Irish were to encounter a man for whom no volume of Irish moonshine nor invitations to dance could steer him from his intentions. Which of course were to wreck the place.
The meddling in Irish affairs was over, direct military encroachment was now where it was at. England was on the rise, and Henry VIII’s Protestant God had told him the Irish could do a great deal better.
By the 18th century, if not extinct in terms of population, self-rule by Gaels was a but a folk memory and the descendants of those Anglo-Saxon invaders from afar now utterly controlled the Celts. Ireland’s flag of green, with golden harp, lay buried beneath the British crown, and the green, white and orange tricolor of the Irish Republic was still two centuries away.
It was to this historical background that the significance of potatoes in Ireland as a food for the poor masses, and a weapon for the rich few, would later be set. The inequitable power structure that emerged over these centuries dictating the politics of potatoes we saw in Parts I and II of Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish food Traditions.
With the vast majority of Ireland’s population made up of native Celtic (Catholic) peasants, tied by poverty to their rural landholdings, a tiny Anglo (Protestant) Ascendancy now governed fair Erin’s isle from the Dublin enclave known as ‘the Pale’. From where they could control the country’s commercial activities and tend to the affairs of state.
Their grip was to get tighter still in the aftermath of the abortive 1798 Rebellion – when even French assistance couldn’t help the natives shake off the English yoke. The smaller of the two islands was placed fully under full British control, being incorporated into the new United Kingdom (of Britain and Ireland).
Although Irish-British relations had long been marked by asymmetry, the impact of this sudden union in 1801 greatly exacerbated this dynamic. Lacking in coal and natural minerals, Ireland had not seen the industrialization that was spreading across Britain – although it did indirectly benefit from the economic expansion elsewhere in the Kingdom.
The strategy of the British crown was clear: Ireland was to be used as a source of capital, providing the agricultural produce necessary to feed workers and help keep industrialization on track.
With the final incorporation of Ireland into the UK a land kept systematically underdeveloped found itself hit with the full force of the structurally sound English economy. The balance of power swung ever farther in Britain’s favor.
From the Anglo government’s perspective, this worked a treat, further embedding as it did the subservient role Celtic Ireland had been earmarked to play and allowing the crown to harness and maneuver Potato Power. Ireland’s deeply agrarian society now became even more focused on the land, and the internal social pyramid even more lopsided.
Huge yields of potatoes in Ireland
As related in the first two parts of this series on Irish potatoes, food yields were skyrocketing at this time, with potatoes from Ireland being exported to Britain and the Empire beyond. The British Agricultural Revolution (sometimes called the ‘Second Agricultural Revolution’) was having significant effects during these centuries, and having enormous effects on society.
In fact by the time of the Act of Union in 1801, advances in farming methods and labor productivity had already been fueling exponential agricultural output for well over a hundred years, from the middle of the 17th century on. But now the Revolution was at full throttle. Output was truly roaring.
Massive yields of potatoes across the island propelled huge population growth among the Catholic masses, and living conditions were getting seriously up close and personal. The tenant shacks of the rural poor bulged with babies; not to mention wilting with whippersnappers.And as the numbers in the countryside grew, the Protestant ruling class made up an ever-slimmer sliver of the population. A tiny scoop of vanilla floating on a sea of soda.
But as is shown by history – and the outrageously inequitable planet we live in today – size is not always the deciding factor. Don’t forget that at this time a few thousand thoroughly convincing (and well-armed) British servicemen controlled all of British India, with a population of some 40 million. Ireland wasn’t quite at that level, but, with a land area not even 2% of India, the country had already hit the 5-million mark.
Fueling the Empire
Perhaps there could’ve been a way to slow the Catholic growth at this point, but the incentive for the Irish elite just wasn’t there. They creamed it off the top and the Empire’s fuel tank remained in the black. Powering the super suction of unfortunate peoples the British machine encountered on its travels. And from the rural peasant’s point of view, working the field wasn’t the worst of fates, as long as you got to enjoy a swig of poitin and a nice home-cooked Irish potato recipe after finishing for the day.
As covered in Part II of Irish Potatoes:The Spud in Irish food Traditions, at this stage the whirlwind human-vegetable romance on the island had already developed into a serious relationship. That is, a full-on besotted, why do birds suddenly appear, starry-eyed 24/7 serious relationship.
The kind of exclusive relationship that if you do ever part ways, you’ll realize you’ve neglected every other part of your life, and none of the other vegetables even bother calling anymore. So, given the height of the affair, unless the British monarchy wanted an actually successful rebellion on its hands, it was best to just leave Paddy to his potatoes and progenies.
You’d have more luck getting his cousin Braveheart to top himself (“I can take my life, but you’ll never take my spuds!”).
Irish dinner in the (nostalgic) mind’s eye
Lost in the grip of potato love fever and with starvation not a too distant memory, you can understand the Irish passion for potatoes, especially among the very poor. When the dirty-nailed, ragged-eyed Irish farmer of this era sat down to Irish dinner – aka a massive cauldron of spuds – he must’ve felt like he was simply eating life itself.
And with the hindsight of history, we can see that effectively that was exactly what he was doing. But nobody could’ve explained that feeling of life force better than that peasant diner as he sat with all those potato dishes at the heart of so many Irish food traditions.
See him, the cauldron propped in the center of the simple wooden table or soup served out by the bean an tí (‘lady of the house’). The smile on his face, the freckles on his sideburns, as he says grace. For this, thank you. I am grateful for that which I have, simple fare though it may be. His words end and hungry children slurp up the Irish potato soup or pile their hands into the cauldron. He’s still for a moment, enjoying the anticipation as he watches his kin, fellow tater-munchers all. Thank you.
The Great Potato Famine on the horizon, bellies now full
And, thanks to Potato Power, there was kin galore!
Any slack in the demographic following the Famine of 1740-41 had been quickly gobbled up, and overcrowding and rampant poverty were again the norm across the rural landscape. Indeed, the situation was the flip side of those relatively prosperous conditions enjoyed by the smaller generation that followed that freak weather-induced famine covered in Part II.
The Great Potato Famine, also called An Gorta Mor (‘The Great Hunger’) was a century away and the demographic bubble had now been fully filled. And then some. Yet the population continued to grow.
Soon, any infrastructure that the occupying British had bothered to build swooned under the weight of the masses. All on account of the oh so delectable taste of Irish potatoes.
With hindsight you can see that what had originally been manna from heaven had turned into poisoned apples, perpetuating and chaining the rural Irish to their misery and toil. But that’s not to say it felt like that at the time. All the farmer knew was that he had to eat and now had a reliable way to do so. Add into the equation some baked onion – or perhaps even the odd taste of Irish beer or liver and onions – and life became just about bearable. A secret recipe if not for success, at least for survival.
The Irish masses were simply doing what any humans would look to do: go on.
Join us for Part IV of Irish Potatoes: The Spud in Irish food Traditions, where we explore the destitute living conditions experienced by Irish peasants. The potato farm of the day was a truly uncomfortable, overcrowded place, especially in the lead-up to the most testing time in the Irish-Potato romance: The Great Potato Famine.
Note 1. The Battle lost, Prof. Beard has Rome’s senators as utterly resigned to their fate. Dressed in their fine senatorial robes, they calmly waited back in town. So placid were they that on first sight, the marauding Senones took them as statues. On second sight, they toppled the lot.
Note 2. Fleeing Anglo-Saxon repression, Brythonic peoples would also take to the sea, establishing enclaves in the Channel Islands, Brittany (on the western tip of France), and the coast of Galicia (in northern Spain).