A Brief History of the Potato in Ireland

Social Education, September 2000 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of the Potato in Ireland


A New Food

The potato probably arrived in Ireland by accident.(1) In 1588, a great fleet of ships, sent out by Spain to conquer England, was defeated by the British navy. Some of the retreating Spanish Armada tried to get home by sailing around the northern tip of Scotland, but were damaged by storms. Some of these ships were wrecked along the Irish coast. The crews were killed or captured by the Irish, who took what they found on board. This booty probably included potatoes, which Spanish explorers had brought back from the New World. Once their initial suspicions (such as "Is this plant poisonous?") were overcome, Irish farmers planted this new crop along the Irish coast, where it grew very well. Soon the Irish of all ranks were eating potatoes, and it became the preferred food of the common man.

The potato arrived in an hour of need in Irish history. In the twelfth century, Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope, gave control of Ireland to King Henry II of England. In the sixteenth century Irish revolts against English rule were brutally crushed by the armies of Queen Elizabeth I. In this long war, casualties were high and the homes of wealthy and poor alike were destroyed. The countryside, with its grain crops and cattle, was ruined. Just as that terrible war ended, the potato reached the hands of hungry Irish peasants.

The potato has many advantages as a food crop. First, it is a high-yield crop: potatoes produce more pounds of food per acre than any other crop. A single acre of land produced enough potatoes to supply an Irish family with ten pounds of potatoes a day for a whole year (enough to keep six people pretty well fed).

Second, potatoes are easy to plant and easier to harvest than a grain crop. To plant a yard with potatoes, all a poor farmer needs are a spade and a few potatoes from last year's crop: he cuts the potatoes into chunks, with a bud (or "eye") on each chunk, and places them in the soil. In about four months, if the weather is moderate, each eye will grow into a potato plant, with a big cluster of potatoes hanging on the roots. Grains have to be cut and threshed. Potato trenches can be dug on a hillside, where no plow could go. Drain some land at the edge of a bog, or clear some rocky soil, and potatoes can even be planted there.

Third, potatoes are easy to prepare for eating. Grains, like wheat or corn, usually have to be hulled and milled before they can be digested by humans. One can simply boil potatoes in an iron pot over an open fireplace. Potatoes can be used as animal feed: cows, pigs, and cattle can eat small or damaged produce. Also, the potato happens to be a very nutritious food. It is mostly water and carbohydrates (children need carbohydrates like starch and sugar for energy and for their growing bodies), but it also provides important vitamins and minerals. For example, one potato contains 50% of the U.S. recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.

On the other hand, the potato as a crop has a few disadvantages. First, the advantages themselves created a problem, because peasants came to rely on the potato exclusively. If there was a failure of the potato crop, there was no other food to fall back on. For example, flood or late frost had destroyed potato crops, leading to smaller famines in Ireland before 1846. To be fair, it should be said that reliance on a single crop for survival was not unique to the Irish. In other cultures and climates, people have grown and depended on one crop for survival; for example Russians grew mostly wheat, Asian peoples grew rice, and several South American cultures depended on maize.

Second, before the invention of refrigerators, there was no good way to store potatoes for periods of more than a few months (unlike grain, which can be stored in dry rooms or silos for years). Peasants would dig a pit, fill it with potatoes, and cover them with moss or leaves as protection from frost and rain, but the potatoes were still vulnerable to mold. …

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