Illuminations: The Potato
By: J. Michael Finn
It’s probably an unlikely subject for a column on Irish history, but one should not discount the important role this lowly plant has played in the history of Ireland. As much as any historical figure or event, the potato shaped Irish history.
The potato was originally discovered in the Andes Mountains of South America by Spanish explorers, who introduced the tuber to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. How the potato arrived in Ireland seems to be up for some debate among historians. Like many things in Ireland the origin involves politics.
Some historians credit the Spanish with introducing the potato to Ireland. One story says the potato arrived via Spanish trading ships that regularly visited Ireland; the other states that potatoes washed up on the shores of Ireland after the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1589. Either one of these stories is certainly credible, but there are other theories as well.
The English, who were not friends with the Spanish in the 1500s, are reluctant to acknowledge the involvement of Spain in bringing the potato to Ireland. They offer an alternative theory.
This origin theory involves the English soldier and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was a captain in the British army and fought in Ireland during the Desmond Wars that devastated the province of Munster. Grateful for his murdering ways in Ireland, the English granted Raleigh a 40,000 acre estate in Ireland. Raleigh supposedly introduced the potato around 1587 on his estate as an easy to grow crop that was ideal for the “lazy” Irish. Several historians will tell you the Raleigh stories are rubbish and the Spanish should get the credit.
Despite the conflict over its origin, there are several facts about the potato that are not in dispute. The potato was remarkable for both its adaptability to various climates and its nutritional value. It provides starch, an essential component to the diet.
In addition, potatoes are a rich source of vitamin C, high in potassium and an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. The easily-grown plant has the ability to provide more nutritious food faster on less land than any other food crop. The potato was also useful as a disease preventer, helping to prevent such diseases as scurvy, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery.
The Irish peasantry embraced the tuber more passionately than anyone in Europe. The potato was well suited to the Irish the soil and climate, and its high yield suited the most important need of most Irish farmers – to feed their families.
What made the Irish dependent upon the potato as a food source? The Irish farmed land they did not own. The landlords required that all marketable crops grown on the land be sold to pay the rent. This sale established the amount of the annual rent as the “market value” which could increase each year as the price of crops went up or if the landlord made improvements to the land. This practice is known as rack-renting.
Because of the abuses of rack-renting, the Irish tenant farmer could not grow any marketable crops for his own consumption as everything had to be sold in order to pay the rent and avoid eviction. The potato was not a very marketable crop and therefore the Irish tenant farmer could grow as much as he liked. Thus, the Irish became dependent on the potato as their chief source of food.
By the early 1840s, almost one-half of the Irish population had become entirely dependent upon the potato. Yet this wonderful crop also had its drawbacks. It did not keep well, nor could it be stored from one season to another. The crop that was harvested in September would last only until the following June. Many would go hungry during the “starvation months” of summer until the new crop appeared in September.
When the potatoes ran out in June, the Irish were forced to switch to expensive meal as a food source, meaning that they had to buy the food on credit at high interest rates offered by the dreaded local usurer known as the Gombeen man.
The potato was also subject to disease. Because the Irish planted the same crop in the same place year after year, this robbed the soil of nutrients and made the potato susceptible and prone to various diseases.
The Irish dependence on the hazard prone potato did not go unnoticed by the British Government. Between 1801 and 1845 ,there were 114 commissions and 61 special committees that were appointed by Parliament with instructions to report on the state of Ireland.
Without exception their findings predicted a potential disaster because of the population’s dependency on the potato. Little was done as a result of these reports as Parliament’s opinion was that Ireland’s problems could only be solved by taxing Irish land, which led to higher rents, more evictions, more poverty and more starvation. The small amount of help they provided only perpetuated the suffering.
Then in September of 1845, the deadly blight first hit the potato crop. Potatoes were attacked and eaten by a fungus known as phytophthora infestans which turned the potatoes into an indigestible mass of black goo. Yields were reduced by one third in 1845 as the blight ravaged and completely destroyed subsequent crops in 1846, 1847, 1848 and 1849.
As the potatoes became scarce the Irish population began to starve. Despite the fact that Ireland continued to produce and export sufficient food to feed everyone, over a million and a half people died of either starvation or the diseases that followed; an additional million and a half people emigrated from Ireland. There are some who say these statistics are grossly understated.
The refusal of the English to close the Irish ports and stop the export of food condemned the Irish to starvation, disease and death. That is why the Irish correctly call it the Great Hunger and not the Great Famine.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.
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