The potato. A pivotal figure to the history of Ireland. But not quite the way you might think. First of all, it is not a native plant to the Old World, but originated in South America, and only made its way to Europe during the Sixteenth Century. Secondly, it is not that the Irish were born with a natural and insatiable love for the taste of potatoes, forsaking all other culinary fare, as lore or bad jokes would suggest. Potatoes simply fit into a system of subsistence tenant farmers who needed a food crop that would grow abundantly in the harshest conditions and poorest plots. Any good land in Ireland, where barley and oats grew, or where cattle might graze, would have been farmed for cash crops to enable a tenant to pay exorbitant rent to wealthy landowners. Potatoes, as it turned out, would grow in Ireland in such abundance that half an acre could produce enough to feed a family of two adults and four children for a year. Easily stored and preserved over winter, the starchy wonder offered sustenance long after harvest. And so it would seem that the potato was sent as a miraculous provision into this time and place.
|one of the many four-leaf clovers I find
The population of Ireland increased markedly with the cultivation of the tuber, along with dependence upon it as a staple. Intertwined among the social classes, from the very poor who ate potatoes almost exclusively, to the upper classes who filled out their menu of pork or mutton and fresh vegetables with daily portions of potato, the crop became ubiquitous to Irish life. Variety was the spice of the potato life, with different ways of preparing it such as colcannon--boiled/mashed cabbage and potato, boxty--a fried mixture of potato pancake and hash brown, Irish stew--the poorer cuts of meat mixed with potatoes and vegetables, and finally, champ mash--a spud mashed and served with spring onion, butter and/or milk. Milk typically would be skimmed for making butter or curds, and the remaining and less nutritious whey used by the peasant farmers to "make do".
So with a plentiful source of nutrition so easily adapted to their climate and needs, what could possibly go wrong?
Exhibit A) Britain's complex political climate leading up to and including the Victorian Age. Landowners held great influence, even if they were absentee landlords with holdings in Ireland. The poor held little power to influence law or policy. Irish tenant farmers had about as much political voice as the stones they tilled out of their rented fields.
Exhibit B) English Corn Laws
A system of protecting the financial interests of these wealthy landowners evolved into high tariffs on imported grains into the British Isles. British corn and grain sold at an artificially high price because the more plentiful foreign grain was taxed too heavily to be profitable. The poor simply could not afford to pay for the luxury of eating grain.
Exhibit C) A blight of fungi on the potato crop in Europe
All of Europe began to experience a blight of dry brown rot on potatoes, but nowhere was it more keenly felt than in Ireland, where roughly half the population was utterly dependent upon the food source. From 1845-1852 the blight led to a failed crop which led to famine and death and mass emigration. One million would die of starvation, and two million would emigrate, ravaging Ireland's population to lows that have never fully recovered even to modern day.
Exhibit D) Protestant versus Catholic, and other prejudices alive and well at the time
History does indeed repeat itself. In every society where one group subjugates another, it can only do so if the common belief regarding the subjugated is one of inferiority, or even dehumanization. The Third Reich did this to Jews, Slavic peoples, Russians, and any of non-Aryan genetics. The American settlers regarded the indigenous people as savages. They sold Africans as slaves and decided by law they were only three-fifths of a human. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites and enacted extermination policies when their number exceeded Egyptian ability to control them. Age-old sins of greed and pride cloud the vision of entire people groups at such sad times in history. And so it was for the Irish Catholic peasants. They were regarded as lazy, ignorant papists, somehow responsible or deserving of the disaster which had befallen them. And so relief efforts were virtually non-existent.
For a brief time, Queen Victoria and the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel worked to repeal the Corn Laws in order to alleviate some of the suffering and starvation, but Peel's success in subsidizing grain for Irish consumption had limited effect at best. His successor overturned much of what he accomplished, and what began as a crop failure became a politically engineered famine.
Some good came out of the ashes of this fiery trial for the Irish people. For one, Ireland has always led the world in famine relief efforts ever since. In addition, Irish culture has spread far and abroad because of the mass emigration during this time. And of note, the exact blight which caused the potato crop ravages is now widely considered to be extinct.
If you have Irish ancestry, I would love to hear any stories you have of great (great) grandparents who escaped the Potato Famine. Share in the comments below any thoughts or stories or remarks for a random chance to win a $15 Amazon gift card. I will draw the winner with the help of random.org and post one week from today on the sidebar. The luck of the Irish go with ye!
|mom and Grandpa Cronin
I am roughly half Irish. I married a good Irishman, as my married surname says. And I have to admit, I not only love Irish history, but I actually love potatoes, too. As a kiss from heaven, our only daughter was born on Saint Patrick's Day. Katie Megan Maher, in fifth grade, dressing up to present her biographical report on on Saint Patrick.
Slainte! (Good Health)
Post Script from last month's post about dogs: Meet the Maher's newest addition, "Bailey", AKC Bailey's Irish Cream. She is a brown and white Landseer Newfoundland.
Kathleen L. Maher’s first literary crush was Peter Rabbit, and she’s had an infatuation with books and fictional heroes ever since. She has a novella releasing with Barbour in the 2018 Victorian Christmas Brides collection, featuring her hometown of Elmira, NY. Her debut historical “Bachelor Buttons” was released in 2013, and incorporates her Irish heritage and love of the American Civil War. She won the American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, historical category, in 2012.
Kathleen and her husband raised their three children in an old farmhouse in upstate NY, along with a small zoo of rescued dogs, cats, and birds. They run an art business in their spare time and enjoy spoiling their grandchildren on the weekends.
Find Kathleen on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mahereenie
And on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/kathleenlmaher
And on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/kathleenlmaher