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History of the Potato in Ireland

IRELAND’S UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE POTATO

No other European nation has a more special relationship with the potato than Ireland. The first Europeans to accept it as a field crop in the seventeenth century, the Irish were the first to embrace it as a staple food in the eighteenth. The potato emerged strongly in Ireland because it suited the soil, climate and living conditions remarkably well.

What set Ireland apart from other European countries was the way the population took to the tuber – the potato was universally liked. Arthur Young, an English farmer and a Fellow of the Royal Society who made an extensive survey of Irish agriculture during the years 1776-9, was impressed by the vast acreage of potato cultivation he encountered. The potato was seen as a safeguard against the tandem social plagues of unemployment, poverty, overpopulation and land hunger. By 1780, at a population level of four million, those afflictions had helped push the potato to dominance. In 1830, young adult males in Ireland were consuming 5 kgs per capita per day – a matter of public record. By 1841, four years before the Famine, the population had literally doubled to 8.15 million – a phenomenal increase by any standard.

Initially, reports describing the appearance of a mysterious disease on the potato crops in various parts of Europe in 1845 were regarded with curiosity rather than alarm within Ireland. In the previous year, a number of Irish newspapers had carried reports from American journals and newspapers concerning a disease which had attacked the potato crop there for a second consecutive year. Within Ireland, however, there was little response to the news that the same disease had apparently spread to Europe in 1845. Read more..

THE POTATO IN ART AND LITERATURE

In James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, the protagonist Leopold Bloom sets off on his Dublin odyssey for the day with a potato in his pocket. (The other leading character in
the book is the city of Dublin itself).

In what other country in the world would you find a poem entitled ‘Spraying the Potatoes’? This was written by one of Ireland’s

leading poets, Patrick Kavanagh and published by the Irish Times in 1940:

In 2015, Ireland’s National Broadcaster, RTE, asked its listeners to select their favourite Irish poem written in the last 100 years. By an overwhelming majority, the winning poem was one written by Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. The poem, a sonnet, is entitled “ When All The Others Were Away At Mass” and is about a time spent alone with his mother in the kitchen peeling potatoes. The author recalls this years later at her funeral and realises they were never closer than at that time.

Pulitzer prize winning poet and author Paul Muldoon features the potato in ‘The Grand Conversation’; Poet Paul Durcan in ‘Christmas Day’; in ‘Paths’ by John Montague; Eavan Boland wrote ‘The Famine Road’.

ART

The potato has played an important role in Irish Art.
Achill Island’s (County Mayo) desolate beauty of the West of Ireland has inspired many Irish artists, including Paul Henry, whose well-known works “The Potato Diggers” (1910) and ‘The Potato Pickers” (1912) were painted on the Island.

In summary, Irish life, art, literature and the potato are solidly interwoven.