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Some aul history

Steve Edwards' website



Spuds in Ireland


The potato came to Ireland from South America* via Spain. Years later, many of the Irish would migrate to North America when their monocultural potato crop fell victim to disease.

The Famine was a gruesome tragedy. Statistics vary, but a massive number of Irish were starved, and as many left home to avoid it. At least a million died on the island and a million emigrated (mostly to Canada and the United States) between the years of 1845 and 1851.

In any case, the population of the island before the Famine was about 8 million — about one-third higher, even, than in early 21st-century. Much of the decline happened in the famine years — though net emigration would remain a part of Irish culture for decades.

It was the potato itself that allowed explosive Irish population growth from the late-1700's. The crop has a very dense yield — in other words, you can grow a lot of it in a given space. The spaces got smaller — because they could, and because they had to. Population doubled in about 50 years. In the mid-1800's, land was cultivated near to its capacity.

The potato is the only food in Ireland available in any one of three weight-measurement systems — the pound, the kilogram[me], or stone.

A stone is equal to fourteen pounds (6.35 k.)

The stone is also used on the bathroom scale, and only for these two measurements — potatoes and people.

The potato is nutritious enough to constitute a nearly full diet. In a poverty-stricken land under foreign rule, hunger is a good sauce. People ate a lot of potatoes, and little else. It was enough — in a good year. But even in a good year, it was a difficult life during the summer months. Potatoes do not store well, and the period between late spring and the autumn harvest was often a hungry time.

When "late blight" infected the 1845 potato crop, it was the beginning of famine. The following year, crop failure was nearly total across the island. The monoculture of the harvest, the spoor-wise dispersal of the fungus-like disease, and a poor relief structure brought a swift collapse of the Irish food supply.

Antipathy of English rulers for the Irish people was to blame for much of the severity of the disaster. Incompetence and bad economic theory played a role, as well. But the main force of the Great Famine was the Irish dependency upon one crop, and that crop's failure.

The culpability of the British overlords is a contentious issue. Their commandeering of property, their heavy taxations, and their outright theft of such exportable crops as the grains compounded the effect on Irish lives of the loss of the most important part of their diet.

One of the reasons that it was in fact primary in the Irish diet was that the spud was not as easy to steal wholesale as were, for example, those grain crops.

There are those amongst the Irish who consider the Great Hunger to have been an act of genocide. That is an extremist view, but one that cannot be taken from those who feel that way. And, clearly, the method of British rule was a key player in the disaster.

But the spuds were the immediate problem. There they were, the one good crop, rotted in the ground across the whole island.

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Ah, but the Irish still love the potato.

You can observe this in any respectable Chinese restaurant here:

      "Would you like that with fried rice, boiled rice, or chips?*"

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* The genetic diversity of potatoes is greatest in the region of Lake Titicaca bordering Peru and Bolivia — evidence that this is their point of origin.

The Spanish brought the potato to Seville in the 1570's.

The tuber would not quickly become well-known to Europeans, nor popular as a food. There were several reasons that the Europeans were reluctant to use the potato: It was new to them, for one thing. It belongs to the nightshade family, of which European varieties are poisonous. Also, the potato was not mentioned in the Bible, the primary document of that time.

The dating of the potato's arrival in Ireland is contentious. Some claim that Sir Walter Raleigh brought it in the late 1500's, and some claim that he didn't. Some claim that spuds did in fact reach Ireland after re-crossing the Atlantic ocean to the British North American colonies, but that it wasn't Sir Walter Raleigh who brought them. Some claim that potatoes came north across Europe.

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* Chips are not French fries.

The chip is thicker than the French fry, about a centimeter square, and is generally not fried to much of a crispiness.

Chips are normally served with the question "salt and vinegar?"

You can get them smothered in a sauce, curry and garlic being options. You can get ketchup, but it's not a standard option and the house version is often of a substandard grade.

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