An Gorta Mor Part II
The Irish Spud
The introduction of the potato into Ireland has been rumoured to have begun in 1586, with Sir Walter Raleigh. However,the crop does not seem to have been in anything like widespread cultivation one hundred and forty years later. In fact, less than a century before the onset of the ‘Great Famine’, the potato was introduced into this island by the landed gentry. Although there was only one variety of potato, namely the ‘Irish Lumper’, it soon became the staple food of the poor, particularly in the cold months of winter.
In a pamphlet printed in 1723 it states, “We have always either a glut or a dearth; very often there are not ten days distance between the extremity of the one and the other; such a want of policy is there (in Dublin especially) on the most important affair of bread, without plenty of which the poor must starve.” This is almost one hundred and forty years after the introduction of the potato and, if potatoes were at this time considered an important food crop, the author would not have omitted this fact, especially when speaking of the food that the poor ate.
Later, in the same pamphlet, the author exposes and denounces the corruptions of landowners and the arrangements under which their tenant farmers occupied farmland. When commenting on landowners who farmed tithes, the author states, “ Therefore an Act of Parliament to ascertain the tithe of hops, now in the infancy of their great growing improvement, flax, hemp, turnip-fields, grass-seeds, and dyeing roots or herbs, of all mines, coals, minerals, commons to be taken in, etc., seems necessary towards the encouragement of them.” Again there is no mention of the potato.
But, the next year, 1724, the author of the pamphlet was confronted by an anonymous Member of Parliament, who mentions potatoes twice in his response. He says, “Formerly (even since Popery) it was thought no ill policy to be well with the parson, but now the case is quite altered, for if he gives him [sic] the least provocation, I’ll immediately stock one part of my land with bullocks and the other with potatoes … so farewell tithes.”
It appears that the fact of potatoes not being titheable at this time, encouraged their widespread cultivation in the land. In the next passage of his response the M.P. goes on to show that the potato was quickly becoming the food of those who could afford no better, the poor. Tackling the problem of high rents, and what he calls “canting of land” (leasing to the highest bidder) by landlords, he says: “Again, I saw the same farm, at the expiration of the lease, canted over the improving tenant’s head, and set to another at a rack-rent, who, though coming in to the fine improvements of his predecessor, (and himself no bad improver,) yet can scarce afford his family butter to their potatoes, and is daily sinking into arrears besides.”
It is evident from his tone this particular writer seems to regard the potato as being food that was to be used only by the very poorest people. He points out clearly the condition to which ‘rack-renting’ can bring even an industrious tenant farmer, for although the Irish could rent farms they became “tenants at will”, they had no security of tenure. They could be (and often were) evicted as soon as their rents fell into arrears, and on many occasions even when there were no arrears owing. The property, including any improvements made by the tenant, would be sold on for a higher rent with the former tenant gaining no compensation for any improvements that were made. After 1780 the policy of rack–renting became very common because of population growth and tenants would sub-let to many others. Such Estates were often poorly managed, with much sub-letting of land and the lack of incentive for tenants to make improvements.
During this time there was a great demand for land, as more and more landowners began to consider reverting from tillage to grazing. There were other causes of the growing oppression against the Irish population. King William III, at the request of Parliament in England, virtually annihilated the once flourishing woollen manufacture of Ireland. The island’s trade with the colonies was almost brought to ruin by the navigation laws that had been recently enacted. Among other things, no colonial produce could come direct to Ireland until it first entered an English port, and had been landed there. While great areas of land in Ireland had been put out of cultivation, and the country was compelled to buy food from abroad, the unjust and selfish destruction of Ireland’s trade and commerce by England left her without the money to do so.
There were suggestions that a local tax on certain ‘luxury’ items might provide enough money to purchase enough foodstuffs for the population to buy. But conditions in Ireland at this time were such that not enough taxes could be raised, especially when the nation was already paying more in taxes than England ever had. Some wondered when such foodstuffs, like corn, did arrive then who could afford to purchase it, certainly not the poor that made up the majority of the population. Thus, the growing of potatoes became a widespread activity among the peasantry.
Potato cultivation was clearly on the increase, but the corn crop was still considered to be the food of the nation. In Ireland, however, the growing of potatoes was on the increase, and this appears to be due in great part to the very real necessity for such a crop. There was not enough land under tillage to give food to the people, because the landowners had it laid down for grazing. Mountains, poor lands, and bogs were unsuitable to graziers, nor would they allow wheat, or oats, or any white crop to grow. The potato, however, was found to succeed very well in such places, and to give a larger quantity of sustenance than such land would otherwise yield. The cultivation of such land was therefore spreading, but this seemed to be chiefly among the poor Celtic Irish peasantry, who were obliged to settle in those wastelands and barren mountains. In the rich lowlands, and therefore amongst the English landowners the potato was still a despised article of food. Any proposal to sustain the Irish peasantry on potatoes and buttermilk until the new corn would come in, was quite ironic. The fact that one was made demonstrates the degradation to which grazing had brought the country. Seventy or eighty years later the irony became a sad and terrible reality.
In the meantime, increased attention was given to the improvement of agricultural methods, which arose because of the widespread panic which the passion for grazing had caused. The more patriotic and socially concerned observers saw that the passion for grazing would have only one result, a dangerous and unwise depopulation of the country. There were many calls made for remedies against just such a terrible calamity to be found. They were worried that the peasantry might just follow their leaders, and seek their futures abroad. It was suggested that where the plough has no work, one family can do the business of fifty, and you may send away the other forty-nine. It was from such worries as this that an anxious desire grew among certain groups to show that agriculture was more profitable than grazing, while others began to lay down better rules for the rotation of crops. Although potatoes must have been extensively grown at this time they get are given no place in any of the rotations. The growth of Turnips and Hops gets special attention in these plans, but the potato is never mentioned. The reason behind this neglect seems to be that their cultivation was chiefly confined to the poor Celtic-Irish Population in the mountainous and neglected areas, which to some were known as “the Popish parts of the kingdom.”
Those who wrote pamphlets in favour of tillage instead of grazing, set great importance on the increase of population, and complained that emigration was the effect of bad harvests and the need for tillage. Of course, one should remember that all such observations made during this period must be taken as referring to the English, or Protestant population of Ireland, exclusively. Indeed, there was no desire to keep the Catholics from emigrating. Quite the contrary, in fact. Such things became more apparents when some religious zealot called for a more strict enforcement of the laws “to prevent the growth of Popery.” There were claims that said an increase in tillage should be encouraged for the benefit of the Protestant population. The Protestant Primate, Boulter, condemned the emigration which resulted from the famine of 1728, which he says was “the result of three bad harvests together.” He added, “the worst is that it affects only the Protestants, and reigns chiefly in the North.” But, the broad rich acres of the lowlands were in the hands of the Protestant landowners and, being specially suited to grazing, were accordingly sowed with grass. Meanwhile, the Catholic Celtic-Irish planted the potato in the despised half-barren wilds, and were increasing in number far more rapidly than those who owned the choicest lands.