How the Potato came to Ireland

It was the Spanish conquistadors who first discovered the potato and brought it to the world outside of its place of origin in South America. They did not, however, realise the value of the vegetable that they had stumbled upon when chasing the Inca Emperor,  Atahualpa, and his legendary riches. Once it was introduced into Europe it soon became an important crop for the peasantry, especially in Ireland. Today, over five hundred years after Spain’s conquest of South America, the potato continues to thrive in Ireland and throughout the entire world. Yet, despite its very important role in Irish history, there is still some confusion as to how the potato eventually came to our country. A range of famous historical figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been given the credit for introducing the potato into Europe. But, even the stories concerning the involvement of such adventurers are contradictory, and the question remains unanswered; “Who brought the potato to Ireland and when?”

ConquistadorThere is some research that suggests that the first potatoes brought to Europe originated in what is now called Chile. These were selected because they had been adapted to form tubers during the long summer days of southern temperate latitudes, which would be comparable to summers in Europe where the length of the day was similar. There was, meanwhile, another potato variety that originated in Peru and Colombia. This potato variety (‘Andigena’) was more used to the shorter days of the tropical latitudes and, therefore, did not mature in Europe until late September and early October when the length of the day is approximately twelve hours.

The first journey from Chile to Europe by the faster ‘Straits of Magellan’ route did not occur until 1579, when the potato was already being grown in Europe. Because of the months of travelling it would have needed to transport potatoes to Spain from Chile the tubers would have resulted in the death of any tubers before they reached their destination. So, it is assumed that the less favourable ‘Andigena’ variety of potato was brought to Europe from Colombia. But, it is not ‘Andigena’ variety that we see every day on our dinner tables in Ireland, but the Chilean variety ‘Tuberosum’. So, what happened?

The first European potatoes were, it seems, ‘Antigena’ variety, but they could only tuberise in the shorter days of the European autumn, limiting their cultivation to the milder regions of Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc.

The sweet potato, which is unrelated to the potato, grew in lowland areas all around the Caribbean, at the time of the Spanish conquests. The potato, however, was only cultivated in the most inaccessible of places. The sweet potato, therefore, was the first to be introduced into Spain, first shipments being made almost immediately after the earliest voyages of Columbus. But, the sweet potato was not only more accessible but also exclusive, because it could only the climate in Spain suited its growth. It’s exclusivity came from the fact that it was an expensive commodity and not something commonly seen on a plate in the rest of Europe.

The evidence available  to us points to there being two early introductions of the potato into Europe. The first, into Spain about 1570 and the second into England between 1585-1590. Potatoes, it appears, were being grown in Spain for a several years prior to 1573 in order to build up stocks. Sixteenth century scientists who had studied many of the new plants, which had been brought from the New World, do not mention the potato at all prior to 1564. Many botanists today agree, therefore, that the potato was introduced into Spain sometime between 1565 and 1570.

It is believed that the potato only reached England in the early 1590s. The English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), was a popular man who was often presented not only with rare plants and seeds from all over the world but also with offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. In 1597 he published his celebrated ‘Generall Historie of Plantes’,  which contained over 1,000 species, providing more than 800 chapters of information and a large amount of folklore. In his Catalogue of 1599 Gerard assigned the potato’s natural home to be Virginia, rather than its original habitat in the South American Andes. Although wild potatoes were found as far north as Nebraska in North America, no species was cultivated outside of South America at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World. The potato as we know it was completely unknown in North America until the seventeenth century and wasn’t cultivated there until the 1720s, when it was introduced by settlers from Ulster.

Records suggest that potatoes were first introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh after his return from Virginia. But such suggestions are contentious since it was much more likely that Raleigh got the potatoes from England, because he was never in Virginia and, as already stated, Solanum tuberosum is not native to Virginia. The confusion, however, may have arisen due to Raleigh’s association with a number of voyages to North America, but there is no mention whatsoever of potatoes on his return from any of those voyages.

Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96), unlike Raleigh, was introduced to solanum tuberosum in the Americas. But, it is rather unlikely that Drake seized potatoes from the Spanish when there was more valuable cargo to be taken. Drake, however, did serve under the Earl of Essex in suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, although it seems improbable that the potato was introduced around this time as it had only just been introduced to Spain and was still unknown in England. Nevertheless, it is recorded that Drake obtained potatoes by barter from the Indians of the Islands of Mocha, off the coast of Chile in November 1578. Having completed his renowned second circumnavigation of the globe in November 1580, but there is no record of potatoes appearing on the menu at this time.

If potatoes came from Virginia in 1586 they must already have been on Sir Francis Drakes’ ships and he may have acquired them from the sack of Cartagena on the coast of what is now Colombia. Potatoes may well have formed part of the valuable haul taken from Cartagena itself or from the cargoes of plundered ships. Drake left Cartagena on 30 March 1585, after picking up the colonists from the failed Roanoke settlement in Virginia, he arrived in Plymouth on 26 July 1586. Perhaps, these potatoes could have been confused with the plants from Virginia. Such a theory would reconcile a number of questions, but we can only speculate if this actually happened.

Instead of looking to England as the source of introducing the potato to Ireland, perhaps we should consider the Spanish. Often referred to as ‘An Spáinneach’, or ‘An Spáinneach Geal’ (The white or kind hearted Spaniard), such names for the potato might point to the suggestion that a Spaniard was actually responsible for introducing the potato to Ireland. There was substantial trade between Ireland and Spain and the introduction of the tuber as a curiosity from Spain through Waterford, seems highly plausible. However, given the lack of historical evidence it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of an introduction from England. Nevertheless, given that the potato thrived in Ireland from a very early date (but not in Europe), it was probably solanum tuberosum rather than andigena that was introduced.  Irrespective of who introduced the tuber to Ireland it appears that 1586 would be the earliest feasible date for introduction to Ireland, and 1600 the latest. Since we know that the potato was already being grown in London in 1596, it is almost certain that the appearance of the strange new tuber in Ireland couldn’t have been long delayed.

Bodenstown

The Grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Bodenstown is located near Sallins in County Kildare and it is in the local cemetery there that Theobald Wolfe Tone was buried in 1798, after he had cut his own throat because he was told that he would not be granted the honourable execution normally given to soldiers. But, since that time, this site in Bodenstown has become the spiritual home of Irish Republicanism.

Wolfe Tone 2

The Grave itself was discovered in 1843 by the ‘Young Irelander’, Thomas Davis, who spread the name and deeds of this icon of republicanism far and wide throughout Ireland. In this small way began a tradition among nationalists and republicans to enhance the life and exploits of Wolfe Tone, thereby creating an Irish legend. Not surprisingly, Tone’s grave site became a shrine to Irish freedom, to which all shades of republicanism from various eras made a heartfelt annual pilgrimage. During those years many republican voices have given orations by this honoured grave, including among them James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Sean O’Casey, Eamon de Valera, etc.

Prior to the establishment of the ‘Irish Free State’ in 1922 most of these pilgrimages were organized by the ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’ (IRB), the National Graves Commission, or Sinn Fein under its many titles and guises. Since its creation in 1926 the ‘Fianna Fail’ Party have organized an annual pilgrimage to Bodenstown in memory of Wolfe Tone, as part of their effort to strengthen their claim to be as republican-minded as ‘Sinn Fein’ in the eyes of Ireland’s people. As expected the organisations attending, the numbers of people travelling, and their combined mood reflected the militancy of the ‘Irish Republican Army’ (IRA), and the factions within that movement. But, it has only been since the beginnings of the ‘Troubles’ in ‘Northern Ireland’ that the ‘Ulster Question’ has had an impact on the Bodenstown gatherings.

Unfortunately, in October 1969, the troubles came to the pilgrimage when the ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ (UVF) planted a bomb in the graveyard, which destroyed the memorials to Wolfe Tone. Then, in June 1975, the same loyalist terror group planted a bomb near Sallins with the sole intention of derailing a train filled with pilgrims on their way to Bodenstown for the annual gathering. Sadly, during this operation, an innocent and uninvolved passer-by was killed by the loyalist action.

Early in twentieth century the Catholic Church in Ireland associated Wolfe Tone with the physical-force faction of Irish Republicanism and the hierarchy of the church opposed priest attendance at these gatherings. Many priests, however, who were unafraid to demonstrate their support for Irish freedom and republicanism, and they continued to attend the gatherings. The Catholic population of the country had always supplied the support for republicanism in Ireland. Wolfe Tone, however, was from the Protestant tradition and some who gathered at Bodenstown saw the recitation of Catholic prayers over Tone’s grave as being inappropriate. Then, in 1971, the new memorial at Wolfe Tone’s grave-site was formally blessed with Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy participating jointly.

wolfe-toneSadly, it appears there has arisen a less desirable trend in the speeches of earlier years when compared to those speeches of recent decades. There is always a formal nod to the exploits of Wolfe Tone but, both ‘Fianna Fail’ and ‘Sinn Fein’ have begun to use the occasion to set out and promote their own political manifesto, and to lambast the programs of other parties. From such debates opposing factions have arisen within Irish Republicanism, all seeking a united Ireland but divided as to how to achieve this goal. It is the same old story of Irish politics that even Wolfe Tone faced, namely the weakness of our cause because our political divisions.

The Merrows

From the many ideas and images that fill the folklore and mythology of Ireland there have been various mystic creations that have been given imaginative form and existence. One of these mystical creatures ‘The Merrow’ (or in Irish Morvadh, Morvach) is one of these and takes the legendary shape of a fantastic sea spirit that follows closely our idea of a mermaid. They are semi-human in their nature and shape of the body. From head-to-waist they appear, for intents and purposes, human. Then, from the waist, it is covered with greenish-tinted scales that appear to be the body and tail of a fish. In temperament, we are told, they are of a modest, affectionate, gentle and beneficent disposition. In the Irish their name appears to be a compound of ‘Muir’ (the Sea), and ‘Oigh’ (maid).

These marine creatures are also called by the Irish ‘Muir-gheilt’; Samhghubha; Muidhucha’n; and Suire and they appear to have been residing around our shores from the distant past, basking on our rocky coastline. According to the earliest chronicles available, when the Milesian ships bore onward, seeking a friendly harbor along our shores, the Suire, or ‘Sea-Nymphs’ played around them as they made their passage.

merrowIt is said that ‘The Merrow’ was able to have a close relationship with human beings and, it appears, they intermarried, living together with them for many years. There is, naturally, some exaggeration within the tales told by the various families and groups that live and thrive on Ireland’s southern and western coasts and claim a partial descent from these inhabitants of the seas and oceans. There can be little doubt, however, that the natural instincts of ‘The Merrow’ are likely to have prevailed over their romantic interests. Another problem that may have upset relationships with mortals would undoubtedly have been the very strong desires that they possessed to always return to their former haunts and companions in their undersea world.

Tradition suggests that the ‘Merrow-Maiden’ was the daughter of a King from beneath the sea, but it also informs us that these maidens might be found living under the waters of our lakes. These mermaids are said to allure young mortals to follow them beneath the surface of the water, where they will live in an enchanted state with each other.

‘Merrows’ wear a ‘Conuleen Druith’, or alittle charmed cap, which was generally covered with feathers and used for diving under the water. Should they ever lose this small cap they would lose the power to return to their homes in the depths of the seas and oceans. They have, however, been known to leave their outer skins behind them in the sea so that they might assume other more magical and beauteous appearances. But, they retain the soft white webs between their fingers and are often seen with a comb of gold, parting their long green hair on either side of their head, enhancing her very beautiful features. Also, beautiful and attractive is the music of ‘The Merrow’, which can be heard coming up from the lowest depths of the ocean, and sometimes floating across the water’s surface to encourage ‘Merrows’ to dance upon the shore, the strand, or on the waves that roll against the shoreline. Though all their features and fascinations are designed and practiced in order to seduce young mortal men, these maidens can occasionally be very vengeful.

It is strange to think of the possibility that there are ‘Merrow-Men’, but tradition insists that they do exist. It is said, however, that the ‘Merrow-Man’ is deformed in its shape and its features. More menacingly, the ‘Merrow-Men’ are said to keep the spirits of drowned fishermen, and sailors, captive in cages that are fastened to the bottom of the sea.

commission__merrow_by_hikigane-d41dq68The myth of the Merrow-Maiden is known in various folklore traditions, but under different names. In Scotland, these creatures are known as Selkies and like Merrows in Ireland they can be either male or female. Furthermore, the Selkies are seals while in the water and what differentiates them from mermaids, other than the choice of animal, is that they undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore. They do not merely transform their seal tails into human legs, but rather completely shapeshift from the sea animals into a human form. This is accomplished by shedding their seal-skin when they come to land.

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