The Famine Potato

Almost every article and book about the Great Irish Famine reminds us how poor the Irish peasantry was in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and yet they were fit and well enough to undertake the most arduous of labouring tasks. Historians have suggested that it was the reliance of the Irish peasantry on the potato that was the main reason behind their sturdy health, because the potato was filled with both calories Potato Feedand proteins. Under modern nutritional analysis the potato has maintained its place as a health supporting vegetable, although they are usually eaten with other foods and vegetables. Some accounts of famine times suggest that the potato was the sole item that the Peasantry ate. Other accounts suggest that the potato was occasionally accompanied by a bit of fish or mixed with milk. Whatever was the case, the potato was the only cheap food that was capable of sustaining life when it was the only item on the diet. Therefore, if we wish to assess the calorie intake of the average Irish peasant prior to the Famine, we must first know the acreage planted with potatoes and the average yield per acre. But, to complete the calculation we must know the quality of the variety planted.

These days there are so many more varieties of potato in existence than was the case in pre-famine Ireland. During the first decade of the nineteenth century there are accounts recorded that state Irish potatoes – “are pleasant, mealy, and nourishing when compared to the ‘watery and ill-flavoured’ varieties that were prevalent in England. Potato quality declined in Ireland thereafter, however, and on the eve of the Famine the very poor were often forced to rely almost exclusively on inferior varieties, notably the ‘Lumper’.

Blight 2The ‘Irish Lumper’ is a varietal white potato, which has been identified by historians as the variety of potato whose widespread cultivation throughout Ireland, prior to the 1840s, is most closely linked to ‘An Gorta Mor’. It has earned its poor reputation from the Great Irish Famine in which an estimated 1 million died of starvation and disease. This reputation was due to the lack of ability to withstand blight and tells us nothing about the quality of the variety, which was unknown until revived in recent years.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was well known for its ability to flourish on raised beds in the garden that are poor in nutrients, wet underfoot, or both. By 1832 the ‘Lumper’ had flourished to become the prevalent variety of potato grown in Ireland, causing an anti-tithes campaigner to complain bitterly – “our only food being lumpers and what the ministers would not eat’. A little later another commentator reported, from a visit to Waterford, that – ‘when men or women are employed, at six-pence a day and their board, to dig Minions or Apple-potatoes, they are not suffered to taste them, but are sent to another field to dig Lumpers to eat’. Although recognised by agricultural experts as a very old variety potato, some had no hesitation in recommending it as stock feed because of its enormous yield per acre. Landlords, because the ‘Lumper’ was recommended for feeding their animals thought it was suitable as food for the poverty-stricken peasants on their lands. It was this in mind that the potato variety was grown to adapt to the climactic conditions of Ireland, particularly the western region.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was described as being – “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.” Its texture upon boiling was said to be more “waxy” than “floury”, which indicates that they possess a starch content that is lower than that typical for white potatoes. The starch content in any crop of potatoes is quite variable and climate, pests, soil and agricultural practices all play a role. The impoverished peasantry would have much preferred to eat the more premium varieties of potatoes, but their lack of money to purchase those varieties ensured that they would have to depend on the tasteless, watery and ungainly ‘Lumper’.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was hailed by many for its nutritional value when it was first introduced into Ireland in the early 19th century. As a result, it quickly became popular among impoverished tenants in Munster and Connacht because of the ease with which it flourished in the poorest of soil. However, we should know how the ‘Lumper’ compared with the premium varieties of the time, and even how it would compare to the modern varieties. When compared with contemporary varieties, the ‘Lumper’s’ weight-loss from cooking was reported, in 1840, to be two ounces in every sixteen, which was much greater. From this we can estimate a labourer’s daily intake of potatoes before the Famine, said to be between 10 and 14 lbs, was reduced by the time it was eaten. In tests held by ‘The Royal Dublin Society’ in the 1830s the actual weight, or specific gravity, of the prevalent potato varieties found that the ‘Lumper’ was the lowest at 1.084. It is accepted that the higher the specific gravity the ‘better’ the potato, since potatoes with a specific gravity of one would float in water. A standard conversion produces dry matter estimates of 28 and 24 per cent for the premium variety of potatoes, and only 21 per cent for the ‘Lumper’. On average, starch content makes up about 80 per cent of the dry matter content, and from these statistics the ‘Lumper’s’ lowly status is evident.

Blight 4It appears that the ‘Lumper’ was first introduced into Ireland from Scotland in the end of the eighteenth century. Before that time there were dozens of potato varieties cultivated, so many in fact that it was claimed that each county had its own favourite variety. But, because of its higher yields, the ‘Lumper’ spread rapidly. Its adaptability to poor soils, and its reliability were the main attractions to growers. By the 1840s, the variety had made big inroads in the country and the common belief that the Irish peasantry relied almost exclusively on potatoes at this time suggests the ‘Lumper’ was the variety involved.    

Witness records of this time mention potatoes as the main item in the diet, and quite a few witnesses were more specific about the poor quality of potato that was consumed in their particular area. There is at least one reference to ‘that most unhealthy of vegetables, the lumper potato’, while others include in their statements ‘a bad description of potato called lumper’. Such remarks were often regionally concentrated and, moreover, references to ‘some potatoes of the worst description called Connaught lumpers’. This all seems to point to a sharp east-west distribution of the Lumper.

In an exercise conducted by the ‘Irish Folklore Commission’ in 1945-46, there is mention of several varieties of potato in common use before the Famine. Moreover, we must keep in mind that some potato varieties may well have been known by different names in the different counties. Among the many names given are Green Tops, White Rocks, and American Sailors (Kerry), White Tops (Carlow), Skerry Blues, Red Scotch Downs or Peelers, and White Scotch Downs (Westmeath), Thistlewhippers and Pink Eyes (Cavan), Prodestans (Mayo), Weavers (Down), Leathers and Mingens (i.e. Minions) (Kerry), Cups, Buns, Millers’ Thumbs, and Derry Bucks (Donegal), and Coipíní (Connemara). The Lumper was also mentioned in this exercise, but not often. This evidence would suggest, therefore, that there was a much greater variety than allowed for by the historians.

Although it was claimed that ‘Lumpers suffered more than any other variety (from blight)’ (Anon., 1845), in truth, most pre-Famine potato varieties were blight susceptible, and varieties such as Cups, which were grown by more affluent farmers, never recovered their position post-1847. Meanwhile, the ‘Lumper’ has become doubly notorious in our history as a poor food item in the decades leading up to the Great Famine, and for offering such poor resistance to phytophthora infestans (the blight). And yet, although the ‘Lumper’ was definitely dull fare, it did provide sufficient calories to sustain the peasantry before 1845. The ‘Lumper’ will always be linked to the Great Hunger because of the dominance it had gained in Ireland by the 1840s. But, we should also remember that all the other varieties that were commonly sown at the time also succumbed to the blight. Despite what many think, ‘Phytophthora infestans’ did not disappear after the Irish potato famine in 1840s. It continues to devastate potatoes and tomatoes throughout our world, causing billions of pounds annually in losses and control costs. The ‘Lumper’, meanwhile, has not been commercially cultivated for a long time, although it was still grown in some districts in the 1920s. For the curious there are specimens that survive in a few ‘museum’ collections in Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish Agriculture and Fishery Department’s scientific services in Edinburgh has a rich collection of such varieties.

Around the year 2008 a Northern Ireland potato grower and packer, Michael McKillop, became interested in cultivating the ‘Lumper’ once more. He managed to get some heirloom seeds and set about his task, growing the new ‘Lumpers’ smaller than those of the 1800s. The new ‘Lumpers’ that I have sampled did not taste too bad at all, better in fact than what I had expected. They had a decent flavour to them and a texture that felt a little waxy. With both elements again in play will we have a repeat of the Famine – “And as the report got abroad that the blight had struck again, so did the stench confirming the report. It was a sulphurous, sewer-like smell carried by the wind from the rotting plants in the first-struck places. Farmers who had gone to bed imbued with the image of their lush potato gardens were awakened by this awful smell and by dogs howling their disapproval of it.” (‘Paddy’s Lament, Ireland 1846-1847, prelude to hatred by Thomas Gallagher, 1988, Poolbeg Press Ltd., Ireland.)


Irish Famine

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.”

Irish Famine 3It 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 rackrenting 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.