The potato, (Word comes from Spanish word Patata ) was to the Irish, before the Great Famine and indeed still is, the most universally useful of foods. In days gone by, pigs, fowl and cattle were fed by boiling or serving raw the small tubers useless for the kitchen table. However the potato does have drawbacks, for example it does not keep perfectly from season to season.
For this reason the ‘growing‘ months of June, July and August used to be called the “meal months” or the “hungry months” when meal would have to be bought for consumption instead. The peasant Irish class had to buy this meal, usually on credit, in their towns and villages, from dealers, the hated “Gombeen Men“. The peasant class each year sowed their potato seed with a certain anxiety. There had been 24 failures of the potato crop between 1728 and 1844. These failures were brought about by vagaries in the weather, e.g. dry rot, frost, etc. which had in the past caused great hardships, but nothing to what they would experience between 1845 and 1848.
The potato is one of the cheapest foods on which a human being could keep alive and healthy. It contains most of the necessary vitamins e.g. Vitamin C 45%, Thiamin 10%, Niacin 8%, Vitamin B6 14%, Folacin 14%, Panthothenic Acid 6%, Phosphorous 6%, Magnesium 12%, Iron 9%. There was one exception, vitamin A, but the latter was obtained by the drinking of milk or buttermilk. The Irish peasant had wisely chosen the potato as his stable diet. With just one acre of potatoes he could feed a family of 5 adequately for 1 year, and thatch his 14ft x 10ft, (the latter however never with much long term success) one roomed mud cabin. With an acre of wheat or oats he could only expect to feed a family of 2 or 3, for about 10 months.
At meal time then the usual garnish with the potato was simply salt, washed down with water or buttermilk. Some men, to assist in removing the skin from the potato, grew the thumb nail on their right hand especially long and hooked for this purpose.
There were several varieties of potato sowed in Ireland at this time:- Rocks, Cups, Skerry Blues, Codders, Thistlewhippers and Minions to name but a few varieties. The variety ‘Rocks‘ were known as ‘Protestants‘ because they were first introduced by the protestant land owners.
By the mid 1840′s previous variety diversity disappeared and mainly two cultivars, Cups and Lumpers were being grown, with the Lumpers predominating and said to be the most prolific, but the worst tasting. Then in 1845 the blight or Phytopthora infestans fungus landed in Ireland from South America, just as a season of warm damp weather also hit. The result for the Irish people, was disaster. The ‘Lumpers‘ variety consisted of only 16% dry matter, the rest water. Popular varieties bred today, consist of 20% to 24% dry matter.
Only a spade called a ‘Loy‘ was needed for the primitive method of cultivation practised. The potato was laid on the ground and earthed over with clay from trenches on either side forming ‘Lazy Beds‘ as they were called. This suited the moist climate of Ireland, with the trenches providing drainage. When land became scarce, it allowed the growing of potatoes in bogs as well as on mountain slopes where no other cultivation could take place. Pre-famine times saw potatoes in abundance. People did not know what to do with their surplus stocks and anecdotes are told of potatoes unsold in market being dumped into ditches or cut up and used as manure.
The varieties known as ‘Cups‘, ‘Scotch Downs‘ and ‘Lumpers‘ are usually those said to have failed causing ‘The Great Famine’.
A rhyming dialogue between the `Scotch Down,` and the ‘Champion,’ the latter imported into Ireland as a strong seed potato after the famine, reads:-
“You dirty clown”, says the Scotsdown,
How dare you me oppose!
Twas I supported Ireland
When you dare’nt show your nose.
Outspoke the noble Champion
With courage stout and brave:
Only I happened to sail over here
There’d be thousands in their graves“.
When the blight struck in 1845 there was but slight alarm at first. Panic however later spread quickly as whole fields were laid waste in a few hours. People who had gone to bed, leaving fields green as holly, awoke to find them black as soot or to see a brown swath of decay spreading rapidly from field to field. This was combined with the heavy smell of decay as the potato pits sagged. This peasant class now blamed ‘static electricity‘ caused by the recent introduction into the Irish countryside of trains for the first time, as the cause of “This Great Calamity.”
Now the potato, whose surplus, a short time previously men had despised, became a prized possession. In Spring, now, for the next few years, in order to stretch out the seed , the ‘eye’ of the potato with a small part of the ‘flesh’ only adhering to it , would be picked out with a goose quill to be planted while the rest would be hungrily eaten.
The lesson of thrift, which this time of scarcity taught, was to be remembered a century later when old people would burst into tears at the sight of a good dish of flowery potatoes.
It would be discovered, to late for the Irish nation, that the Blight could be prevented by spraying the potato crop with a mixture of copper sulphate and lime or washing soda.