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 and 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’.

The ‘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.

It 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.)