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.)

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?”

There 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.