Potatoes in Ireland in the 1700s

Ireland was different to England and Europe - they accepted the potato as a field crop in the 1600s, and in the 1700s it was a staple diet, eaten by rich and poor. It was first grown as a field crop in county Wicklow. At this time the main food was oats but potatoes made a good backup, especially in poor grain years.

The climate - wet and warm - was very suitable. Before 1845, the main European potato disease was Curl. This stunted the foliage and stopped the potatoes swelling, decreasing yields by up to 75%. Like many plant diseases it was carried by aphids, and it spread from Europe to England but Ireland remained mainly untouched.

Ireland's mildness of climate favoured the European potato. This type grew lots of foliage and flowered in the summer (long daylight hours) but didn't start growing tubers until daylight shortened to 12 hours. Over the centuries, the European plant gradually evolved to allow earlier harvest, but the true early bearers belonged to a different (long-day) subspecies.

Another reason that potatoes became popular in Ireland was the style of meals adopted there. The dwellings were relatively small, and the typical peasant cabin was not a place suitable for complex cooking. A meal of potatoes needed only digging, washing and either boiling or roasting in embers. Peeling took place at the dinner table. They could even be cooked safely by a person with no culinary skill, or by children.

Edward Wakefield travelled through Ireland from 1809 to 1811. He reckoned that each member of a potato-consuming family ate about 5.5 pounds each day. This figure included young children who couldn't eat as much.

In the 1770s a cultivar called the Irish Apple caught on quickly. It was famous for its floury consistency when boiled.

The famine of 1728-29 (which killed thousands) came about because the oat crop failed, and potatoes couldn't make up the difference. A more severe famine occurred in 1740-1, when an unusually cold winter froze stored potatoes (they were kept in pits, outside) and the oat crop also failed. Entire villages were wiped out by starvation and disease. About ten percent of the population died ( around 200,000-400,000). Nothing like this happened again until the Great Famine in the mid-1800s.

(I have written this after reading a chapter in "The Potato", by Larry Zuckerman - a fascinating history of the potato running to 300 pages and published by Macmillan, London) N.D.

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