Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

Humble spud is great survivor of a horrible history

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

I began harvesting new potatoes towards the end of May and while they cropped heavily they are waxy as opposed to floury and not to my liking.

The variety is Lady Christl, which is a genuine 'first early', but they taste more like 'new' spuds from Cyprus or Italy.

I have been told that waxy potatoes are considered to be English, whereas the floury spud that tastes better than almost anything else when taken with a big knob of butter and some salt is known as an Irish potato.

This just further confirms our superiority to the Brits in all culinary matters!

This year, with frost in early May and almost constant wet since then, growing under cover has proved its worth and I now grow all the early veg and salad crops in the polytunnel where it is always summer and where the wind and rain cannot reach.

As I write, rain is still pouring down, hay and silage making are virtually impossible and a nearby dairy farmer told me his land was too wet to even take out a tractor to top his paddocks.


Blight is also becoming a problem and I well remember many years ago the annual chore of spending long and monotonous hours walking up and down potato drills with a heavy knapsack sprayer covering the leaves and, of course, myself with bluestone. That copper sulphate mix has since been banned.

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The weather we are enduring this year is nothing compared to that suffered by our forefathers. The mild rain of 1845 brought the previously unknown disease of potato blight and the great famine that followed saw more than a million people die of starvation while a further million fled the country on famine ships.

We all know of that infamous episode in our history, but few are familiar with the earlier Irish famine of 1740-1741 which brought similar hunger and hardship, not as a result of blight but because of the severe cold and rainy weather in preceding years which caused poor harvests followed by outbreaks of fatal diseases. The Great Frost, as it was called, killed the potato, which along with oatmeal, were the two main food sources in rural Ireland.

To make things worse, blizzards swept along the east coast in late October 1740 bringing heavy snow which returned several times in November.

A massive downpour of rain followed on December 9, causing widespread flooding. The temperature then plummeted, more snow fell and rivers froze.

Warmer weather then followed the cold snap and after a brief thaw, great chunks of ice moved down the river Liffey through the heart of Dublin, overturning light vessels and causing larger vessels to break anchor.

By December 1740, signs were growing that a full-blown famine had arrived.

Potatoes left in the ground were frozen and could not even serve as seed for the next growing season.


The following spring the expected rains did not come, and though the frost dissipated, the temperatures remained low and the northerly winds fierce.

Severe drought then killed off livestock, particularly sheep in Connacht and by the end of April, most of the tillage crops sown the previous autumn had died.

Grain became so scarce that as a major concession, the Catholic Church in Ireland allowed their flock to eat meat four days each week during Lent but few could afford to purchase it.

Some potatoes that had been pitted survived however and despite these disasters, they again became popular. They were the staple diet of the poor especially as, unlike corn, they could not be burnt by marauding soldiers.

Potatoes were first introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 1500s and by 1650 they were widely grown in Ireland and that famous traveller, Mrs Delany, noted in her letters in the late 1700s that the Irish peasantry were the best fed in Europe due to none other than the humble spud.

The great famine of the 1840s followed and it wasn't until 1882 that copper sulphate was discovered as a prevention for blight. This was, of course, too late for the millions that starved or emigrated.

It all puts into perspective the calls we hear these days from the looney left for an end to austerity. What austerity?

They should enjoy their spuds and educate themselves with a spot of Irish history.

Indo Farming