More than a potato
March 17, 2011By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
When clouds lift over Ireland, it’s as if God Almighty flips a switch; illuminating emerald, sapphire and diamond jewels of landscape. Grainy images of fields, sea, and countless sheep assume crisp color and clarity. Soggy boots matter no more.
Hiking along the Dingle Peninsula on Ireland’s southwestern coast, my family visited abandoned 19th century stone cottages, ancient circles of stone and promontory forts jutting over jagged Atlantic cliffs. Blood-red bleeding hearts lined our path, dripping with dew or raindrops. We walked deliberately, taking care to avoid thick, black, Harry Potter-esque slugs, fat as a Castro cigar.
Balintaggart House, a hunting lodge built in 1703 and transformed into a cozy hostel, provided clean and comfortable accommodations. We shared the communal kitchen with other families and a group of students from France. Rhythms of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” reverberated amid pots and pans as a French-accented youth sang, “We don’t need no education…,” while chopping vegetables. Our daughter formed fast friendships with Tawnya and Fionn, friendly Irish kids, as they swatted balls across a ping pong table.
Balintaggart House served as a soup kitchen during The Great Hunger (aka the Irish Potato Famine). The exterior courtyard revealed an enormous cauldron – a relic of the Famine – perched in a corner. My daughter and I role-played cooking and serving of soup for hungry tenant farmers as I tried to relate the tragic consequences of widespread crop failures.
St. Patrick’s Day seems like an appropriate time to reflect on this aspect of Irish history. While some may enjoy green beer or corned beef, I’m opting to focus on the humble, yet very significant, potato.
Ireland was formally annexed to the United Kingdom in 1801 under the Act of Union. This small nation experienced explosive growth in the first four decades of the 19th century. Population jumped from 4 million to 8 million – an expression of dire poverty. Ireland’s predominant Roman Catholicism compounded its stepchild status in the Kingdom. This religious majority sustained and was substantially beaten down by centuries of Penal Laws imposed by the British. Access to education, land ownership and military service – traditional paths toward upward mobility – were hindered or blatantly denied. Land parcels of any significance remained firmly in the hands of British or Anglo-Irish families, most of whom resided in England.
Irish peasants toiled as tenant farmers, squeaking out a subsistent existence while raising crops and livestock for export to Mother England. Landowners collected their revenues – in the form of cash and food product. England’s hearty appetite for beef consumed vast swaths of fertile farmland. Raising cattle is far more resource intensive than growing crops for human consumption. It did not matter. The British felt entitled to their roasts with Yorkshire Pudding.
Small patches of land available to tenant farmers were too scant to support significant livestock. Potatoes were planted for their resilience as a crop and its ability to weather winter storage in dank root cellars. Flavor is a secondary consideration when one is threatened by hunger.
Although Ireland’s potato crop experienced earlier blights, the succession of widespread crop failures from 1845 – 1852 dealt a deathly blow to the Irish. The plant disease, Phytophthora infestans, transformed flowering fields of potatoes to rotting blackness. Annual harvests were lost. Precious seed potatoes for the next planting season suffered similar fates.
Massive food exports to England continued. British Parliament watched with a casual eye, tossing a few occasional crumbs, as the Irish people suffered. Tenant farmers, unable to pay rent, experienced wholesale evictions. Displaced families and individuals flowed into cities in search of food and shelter from soup kitchens and workhouses. Disease and malnutrition extracted an enormous toll. Desperate, orphaned and approaching hopelessness, thousands upon thousands boarded so-called “coffin ships,” vessels of questionable seaworthiness pointed towards England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, and the United States.
An estimated 1.4 million Irish citizens died during the Famine, and an estimated 1.4 million emigrated in a desperate search for survival.
I am not of Irish descent, and yet, I harbor a special affinity for the small nation which, for centuries, lived within the shadow of a powerful and aggressive neighbor. I consider the many Vermonters I know with Irish blood flowing through their veins and wonder which, if any, are direct descendants and beneficiaries of that desperate migration.
Enjoy corned beef, Irish soda bread, Guinness, green beer, and that humble potato. Raise a mug or tea cup to the courage and resilience of a nation that found a way to persevere.