Even if you’re not very familiar with Irish history, you’ve probably heard something about the importance of potatoes in the lives of the Irish. Calling potatoes important is no understatement, and understanding the history helps us get a complete picture of their culinary and cultural importance even today.
The potato was introduced to Ireland in the late 1500s. Believed to be brought back to Europe by Spanish conquerors in South America, they were an attractive crop because of their vitamin, mineral, protein and carbohydrate content. Interestingly enough, humans can actually subsist on potatoes and for quite some time in Ireland, the Catholic poor actually did. In fact, during much of this time, peasants who lived on potatoes were believed to be healthier than the rich, whose food staple was bread.
Potatoes had another attractive benefit to the Catholic poor as they provide a large yield, even when grown in small areas. This was crucial because Penal Laws were introduced to Ireland in the 1660s, placing many restrictions on Catholics living there. Things continued to grow worse, and in the 1660s, the law actually prohibited Roman Catholics from buying land or passing on any land they owned to their heirs. The law was eventually repealed, but with great restrictions, and the next century essentially saw those laws back in full swing, placing the Catholic majority in a very difficult position.
Catholics were now at the mercy of Protestant middlemen to rent them some land. They were crowded into small parcels, faced with the challenge of providing themselves with adequate sustenance. Add to that, the large growth of the Irish population made the potato a crucial element of survival during this period.
Because of the reliance on the potato, the Irish were vulnerable if harvests were poor. That’s exactly what happened in 1740 when cold and wet weather led to the Irish Famine that lasted until 1741. Just over a century later, in 1845, the Great Irish Famine saw potato crops destroyed by a disease called potato blight. During the 7-year famine, it is estimated that 1 million Irish died and another million fled the country. It was a devastating time, and as the country eventually recovered, the potato continued to be Ireland’s staple crop.
Even today, potatoes are still an important part of the Irish diet. They appear in stews, soups, bread and other specialty dishes, such as Irish potato cakes called Boxty, and Colcannon, a cabbage and potato dish. The potato also has a prominent place in culture as it is included in the names of places, literature and art. If you ever travel to Ireland and are treated to some good traditional Irish cuisine, you’ll see that the potato is an essential ingredient to its hearty meals.