May 12, 2013 by

How did the potato get to Ireland?

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One of those anachronisms that can trip up an author of medieval fiction is the nature of medieval food. In particular, the potato, a ubiquitous British food these days, comes from the “New World” and didn’t arrive in Britain until after the Spanish conquest.

The potato was carried on to Italy and England about 1585, to Belgium and Germany by 1587, to Austria about 1588, and to France around 1600. Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew. There was so much opposition to the potato that an edict was made in the town of Besancon, France stating:

“In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.”

1588 -An Irish legend says that ships of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, were carrying potatoes and that some of them washed ashore.

1589 – Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), British explorer and historian known for his expeditions to the Americas, first brought the potato to Ireland and planted them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork, Ireland. Legend has it that he made a gift of the potato plant to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated in the matter of potatoes, tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves (which are poisonous), which promptly made everyone deathly ill. The potatoes were then banned from court.


Fortunately, within another 150 years or so, the potato became a staple of European diets, and in fact, is responsible for averting famine in places from Ireland to Iran.

“Up to this time, most of Europe’s carbohydrates and starch came from wheat, which is work-intensive and produces very little food for every acre planted. Think about it: to make bread from wheat, you need to grow a lot of wheat. You then have to harvest it, thresh it, grind it, mix it with a whole bunch of other ingredients, and bake it. To get a comparable amount of food from a potato, you have to grow a potato, dig it up, clean it off, and pop it in the oven. That’s it. Of course, it tastes even better with sour cream and chives.

In 1700, potatoes enabled farmers to grow far more food, with much less work, than any other crop. Across Europe, many farmers switched to potatoes. Because potatoes were so easy to grow, the farmers were able to lay off large numbers of workers. Many of these people ended up moving to the cities, where they provided a huge work force for factories, making cheap manufacturing possible.”

Unfortunately, it became such a common food in Ireland–because the people were so poor and had very little else to eat (thanks to the English domination of the country, among other things), that when the crop failed, it caused widespread starvation.


During the summer of 1845, a “blight of unusual character” devastated Ireland’s potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish “mass of rottenness.” Expert panels convened to investigate the blight’s cause suggested that it was the result of “static electricity” or the smoke that billowed from railroad locomotives or the “mortiferous vapours” rising from underground volcanoes. In fact, the cause was a fungus that had traveled from Mexico to Ireland.

“Famine fever”–cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice–soon spread through the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain and looking “like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones.” Masses of bodies were buried without coffins, a few inches below the soil.

Over the next ten years, more than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter.

The Irish potato famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords. Half of all landholdings were less than 5 acres in 1845.

Irish peasants subsisted on a diet consisting largely of potatoes, since a farmer could grow triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same plot of land. A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year. About half of Ireland’s population depended on potatoes for subsistence.

The inadequacy of relief efforts by the British Government worsened the horrors of the potato famine. Initially, England believed that the free market would end the famine. In 1846, in a victory for advocates of free trade, Britain repealed the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain producers from foreign competition. The repeal of the Corn Laws failed to end the crisis since the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase foreign grain.

In the spring of 1847, Britain adopted other measures to cope with the famine, setting up soup kitchens and programs of emergency work relief. But many of these programs ended when a banking crisis hit Britain. In the end, Britain relied largely on a system of work houses, which had originally been established in 1838, to cope with the famine. But these grim institutions had never been intended to deal with a crisis of such sweeping scope. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.

The Irish Potato Famine left as its legacy deep and lasting feelings of bitterness and distrust toward the British. Far from being a natural disaster, many Irish were convinced that the famine was a direct outgrowth of British colonial policies. In support of this contention, they noted that during the famine’s worst years, many Anglo-Irish estates continued to export grain and livestock to England.”



7 Responses to How did the potato get to Ireland?

  1. Pingback: Melting pots. | Megan knows arse-all about…

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  3. John Cowan

    Here’s some interesting speculation about how things might have looked if it was the Welsh (called Kemrese) who conquered Ireland rather than the English. It’s part of a whole shared universe (no fiction at this point, just encyclopedia-type information) called Ill Bethisad, where the Welsh stay more Roman (and speak a Romance language!), hold off the English somewhat better (though the Three Kingdoms are Federated now), and even have two colonies in the New World, New Castreleon (New York State; the city is New Amsterdam) and Ter Mair (Maryland), both part of the Solemn League and Covenant of North America. Warning: time and attention suck!

  4. John Cowan

    Well, that’s English law for you. Under Welsh law, those who had starved for three days could take enough food to keep themselves alive without legal penalty.