Ireland’s Potato Culture


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Ireland was traditionally a pastoral country, it’s people for generations generally kept cattle. With the sharp increase in population, people had to turn more and more to the cultivation of land. No one knew exactly when potatoes came to Ireland, but they seemed to flourish even in the wettest conditions, once the drainage and fertilizer was applied. By the eighteenth century potatoes had become the staple diet of the poor people of Ireland. Potatoes do not keep from season to season and due to their bulk they were expensive to transport which made them not readily saleable, so they were generally grown by the poorer families for their own consumption. Poorer people were forced out of the cash economy and lived from hand to mouth from one season to the next.  Potatoes can provide a person with all the necessary carbohydrates and protein needed for a day, Buttermilk provided the poor with the fats and vitamin A which was the only serious deficiency. Arthur Young an Englishman who toured Ireland in the 1770’s reported :


(1)    A working man would eat 14lb (6.5kg) of potatoes a day.

(2)    A family with 4 children would consume 5 tons of potatoes per annum with any excess going to the pigs or chickens.

(3)    An acre of manured land yielded roughly 12 tons of potatoes.


By the 1830 and 40’s landless labourers or cottiers were having to feed their large families on as little as a quarter of an acre. The cottier would work for a lease holding farmer for a notional wage which would in turn, would allow the cottier to build a cabin and live off the rented land on a small plot. Sometimes the labourer would live on waste land and rent a plot of land as a conacre ( a yearly lease of ground on which to grow potatoes. The soil was often manured in advance by the farmer and would be reclaimed by him once the potatoes were harvested. Poor people preferred conacre, because the rent was due in November after the potato harvest, if the crop failed the cottier wouldn’t have to pay the farmer. In the same way the farmer disliked conacre for the same reason. Conacre rents were frequent in Connacht, while the cottier system was more common in Munster and Leinster.

IrishPotatoFamine Farmers On a Field

Access to land was easier in Ireland than in other parts of Europe. This meant that poorer people could start their homes and sustain themselves on potatoes very easily, this was a contributing factor to the dramatic increase in the Irish population. These arrangements suited the farmers, the more subdivisions in the land the more they were paid by the labourers, The poorest people were paying for the livelihood of the farmers. The farmers were allowed put their own valuation on labour. Rents in Ireland were far cheaper than England but wages were also far lower.

Unlike grain there was no way of holding over a supply of food from one season to another, the cottier had nothing to fall back on in a lean year. Oftentimes the family pig would be given to the farmer in lieu of rent, meat was a great luxury in Irish families. During times of prosperity there were a whole range of potatoes like cups, apples or pinkeyes, but generally the poorer people relied on lumpers. Lumpers were late maturing but would not last beyond May. This left the poorer Irish people always in want through the summer months, they were obliged to supplement there food any way they could. During the spring months the poor labourer would have to leave the house to work abroad or on other farms. Oftentimes the wife and children would have to beg for food at this time. Much of the wealthy English gentry would precieve this begging as fecklessness and well deserved for the stupid Irish people who were too lazy to get food for themselves. It is true that in a good year the poorer Irish people (who were relient on the potato for survival) could exist with a little surplus for livestock, but they were always tethering on the borderline of starvation. Everything seemed to be relying on the success of the potato crop. Between 1815 and 1842 there was  fourteen complete or partial crop failures in different locations of Ireland.

Joseph Sabine (1770–24 January 1837) was an English lawyer, naturalist, and writer on horticulture. He wrote that the potato was vulnerable to “casualty and season,” he also made a prediction: “a general failure of a year’s crop, whenever it shal become the chief or sole support of a country, must inevitably lead to the misery of famine, more dreadful in proportion to the number exposed to its ravages.”

The Third Earl Of Rosse in the Kings County (County Offaly), in 1843 also predicted the famine. he disallowed anymore sub-division of his land, he recommended that the younger emigrate and he offered his tennants compensation and education.

The Duke Of Wellington had the same observations in 1838. He could see the crop failure having a devistating affect.

Why then did everyone keep going ?

One important issue was that the potato crop had never failed for two years in a row. The poor were supported by the authorities during the single bad years, just enough support to keep them growing until the next crop arrived. Fundamentally the Irish Poor were reliant on the potato crop. The Government had a limited view of their responsibilities. The government held a Poor Enquiry in 1835 and together with a census  in 1841 they had a clearer picture of the extent  of Irish Poverty.

  • Half of Irish Farmers were less than 5 acres
  • Two Fifths of the populstion lived in 4th class accommodation.
  • 4th class accommodation was one room cabin built of mud.
  • Families often slept on straw or bare earth usually sharing with livestock
  • Middle classes underestmated the amount of time spent on survival. Turf/Potatoes etc

It was agreed that something must be done about the poor Irish without upsetting the powerful vested interest of the Landlords and gentry.

Ploughing the Fields IrishPotatoFamine

The Government decided to modernise agriculture in the first half of the 19th century, however, in order to do this the land must have been cleaned of tenancy. With no other means of survival the northern Protestant tenants and the Presbyterian Scottish decendants emigrated to United States and the provinces of British North America. In the United States there were frontier lands where farmers could buy at low prices. The “Ulster Custom” allowed tenants to sell back their tenancy gave emigrants enough money to start their new life. Embedded Catholics from the west and South of Ireland felt very different, especially Gaelic-Speaking areas. These people clung to their pieces of well tilled land with despiration, they were rooted to the lands of their country and didn’t give up those roots easily. During the Nepoleonic wars in the early 19th century English Merchants found that getting access to traditional timber supplies in the Baltic more difficult. They instead turned to North America. Cheap timbers were floated down to Primitave shipyards in towns like Saint Johns and Chathnam. Crude Ships were built there to carry timber across the Atlantic. They called these vessles ‘Coffin Ships’ because they were thrown together and notoriously liable to sink.  As the timber trade florished it was a one way system, then a shipping agent had a clever idea, by filling up the returning ships with poore emigrants to supply the colonies with more labourers to open up the American wilderness.

Since the ban of slave trading in England in 1807 the shipping companies had lost a lot of money, by mid 1840′s the trade of paying Irish Catholics were already more profitable than the timber trade. The departure of the Irish Catholics was perilous and in many cases the emigrants wouldn’t return, the departure was treated like a death and was celebrated by the community like a wake an ‘American Wake’.

In order to keep the legions of poor Irish people off the streets the Government brought in  the Poor Law Act of 1838. The starving poor Irish couldn’t get a free meal. Workhouses were built, wherby the poorest people needed to prove that they had no other means of support. These workhouses were run by a Master and Matron. Once inside the Workhouses the families were split into seperate Male, Female and Childrens sections. The poor were deprived of their own clothing and their identity. Families only met at sunday chapel any other attempt to meet would have sever reprocussions like a flogging or solitary confinement. Workhouses were proportional to the size of the surrounding community and were only ever intended to house 1% of the poor or 100,000 people, the Government were in fear of supporting a welfare state.

A was intended by the government the poor hated the Union Workhouses and would only go there if they were desperate. Three quarters of the Workhouses were empty before the Irish Potato Famine, the worst thing was the Workhouses themselves represented failure by a family to provide food for themselves.

In 1838 Lord George Hill  the protestant son of a wealthy Down farmer bough up poor land in Gweedore in Donegal. Lord George changed the ancestral traditions of the locals. The people were practically free of a cash economy and in the summer the young would migrate to the mountain pastures woth their cattle, a custom known as boulay. The children were naked wretches that wore ‘filthy rags’ were ‘disgusting to look at’, would faint with hunger regularly and were on the brink of starvation; an observation made by Patrick Mc Kay in his travel journal. Of the 9000 people who lived in the parish they had only one cart, one plough and thirty two rakes between them. The Farms were so small that four to ten farms could be harrowed with one rake, most of the work was done with  spades.

Lord George Hill was determined to change  ancient customs and traditions, he identified key problem issues and put plans in place to increase his own wealth as well as improving the lifestyle of the poorest farmers.  He did learn to speak  Gaelic so he could speak to the poor people, then he set in motion a series of rules for change. Lord George precieved a shortage of drains (not land), he built a quay to allow trading from ships, he encouraged  the women to knit and sell their wears he also bought hides butter and grain for a store he set up. Hills tenants resisted the changes but were eventually bullied into changing their old traditions to make way for new methods and ways of farming. He forced the people to stop grazing their cattle on the mountains so that he could graze his sheep there, he forced his tenants to go to a Protestant church that he built, but they resisted.  Hill initially was paid £472 for 700 farms but after the changes he was receiving £1100. Hills work was admired in London but Landlords but was disliked by tennants. He had managed to change the culture and ways of the ancient Irish traditions for profit, he had brought his tennants and the poor into the cash economy.

On the plus side, during the Irish Potato Famine many of the poor under Hills tenancy survived, in the Dunfanaghy Union Workhouse where Hill was chairman of the Board of Guardians the number of people increased. Hill did put his own money to feed the poor as well as campaing to London for more food for the poor.