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Prelude to Famine 2: The Potato
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As was shown in the previous section, the potato gained importance as a crop in Ireland in the period running up to the famine. However, the potato was not a native of Ireland. It had been found by Spanish conquistadors in south America in the 1500s was shipped to Europe, and reached Ireland around 1590. For the next 80 years it was grown in small numbers, mainly in Munster, as a garden crop or stand-by. Farmers found that potatoes could grow double the food in the same land. They also realised that if they planted some of their land with potatoes, they would have enough to eat, and still have land to grow oats or engage in dairying. This surplus could then be sold, allowing the farmers to make money. By 1750, the potato had been acclimatised to the Irish climate and spread into Connaught (where the lazy-bed was invented) and Leninster, where it became the main food for the farm labourers.

The two main problems that were found were (a) potatoes could not be stored for longer than 9 months or so, meaning that there was a lean period in the summer before the new crop was harvested. This was solved by growing a small number of green crops and by feeding scraps to pigs who could be eaten or sold in the summer. (b) potatoes were hard to transport so they developed as a subsistence crop except for the regions near large markets such as Dublin.

In the east, the farmers were converting to tillage (oats, grain) while Ulster's land was turned over to growing flax for the Irish linen industry. Coupled with the growth of Dublin as an urban centre, the potato economy surged and soon many farmers were selling excess potatoes to those food-deficit regions. New potato varieties that yielded even better harvests were introduced: the Apple Potato around 1760 and the Cup Potato around 1800. As Leinster's oat-driven cash-crop economy developed, oats went out of reach for the poorest people of Connaught and Leinster, who became increasingly dependant on the potato.

By the early 1800s, the population had reached such a level (over 8 million by the start of the famine) that many of the farmers and farm labourers became almost wholly dependant on the potato. By the 1830s, 30% to 35% of Irish people depended on the potato as their main source of food. After 1810, another new breed of potato was introduced by farmers in the south-west. Called the Lumper Potato, it required little manure and could tolerate poorer soils. It spread from Munster into Connaught. On the eve of the famine, the Lumper had made inroads into western Leinster, although it had not yet spread into eastern Leinster or Ulster.

Nutritionally, the potato was excellent. If one added milk, it provided enough protein, carbohydrates, energy and minerals to lead a balanced and healthy diet. In 1700, a Connaught farmer would perhaps have eaten one meal with potatoes in a day. By 1800 this had increased to two. As the potato spread, the ability of a farmer to get milk or oats diminished, so many ate little but potatoes. By 1840, a Connaught farmer would have eaten three potato meals a day, containing a total of around 5 to 6kg (12 to 14lb) of potatoes.

In conclusion, on the eve of the famine around a third of Irish people, concentrated in Munster and Connaught, depended on the potato almost exclusively. As it could not be stored or transported well, a new crop had to be grown each year.

> Next > Prelude to Famine 3: Economics >

This section was largely based on the research of Professor Kevin Whelan as published in "The Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997. It was also based on the Irish FAQ on soc.culture.irish.

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