It is one of the strangest twists of fate that Ireland will forever be associated with the potato, an alien vegetable that was adopted as a staple food within fifty years after it was introduced to the land. This humble vegetable was eventually to become a great influence in the course of Ireland's history.
Legend has credited Sir Walter Raleigh with the introduction of the potato to Europe, though there are doubts in scientific circles as to whether there is any truth behind the claim. It is possible, however, that he did introduce the vegetable to Ireland. One expedition which he financed landed in County Kerry, in October, 1587, on the return from a long journey across the Atlantic. Many strange botanical specimens were brought back from the New Land, and the potato could easily have been one of them.
At first in Ireland there were doubts as to the value of the potato as a food. Some said that the root was not for eating because it was not mentioned in the Bible; others said that it caused leprosy and encouraged flatulence. Others however, notably doctors, claimed that the potato could heal just about everything and prescribed it where and when they had the slightest chance.
Eventually, it was the potato itself that won universal acceptance. It was a food the eventually flourished and brought many customs into being. It became the usual practice to plant potatoes on Good Friday.
It was not long before the bulk of the Irish people were growing potatoes, and more and more did they come to rely on it as a staple food. By the end of the sixteenth century much of Ireland had been laid waste by the harrying and burning of homesteads of crops and of cattle under Mountjoy, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The people as a result were starving. To sow their usual crops (corn, wheat or barley) was to invite their destruction. But, in the potato, an item which was easy to prepare; a farmer would feed himself, his household and his livestock, and it could be cultivated and stored in a manner that escaped detection. As the years passed into the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish poor found themselves more and more dependent on the potato. Thus, as potato famine of 1845 drew nearer, there was nothing to relieve poverty and misery that followed.
We’ll end on that happy note. For the Celtic Cultural Alliance, I’m Silagh White. Slainte.