In this long post (you’ve been warned), I’m going to try to imagine the potato cuisine of the Irish poor in the century before the Great Famine of 1845-52.
In part, I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I visited Ireland in the summer of 2016. In part, it’s because the Famine, when one million died of starvation and another million emigrated, together about one in five or one in four of the entire population, looms over nineteenth-century Irish history and over the way Irish food is thought about, at least outside Ireland, so that their everyday food gets overlooked or dismissed as so wretched that the eaters are stripped of their dignity and become mere victims.
Many of the issues about the food of the poor would apply much more widely. Across Europe (and indeed elsewhere in the world) in the eighteenth and first part of the nineteenth century, population was outpacing food supply, the rural poor coming to depend more and more heavily on a staple such as oats, rye, millet, maize or potatoes. To our modern satiated tastes, their cuisines seem desperately restricted.
Worse physicians, scientists, and rulers were at a loss to know what to do to ameliorate the hungry times that occurred every year, and let alone end the famines or near famines that occurred every few years.
In Ireland, for example, according to Louis Cullen, famine or near famine occurred in 1728-9, 1740-41, 1745, 1757, 1783-4, 1800, and 1801.
Besides this, people braced for a hungry time most years when supplies ran down. In the relatively dry north and east, this was the late summer when the dried peas, beans and grains of the previous year’s harvest were nearly exhausted.
In the west, too wet for grains to do well, winter was the hungry time. In the summer, people traditionally depended on buttermilk from the cows that thrived on the plentiful grass for much of their nourishment, storing the butter for the winter. Then milk ran short because the cows went dry, becoming available again in April when the calves were born and the new grass came in.
Potatoes, which could be harvested in August, were first seen as a useful supplementary food that could be used to bridge the late summer and mid winter hungry periods (and to feed pigs).
By shortly before the Famine about a third of the population relied almost entirely on the potato.
At the upper end were farmers who rented thirty or forty acres (to have an idea of the size, roughly ten by ten American blocks) and produced enough to sell grains or butter.
The most desperate, at least along the coast, were those who gathered seaweed to sell for improving the land.
In the middle were cottiers who grew potatoes on half an acre to six or seven acres An acre of potatoes would just about feed a family but half an acre wouldn’t. And it wouldn’t support a cow. And it wouldn’t be adequate to grow oats.
What skills and strength did the cook need to prepare potatoes? How did families make do? And what pleasure did they find in food and eating, because with pleasure comes dignity.
Heavy Lifting: Growing and Preparing Potatoes
Keeping a cottier’s family in food meant constantly heaving around three heavy, bulky commodities:
- the turves (blocks of peat, a wonderful name I’ve just learned) for the fire in the hearth;
- the potatoes themselves;
- and the water to boil the potatoes.
To begin with the peat, trees don’t flourish in the wet, windy Irish climate, so wood was scarce and expensive. Instead, as in Scotland and parts of the West of England, people relied on turf or peat (matted, partially decayed grass and other vegetation). They slept on turf beds, sat on turf benches, lived in turf houses (compare sod houses on the American frontier), and cooked over peat fires. As late as 1939, turf was the sole fuel for 2/3 of the rural poor, stretched eked with dried cow manure and gorse (Kinmonth, 12).
To keep a fire going for a year, a family needed between 24 and 30 cartloads of peat, said the 1814 General Report of the Agricultural State . . . of Scotland. This is not a fixed weight, of course, but depends on the number and size of the horses pulling, the state of the ground, and so on, but each load would be a fair bit of peat.
That peat had to be cut out of the ground. Were families free to cut it from common ground or did they have to pay? And since the poor were unlikely to have a cart or the means to rent one, presumably they dragged the turves home in nets or bags, or on a sled or wheelbarrow.
The turves were best dried for a year, but even if not, storing them out of the rain must have taken up a lot of room.
Second, potatoes were needed in large quantities. A working man could go through 3 to 5 lbs. of potatoes three times a day. His wife, who was also doing heavy work, consumed almost as many, and the (say) three children as much again between them.
In all, that’s between 30 and 40 lbs. of potatoes a day (or between 6 and 8 of the smaller bags of potatoes now available in American grocery stores, or over half a ton of potatoes for the year).
That means a lot of seed potatoes to plant, a whole lot more to dig up, not easy work f particularly without sturdy boots. It’s also a whole lot of potatoes to store. Were they stored in sacks, in baskets, or in a “clamp” covered with earth, or piled up in a dark room or shed or lean-to?
It’s also a lot of muddy potatoes to clean every day. Did the housewife carry them to the stream or the well to wash them? Did she immerse them in a basket? Did she rub them clean with hands chapped in cold winter weather? Did she cut out the eyes, particularly as the year wore on and the potatoes started to sprout?
Third, the round iron cooking pot held up to 18 or 20 gallons of water (Kinmonth, 25). Obviously the pot was not filled with water because there had to be room for the potatoes, but just one gallon of water weighs eight lbs. Did the wife take the round iron pot to the stream or well to fill it with water? Or did she use a bucket to fill it up.
The pot with water and potatoes–a heavy load–had to be hoisted over the fire. If the hearth was in the middle of the floor, this meant leaning over the fire to hook it on the the pot hook at the end of a chain attached to the roof. Tricky and potentially dangerous. If the hearth was against a wall, as in the somewhat more prosperous dwellings, a swinging arm attached to the wall made the task a little easier.
Once the potatoes were cooked, more heavy lifting was required to get the pot off the fire and the potatoes strained.
Potatoes alone are not enough, even for those families who could grow sufficient to feed themselves. They also needed some some cash to buy salt, the few pieces of furniture, the clothing. Based on what I have read, I imagine a variety of strategies.
Perhaps the husband worked as a day laborer on larger farms. Perhaps the wife spun linen or wool or made fishing nets. Perhaps she kept a few chicken in the house and sold their eggs. Or sold bacon once the pig had been slaughtered and salted. Or perhaps the farm was large enough that some potatoes or milk or butter or oats could be sold.
Perhaps one or more of the daughters worked as a dairy maid on a larger farm or as a live in maid for a lawyer or doctor in one of the small towns. Perhaps the sons went off to the cities in search of work, giving part of their earnings to the family. Even the smaller children helped with the babies, the animals, and small chores.
The secondhand market would have supplied clothing, perhaps the iron pot as well. And if it the pot leaked, the tinker mended pots, just as a cobbler mended boots. Mending pots was a skilled occupation. ( Interestingly Irish tinkers used a method very similar to Chinese tinkers, a point made to me some years ago by the historian of metallurgy, Don Wagner. If you scroll through the link, you will find a reference to the Irish method at the end. I assume the Irish and the Chinese invented this technique independently. Diffusion from one end of Eurasia to the other seems unlikely).
The diet could be varied in ways that seem small to us but not to the diners: a little butter instead of buttermilk, fresh greens in early summer, some cabbage much of the year.
Potatoes could be cooked only so that the center stayed firm. The “bone” helped fill the stomach and ward off hunger longer. The meal chest was locked to prevent theft, then opened after St Patrick’s Day, when the potatoes that had matured the previous August were becoming going soft and sprouting. Then, once the oats had been ground on with a hand rotary mill or quern, they were cooked with plenty of filling water to make stirabout (porridge).
The Pleasure of Eating Potato Cuisine
So when the eaters sat on stools or on three-legged chairs that stayed stable on the beaten earth floor, balancing a flat basket (skib) containing the potatoes on their touching knees, what pleasure did they take?
They would have appreciated the warmth of the hearth, turning first one side, then the other of their body to face the glowing turves, wet clothes steaming, fingers and toes itching as the circulation returned to the chilblained toes and fingers. There was the warmth of other bodies, even of the animals, all of this a contrast to the raw wet cold outside. The potatoes warmed their hands and their stomachs.
Hungry from heavy work in a way that few modern city dwellers ever are, they enjoyed the food in a way that is now limited to those like hikers who exclaim how nothing tastes better than food cooked over a camp stove.
Dipping their potatoes into the wooden noggin in the center of the skib, they had a taste of a quality of buttermilk that even the richest among us would find hard to rival. In late summer, the new first new potatoes, meltingly creamy, would have been of a quality that only those who have their own gardens or fields now have access to. Supermarket “new” potatoes are not new at all.
The wooden noggin was a little masterpiece of craftsmanship, made to be quite watertight even though no metal or glue was used (to my untrained eye the interlocking ledged fingers of the ash band that held the little barrel together looks similar to that of Shaker boxes). A few pieces of “ware,” delft or cream ware or the newly affordable decorated china turned out in the potteries of England was a sign of status. For the more fortunate, there was even a dresser, not the modern bedroom furniture, but a piece with a cupboard below, open shelves above. I’m English, not Irish, but my father’s wedding present to my mother was a dresser and it remained with her until the day of her death, serving both to store and show off china that was the symbol of respectability.
And not every day was a work day. As the year rolled round, there might have been a harvest supper, some extras handed out a shopkeeper at Christmas, a bit of bacon for Shrove Tuesday, and the local fair, with its companionship, and with contact with a wider world, and some poteen (poitín) to lift the spirits.
Sources for Potatoes and the Poor in Ireland
- For the dwellings, cooking, and eating implements, Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Rural Interiors in Art (Yale University Press, 2006).
This is a stunning book and the source of most of what I have here. Claudia Kinmonth searched high and low in journals, in post card collections, in museums, and in country houses for images of rural interiors between 1820 and 1920. In her book, she reproduces 320 images (I shudder just thinking about the work and money that went into getting permissions). While each image reflects the perspective of the artist or the photographer, taken together a collective picture emerges. I’d love to have scanned them in, but don’t want to run into any copyright problems. Would that there were books like this for other regions.
- For the noggin. Claudia Kinmonth, Revolution in the Farmhouse Kitchen: Modernization and the Irish Noggin, a Wooden Vessel for Food and Drink.
- For cutting peat, transporting, storing, and building the fire.
- For the second hand market, Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth Century England (Cambridge, 2013). Not on Ireland, obviously, but illuminating.
- For an account of what it’s like to farm in Ireland’s cool, wet climate today, the Food and Farm Discussion Lab with Thomas Duffy of County Cavan, Ireland.
- An overview and bibliography of Irish food history.
- For rounding out the picture of rural life by describing small town professionals (newspaper proprietors, priests, lawyers and doctors) and large landowners during the Famine, Ciarán Ó Murchadha, Figures in a Famine Landscape (2016). Unsettling.
- For changes in the Irish diet prior to the famine, including the commercialization of Irish agriculture, Louis M. Cullen, “Population Growth and Diet, 1600-1850” in J.M. Goldstrom and L.A. Clarkson eds, Irish Population, Economy and Society (Oxford, 1981).
- For the practical difficulties and health problems of maize (American corn) as a famine food, Margaret Crawford, “Indian Meal and Pellagra in Nineteenth Century Ireland” in the same volume.
- For the Famine from the perspective of Irish food history, L.A. Clarkson and M. Crawford, Feast and Famine: A History of Food and Nutrition in Ireland, 1500-1920 (Oxford, 2002).
- For more on the Famine, Ciarán Ó Murchadha, The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-52 (2011).
- For an analysis of the Famine from different perspectives, Corman O’Grada, Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton, 2000).
- For an overview of the discussion of famines over the past forty years, this blog post on the economic discussion about famine.
- For a January 2017 conference on famines, the University of Turku, Finland “Explaining Famines, Defining Responsibilities.”