Rachel Laudan

Heavy Lifting: The Potato, the Poor, and Pleasure in Ireland

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.


A Potato Dinner. Pictorial Times, February 28, 1846

Potatoes in a skib (basket) ready to be served in front of the hearth.  The pig eyes them as hungrily as the family.  Farm animals continued to share space with humans in the poorer parts of Europe until after World War II. Pictorial Times, February 28, 1846

Heavy Lifting: Growing and Preparing Potatoes

Keeping a cottier’s family in food meant constantly heaving around three heavy, bulky commodities:

  1. the turves (blocks of peat, a wonderful name I’ve just learned) for the fire in the hearth;
  2. the potatoes themselves;
  3. 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.

Rural Interior, Pictorial Times, February 7 1846

Rural Interior. The pot is by the table and a couple of plates are proudly propped up on the table. I assume those are turves drying about the hearth. Pictorial Times, February 7 1846

“Nearly half the rural population still cooked over open floor level hearths until the late 1940’s,” according to Claudia Kinmonth. 

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.

Making Do

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.

Interior. Pictorial Times, February 7 1846.

A family warming themselves around the hearth.  A cradle hangs behind the woman, out of reach of the hens, the pig and the dog.  Pictorial Times, February 7 1846.

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.

Noggins owned by cider master, Mark Jenkinson.

Noggins owned by cider master, Mark Jenkinson. In regular use, they would be scrubbed with sand to keep them clean

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.


An Irish dresser with a fine display of china. http://www.museumsofmayo.com/belcarra/belcarra-dresser.htm

An Irish dresser with a fine display of china. http://www.museumsofmayo.com/belcarra/belcarra-dresser.htm

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

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.





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19 thoughts on “Heavy Lifting: The Potato, the Poor, and Pleasure in Ireland

  1. George Gale

    My father’s mother, Helen Kathleen O’Brien (of the Cork County O’Briens, transported to Canada in the 1850s) told me about “point potatoes”–you’d take your portion of taters, and point at the butter before eating them. That’s all the butter you got!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I’ve heard that as ‘potatoes and point.’ And there is no denying that the Famine was a calamity. Many, like you, have family memories of the Famine, many scholars have studied it since. I am trying to understand the years before there was total destitution among a significant portion of the population.

  2. waltzingaustralia

    Fascinating. I know about the Potato Famine, of course — causes and other countries it hit and why it was worse in Ireland — but I’ve never’t seen this level of detail before, brought together into a full picture. I really love that you consider the pleasure aspect — because the success of feeding one’s family and the pleasure of food when one is truly hungry should not be underestimated — and, as you say, it lends dignity to life.

    One of the things that strikes me, however, is how much closer to that life we are than most people realize. Even in the U.S., pigs ruled the streets of New York City as late as 1910, and animals were needed to pull plows and do work until after World War II. Sod houses, as you note, were common on the Great Plains in the mid- to late 1800s, so not as much of a change for immigrants as one might imagine. Every winter ended with a hungry time, as supplies ran out. Life everywhere was hard, but most especially in rural areas. Hard to realize sometimes that we are, in many cases, only one or two generations away from wood-burning stoves, outhouses, hauling water, and worrying about having enough to eat — and that’s in urban areas of developed countries. In rural areas, it’s easy to find people who grew up with oil lamps and wood-burning stoves, since electricity wasn’t available across the country until the Rural Electrification Project during WW II. And I have friends in London whose houses didn’t have indoor plumbing until after the war, as well.

    So much for which to be grateful — and yet, as you note, how many of us will never have the satisfaction of having a meal that is as deeply satisfying as potatoes eaten after a day of incredibly hard work. That said, given the option, I’ll choose gratitude over that level of hardship.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Really close. I remember being without electricity, without indoor plumbing. And we have forgotten it so quickly.

      1. ganna

        I remember the Potato Winter. Must have been 1992 to 1993. The Republic of Estonia, fresh in its independence, was not too far from a lack of everything. However everyone who bothered to apply got back whatever their grandparents had owned so my uncle got a farm and bravely started out growing potatoes (he was a math professor at a university before the farm caught him. He had never before lived in the country). He is actually doing all right with sheep farming now but his ‘parmentier roots’ he so helpfully gave us were all eyes by Christmas. As for February we do have a fine song in Estonian about that blue bright green light but it refers to space aliens instead of taters.
        And I do remember the wood stoves, the outhouses, the wells, the compost heaps, everything except no electricity. And I will be 45 this February. Imagine the cleaning up after stepping on a huge slug in the outhouse (the well in our yard had rust and salmonella in it. Nevermind, the city pump was just two blocks, one underdeveloped babies orphanage, and a honest to God ghost away. Orphanage with the little Downie faces peering out its windows was the scariest part as Old White the ghost just sat there, never harming anyone).
        I somehow managed to grow up without a TV set at home. Sure I saw a lot of TV at my friends and neighbours but it made me read and think and fall in love with the first computer I owned.
        I sometimes tell my daughters about the time when writing involved typewriters and dialling meant sticking a pen in the right hole and pulling the wheel, and I feel as if I am telling them of dinosaurs. ‘So you could not carry your phone in your pocket? Aw, pull the other one!’

  3. The Millers Tale

    As a long time gardener and allotment holder, I’d also point out that it is very challenging to grow the same crop in the same piece of ground each year. Pests, diseases and nutrient exhaustion occurs, even with liberal applications of fertilisers. They would have needed to rotate, possibly?

  4. Nick Trachet

    As a fish technologist, I wondered after my first visit to Ireland in 1994 how this country was living with its back turned towards the sea. There were hardly any fish mongers and fishers were from outside (lots of Russians in Castletown Bear), and all that was produced was exported.
    There seems to be no fish cuisine with exception of the outer islands such as the Blaskets.
    …on that side, did you read “The Islandman” by Tomás Ó Crohan (1856-1937)

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      As it was explained to me by Mairtín Mac ConIomaire last summer, it was part of the deal with joining the EU. He said that a large proportion of the catch (over half if I remember right) had to be sent to Europe. No, I haven’t read The Islandman but now I’ve added it to my list.

      1. George Gale

        When I stayed with Marjorie Grene (County Wicklowe) in the late 70s, I asked the same thing: “Where’s the fish?” and she said she’d hardly ever seen it available either in markets or restaurants, even in Wicklowe town. IIRC, she said that only the Brits and other non-natives got all the fish.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Interesting. There’s a long history of people close to the sea not eating fish. Sandy Oliver, who knows as much about the history of New England food as anyone, has a long section in Saltwater Foodways on why New Englanders were suspicious of fish, including seeing it as not very nutritious, as of dubious freshness if any distance from the water, and as having bone problems.

          1. Vikram

            South Africa is another example. I remember being puzzled in Durban why fish hardly seemed to feature on local menus, except in restaurants obviously targeting tourists and those had the sort of large prawns and more expensive seafood that could be found in such restaurants around the world (and probably was flown in).

            No examples I could find of local dishes using lesser known native fish, which is what you would find in really fish appreciating cultures – and this despite cold seas close by where there must have been great fishy abundance. I was told by an old South African Indian lady that the Indians relished some of it, specifically the annual sardine harvests, but both black and white South Africans had little taste for fish instead of beef and goat.

          2. Rachel Laudan Post author

            Thanks for more grist for the mill. I’m preparing a post on the oddities of fish eating and this will add a whole new area of the globe.

  5. David

    On the peat bogs: On a recent trip to the Connemara National Park I learned that they were essentially created by prehistoric humans, whose clearing of ancient forests led to drainage problems that caused bogs to form and then expand.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, David. That’s not only useful here but also for a talk I am going to next week. Nice blog by the way. I’ve added it to my RSS feed.

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  7. Vikram

    Rachel, I’m going to risk your displeasure in putting a comment that is really too large, but most of it is from a column I wrote so long back that I can no longer find it online.

    It was an attempt to explain two oddities about potato consumption in India: 1) we grow large amounts of it, but per capita consumption is still a lot below international levels and 2) we tend to eat it as a vegetable, not a starch.

    My speculation links to the Irish Famine, which is why I’m pasting the relevant portion here:

    There are several links between the Irish famine and India. Both countries suffered from British colonial policies, but India was perhaps viewed more favourably because it was exotically different and seemed to promise more. Ireland was too close to home for the British, too familiar to be favoured, and too full of poor people who threatened to swarm into Britain looking for work. It is some measure of the lack of knowledge of India and the callousness with which Ireland was treated that Cecil Woodham-Smith notes in The Great Hunger, her terrific history of the famine, that the Duke of Norfolk suggested “that in place of the potato the Irish should learn to consume curry powder, on which, mixed with water, he appeared to believe the population of India was nourished.”

    India was also full of Irishmen for whom service with the East India Company was one way out of the stagnation of their home. And when Irish soldiers in Calcutta learned about the famine they were the first to raise funds for relief, donating £14,000, a truly huge sum for that time, which shamed the British people into starting half-hearted relief efforts. The official British response though was worse than half-hearted, and proves Amartya Sen’s thesis that famine deaths are caused as much by flawed policies as by crop failures. The British government first created the conditions for famine by exploiting the Irish to the point that its people were forced to become dependent on potatoes; and then when famine came it was reluctant to allow relief because the operation of “natural causes” had to be respected.

    The principal architects of the government’s famine policy were Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary and effective head of the British Treasury, and Sir Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both were reluctant to spend much on relief, and they were committed to Free Trade principles which made them refuse to import grain for fear of undercutting British grain prices. They also refused to stop the export of food from Ireland, because the horrible irony is that this continued throughout the famine (the same was true of the Bengal famine of 1943 which Sen witnessed). It is not surprising that some Irish historians consider Trevelyan and Wood the equivalents of mass murderers, though it’s probably fairer to say that theirs was the wickedness of well-meaning, but arrogant men, too sure of themselves (and perhaps too unsympathetic to the Irish) to admit their mistakes.

    What’s relevant from our point of view is that Trevelyan and Wood also had considerable influence in India. After the Irish Famine the next great crisis for the British Empire was the Indian Rising of 1857 and both men were deeply involved in the transformation of the East India Company’s domains into the British Raj. Wood was Secretary of State for India from 1859-65. Trevelyan, who had started his career in India, spoke several Indian languages and always had an interest in the country became Governor of the Madras Presidency, and then later the Financial Member is the (India) Council, effectively the Finance Minister for India. Woodham-Smith notes that several famines took place in India during his tenure and “his letters reflect a less rigid and more humanitarian attitude than he exhibited in Ireland and his Irish experience may be said to have had a softening effect.”

    It’s easy to imagine though that even if Trevelyan changed his views on famine relief, he is unlikely to have had a positive view of the potato. It’s quite likely that the whole generation of administrators who took over the running of India after 1857 (Trevelyan is credited with creating the Indian Civil Service) were deeply disinclined to promote the planting of the potato as a staple crop. Indians in any case tend to prefer to take their staple starch from grains, though as the experience of tapioca in Travancore shows it is possible to change this with strong support from the authorities. That’s a unique case though and I don’t know of any equivalent Indian potato dish to the kappa (tapioca) biriani that evolved in Kerala, which is the rare Indian starch dish, outside upvaas food, that does not use a cereal for starch. (Readers in Mumbai who want to sample it should go to Medina restaurant in Mahim on Sundays when they make a delicious, though really spicy, beef and kappa biriani).

    When we did take to the potato it was as a vegetable like any other, and not as a staple starch. This is why Indians see no contradiction in eating potatoes and cereals together, although this freaks out Westerners (and dieticians, but that’s another matter). We will happily eat aloo-puri, or aloo-parathas, or rice and aloo-sabzi, or perhaps the most sublime combination, Mumbai’s signature streetfood of vada-pav. Looked at as a vegetable and not a starch staple, then our lower consumption of potatoes is less surprising – and when the ways we consume it are so tasty, who could object?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Again, thank for this Vikram. I had not known of the Irish-Indian connection, at least not in the detail you describe it here. There’s an interesting piece to be written on the overseas Irish, including in the US, and their attitude to Irish food. Oh so much to write about. But back to this. Mexico is another place where the potato is eaten as a vegetable, not as a starch. People often think that because the potato comes from the Americas, traditional Mexican cuisine must include lots of potatoes. Not so. Potatoes were only really promoted in Mexico when the Rockefeller moves in (after leaving China when the Japanese take over). Another interesting quasi-colonial link. Anyway now there are a lot of delicious Mexican potatoes dishes, such as croquetas for Lent or taquitos stuffed with potatoes, but they are there as vegetables or as meat substitutes, not as starch. The one exception in the last few years would be french fries but they are eaten with non-Mexican food such as hamburgers.

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