A 2016 survey revealed that to people who have never visited Ireland, potatoes are the food they first think of when asked about “Irish food and drink”. Why is Irish culture so strongly linked to the potato? Is there an actual basis for this assumption or is it just some crazy Irish stereotype?
How the potato came to Ireland
Potatoes were originally found in what is now South America. They were first brought over to Europe by Spanish conquistadors around 1570. As far as Ireland is concerned, there is a widespread belief that Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to bring over the crop. However, historical evidence for this is seriously lacking. It is found to be highly improbable for a couple of different reasons.
The story goes as follows: Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potatoes to Ireland after his return from Virginia in the late 16th century. However, there is no evidence that he ever was in Virginia himself, and even if it were found to be true, the origin of the potato could not have been in North America, as they were only introduced there from the Andes in the 18th century. This confusion was further exacerbated by the misidentification of all sorts of different roots found during this period as potatoes in the English language.
In reality, there is no consensus among historians about who is actually responsible for its introduction to Ireland, although it is believed to have been introduced around the 1590s. An introduction from England should not be ruled out. However, some suggest that the most probable explanation is actually that it was brought to Ireland from Spain, or that a Spaniard was responsible for it, based on the fact that it was often referred to as An Spáinneach or An Spáinneach Geal – meaning literally ‘the white Spaniard’.
Overall, it seems that the most commonly told story about the introduction of the potato to Ireland is but a myth and the truth may never be uncovered. However, what is known for a fact is that following its arrival in Ireland, due to a multitude of factors – including optimal soil conditions and its nutritious properties – it became a staple crop. By the 18th century, around half the population had come to depend almost exclusively on the potato for their diet, which would ultimately lead to the greatest famine in 19th century Europe.
The Great Hunger (1845-1850)
The Potato Famine is one of the best known events in Irish history and the most likely reason for people’s association of this country with the potato. It began in 1845, after the accidental arrival of a strain of Phytophthora infestans from North America which caused potato crops to fail over the course of a few consecutive years.
In the first year, the blight caused much of that year’s crop to fail. And as Ireland was occupied by the British during this time, the population was highly dependent on a response by Queen Victoria and the British parliament for aid. Although there were initial efforts to offset the growing problems of the potato blight by making other foods more accessible to the Irish, these proved insufficient. Thousands died from starvation, and hundreds of thousands more died from diseases caused by malnutrition. In the following years, the problem only worsened and the crop was almost entirely destroyed by the blight.
Photo: Niall Coen
The consequences of the Famine would shape the course of Irish history and culture. During this time, the population in Ireland dropped by more than 2 million – from almost 8.4 million in 1844 to 6.6 million by 1851. About 1 million died due to starvation and disease, and another million emigrated – mostly to America and to Great Britain – in search of a better life.
This trend of emigration continued for decades even after the Famine ended. Many of the people emigrating were young Irish families who saw their futures elsewhere. This explains why, by the time Ireland achieved independence in 1921, the population had halved compared to the early 1840s. Moreover, this period was also linked to a steady decline in the use of the Irish language. It was in the West of Ireland – where Gaelic was used the most – that the Famine hit the hardest.
Today, there are a number of different monuments and museums one can visit to learn more about the Great Famine. In Cobh, County Cork, you can learn the story of Annie Moore, who became the first ever Irish immigrant to pass through federal inspection on Ellis Island. Or visit the National Famine Museum at Strokestown, in Roscommon, and the The Famine Memorial in Dublin.
The potato today
To this day, the potato has remained a staple of the Irish diet. Whether it be mashed, roasted, sautéed, or even added to a stew, you are in fact very likely to find it somewhere on your plate in an Irish household. But this is not to say that we only eat potatoes. Just as in the rest of the Western world, the Irish pallet has diversified over time.
Today, aside from the large Irish diaspora, Ireland is home to people from different cultures from around the world and this is reflected in the variety of different options when it comes to eating out in this country, as well as the abundance of small shops selling niche products imported from specific parts of the world. You can find just about anything!
As a matter of fact, Ireland has made significant strides to strengthen the range and quality of its food and drink offerings. It is working hard on shifting its perception from being a country with a limited food culture to a travel destination for foodies. If you don’t believe me, then this will surely convince you: as of 2021, there are 21 restaurants with Michelin Awards on the island!