Makers & Brothers

The Potato

The potato is a hardy tuber with a deep and emotive narrative particularly in the context of Ireland. A hidden and humble root vegetable that was introduced to Europe in the 16th century and has since become uniquely associated with our island. The Lumper is a particular variety of potato that was once the most prevalent food source in Ireland but is now grown on only one farm. It is a potato we found most curious both for its odd form and then even more so for its story.

The potato is not a subject that one can take lightly and during our development of the cast bronze Lumper for The Souvenir Project we approached the wonderful Darina Allen. We were in search of her sage advice, the wider context and her cultivated insight into the potato’s importance to Irish culture. We felt it was a slightly overlooked subject and below you can read her thoughts.

The Potato by Darina Allen

Charles Darwin, during his scientific expedition to Patagonia in 1831, became intrigued by a particularly adaptable South American plant. In his diary, Darwin wrote: ‘it is remarkable that the same plant should be found on sterile mountains of Central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months’  The plant in question was the potato, a tuber remarkable for both its adaptability and its nutritional value.

First domesticated over 10,000 years ago in South America, it is Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada, one of the Spanish conquistadors who is credited with bringing the potato back to Europe in the 1570s – most likely in lieu of the gold he did not manage to find. Historians speculate that the first potato arrived in Ireland in 1589 when Sir Walter Raleigh planted it in his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove in Youghal, Cork. Other anecdotal evidence suggests that the potato was washed up on the shores of Cork after the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  How the potato actually reached Ireland is still a subject of much debate and speculation. 

'At first this strange new tuber was treated with suspicion, the ‘devil vegtable’ that had to be buried like a corpse before it would grow.'

At first this strange new tuber was treated with suspicion, the ‘devil vegtable’ that had to be buried like a corpse before it would grow. However gradually this easy to grow, prolific field crop became the staple food of rural peasants and labourers in Ireland and was largely responsible for the population boom in 19th century Europe.

In 1810 a distinctively knobbly shaped potato was introduced to Ireland from Scotland. The Lumper, a heritage variety, rapidly became widely cultivated in rural Ireland because of its high yields and ability to grow and flourish even on marginal land. The Irish had wisely chosen the potatoes as their staple diet as just one acre of potatoes could feed and nourish a family for a year, whereas the equivalent in oats would only sustain a family for a few months. However a lack of genetic diversity due to the limited number of varieties introduced left the crop vulnerable.

When blight ravaged the potato crops in the 1840s the results were catastrophic. Over a milloin people died and there was mass emigration with the population falling by over 20%. For the Irish it is a period deeply-rooted in folk memory and is still inextricably link with the hardy tuber. Since the Famine the potato has always been inextricably linked to Ireland in people’s minds, all too often with negative connotations.

The Lumper has such a bad reputation. After all as the name suggests, it’s not particularly beautiful to look at, large, knobbly with pale brown skin. I was convinced it would be totally lacking in flavour but when I had the opportunity to taste some I couldn’t believe how good they were. Was that the same ‘white fleshed’ potato that was described as a ‘wet, waxy, nasty, knobbly old potato’ waxy being a particualrly derogatory comment in a country where floury potatoes are much prized. The Lumpers I tasted were floury, quite delicious and greatly enjoyed with a few flakes of Irish Sea salt and a blob of homemade Jersey butter melting into the pale yellow, floury flesh - a heritage food with a real story.

The potato deserves to be celebrated all over the world. If I had to choose just one vegetable, without hesitation it would be have to be the potato. There are hundreds of varieties with every colour, texture and flavour. As well as providing starch, an essential component of the diet, potatoes are rich in vitamin C, high in potassium and an excellent source of fibre.  In fact, potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and D.  The easily-grown plant has the ability to provide more nutritious food faster on less land than any other food crop, and in almost any environment so why is it not hailed as a ‘super food’.  It is an immensely valuable, almost forgotten element of our food culture and we really ought to respect the potato a little more.

Essay by Darina Allen, Ballymaloe Cookery School
Lazy Beds image, Achill Island, County Mayo by G. Chris Clark
Imagery by Andrew Nuding
Quote by Darian Allen
Quote by A.A. Milne

'The Lumper has such a bad reputation. After all as the name suggests, it’s not particularly beautiful to look at, large, knobbly with pale brown skin.'

'What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.'

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