An ugly looking potato thrown in jest at PETER FROST by his Irish friend at the allotments brought back a British crime forever associated with this vegetable
It was one of the ugliest spuds I had ever seen and my old mate Pat had just hurled it at my head. “Ever seen one of them before?” he asked, trying not to look impressed by my catch.
“It’s an Irish Lumper, they still grow them in County Antrim,” he explained. “I got mine in Dublin’s Marks and Spencer, they were selling them as a delicacy in Ireland just before St Patrick’s Day, but I’m planting these”.
Pat loves his allotment almost as much as he loves his native Ireland and I love visiting his little patch of green because he usually has a good story and it is usually about some interesting and little-known part of Irish political history.
170 years ago the Lumper was the commonest potato grown in Ireland — it grew well in poor soils and seemed happy with the wet climate that makes Ireland so green.
Then in 1845, the Lumper crop was devastated by potato blight and they rotted in the ground. The ensuing failure of the potato harvest led to the death from starvation and disease of over one million — out of a population of eight million — in four years. It would cast a shadow over the history of Ireland forever.
The blight which struck the Irish harvest in 1845, had actually begun in North Carolina and spread to destroy potato crops all over the globe. Yet it did not cause famine or mass death anywhere except in Britain’s oldest colony — Ireland.
When the blight destroyed three-quarters of the 1845 crop a huge majority of the Irish population owned no land, earned no wages and paid everything they earned as rent. Three-quarters of Irish agricultural workers were feudal tenants of British landlords.
Nearly two million did not even get to sell their own produce. Many just handed it all over in exchange for being allowed to grow potatoes for their own consumption on small plots of land.
Potatoes were not even the main produce of Irish farms although they were the staple diet of most peasants. Irish farms, just as they do today, produced huge quantities of corn, wheat, barley, oats, butter, cream, beef, pork and bacon.
These were cash crops and even as a million Irish people starved huge amounts were loaded into export ships, often under heavy guard by armed British troops.
On just one day in November 1848, for instance, exports of food from Cork, were 147 bales of bacon, 255 barrels of pork, five casks of hams, 3,000 sacks and barrels of oats, 300 bags of flour, 300 head of cattle, 239 sheep, 542 boxes of eggs, 9,300 firkins of butter and 150 casks of other foodstuffs.
What happened would be described as genocide today. A genocide by the Westminster Conservative government and the mainly British absentee landlords who owned most of the farmland in Ireland.
A further million attempted to emigrate and half of these died, usually of typhus in quarantine camps in Canada and New England. Four out of 10 emigrants perished in the rotten coffin ships that sank on the hazardous crossing to the new world. Even today Ireland’s population has not returned to those pre-famine levels.
The genocide didn’t stop the British Tory and Whig Parties congratulating themselves on the way they had dealt with the starving Irish. Many were decorated by Queen Victoria who actually visited famine-ravished Ireland in 1849.
She went, not to see the results of the famine for herself but for an expensive series of galas in Dublin, Belfast and Cork aimed at drumming up Irish support for the Queen.
It was the 1848 armed rebellion by the Young Ireland movement and fears that the spirit the French Revolution might cross the channel or the Irish Sea, rather than the death by starvation of millions of her subject, that lured Victoria to John Bull’s other island.
At that time the Liberals, known as Whigs, formed the Westminster government and proceeded to cut the Tories meagre relief.
Whig minister Sir Charles Trevelyan wrote, “It is my opinion that too much has been done for the (Irish) people …”
He even invoked God in his argument that “… the problem of Irish overpopulation being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been supplied by the direct stroke of an all-wise providence.”
Lord Clarendon, the British viceroy in Ireland during the famine, was more honest. He wrote, “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would coldly persist in this policy of extermination.”
I had Pat’s Lumper for lunch, baked and filled with Irish butter and cheese — it was delicious. Yes it was also ugly, but not as ugly as the chapter of British history in which its ancestors played such an important part.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 10 April 2015.