Why Did the Irish Only Eat Potatoes?

why did the irish only eat potatoes

If you’re a fan of traditional Irish food, you know that potatoes play an important role. They can be found in everything from colcannon to shepherd’s pie.

However, potatoes weren’t the only starch in their diets. They also ate meat, milk, and fish.

Potatoes were easy to grow

A potato plant, or tuber, is a perennial vegetable that can be harvested and eaten year after year. Its growth cycle is divided into five stages: sprout development, vegetative growth, tuber initiation, bulking and maturation.

It’s easy to grow potatoes in your garden or on a patio or balcony. You’ll need a basic soil amended with compost or peat and a sunny spot to grow it in.

To prepare the ground, dig trenches 12cm deep and 60cm apart in spring. Fill each trench with seed potatoes 30cm apart and cover with soil. Once shoots grow up to 20cm tall, mound the soil around them, earthing up.

Choosing the right type of potato for your space and your preferences is important. Look for smaller varieties like gem or fingerlings that mature mid to late season, as well as early-season cultivars that are less prone to the dreaded potato blight. They’ll be easier to harvest and may produce more than larger ones, especially in containers.

They were easy to store

Potatoes were a staple crop in Ireland because they were easy to grow, produced bountiful harvests and could be stored for the winter. They were also very low cost, making them affordable for the poor and a food source that people could count on all year round.

Storage Conditions

A cool, dark place (like a basement, closet, root cellar or kitchen cupboard closed up) with good ventilation is best for long term storage. A refrigerator is too moist and can cause potatoes to shrivel, but it is fine for short term storage.

Avoid storing them in direct sunlight, as this will trigger chlorophyll to be pulled from the skin and form solanine which can be bitter. If you do store them in the sun, make sure that they are well covered to protect against light exposure and check them every week or so.

They were easy to transport

During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a huge demand for food on the British navy and army. This spelled trouble for the poor Irish peasants.

Despite this, potatoes were still an important staple in Irish cuisine. This was because they were easy to grow and they were relatively cheap to transport.

A great way to enjoy the aforementioned was to bake them. Toss them in a large bowl with a healthy amount of extra-virgin olive oil, then spread them out on a baking sheet and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until they are golden brown.

This is also a great dish to prepare in advance and serve with other hearty mains like meat, fish or vegetarian dishes. It makes for a fun family dinner. It also works well as an appetizer, if you’re hosting a holiday party or a potluck! The only downside is that the baked potatoes may get a little soggy. They are best served with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper.

They were easy to prepare

The potato became the sole staple food of Ireland after a plague killed off many of its crops in the 18th Century. The Irish famine would leave hundreds of thousands dead and an entire economy in ruin, but for a few years this little tuber was the answer to the prayers of a desperate population.

It was easy to prepare, and easy to serve. It was also a nutritional powerhouse that villagers could produce in minimal land, and it didn’t require much effort to store.

This, says sociologist Emma Earle in her 2018 paper Promoting Potatoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe, was what the elites were looking for when they started to consider how nutrition and population health could be used as tools of Empire. Those discussions changed the political calculations of state leaders, who realized that the best way to conquer and dominate was by keeping a large and healthy population at their disposal.

As a result, potatoes were one of the fastest-growing crops in Europe during that period, and they were becoming an essential part of the diet of burgeoning populations everywhere, from Spain to Russia. And despite its origins in Peru, the potato has become a symbol of home, autochthony and identity for people all over the world.