Potato Soup and Soda Bread

Delicate and mild to the palate, unsurprisingly, homemade potato soup is made from the famous, and universally known potato, and has been enjoyed by many generations, throughout the last four centuries in Ireland. But, unknown to most, the potato has changed the course of Irish history.

The Spanish Conquistadors who while conquering the Americas in the sixteenth century were very impressed by their healthy and strong adversaries and quickly concluded that this was due to their main food source: the potato. Being very impressed by the nutritious value of this brown muddy vegetable, they took the potato back to Europe offering it to the Spanish Royals; who consequently weren’t very impressed by its taste at all. The potato was probably introduced in Ireland in 1586; at a time that the country was in great crisis. In fact, this is the era when the British wish to conquer Ireland was seriously enforced after centuries of small and irrelevant skirmishes. Henry VIII taking no half measures confiscated lands from the Catholics and enforced new laws making it impossible for them to own land. Indeed, the majority of Irish Catholics were now forced to change their religion to Protestantism; refusal resulted in banishment to the infertile west coastal regions, or death.

Finally, in the eighteenth century two measures were taken to help the Catholics, which would further contribute to the popularity of the potato in Ireland. The first was the Act to Encourage the Reclaiming of Unprofitable Bogs. In short, this meant that Catholics could now lease land, and again grow their own crops to sustain themselves. The land, not being very fertile, in fact, it was fifty acres of bog and only one half-acre of adjoining arable land, was still a great improvement for the Catholic situation. This plot of land was large enough to grow enough potatoes for a whole family and thus forming a cheap food source. The second act was the Catholic Relief Act of 1793, which gave the elective franchise to Catholic ‘forty-shilling freeholders’. At this time the population was four million, of which nearly three million were Catholics. Because of this, it was in the landlord’s best interest to maximize the number of freeholders on his land. These acts would not have been possible without the potato (P. 29). The depression that followed the Napoleonic wars further increased the dependence on the potato. By 1830 one-third of the population depended on the potato for more than 90% of their food source (P. 30).

In the beginning of the nineteenth century potatoes were combined with cheap flavorsome foods like salted dry herrings, or in coastal regions, with seaweed (P. 41). The salt and the oil in the herring made the potato more palatable to eat. Other additions such as flavor enhancers: salt, pepper, shellfish (in coastal regions); and texture improvers such as buttermilk, skimmed milk, sour milk, or sowans (sour liquid of fermented oat, husk, and chaff) were added. The potato being a wholesome and nutritious food source was inexpensive and could feed many mouths. Consequently, most of Ireland’s Catholic population had now come to depend solely on the potato as a main food choice. Nevertheless, in northern regions people still ate grains for breakfast; such as, porridge or bread, but in the southern and western counties people ate mainly potatoes (P. 41). In fact, they incorporated it into their every meal.

Artwork: drawing of baby by Anita Salemink

As a result, it wasn’t hard to conclude that the Irish poor had unknowingly been placed in great jeopardy. Unsurprisingly, when in 1845 the potato crop started to fail, the Catholic population was in great danger of starvation. Relief aid coming slowly into action, repeated failures of potato crops, the British government’s slow recognition that there was a serious problem in Ireland resulted in the starvation and emigration of huge numbers of Catholic Irish. The population reduced in only eleven years from eight and a half million in mid 1846 to six and a half million people in 1857 (P. 18).

The Irish Catholic dependency on the potato had devastating results, which echoed on far into oncoming decades, adding to the animosity towards the British rule, and finally resulting in The Irish War of Independence. Consequently, in 1921 the Catholics won their victory over British power and dominance, and the Irish Free State was finally a fact.

John Crowley, J. M. Smyth, Mike Murphy and William J. Smyth, Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, (2012), 1 – 43 Section 1, Ireland Before And After the Great Famine (Cork University Press, ISBN  9781859184790 €59.00)

© Anita Salemink 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anita Salemink with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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