When I posted the photo above from the Agricultural Museum on Facebook, several people raised interesting questions, such as: Did they put anything on the potatoes? What did they drink with them? And simply, how is it possible to eat that many potatoes in a day? So I decided to look into things a little further.
First, if you’re appalled by the idea of daily potato consumption on this scale, you’re not alone. Even back then, outsiders were amazed. “An Englishman would, I take it, find considerable difficulty in stowing away this enormous quantity of vegetable food,” sniffed L.H. Spooner in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1846, “and how an Irishman is able to manage it is beyond my ability to explain.”
But they didn’t just manage — they thrived. “For all their wretchedness, they were admirably nourished — better, maybe, than the mass of the people of any other country during any recent century,” wrote historian K.H. Connell in 1965. More than one 19th-century observer commented on the heartiness of Irish peasants: “the general food of the lower orders is potatoes and milk,” wrote one, “and the wholesomeness of this diet is proved by the health and robust appearance of those who use it.”
My mom, true to her heritage, always said if you had to live on just one food, the potato was a pretty good choice. It turns out she was right.
What did they eat them with? Fresh milk or buttermilk, butter, salt, perhaps some onion. Along the coasts, especially, people added seaweed or fish when they could. In an oral history from the book Famine Echoes, William Torrens of County Donegal paints this colorful picture of a family gathering around a basket of boiled potatoes in the era before the blight:
The people of the house sat round in a circle on stools, with some salt on another stool near the basket, and noggins of buttermilk which they balanced in their laps or set down on the earthen floor. No knives or forks were used. The potatoes were boiled in their jackets and peeled with the left or the right thumbnail, according to the hand which the person engaged was most accustomed to use. The nail was kept at a certain length for this purpose, and so expert were the people at peeling potatoes in this way that nobody with a knife and fork could divest a potato of its jacket half so quickly. A meal of salt, buttermilk and potatoes was called ‘dip-at-the-stool’, a term fairly expressive of the performance of dipping the potato in the salt which reposed on the stool.
And here’s something crazy. When a laborer expected to work all day without lunch, he would eat potatoes “with the moon in them” — that is, with a sphere of hard undercooked potato in the middle. The half-raw portion was supposed to digest more slowly and keep hunger pangs away.
As for what they drank, beyond dairy products: tea was entrenched among Ireland’s poor by the 1830s. English reformers clucked that the brew would “deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland,” and give women thoroughly unbecoming notions of equality as well, but their eradication campaigns failed to catch on. (I can’t imagine why.)
Any alcohol would likely have taken the form of poitin or poteen — a robust moonshine which, though illegal, was widely produced.
Interestingly, people looking back on this diet didn’t describe it as a deprivation. In the years just before the potato blight struck, the country had seen two bumper crops of spuds. By many accounts, even the poor enjoyed a sense of plenty.
“Every day was a holiday during that time and plenty of poteen drunk,” said John Murtaugh of County Longford in another oral history. Indeed, there was a widespread notion that the crop failure was a punishment for wasting food. “Old people said it was God’s will to have the Famine come,” recalled William Powell of County Cork, “for people abused fine food when they had it plenty.”
Even after the Famine, Irish people went right back to eating — and loving –potatoes. They continued being major consumers until the last decade or so, when sales dropped off, presumably because of the anti-carb craze. Nowadays Ireland ranks 16th in potato-eating worldwide (you’ll notice a trend among the top countries: Belarus, Turkmenistan, Poland, Estonia, Russia and Kazakhstan.) Remarkably, the EU recently announced it was launching an ad campaign to get the Irish to eat more potatoes.