It is one of the strange and inexplicable quirks of fortune that Ireland will ever be associated with the potato, an alien vegetable that she adopted as a staple article of food within the short period of fifty years after it was introduced. This humble vegetable was eventually to become a great influence in the course of Ireland's history.

Tradition has credited the ill-fated Sir Walter Raleigh (right) with the introduction of the potato to Europe, though there are doubts in scientific circles as to whether there is any truth behind the tradition. It is possible, however, that he did introduce the vegetable to Ireland. One expedition which he financed landed at Smerwick, Co.Kerry, in October, 1587, on the return from a long journey across the Atlantic. Many strange botanical specimens were brought back and the potato could easily have been one of them.

One number of a weekly bulletin published in 1699 says: 'The potato .... Was brought first out of Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh, and he stopping at Ireland, some was planted there, where it thrived well and to good purpose, for in three succeeding wars, when all the corn above ground was destroyed, this supported them; for the soldiers, unless they had dug up all the ground where they grew, and almost sifted it, could not extirpate them.'

A further item which seems to confirm Raleigh's introduction of the potato to Ireland is found in Crofton Croker's collection 'Popular songs of Ireland' in which there is the 'Pratie Song':

The brave Walter Raleigh, Queen Bess's own knight,
Brought here from Virginia The root of delight.
By him it was planted At Youghal so gay;
An'sure Munster praties are famed to this day.

Other possibilities regarding the introduction of the potato to Ireland include one which looks to the ships of the dispersed Spanish Armada all down the West coast of Ireland. Potatoes may well have been carried as part of the cooks' stores by the ships and later found on the shore by the people of Kerry and Cork who planted them.

At first in Ireland there were doubts as to the value of the potato as a food. Some said that the root was not for eating because it was not mentioned in the Bible; others said that it caused leprosy and encouraged flatulence. Others however, notably doctors, claimed that the potato could heal just about everything and prescribed it where and when they had the slightest chance.

Eventually, it was the potato itself that won universal acceptance. It was a food, a good food at that, so it flourished and brought many customs into being. It became the usual practice to plant potatoes on Good Friday.

In Galway, it is considered bad luck to attempt to plant potatoes on a Cross Day, that is on any fourth day following Christmas. In Kerry, a piece of cypress was stuck into the ridge on planting day and, on harvesting, a branch of the same wood was burnt. On the Eve of St. John, when the midsummer fires were lit, a burning faggot was thrown into the potato plot for luck to the crop. Garland Sunday, the last in July was, in Galway, the day on which the first digging was permitted. In Cork, it was thought that some potatoes, however few, should be dug up on the 29th June. In Mayo, time was when the end of the potato harvest was always celebrated by a feast. And in Tipperary, when new potatoes first appeared on the table, it was usual for one to say to another. 'May we all be alive and happy this time twelve months.'

It was not long before the bulk of the Irish people were growing potatoes, and more and more did they come to rely on it as a staple food. By the end of the sixteenth century much of Ireland had been laid waste by the harrying and burning of homesteads of crops and of cattle under Mountjoy, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The people as a result were famished; to sow their usual crops was to invite their destruction. But, in the potato, the harassed grower had to his hand a food which was easy to prepare; it would feed himself, his household and his livestock, and it could be cultivated and stored in a manner that escaped detection. As the years passed into the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish poor found themselves more and more dependent on the potato. Thus, as 1845 drew nearer, there was nothing to relieve the sombre picture of poverty and misery.

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