Potatoes in Ireland: A Tale of Intrigue, Espionage, and Dinner

Potatoes in Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, so let’s celebrate this traditional Irish holiday by paying homage to that most Irish of foods: the humble potato!

There’s a rich tradition of potatoes in Irish culture, but did you know that potatoes aren’t originally an Irish food? Spuds actually have their roots in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia, where they’ve grown for thousands of years. It wasn’t until around 500 years ago that Spanish conquistadors brought potatoes back to Europe, where they made their way up to Ireland.

Still, 500 years is plenty of time to build some rich — and delicious! — traditions. And since those tasty tubers made their way across the Atlantic and across the Continent, they’ve become an important part of Irish culture, from colcannon chowder to potato tasting contests!

Much has been written about the Great Potato Famine, so let’s get ready for St. Paddy’s day by looking at some of the less talked-about — and happier — history and traditions of Irish potatoes instead!

The Epic Journey of the Irish Potato

So, how did potatoes make it from Spain all the way over to Ireland? By many accounts, it was actually a pretty dramatic journey.

When the conquistadors returned to Spain with their bounty, some say that British spies stole potatoes from Spain and headed back to Britain with them, expecting that they’d catch on as an efficient food source. Unfortunately, the Brits weren’t as crazy about potatoes as you’d think. Their first mistake? They ate them raw. Not the greatest first impression.

Rather than try out these suspicious new veggies on their own people, the British sent potatoes to the colony of Ireland, where they were an instant hit. Not only is Ireland’s climate very similar to the potato’s home soil, but Irish farmers loved how quickly they grew and how many potatoes you could produce in a relatively small space.

It was an instant love affair, and despite experiencing the infamous potato famine in the mid-1800s, potatoes are still a staple of Irish culture today.

Irish Potatoes: Fun Facts!

  • Each year, towns across Ireland hold potato-tasting competitions, where potato growers from all over the area vie for the #1 spot. The event is called “An Spud-Off Mor.” Want to see one of these in action? Check out the video!
  • Potatoes didn’t originate in Ireland. They made their way to Europe in the 1500s after Spanish conquistadors discovered them in the Andes mountains.
  • Irish Potato Candy, a St. Patrick’s Day staple for many people, is neither Irish nor made of potatoes. It’s actually a Philadelphia-based tradition, and the candy is usually made from coconut, sugar, and other decidedly non-potato ingredients.
  • St. Patrick’s Day is when Irish farmers traditionally plant their potato crops. The legend is that St. Patrick – the patron saint of Ireland – makes planting conditions ideal on his special holiday.
  • Potatoes actually came to North America from Ireland in the 1700s, not from our neighbors in Peru, which means that they traveled across the ocean and back again to make it to your dinner plate!
  • While there are almost countless varieties of potatoes in a rainbow of colors, the Irish potato is a white potato, sometimes called an “Earth apple.”

Sources:

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by jemasmith