Potatoes, for Better or for Worse
Potatoes came to Europe from the New World in the early sixteenth century. Sir Francis Drake is thought to have introduced the potato to England, and shortly afterward Sir Walter Raleigh tried planting them on his Irish estates.
When the potato reached Ireland, it created a revolution. It was very easy to grow; farmers could plant them in the spring and leave them alone for months while they went off and worked elsewhere (anywhere that scarce wages might be offered). People grew potatoes on any patch of land that could sustain them, even the most marginal of fields.
There are many varieties of potato, and the Irish had definite preferences among them. Richer people ate the more desirable types, such as “minions” or “apple potatoes.” Poor folk grew and ate “lumper” potatoes, which were watery and tasteless but grew well on poor farmland. Unfortunately, the lumper was especially susceptible to the blight that caused the famine.
A Good Source of Nourishment
Potatoes are extremely nutritious; they are full of vitamins, protein, calcium, and iron, especially when washed down with buttermilk, the potato's traditional accompaniment. The potato, in fact, is perhaps the only crop that can provide a balanced diet by itself, which kept the Irish healthier than other people living on one starch such as rice or millet or even bread (made of wheat). It was relatively easy to store over the winter, which was important because most tenant farmers had no buildings in which to store vast quantities of grain. Unfortunately, you can't store potatoes for much more than a year, and this would have devastating consequences for the Irish in the famine years.
A Potato Economy
Patterns in land ownership made Irish farmers dependent on the potato. Most farmers had to rent from landlords (who were usually English), who demanded cash payments. The farmers had to use most of their time and land to produce cash crops to cover the rent, and consequently they only had small amounts of time or land left to grow their own food. Given these constraints, the potato was the only crop that could provide sufficient nutrition to feed the growing Irish families.
And grow they did; between 1700 and 1800 the population doubled from somewhere around 2.5 million people to about 5 million people. By the early 1840s, the population stood at 8.2 million; ironically, it was densest in the poorest areas. The potato helped make this possible, but population growth also made people more dependent on the potato. Fathers would split up their land between their sons, making families depend on smaller and smaller plots of land. The system worked, but only as long as the potatoes were plentiful.
What did people eat besides potatoes?
Not very much. They might supplement their diet with foraged berries or shellfish if they lived in the right area. Most families kept a pig, to fatten it up on leftover potatoes and then sell it at the beginning of the summer, which was the only time of year the potatoes ran low. Then they would buy oatmeal to tide themselves over until the potatoes came back.