Is the potato an immigrant to Ireland?

Now we know: A typically provocative subject for Galway’s Food on the Edge symposium

How truly Irish is the humble spud? Photograph: iStock

How truly Irish is the humble spud? Photograph: iStock

 

This year’s Food On The Edge, an annual food symposium that takes place in Galway, launched earlier this week. A provocative piece of messaging that came out of a previous FOTE was an image of a potato accompanied by the phrase “I am an immigrant”. Event organisers JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey came up with the idea of highlighting the far-flung roots of our precious potatoes because immigration had been a recurring talking point at their symposium.

Some of the key issues that have emerged at FOTE have been around food waste and mental health, but another topic that will be on the tip of many attendees’ and speakers’ tongues at the October event is the idea of food appropriation – where food is exploited for commercial gain without its heritage being truly valued or respected.

“The issue of immigration is something that comes up around food a lot,” explains McMahon, citing as examples food tourism, ingredient migration and the issues facing people living in direct provision, notably the lack of access for residents to kitchens and home-cooking facilities.

“I’m also interested in how food migrates and I thought the potato as immigrant was a powerful metaphor. I want to get people to think about where their food comes from. It’s ironic that we’ve become associated with the potato which originally comes from the Peruvian Andes and has only been in Ireland for around 400 years.”

So is the potato an immigrant to Ireland? The answer is a clear yes, though its origin story differs. Like most ingredient migration tales, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment the nutrition-packed spud arrived here. It’s safe to assume it was in the 1500s when the Spanish invaded the Incas and began introducing potatoes, among other new ingredients, to Europe from their new colony.

Sir Walter Raleigh is often credited as bringing the potato to Ireland, and although there isn’t any definitive evidence to show he was the first, he did grow potatoes on his estate in Youghal as early as 1589, according to potato.ie.

In a paper entitled The Use of the Potato Crop in Pre-Famine Ireland by PM Austin Bourke at Trinity College in the 1960s, there’s another version of the Irish potato origin story, the proof of which is offered by way of poetry, namely two Irish poems – one by O’Rachtaire, dating to 1705 – which were a part of McKay’s Anthology of the Potato (1961). “In both, the potato is repeatedly referred to as “an Spanach” indicating that the popular understanding of those who spoke and wrote Irish at the time was that the potato came from Spain,” argued Bourke. “This in contrast to the Sir Walter Raleigh story of later times.”

Food On The Edge 2018 tickets, €350 for the two-day event, October 22nd-23rd, are at foodontheedge.ie.

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