Ordering my spuds opens a trapdoor to memories of Harry


ANOTHER LIFE:HARRY VINEY, my father, cut a trapdoor in the floorboards to give access to the space where our house was raised from the earth. This mini-cellar was not deep enough to stand up in, so that I, being young, was sent down with a torch to retrieve his potatoes, parsnips and carrots. There was a sweet, fungal smell of damp hempen sacks and the minute-to-minute fear of spiders.

Today’s terraced houses seem not to have floorboards downstairs any more, and claiming the nearest derelict street corner for an allotment might not seem appropriate in peacetime. But today I think of Harry, with his baldy head and all the skills he brought to the family in the hard years of war. Born in rural Hampshire, apprenticed to the village carpenter at 12, he carried a whole kit of aptitudes through a life that found, for a decade or two, some comfort and then, as times changed, called for more.

He mended our shoes on a heavy steel last, carving new soles from a big sheet of leather and plucking brads for the hammer from the row between his lips. He made new clothes from old, marking out the lines with a disc of tailor’s chalk and whirring away at the Singer sewing machine. Once, coming by fabric from a grounded barrage balloon, he made me a raincoat and a satchel for school, bestowing on a 10-year-old a silvery and unwelcome singularity.

A spell as a marine in the first World War taught him the virtues of the sailor’s ditty bag, with needles, thread and string. Also, a way of binding things tightly with cord, binding his allotment-grown, molasses-soaked tobacco into big cigars, to be shaved with a penknife for his pipe. It was, undeniably, tobacco, but it smelled like green nettles on a bonfire.

In his postwar old age, pensioned off from housepainter’s ladders, he obtained an old perambulator and took it to the Undercliff Walk, where he gathered driftwood and brought it home to dry. Then he sawed it and chopped it into firewood and sold it door to door in bundles, as kindling for coal fires. His younger son, upwardly mobile as a scholarship boy, begged him not to be so bloody embarrassing, Dad, and he complied.

Apart from such filial guilts, this month seemed a good time to offer the story of Harry. Not that one expects too many fathers to have his range of talents, but doing it yourself can range more widely than stylish use of an electric screwdriver: it’s the spirit that counts.

I was also reminded of him – and the trapdoor – by putting in an order for first early potatoes (Orla) to plant in the tunnel in February. As I rhapsodised once, “What can they do to you, really, if you have enough land to sow a year’s potatoes!” While true enough, and still with just about enough free land between the trees, my crop has diminished, along with my energies, to some six months’ supply.

We have just finished the last and are reduced to supermarket spuds, peeling away the black spots left in the flesh from haulm-scorching, preharvest herbicides.

Few people, one would hope, now need exhorting to grow their own potatoes, that wonderfully versatile food, if only they could. Yet Ireland eats fewer and fewer of them and more and more, incredibly, of imported supermarket pasta.

Where to grow them is, of course, a good question, and all praise to those local authorities that have organised more land for allotments. Those of Co Dublin now provide well over 1,000 plots and still struggle to meet demand. The city council has even found room for 90 in the walled garden in St Anne’s Park in Raheny, which sounds positively Arcadian.

There is, however, a risk to be thought about, as hundreds of amateur growers raise plots of potatoes beside each other. Today’s strains of blight have turned vicious, the new forms of Blue 13 and Pink 6 thriving in wet summers despite applications of fungicides.

Blight-resistant breeds such as ‘Sarpo Mira’ and ‘Axona’ seem to be holding their own, much to the comfort of those who garden organically.

BASF Plant Science, part of the world chemical company, last month applied for EU approval of ‘Fortuna’, a “genetically optimised” potato using blight-resistant genes from wild South American potatoes – an achievement it claims has eluded more than 50 years of conventional breeding effort. But it remains challenged by the ‘Sarpo’ potatoes selected and bred conventionally (from Hungary, by way of Wales). You can find a recent report on their progress, to a Euroblight workshop in France last year, by Googling “Breeding for host resistance: the key to sustainable potato production”, a paper by Simon White and David Shaw.

Eye on nature

One field on the sheltered, east side of Inis Meáin has a full bloom of primroses since early November. They don’t seem to be anywhere else there, apart from sheltered laneways.

Vincent Coleman, Ballina, Co Mayo

In mid November bats were very active at dusk; red admirals were on the ivy and whimbrels were on the shore.

Mark Helmore, Newquay, Co Clare

The first daffodils have emerged in my garden in late November. The earliest I have ever seen them previously is late December. In the last two severe winters brent geese arrived on Bull Island in September, which is about two months ahead of schedule. This year they arrived on time, at the end of October.

Brian Berry, Malahide, Co Dublin

I seem to remember that in my youth – in the 1960s – starlings were migratory birds. Am I mistaken? Also that the bullfinch was the most common finch, and the rarest the goldfinch. Nowadays at our winter bird table goldfinches are regularly seen, but bullfinches rarely.

Michael Roche, Athlone, Co Roscommon

Starlings are resident birds, but huge flocks arrive from Europe in late autumn and leave again in spring. Bullfinches are still common but rarely attend bird tables, where goldfinches are regular visitors.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or e-mail viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address