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Overture To Disaster, 1845 - 1. The Fateful Dependence
In the late 17th century and early 18th century the diet of the Irish peasant consisted of potatoes from August to May and oatmeal for Spring and Summer. The potato had become an established part of the peasant’s diet by the mid-18th century.
Dungarvan was notable as a potato-growing area. Charles Smith commented in 1746 that: ’The lands at Kilrush...afford great plenty of potatoes, with which the markets of Dublin are yearly supplied, upwards of 18,000 barrels having been sent thither in one season from this place.’1 In 1752 Dr. Pococke noted that Dungarvan was ’famous for the export of potatoes to many parts of Ireland.’ 2
In 1836 Beresford Boate gave an interesting insight into the diet of the tradesmen and artisans:
Bread is much more used as food in the town and neighbourhood...35 years ago there were only two bakers in the town of Dungarvan, there are now nearly 50...The tradesmen and artisans of the town generally eat bread at least at one meal in the day ...Small farmers, as well as labourers, eat potatoes because they cannot afford to eat bread.3
In the 1830s several varieties of potatoes were being set which did not last as long in storage as the old varieties. As a result the period between the end of the old crop and the availability of the new potatoes became longer. This caused increased distress amongst the poor because their food supply was limited.
From 1832 to 1836 a disease attacked the potato crop in Ireland. Many new varieties were grown in an attempt to develop a disease-resistant crop. This experiment was unsuccessful and a new stock of potatoes was imported to Europe from South America. Austin Bourke 4 has suggested that this may have been the original source of the potato blight in Ireland.
1. Smith, Charles, The Antient & Present State of the County & City of Waterford, Dublin 1746 p.91.
2. Pococke, Rev. Nicholas, Pococke’s Tour in Ireland 1752, ed. by George T. Stokes, Dublin 1891.
3. Poor Inquiry (Irl.) Appendix E.(37) H.C. 1838 xxvii p.31.
4. Bourke, Austin, The Visitation of God - The Potato & the Great Irish Famine, Lilliput Press 1993.
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