A Saint Patrick’s Day Story: The Famine Potato Rises Again

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The famous ‘Lumper’: the deadliest potato in human history. Photo: myirelandspast.wordpress.com

You might wonder why anyone would want to resurrect the potato that caused the great Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849, but it’s been done. The ‘Lumper’ or ‘Irish Lumper’ was the main potato grown by Irish farmers of the time and when a new strain of late blight (Phytophora infestans) reached the shores of Ireland, brought from the New World in 1844, a disaster of unprecedented proportions occurred. Half the crop was wiped out in 1845; nearly two thirds in 1846. 

Crop failure lead to mass starvation during the “Great Famine” as it’s known in Ireland. Ill.: britannia.com

Irish peasants relied on potatoes for their survival. It was the only crop prolific enough on the small lots available to tenant farmers that could adequately feed a family: a single acre of potatoes could support a family of 5–6 people. The stage was thus set for a famine so terrible it killed one million people and while another one million emigrated to avoid it. Ireland lost one quarter of its population and, indeed, the population drop consequent to the famine continued for over a century. Ireland has yet to recover. 

It’s less often mentioned, but the potato famine hit not only Ireland, but all of Europe, where fewer people died (about 100,000) because a wider range of potatoes were being grown, some more resistant to the disease, plus not as many farmers were limited to one single crop. It had already wiped out potato crops in Canada and the US in previous years.

Lessons Learned

Potato tubers infested with late blight. Photo: Dr. Steve Johnson, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Human beings have since learned, one hopes, that planting vast surfaces in one single crop (a monoculture) is a dangerous thing, and that planting a wider range of varieties can help prevent future famines. Yet if you look at the vast fields of identical plants of wheat, soybeans and maize that constitute modern farms, one really does have to wonder.

Story of the ‘Lumper’

‘Irish Lumper’ potatoes. Photo: frostysramblings.wordpress.com

The ‘Lumper’ was a medium-sized, light brown-skinned, off-white-fleshed, strangely lumpy potato that just happened to be very prolific (at least compared to others at the time) and widely adapted. It was from Scotland originally (Scotland also suffered a famine in 1845 due to this potato). It could produce abundantly even in poor soils and cold, rainy summers when little else would thrive. Its flavor was quite good in good years, but said to soapy and waxy in bad ones, but … tenant farmers can’t be choosers, can they?

The ‘Lumper’ was pretty much forgotten about until Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes in Northern Ireland found it among other varieties of heritage potatoes in 2009. He grew the plant, produced more and now sells the spuds as a St. Patrick’s Day novelty at Marks and Spencer stores throughout Ireland. It’s also being grown in Canada at the University of Guelph’s Elora Research Station in Ontario, Canada and at Canadian Potato Genetic Resources in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Late blight disease has certainly not disappeared, but much more is known about it today. For example, we know it overwinters in infested tubers, often those left in the field, then spreads via wind-borne spores early in the summer. The disease does not survive on its own in the soil. So an outbreak can be controlled quite quickly by thoroughly cleaning the infected field at the end of season. And today there are fungicides that can slow down and stop the progression of the disease when it does show up. That means that highly sensitive varieties like ‘Lumper’ can be grown again if you have any real desire to do so.

Grown in School Gardens in Ireland

Schools across Ireland planted ‘Irish Lumper’ potatoes. Photo: http://www.killeenns.com

In the summer of 2019, schools across Ireland were offered free ‘Lumper’ seed potatoes, thanks to a collaboration between the Committee for the Commemoration for Irish Famine Victims and Glens of Antrim Potatoes. The idea was to plant them in school gardens. The process of planting and tending the crop is hoped to help pupils remember the victims of the famine, as well as those who suffer hunger today. And it may teach them some basics about gardening!

Where to Find ‘Irish Lumpers’

So, you want to try growing the ‘Lumper’ potato? If so, you may have to wait a bit. I was unable to find any commercial source of ‘Lumper’ seed potatoes. If any of my readers knows of one, please do let me know. 

I don’t think I’ll be trying it, though. I’d rather go with more modern, more productive and disease-resistant potatoes than disease-susceptible ones of historic interest!