feast and famine

Beannú from Ireland,

Foodies have no sense of history. They must have had it surgically removed – some time between the nose job and the boob job. 

    We are in Dingle in County Kerry, Ireland. This is a truly beautiful place, drawing visitors from far and wide to enjoy the scenery on one of the emerald isle’s many peninsulas. As Daniel O’Donnell sings, it has 40 shades of green. It also promotes itself as the Foodie Capital of Ireland. There’s something wrong with this.

       Dingle was the scene of mass despair and starvation during the Potato Famine of the 1840s. They suffered more here than almost all other places in Ireland. Up until that time, many people in Ireland depended solely on potatoes for their sustenance. Their diet was – in some cases – ninety percent potato. They sold meagre surpluses when they could.

Infenaus Lumper

    It was disease, not drought which wreaked havoc here. Potato blight caused the crop in 1845 to fail almost completely. It caused black and white blotches to appear on the above-ground foliage and the underground vegetable to rot and putrify. The potato commonly grown in Ireland at the time was Infenaus Lumper, favoured for its tonnage but susceptible to disease.

Dingle coastline

      The devastation was immediate. Whole families became instantly destitute, having no savings and no welfare system. People were literally starving to death. In Dingle, families became dependent on shipwrecks off the steep cliff faces. They would send the children down to salvage anything saleable, sometimes never to see the children again after they drowned.

Men who managed to obtain work building a local road would be paid at the end of the week. Sometimes, they were so weak they wouldn’t make the end of the week to collect their pay. In time, when news of the disaster reached England, the English government instituted some piecemeal rescue measures. These entailed the import of corn from America for relief of starvation.

absentee landlords

      All the while, most land in Ireland was owned by absentee English landlords. On their land, other crops and livestock flourished. Wheat, oats and maize as well as cattle, pigs and lambs continued to provide for the English market where the industrial revolution was creating extra demand.

“institutionalised Anglophobia”

As a consequence, it was true that for every relief ship of corn from America arriving in Dingle Harbour, there were six ships leaving, bound for England, laden with foodstuffs. The irony was not lost of course on these bitter survivors of the famine. As Gordon Kavanagh writes – with a filial interest – this begot “institutionalised Anglophobia amongst Irish both at home and abroad”. They were forced to eat reject corn from across the Atlantic when perfectly good corn from a local landowner’s crop was sent to England? Who wouldn’t be angry?

Dingle Beach

     Today, Dingle is a picture postcard township. In fact it’s not very easy to envisage the hardship and privation which obtained here during the famine. Everything is so beautifully lush and verdant. The pastures are plentiful and the cattle are so well fed they spend most of their time lying down. (Linda says she’s never seen so many cattle and sheep lying down in the paddocks.)

Yet, the shocking horror of the famine killed off many of those people who lived off the small holdings at that time. Of course, many fled to America and Australia as soon as they could, too. We moved slowly through some of the preserved houses of those desperate emigrants today. They’ve been left as monuments to the calamity, so that people like us might appreciate the historical context of the event. (A 30% downturn in potato production in County Kerry was considered newsworthy on today’s radio news, so the locals are still sensitive about the possibilities.) Both of us were moved by the wretched living conditions evident in the empty homes.

at Dingle Beach ?!

      I don’t suppose potato is big on the menu for the foodies, but it’s a nice tag with which to entice the tourists these days. I’m afraid the grotesque juxtaposition is a bit hard to swallow for mine.

Slán a fhágháil from County Kery


Other photos from hereabouts

coastline near Dingle
Dingle coastline
coastline in the Dingle area

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