Our friendly and excellent guides are available as Step On Guides for any visiting tour or coach operators who may like a unique, entertaining and educational tour of Irish History and the events of Easter Week 1916.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

1917 Another Potato Famine

A year after the Easter Rising the preoccupation of British newspapers with the Irish question wasn’t the reaction to the rebel executions, the rise of Sinn Fein or the massive amount of arms still in circulation on the island but headlines blazed about the humble potato.

The British were relying on food crops grown within the British Isles as German submarines were having an affect on imported goods and ships were being used for military purposes rather than food transport. The potato harvest in both Ireland and Scotland had been particularly poor in 1916 and the word ‘famine’ was again circulating. The yield in Ireland in 1916 was a quarter of a millions tons less than a year earlier and exporting from Ireland had been interrupted by the events of Easter week. Towards the end of 1916 the British Government prohibited the export of potatoes from Ireland to Britain leading to major shortages in Britain.
The Belfast News wrote,
“From Clare to Donegal and Dublin to Sligo thoughtful men are asking ‘what will happen if the people’s food is sold for export?’ there is only one answer –famine”

The Donegal Vindicator added
“The crisis has found Ireland as unprepared as the war found Great Britain. The potato famine is upon us and so are the exporters. The farmer who sells his potatoes for export today must be restrained by his more sensible neighbours. There is a food crisis.”

By early 1917, the wholesale cost of the spud had mushroomed. A ‘CWT’ (8 stone bag) of potatoes that cost between four and eight schillings in 1916, a year later was costing between eleven and fourteen schillings. Some Irish exporters had been accused of withholding supplies for export to take advantage of the ever increasing wholesale prices. The embargo was lifted on the Irish potato in July 1917 but not before the British Government ordered the Irish farmer to sell his crop for a maximum of £6 10s per ton or 1s per stone down from the reported £14 some farmer had been receiving.    

By March there were prosecutions in Ireland of those appearing to profiteer. Potato sellers Thomas Sheridan and Sons were fined £5 and £2 costs for selling potatoes wholesale to Mary Keating of Arklow for 11s 6d a CWT on March 9th when the maximum at the time was 10s 10d per CWT. There were many such prosecutions during the following six months across the country.

One newspaper editorial in Wales, an area that had been severely affected by the potato shortages wrote,

“Potatoes are not worth buying if they cost more than 4s a cwt. They have been as high as 8s this spring. The potato is of very little value as food. There is not more than   two per cent of nutriment in the potato. Potatoes at 8s a cwt are equivalent in price to oatmeal as 1s per lb which is absurd. We have largely become the victims of the potato habit. In the early part of the nineteenth century potatoes could be had for two or three shillings a cwt. In those times anybody could live for about a shilling a week on potatoes. The root had very little dietetic value; but it was "filling" and cheap at the price. When however the potato begins to cost the price of a genuine food, it is time- its character was exposed. If you have a. good dinner it is all very well to have a few potatoes as "extras" just as you would have a few tomatoes or Brussels sprouts but to regard the potato as an article of diet in itself is rank folly. If the potato were relegated to its proper place the consumption of that fraudulent tuber would decrease and its price would fall accordingly. People acquired the taste for the potato in an age of poverty and they go eating it quite regardless of the fact that its food value is almost nil. The extraordinary prices which potatoes reached in the spring were due to the rebellion in Ireland. They grow huge quantities of potatoes in Ireland but they are not so foolish as to eat them. The Irish labourer has long ago got over his partiality for potatoes. He lives on tea "soda-bread" and American bacon. Liverpool, Fleetwood, .Glasgow and Bristol all receive daily shiploads of potatoes from Ireland. There is never usually more than a week's supply of potatoes in hand in the big towns of England and Scotland. When the Sinn Fein flare-up took place all shipping between this country and Ireland was held up for a couple of weeks, and it was a month before things became normal. In the meantime the grocers in this country were getting desperate for potatoes. Travellers from Manchester and Edinburgh were scouring the wilds of Wales offering any prices for a few sacks of potatoes. The only cure for the high price of potatoes is for people to use less of them. Those who eat meat can do with less potatoes. Puddings are cheaper than potatoes just now. Those who don't use meat should not use potatoes at all. As a food they are useless; their proper function is to serve as an adjunct to meat. Our fathers formed dietetic habits when certain articles of food were cheap. When circumstances alter the habits should alter. The only point in favour of the potato is its cheapness. Once it ceased to be cheap, it ought to be discarded.”

In parts of England especially Lincolnshire,a good potato growing county, there was a different kind of Irish problem when it came to harvesting the potato crop. In 1917 the ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ signs went up at farms, pubs and shops. The local community turned on Irish labourers who would travel across the Irish Sea for seasonal work as local Englishmen serving in the British Army who were conscripted and had been sent to Ireland during and after the Easter Rising were paid one schilling per week but the Irish who had replaced them in the fields and were exempt from conscription in what locals saw as appeasement were being paid between five and seven schillings a week to replace them.

By the end of 1917, the price had stabilised and the threat of famine in both Ireland and Britain had receded but by the end of that year consumers had discovered alternatives to the potato like swede, turnip and parsnip and as the First World War came to a conclusion the potato crisis had abated.  

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