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Humble spud mixed blessing
Mar 13, 2008

Many Canadians typically associate two items with the Irish — St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the potato. In the case of the potato, the United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato to draw attention to the role the root crop can play in improving diets and reducing poverty.

Unfortunately for the Irish, the potato has been a mixed blessing. While it was the ideal food, its former prominence in the Irish diet led to the near downfall of the nation. The Irish Potato Famine began in September 1845 with the appearance of plant leaves suddenly turning black and curling, followed by rot. The cause was the airborne fungus phytophthora infestans (commonly called late blight) which was transported aboard ships coming from North America to Britain. Winds from southern England carried the fungus spores to potato fields near Dublin from which the blight spread outward to envelop the island. 

While the famine was disastrous for Ireland, the failure of the potato harvest proved a boon to North America. If not for the famine, tens of thousands of Irish would not have left their homes — mostly due to eviction from their homes and then placed aboard “coffin ships” bound for the New World by absentee English landlords — adding to the rich mixture of peoples populating North America.

The tragedy of the famine is emphasized by the fate of immigrants on Grosse Île, Quebec, the quarantine station in the midst of the St. Lawrence River. Of the 100,000 Irish who sailed for Canada in 1847, an estimated one in five died from disease — primarily typhus spread by lice — and malnutrition, including 5,000 at Grosse Île. 

Canada (then British North America) was the destination for the majority of impoverished Irish, who could not afford  passage to the United States. The British government intentionally kept fares low to Canada in order to populate the countryside. Landlords in Ireland preferred to use the British ships to save on the cost of passages for their evicted tenants. Upon arrival in Canada, many Irish who survived the cramped, disease-infested “coffin ships” and quarantines,  soon after crossed the border into the U.S.

Another consequence of the famine was the liberalization of British trade laws to help feed the starving Irish, of whom an estimated one million died.

Despite the U.S. receiving the majority of Irish, according to the last census, there are some 3.8-million Canadians who can claim Irish ancestry. In Manitoba, about 144,000 people claim Irish descent.

The first individual Irish to settle in Manitoba served with the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the initial migratory wave came with the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers in the 1810s. Andrew McDermot, a lad from County Roscommon, Ireland, was hired by the HBC and came to York Factory aboard the Robert Taylor in 1812. He later played a significant role as a fur trader and businessman in the Red River Settlement. In 1824, he opened the first independent store in the settlement after his retirement from the HBC. McDermot provided the land for Winnipeg’s first post office and general hospital.

The next wave was in the late 1860s and early 1870s as Irish, who had originally settled in Eastern Canada and the U.S., pulled up stakes and tried their hand at a new life on the Prairies.

Henry McKenney, born of Irish parents in Ontario, came to Winnipeg in 1859 and subsequently operated the community’s first hotel — the Royal — and built the store which created the famous corner of Portage and Main and the future city of Winnipeg. His half-brother Dr. John Christian Schultz (McKenney’s mother Elizabeth had remarried) followed him to Winnipeg and, as the leader of the Canadian Party, became a thorn in the side of Louis Riel. It was primarily the result of Schultz’s politicking in Ontario that Riel and his compatriots were branded as “rebels” and “traitors” which led to bounties being placed on their heads. 

Thomas Scott, the Orangeman executed by Louis Riel and the provisional government on March 4, 1870, was born in Ireland and came to the Red River Settlement from Ontario. William O’Donoghue, a member of the provisional government during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70 and the leader of the comic-opera Fenian invasion of Manitoba in 1871, was also born in Ireland.

A January 1884 meeting of the St. Patrick’s Society, which formed the city’s first soup kitchen to help the destitute, lists Irishmen such as James Coolican, William Clougher, James Egan, James Bogue, F. Hallen, C.F. Daly, C.H.J. Maquire, R.J. Haggart, W.J. Delaney, William McCreary and W.J. O’Connor.

While the humble spud was disastrous to the Irish, it was also the fuel for the Industrial Revolution in England during the 19th century. “It provided a cheap source of calories and was easy to cultivate,” according to a February 28 article in The Economist, “so it liberated workers from the land. Potatoes became popular in the north of England ... By a happy accident, this concentrated industrial activity in the regions where coal was readily available, and a potato-driven population boom provided ample workers for the new factories.”

Frederick Engels declared the potato equal to iron for its “historically revolutionary role.”

High up in the Andes Mountains, where the potato was first cultivated, the root crop has cultural significance. One Peruvian farmer told NPR reporter Joanne Silberner: “Potatoes are like living beings ... They are members of the family for farmers.” Unfortunately for the Peruvian farmer, a warming climate has led to potato blight, the same disease that caused the Irish famine. To escape the threat posed by the disease, farmers are moving their potato crops higher up in the mountains where it is colder and plants thus less susceptible to the disease.

Locally, potatoes are a major crop, serving commercial processing plants, and marketed by Peak of the Market, a non-profit group charged by the province’s producers to sell Manitoba potatoes at home and abroad. The estimated market value of Manitoba potatoes is $143-million.

Often taken for granted at the supper table, the spud has had an impact upon history far above its  lowly roots.