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Students learn history of potato in Ireland

Recently, I had the pleasure to be involved in taking 14 students to Ireland as part of a Penn State horticulture class — “Walking in the Footsteps of the Irish During the Irish Potato Famine: Examinations of New World Crops in Old World Societies.”

Dennis Decoteau, Tracy Hoover, my wife, Phyllis, and I accompanied the students on the trip.

During the semester prior to the trip, the students learned about the history of the potato, its migration from the mountains in Peru to Ireland and its adoption by the Irish as a primary food source.

They learned that an acre of potatoes could support larger families and the tremendous amount of potatoes that the Irish consumed each day. Then came the late blight in 1845 that devastated the potato crop and began the tale of starvation and emigration out of Ireland to other countries, one being the United States.

The students learned that the term “famine” is really not correct as there was indeed food in Ireland, such as grains, but it was being exported to England. The students recognized that the examination of the potato famine must involve a study of history, politics, economics, religion and other disciplines to fully understand the event called the “Irish Potato Famine.” They visited a potato grower in southeastern Pennsylvania and also a potato chip manufacturer, Utz Snack Foods in Hanover. This gave them the background to build on once in Ireland.

In Ireland, we visited Dublin and explored the “1916 Rising” that was celebrating its 100th anniversary. We visited the National Botanic Gardens and saw the Lumper potato variety, which was the potato being grown at the onset of the potato famine.

We also visited the Blarney Castle, where the students got the chance to kiss the Blarney Stone. The Cliffs of Moher were breathtaking, and the trip around the Ring of Kerry was fabulous. We also visited the Oak Park Crop Research Centre and learned about potato breeding in Ireland from Denis Griffin and his colleagues.

We also visited a potato grower near the research station so the students could learn about modern-day potato production in Ireland. After this visit the students were actively looking for the Rooster potato variety that was the predominate variety being grown in Ireland. The class visited a manor house to see how the landlords lived during that time period. Another interesting visit was to a replica of a famine ship that transported the Irish from Ireland to Canada, the United States and Australia.

The class learned firsthand how the potato changed the country of Ireland and also the United States in ways that they could only imagine before the trip. I believe we all understand why they call it the Emerald Isle.

Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.