Potato variety makes first return to Ireland since famine

A potato not seen since the famine is set to make a comeback, it was revealed today.

The Irish Lumper, a distinctive knobbly spud, has been specially nurtured from a handful of rare seedlings and is expected to hit the supermarket shelves next week – 170 years after it was last harvested commercially.

Farmer Michael McKillop, who runs Glens of Antrim Potatoes, said: “Provenance is at the core of our business and five years ago we launched a variety development programme to bring back improved versions of local favourites which had been long forgotten.

“Following a period of heavy investment, and working closely with a specialist grower, we are now able to reintroduce a famous potato which has not been seen for over 170 years.”

The Lumper was introduced around 1810 and, before the blight, was particularly popular around the Munster and Connacht areas.

It was the only choice for thousands of poverty-stricken families because it could be grown easily in poor soils and required little manure.

This time round, however, the crop is being cultivated in the fertile fields close to Cushendall on the north Antrim coast.

Mr McKillop said its re-emergence onto the 21st-century food market had been a lengthy process.

He first found the Lumper at a potato fair in Co Down and planted the seedlings in his garden at home. That autumn he was able to harvest 28 small potatoes.

“I tasted them and thought they were quite good,” added Mr McKillop.

“So, I planted them for another year and got another good yield.

“I thought about the heritage of the potato and then contacted SASA (Scottish Seed Potato Register) which holds the gene pool for all types of potatoes and asked if they could re-pollinate the Lumper.”

It tastes mid-way between the waxy varieties such as Jersey Royals and the more floury potatoes like the King Edward. He recommends it be steamed with the skin on or roasted.

It has taken five years to generate a commercial crop – believed to be the first in the Republic of Ireland or the UK.

Mr McKillop said: “It is good to be able to give consumers the chance to taste something with a bit of heritage.

“That’s what I am about – I like unusual varieties and something different. It’s always good to have new varieties but we should never forget those from the past.”

The scale of the famine which wiped out huge swathes of the population between 1845 and 1849 is widely considered among the worst in history.

More than a million people died from starvation and epidemic diseases and a further two million people were forced to emigrate to the New World countries such as the US and Canada during the decade between 1845 and 1855.

Nutritionally the potato was excellent – when mixed with milk it could provide enough protein, carbohydrates, energy and minerals to lead a balanced and healthy diet, which was especially good for poor tenant farmers who only ate once or twice a day.

Although it started as a natural catastrophe, the effects of the famine were worsened by the actions of the British government under Robert Peel and Lord John Russell, and in 1997 former British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s role in the disaster.

The Lumper potato is being produced by Glens Of Antrim Potatoes and will be sold in Marks & Spencer stores from next week.

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