English people love making ‘potato jokes’ to Irish people. Mainly, because the word ‘potato’ can easily be said in a bad Irish accent. Add to that, Ireland and Northern Ireland is a really tricky political prospect, so saying ‘potato’ is easier than trying to work out if you can make a gag about people being killed.
However, here’s a thing — saying ‘potato’ is totally about people dying.
People don’t say ‘potato’ to Irish people because they like spuds more than anyone else. English people’s national dish is basically chips. Failing that, mashed up potato on top of some mashed up meat. English food, like Irish food, is basically meat + potatoes + optional something green and/or wet.
English (and Americans — don’t think you’re getting off lightly, with your frequently bizarre views on Ireland) people make jokes about potatoes because of the Great Famine (or an Gorta Mór if you prefer) which is when ‘potatoes’ and ‘Ireland’ became synonymous.
So, what are the wheezes regarding the Great Famine? Well, strap yourself in, because this is a gigglefest!
The Irish Potato Famine was a period in Irish history where mass starvation took place, and loads of people died of famine and disease, which of course saw swathes of people emigrating the country just to stay alive.
The famine started in 1845 and continued until 1852, which in historical terms, basically happened yesterday morning.
The British government had been swinging their dicks all over Ireland through Corn Laws and such, as well as deciding that they owned all the land, and having ‘absentee landlords’ who basically took all the money from Ireland without ever being there, which is obviously a solid base for a one-word joke to be told to an Irish person.
It’s all in the nuance and timing, isn’t it?
Of course, in taking all of Ireland’s valuables and money, it was a poor country. Where potatoes were once a supplementary thing in Ireland, it was made so impoverished that it became the principle diet of the island. It’s cheap to grow and spuds will grow in crappy soil — handy if the good land has been handed over to cows, which the British kept for themselves.
The British transformed the Irish countryside into “an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market [in Britain]… and the British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of Ireland” and “pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favourable soil.” (Rifkin, ‘Beyond Beef’ 1993)
And then, with expert comic timing, the potato blight hit, which was a disease that devastated potato crops throughout Europe. Yep, the disease hit the whole of Europe, but only Ireland had been backed into a corner so that it was almost entirely dependent on potato crops.
But why didn’t they eat something else, ho ho?! Well, this is the thing about being incredibly poor — you don’t have the means to go fishing in the sea, and if you’re in the middle of a famine where you’re dying, trekking to the coast to chance your arm with a stick and a bit of string isn’t a great idea.
What about other edible crops? What about the cattle that was everywhere? Remember, we’re talking about the poor here. Penniless people under the rule of a country who would quite happily kill them if they started stealing shit. Can’t afford it. Daren’t steal it. Don’t have the means to cultivate it… apart from potatoes, which are cheap, filling, and will grow almost anywhere.
Oh, and let’s remember the British policy which had discriminated against the Irish commercial fishing industry. Irish ports were in ruins and abandoned. And Irish fishermen were also poverty stricken and starving, because there was a famine on, see?
And salt, which you need to preserve fish — that costs money — money that Irish people didn’t have because of… you’ve got the gist by now.
That said, it’s just a bit of fun though isn’t it? Saying ‘potato’ in an Irish accent to an Irish person? Just a silly thing that happens to be about approximately one million people dying, and a million more leaving the country, making the whole country’s population drop by about a quarter.
Thanks to the famine, the Irish language began to die out too. Think about it — if you don’t speak English, there’s not much point moving to England to get away from the famine is there? And when you get to England, they hate the fact you’re a Catholic (the whole ‘speaking Irish’ gives you away) and discriminate against you, and start saying that all Irish people look like monkeys, and that they’re violent and alcoholics.
Quick aside — the whole ‘fightin’ Irish’ and ‘drunk’ thing comes from anti-Irishness in Victorian Britain, who wanted the world to know that the Irish were an inferior race.
People with Irish accents and Irish names were barred from getting jobs, and going in pubs, and everything else besides. In the UK and USA, there were ‘NINA’ signs, which is ‘No Irish Need Apply’, which of course, turned into ‘No Blacks, No Irish’ after a while.
Even Benjamin Disraeli got in on the act. In 1836, he wrote: “[The Irish] hate our order, our civilisation, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”
Charles Kingsley, author of fairy tale ‘The Water Babies’ wrote: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country…to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
Oh, there’s also the side-splitting ‘coffin ships’ as well, where people fled the country after being turfed out by snide landlords, who applied arbitrary ‘back rent’ and imprisoned the bread-winner of a family, which saw destitute families boarding coffin ships to foreign countries on false promises. More on that here.
So there you have it.
Ireland had an actual famine where a million people died, the suppression of their actual language, so a million fled the country to a place which was partly responsible for their suffering — a country which thought it might be a good idea to ignore all that suffering and instead, focus on their Catholicism (Britain was very Protestant remember) — and pass them off as child murdering, incest-doing, drunken, loathsome, inferior creatures who shouldn’t be allowed to get jobs.
Oh. Then King Edward VII opposed Irish Home Rule, had it away with an Irish woman called Nellie Clifden which shocked Queen Victoria’s fella Prince Albert so much that she blamed Edward VII for his death, and between them oversaw huge anti-Cathoic sentiment in the UK, which eventually led to the Irish War of Independence, which saw the island becoming the Irish Free State in 1919.
That meant reprisals, and then Bloody Sunday (31 people dead, including 11 British soldiers and police, 16 Irish civilians, and 3 Irish prisoners) happened, the British Forces burned down the centre of Cork City, it kicked off everywhere else, and the British Government created Northern Ireland in 1921, and that brings up bang up to date with The Troubles (apparently, also a laugh-a-minute).
Now the history lesson is over, let us recap.
Potato + mass death + mass emigration + xenophobia + war + suppression of culture and language + creation of a British state in Ireland + some more war = LOLZ!
Now, at no point have I said that you can’t make ‘potato’ jokes to Irish people. I’m not about to police what you can and can’t joke about. And yes, I know this is skewed toward the Irish, but the Irish don’t say “FACKING GRAVY INNIT?!” at English people every time they meet them.
That’s because Irish people know that there’s more than one English accent, for starters.
I’m not even saying it’s your fault. Seriously — you imagined it. Besides, I would’ve hoped there’d be a sense of ‘Oh, I didn’t know about all that — it sounds horrible, and it explains why my Irish mate gets irritated when people say ‘potato’ at them’, rather than ‘How can I make this past atrocity about my feelings in some way?’
I’m not even implying that the Irish didn’t do some of their own dodgy stuff — it’s just not the focus here.
And Irish people make famine jokes? Sure they do. Just like people slag their own mums off — but if someone else tries it, there’s a chance someone will hit you with a glass ashtray for your time. Read the room, it’s your call.
Either way, now you can keep the back story in your mind as to why Ireland and potatoes are so inextricably linked, and that, when you chirrup “POHTAYTOE!” at a someone, you can now decide whether or not you want to give a tiny shit about it.
In conclusion — how many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman? One. A King Edward.