[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 8, August 18, 1832]
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DUBLIN PENNY JOURNAL
Sir-I perceive by your sixth number that the Ghost of Brian Boroihme has invaded my territories, and taken up the subject of "National Emblems." I will, therefore, though in despite of the proverb that a living dog is better than a dead LION, leave it in his hands, and proceed to give you a few loose rambling rolicking thoughts on that pride of an Irishman-the Potatoe.
Nothing can be sweeter than new potatoes and milk for supper, provided one does not indulge too freely. This error I committed one evening not long ago, and the consequence was a dyspeptic fit, which my wife mistaking for incipient cholera, sent off to a medical hall for that infallible draft which its cunning leech has compounded for our good citizens, and which, if it has not cured well, has at least well filled his pockets, and that was quantum suff. for him. The draft had on my naturally sound stomach, no bad effect; the opium it contained communicated that dreamy, sensitive drowsiness, which, while it makes the body torpid, sets the mind at work, and calls up a host of confused ideal associations and broken images. And as a muddy conviction existed in my deranged sensorium that Potatoes had brought me to the state I was in, there arose before me a sort of potatoe vision, and methought I sat in a court house, and a legal investigation was going on, relative to the merits and demerits of the potatoe family. And at the bar stood the representative of the race, awaiting the result-his face was a red-nosed kidney-his arms were Wicklow bangers-his breast was a Judy Brown's fancy-his stomach was a cup-his nether parts were barbarous wonders-his legs were long Cork reds-and his feet Connaught lumpers. As he held up his hand to plead not guilty, I perceived a new sort called long fingers, and some one whispered to me that the variety which formed his cranium was much given to the curl. The trial had begun-and a bullnecked burly bragadocia sort of counsel, whose name was COBBETT, led the case for the prosecution. "My lord, and gentlemen of the Jury," he proceeded, "there never came before you a greater culprit than the prisoner at the bar. He has done incalculable mischief, and has raised and supported a miserable population, who depend on him alone for subsistence, and who, should he fail them, have nothing else to look to-they must have potatoes or perish. By his pernicious influence, a brave manly people have been brought down to the lowest level of mere existence. At one time he has copiously supplied them with food, and encouraged extravagance and waste-at another he has disappointed their hopes and sent famine through the land, and caused shrieks of despair to be heard on every side, and disease has cried 'havoc and let slip the dogs of war!' Gentlemen of the Jury, let me tell you that the people who subsist on this detestable root are standing on the last rung, of the ladder of human life, below which they cannot go, unless some other foreigner can succeed in persuading them to quit the potatoe, and live on pig nuts, or extract nourishment from the seaweed that covers the ocean rocks. Sir Walter Raleigh found this abominable root-this vile batata-amongst the savages of Guiana, who were in the habit of making up for the uncertainty of its produce, in the seasons of its failure, by eating the fat and slimy earth found along the banks of the great river Orinooko. It would have been well for Ireland, had this dangerous speculator kept his batatas to himself-it would have been well had he never touched upon her shores, and still better had he never put the Guiana root in Irish earth -or seeing he was determined on an experiment, it would have been well had the grim and fire eating captain of good Queen Bess given something to balance the evils of the uncertainty of the potatoe produce-and failing that, it would have been a glorious circumstance for the three kingdoms had he lost his head before he introduced among us his abominable tobacco and detestable potatoe.*
"Gentlemen of the Jury-there was a time, 'ere Ireland's woes began,' when potatoes were unknown-that root of all her miseries-when the people fed on beef and mutton like myself, and looked as fair and fat and stout as I do-when no poor dwarfish, sallow-skinned spalpeens were to be seen-and when the enemies of the country, if they happened to gain an advantage in any slight skirmish, used to be astonished, in stripping the slain, on finding bodies so plump and fair. We English look with pity not unmingled with contempt, on your potatofied people-and though doubtless they are sometimes as good at handling the stalk, as in eating the root, can you compare the children of this ground apple to the sons of bread, beer, and cheese? Now, I am well aware that the counsel for the defence will reply that the use of the potatoe enables Ireland to be a great exporting country. But this is an argument for needy and greedy landlords. It may be well for them that eight millions of people, by living on potatoes can export eight millions of produce-but it is only such degraded countries as Poland and Ireland, that export corn while the cultivators of the soil live on the vile garbage of roots. China does not export-Holland does not export- France does not export-and yet Ireland exports! Now, gentlemen, compare an English labourer's expenditure with an Irishman's. The one eats bread, bacon and cheese-drinks beer, tea, and coffee-uses sugar, malt and sundry excisable commodities-wears things and consumes things that employ the manufacturers, and pay the taxes of the nation-and thus farmers and manufacturers mutually do well, and find a ready market at their own doors. But a native of Ireland, living on potatoes, and using half a stone each day, worth perhaps but a penny, and a half-penny worth of buttermilk, and making use but of the produce of a pig and a few poultry for the supply of his wretched raiment, using scarcely any manufacured commodity, and consuming nothing taxable but whiskey - why, if the Englishman's income and expenditure may be represented by £30. the Irishman's may safely be set down at £4.-and Ireland, instead of increasing in wealth, is sinking in poverty, and steeped in crime-and all owing to that rascally lazy culprit at the bar, who has made Ireland a lazy land, Irishmen a lazy people, and prevented the country from being what it might have been-the most prosperous country under the face of the sun! I hope, gentlemen, that your verdict this day will have the effect of sending Mister Potatoe beyond seas for the term of his natural life; and that Irishmen, in his absence, will learn to eat some of their own corn, taste a little of their own bacon, brew their own beer, make their own candles, and cut up their own pigs; and then will they be 'what they ought to be,' have a shilling in their pocket, and a rasher on their gridiron all the year round."
Having said this, and a great deal more, in a broad, bold, vulgar, but infinitely more perspicuous style than I can pretend to, he sat down; and then rose up counsellor Mealy O'Murphy, who, with broad grinning humour in his countenance, and with the confident air and address of one who had been thrice dipt in the Shannon, and had licked the blarney stone, replied as follows:-
"My lord, and gentlemen of the Jury-the only word of truth which the counsel opposite spoke this blessed day was when he said we could handle the stalk, as well as eat the root. I was going to say he spoke like an Englishman-but I must make no national reflections, and just say this much, that he spoke like a man who thought that every blessing of life lay in swilling beer, bolting bacon, baking bread, and chewing cheese. Now, gentlemen, I am not ashamed to avow myself a lover and an eater of potatoes; and I am sure all who hear me to day will admit that a bellyful is a bellyful all the world over; and I, for one, would sooner have my stomach charged with good mealy potatoes and cooling buttermilk than with all the stale bread and parings of old cheese that were ever cut in an English village. No people on the earth are more happy and contented than the Hindoos, and they live strictly on vegetable food; and the people of Ireland love their potatoes, and are happy and contented with them. It is not the potatoe that is the root of their misery, as my learned brother with little logic and less wit, averred-no! the celebrated agriculturist, Arthur Young, coinciding with the well-known Irish carrol-
"The sweetest divarshin that's under the sun,
Is to sit by the fire till the Praties are done" -
expatiates with pleasure on the comforts of sitting by a blazing turf fire, and stripping the jackets off a potful of potatoes previous to pouching them; and potatoes seasoned with an egg, or a herring, and washed down with milk, are not to be sneezed at by any beer and bacon devourer in Great Britain. What! compare a feast of genuine, white, mealy Irish potatoes and buttermilk, with a slice of stale bread cut from a well watched loaf, and eaten with a piece of hard indigestible cheese, and set down with a draft of druggist's beer-such an absurdity! "Gentlemen of the Jury-the potatoe never did harm in Ireland. My client is not indeed accountable for all the bastards and imposters who have assumed his name-the people of London never see a rale potatoe-let them come to Dublin and we will give them a taste, not of trashy poisonous roots, but of round, lumping, dry, and wholesome apples, that would bring a cockney's heart to his mouth. Yes! give my countrymen fair play, and they'll never part the potatoe- let the landlords invest capital, and let the government introduce a proper system of poor laws, in our land-let manufactures be established, and employment be given-let all be done which ought to be done, and from every Irish cabin will the smoke be seen ascending just previous to the dinner hour, and if a stranger chose to enter, he would get cead mille failte to a share of a glorious rasher of bacon, and still more glorious potatoes; and on winter nights, when the storm is sweeping over the hills, and the rain pattering furiously against the door, how happy, how truly felicitous, to sit in a circle all round the fire, to hear the pot boiling, to see the beautiful roots bursting their coats and showing their fair faces, to hold the herring on the point of a fork till it fizzes into an eating condition, to see the milk poured out into all the jugs, and to see the happy faces, and listen to the loud laughter of the children- Oh! give me a winter night, a turf fire, a rasher of bacon, and a mealy potatoe.
"Now, gentlemen, it is a big lie that the Irish people are discontented with their potatoes. True, they want something along with them-and potatoes and point are very dry fare. But even with nothing but the potatoe, who for a moment would compare the moral habits, the female chastity, the conjugal fidelity, the mutual dependance that exist in an Irish cabin, where scarcely any thing but potatoes are eaten, with the moral laxity that is engendered in the lofts of an English manufactory. Why, gentlemen, an Irishman, sooner than let his aged father or mother drag out the remainder of their days in a workhouse, would give, not the half, but the whole of his last potatoe to keep them at his own fire side.
"But, gentlemen, I am not arguing for the exclusive use of the potatoe. Let the people be encouraged to use other food in the spring and summer seasons-let landlords be kind and considerate, so that while they live they would let live- let rents be lowered-let the potatoe have a long vacation-and I fearlessly assert that the day would (or should) be kept as a joyful anniversary in which the first potatoe was set in Irish soil. It is a root which has reared millions of sound men-men fit to light the battles of their king and country over sea and land, and exalt the red cross flag of the British monarch in every clime and on every shore. Gentlemen, I cannot for a moment doubt but that you will give a verdict of acquittal for my client, who, as base insinuations have been thrown out respecting his arrival in our country, I beg leave to assure you is most anxious to inform you that his name is not derived from the Spanish word, batata, hut was given to him in merry Ireland, and is thus declined- pot-eat-O,s - that is what the O's - the O, Murphy and the O'Toole eat out of - a Pot!"
Here the opium ceased to operate-my reverie was disturbed by the heavy breathings of my worthy wife, who was indeed rapidly approaching that trumpeting state called a snore; and trial, judge, jury, verdict, all vanished, "like the baseless fabric of a vision, leaving not a wreck behind."
I am, Sir, yours to command,
* It may not be generally known that when Sir Walter Raleigh's servants first saw him smoking tobacco, they thought he was on fire, and ran over to extinguish him!