The potato may seem like an ordinary, even humble, root vegetable, making regular appearances on the tables of the poor. But the potato famine in Ireland, which began in 1845, showed its power – the blight on potatoes in Ireland forced over 1.5 million Irish people to immigrate to the United States. They were the first great wave of refugees to arrive on America’s shores, and they faced a hard life here. Most of them arrived with very little, and many were in poor health. Few in the new country were willing to offer them any jobs but the most menial and lowest-paying. Irish adults lived an average of just six years after stepping off the boat, and 60% of the children born to Irish families in Boston didn’t live to see their 6th birthday.
Competition for unskilled jobs quickly became intense between the new arrivals and the poor who had been born in American cities. In Ireland, a working man might earn eight cents a day. In America, he could earn up to a dollar a day, so American-born workers feared being undercut by hungry Irish willing to work for less than the going rate. Their resentment, combined with growing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment among all classes led to ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs being posted in many shop windows, and on factory gates and workshop doors.
By 1850, the Irish made up 43 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S.
That’s a lot of change brought about by an attack of blight on a root vegetable.
Joseph Stroud (1943 – ) is an American poet who was born in California. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Of This World: New and Selected Poems, recipient of the Poetry Center Book Award; Country of Light; and Below Cold Mountain. His work earned a Pushcart Prize in 2000 and has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.
To read Joseph Stroud’s poem, The Potato, click here:
by Joseph Stroud
Three days into the journey
I lost the Inca Trail
and scrambled around the Andes
in a growing panic
when on a hillside below snowline
I met a farmer who pointed the way—
Machu Picchu allá, he said.
He knew where I wanted to go.
From my pack I pulled out an orange.
It seemed to catch fire
in that high blue Andean sky.
I gave it to him.
He had been digging in a garden,
turning up clumps of earth,
some odd, misshapen nuggets,
He handed me one,
a potato the size of the orange
looking as if it had been in the ground
a hundred years,
a potato I carried with me
until at last I stood gazing down
on the Urubamba valley,
peaks rising out of the jungle into clouds,
and there among the mists
was the Temple of the Sun
and the Lost City of the Incas.
Looking back now, all these years later,
what I remember most,
what matters to me most,
was that farmer, alone on his hillside,
who gave me a potato,
a potato with its peasant face,
its lumps and lunar craters,
a potato that fit perfectly in my hand,
a potato that consoled me as I walked,
told me not to fear,
held me close to the earth,
the potato I put in a pot that night,
the potato I boiled above Machu Picchu,
the patient, gnarled potato
“The Potato” from Country of Light, © 2004 Joseph Stroud – Copper Canyon Press