That's why I was so excited to see a new website, potato.ie launched to promote the Irish potato as 'Ireland's Feel-Good Food'. Take a look, it's full of recipe ideas, fun facts and information about Solanum tuberosum.
If I've got one complaint, it is that the website highlights the supposed connection between Sir Walter Raleigh and the potato. A connection which is just not supported by the facts.
Under the the 'History' section of the website, they note that "popular myth credits its introduction at Youghal, Co. Cork by Sir Walter Raleigh. Other anecdotal evidence suggest that the potato was washed up on the shores of Cork after the wreck of the Spanish Armada in the area".
To be fair to the Irish Potato Federation, they make it clear that they consider the Raleigh story an urban (or should that be rural?) myth and so it is.
The Walter Raleigh myth is a really nice story and in many ways, I'd really like it to be true, but academics and historians are pretty sure that it's not. The story 'dies hard' though due to is widespread publicity and legendary status.
The most likely theory for the introduction of potato to Ireland and Britain is that it arrived from Spain. The author William Coles wrote in London in 1657 about “the potatoes which we call Spanish because they were first brought up to us out of Spain, grew originally in the Indies…”
Even as far back as 1727, there was clearly a view that the potato came from Spain (and indeed there was people willing to reject that argument). The Anglo-Irish botanist Caleb Threlkeld wrote pompously:
“Those who would give to the Spaniards the honour of entrencing (sic) this useful root called the potato, give me leave to call designing parricides, who stirred up the mislead zeal of the people of this kingdom to cast off the English government which is the greatest mercy they ever enjoyed… To ascribe the honour of the English industry to the effeminate Spaniards cannot be passed over without remark… and if I might advise the inhabitants, they should every meal they eat of this root be thankful to the Creator for English navigation.”
"every meal they eat of this root be thankful to the Creator for English navigation"What a wonderful rant! But perhaps he protests too strongly? It's useful to note that nowhere does Threlkeld mention Raleigh to back up his assertions. Surely if the Raleigh myth was in play back in 1727, the author would have played it as his trump card? This suggests that Raleigh's name was introduced at a later date to support this argument.
The Spanish theory is also supported by Irish oral tradition.Seán O Neachtain wrote the poem Cáth Bearna Chroise Brighde (The Battle of the Gap of St. Bridget’s Cross) in 1750 and this clearly supports the Spanish theory.
The poem is a very lengthy account of a fictional battle, which takes place near Tallaght in Co. Dublin (the poem extends to 218 short verses).
In it, O'Neachtain refers to the potato as "An Spaineach Geal" - the kind-hearted Spaniard and refers to its supporters as "the friends of the Spaniards". At the beginning of the poem, the poet mourns the loss of "my dear Spaniard" saying his death will be "death for the gaels, woe to them all".
Whatever the truth, the Raleigh myth is an endearing one and there is little doubt that the southwest of Ireland is a location were potato cultivation was understood and practiced at an early stage, perhaps because of the mild climate. It is possible that Raleigh was used as a figurehead for those wanting to give the vegetable a more 'appropriate' or British image in light of its connections to Spain.
As a piece of fiction, the Raleigh myth is a great one, but we shouldn't confuse fact with fiction, even if it does spoil a good story.