What Are Irish Potatoes?

Irish potatoes are not Irish – they are a type of white potato from South American which are forever associated with an infamous potato-disease famine in Ireland.
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Irish potatoes are not Irish at all.

The shrubby perennials with edible tubers, grown as cool-weather annuals in rows, raised beds, or containers, are native to the South American Andes. Though introduced to the world by early European explorers only in the past four hundred years, the starchy tubers quickly became one of the world’s most important and nutritious foods, behind only corn, wheat, and rice. All parts of the plants are toxic if eaten, except for the properly-harvested and stored tubers. 

There are thousands of different potato varieties, including many dozens grown widely by commercial farmers and home gardeners alike, with most lumped into groups based on tuber color and starch content. Irish potatoes are typically in the “white potato” group characterized by light tan to cream colored skin, and a white flesh that has a waxy texture due to moderate to low amounts of starch.

They are called Irish potatoes for the simple reason that they were the main type grown in Ireland in the early 1800s, and are forever associated with The Great Irish Famine, one of the worst agricultural, social, and cultural disasters of the time.

Irish Potato Varieties

White Irish potatoes are among the most widely-grown worldwide. The tubers hold their shape when boiled or turned into potato salad, and can be roasted, broiled or fried. However, white potatoes are a little too dense to mash very well without getting gluey.

The Real Irish Potato

The original Irish potato – the one grown so widely in Ireland before the infamous famine - has been identified and bred to be resistant to late blight disease. “Irish Lumper” is a slightly oblong, knobby waxy white potato.

Most rural Irish people grew this potato in abundance because it was heavily productive and stored well through the winter. However, their dependence on this single variety set them up for failure. When a disease called late blight, caused by a fungus-like mold named Phytopthora infestans, devastated the harvest for several years in a row, it led to a major famine that caused approximately one million people to die, another million to leave the island, and a lasting social upheaval.

The improved, disease-resistant Irish Lumper has been making a come-back in the past few years as an heirloom variety, and is now grown by Irish school children in small raised beds for its historic significance as well as its good yields.

Other popular varieties of white potatoes include Kennebec, Superior, Atlantic, Cascade, Snowden, White Elephant, White Rose, Cal White. If you like heirloom varieties, look for Green Mountain, an old kind with highly variable tuber sizes but great flavor.

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