Honest Abe and the Oul’ Sod: A History of Ireland in Starch

Caleb, aged nine, was given a project at school: carve a potato to illustrate some aspect of the history of Ireland.

Most people would content themselves with:
  • making a spud stamp in the shape of a Celtic symbol
  • sticking a tweed accessory and an old-fashioned mophead on just about any tuber and claiming it as a sculpture of Seamus Heaney
  • or fashioning a pile of matchstick chips/french fries as an ironic, post-modern tribute to ancestors lost in the famine

But not Caleb. No, Caleb carved his potato into a likeness of Abraham Lincoln. His parents, once they got over being impressed, were mystified, but these are tough times and they were unwilling to sacrifice a second spud to Caleb’s classwork, and besides, their son’s starchy sculpture really was the spitting image of Honest Abe.

Trouble though, when the young artist took his carb-laden Lincoln into school ” Great work, Caleb” said the teacher, “but what has Lincoln got to do with the history of Ireland?” This was a fair question as, unlike many American Presidents, there is no suggestion that Lincoln’s forebears were from the Emerald Isle, or that Lincoln was ever asked to, for example, intervene in an 19th century peace process (although of course a great deal of time and trouble could have been saved if someone had thought of this). Caleb though, was ready with his answer: ” Well, I know he never went there” said quick-thinking Caleb, “but he  sure thought about it a lot.”

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney


A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.

Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand

Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf

Recurs mindlessly as autumn. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.

Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
like inflated pebbles. Native
to the black hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.

Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in “forty-five,”
wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,
grubbling, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato digger are
you still smell the running sore.

Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Brown bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop

Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.

— Seamus Heaney

About Liz Barron

US Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. Permanent address in Washington DC. Deep roots in Northern Ireland and persistent Belfast accent. Blogger,cook, mother, grandma, Scrabble-player and enthusiastic world traveler.
This entry was posted in Culture with the Crone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Honest Abe and the Oul’ Sod: A History of Ireland in Starch

  1. mrred says:

    Love this blog I’ll be back when I have more time.

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