The once infamous Irish Lumper potato is on a mission to change its image and Derry is its first stop.
The Irish Lumper is believed to have been cultivated all over Ireland prior to 1840 and was identified as the variety of potato ruined by potato blight which led to the Irish Potato Famine and the deaths of more than one million people.
After almost disappearing from cultivation, the Irish Lumper was re-grown, starting in 2008, by Michael McKillop of County Antrim.
Local horticulturist expert Gareth Austin heard about Michael McKillop’s success with the potato and after speaking with Michael, Gareth decided to try and get a few of the schools in Derry involved in growing the potato.
“The plans for this project started in 2012 when I heard the news of Michael’s project growing the Irish Lumper potato,” said Gareth.
“I contacted Michael and was delighted when he agreed to get on board - it’s a fantastic project.
“This project will see 12 schools from across Derry take part in a unique growing project.
Each school will build a Glens of Antrim raised potato bed in their school grounds, specially for cultivating their own Irish Lumper potatoes - it’s going to be great fun.”
One of the main aims of Gareth’s project is to educate school children about the environment but he explained that due to the potato’s place in Irish culture he thought it would also be a great opportunity for the children to learn about the past.
“When the potatoes are ready the kids will harvest them and then come together with children from all the other schools to experience how these potatoes would have been cooked and eaten back in the 1800s.
“All the gardening we do with schools is heavily curriculum focused.
“Gardening offers schools an amazing resource which crosses over into many areas of the curriculum, and this project obviously combines history, horticulture and cooking into one.
“The children get to grow a potato which is unlike most potatoes they see in the shops, and it relates to a period in time that they only ever get to read about in history books.”
Gareth added:” Local landscaper Paul O’Kane is offering assistance to the school kids on building their beds, this gives kids some basic carpentry experience too.”
Michael McKillop, the man behind the Irish Lumper’s resurgence said he was delighted to be working with Derry school children and added that he hoped they would benefit from taking part.
“Since Provenance is at the heart of our business we recently launched a variety development programme and resurrected ‘the Irish Lumper’ which has been buried for over 170 years and they are now pleased to be educating the young about where it came from and how they can grow it themselves.”
Michael added: “We are delighted to be working with local schools on this food heritage project – for us at Glens of Antrim Potatoes it’s not just about planting and growing, we want to educate children about the heritage of our food here on the island of Ireland, and the benefits of having a healthy diet.”
Emmett McCourt, who runs the Irish Food Heritage Project in Derry has been a chef for more than 25 years.
Emmett said the Irish Lumper Potato project “epitomises” the message he is trying to get across and added that it’s a pleasure to see young people taking an interest in both food and history.
“I am over the moon to see the Irish Lumper making a comeback,” said the Derry chef.
“The Irish Lumper is such a versatile potato and it’s an absolute joy telling the young people all about it and its history.
“This project epitomises what I am trying to do with the Irish Food Heritage Project and I think it has the potential to leave a lasting legacy with all of the children involved,” he said.
The ‘Sunday Journal’ will visit some of the local schools in the coming months to assess how they are getting on with growing and harvesting the Irish Lumper. Watch this space!
The schools participating in the Irish Lumper Potato Project are: Oakgrove Integrated PS, Fountain PS, Longtower PS, St Paul’s PS Slievemore, St Eithne’s PS, Ebrington PS, Lisnagelvin PS, St Therese’s PS Lenamore, St Anne’s PS, Groarty Integrated PS, St Patrick’s PS and Greenhaw PS.