Over There (I - The Praties They Grow Small)
DESCRIPTION: "Oh, the praties they grow small, Over there... Oh the praties they grow small, But we eat them tops and all...." Stories of the Irish potato famine. Localized versions preserve the theme of poverty but apply it to local conditions and places
AUTHOR: A. P. Graves?
EARLIEST DATE: 1895 ("In Old New England"); tune registered 1844
KEYWORDS: hardtimes farming food poverty starvation
1847/8 - Greatest of several Irish potato famines
FOUND IN: US(Ap,SE,So)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Hudson 90, pp. 216-217, "Over There" (1 short text, with one humorous and one straight verse)
Morris, #236, "Over There" (1 text)
Shellans, pp. 14-15, "Romance" (1 text, 1 tune -- a strange piece with two verses of this song and three of some sort of courting song; there is probably a separate song mixed in there somewhere)
Korson-PennLegends, pp. 250-251, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune, regarded as entirely a parody, but enough like other versions of this song to list here)
Scott-BoA, pp. 148-149, "The Praties They Grow Small" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-NEFolklr, pp. 532-533, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune)
Spaeth-ReadWeep, pp. 30-31, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune)
PGalvin, p. 44, "The Famine Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 24, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune, with ordinary and parody verses)
Silber-FSWB, p. 119, "The Praties" (1 text)
DT, OVRTHERE* PRATSMALL*
cf. "The Emigrant's Farewell to Donegal" (subject: The potato famines)
cf. "Skibereen" (subject: The potato famines)
cf. "The Rotten Potatoes" (subject: The potato famines)
cf. "Did You Ever See the Divil?" (subject: The potato famines)
cf. "In Kansas" (tune & meter, floating lyrics)
cf. "Down on the Pichelo Farm" (floating lyrics)
NOTES: Zimmermann p. 16, fn. 7, writing in 1966: "Many recent anthologies quote wrongly as a song of the famine period 'Over Here' ('Oh, the praties they are small...'). The air was learnt in South America and does not sound Irish; the words were written by A.P. Graves, (see Miss H. Galwey Old Irish Croonauns, p. 16). It was first printed in 1897, in Graves Irish Folk Songs, pp. 76-77." - BS
I would note that, though it was not written during the blight, the song is certainly about the Irish dependence on the potato.
There is no clear dividing line between this and "In Kansas"; there are versions of this piece that are short enough and vile enough to belong with either. But, as often happens, we must classify them separately because the extremes are so distinct.
It is rather shocking to observe that Spaeth (who prints a rather corrupt version and remarks that "[t]he original words are silly enough to suit the most up-to-date interpreter") did not realize that this song connects with the poverty of the potato blight era.
The first of the blights occurred in 1845; the blight continued to strike for the next three years; not until 1849 was there a decent crop, by which time Ireland's population, which exceeded eight million before the blight (twice the current total!), had fallen to about six million; in very round numbers, a million had died and a million had emigrated.
The blight was a fungus, arrived from America, which caused potatoes to wither almost instantly.
To make matters worse, potatoes were the chief crop of Ireland. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that potatoes were easy to grow. But the basic reason was British rules. The Irish had been forced almost entirely onto small holdings, usually of five acres or less (according Edwards, p. 182, in 1841, over 80% of Irish farm families had property of 15 acres or less; 45% had five acres or less). Few families could feed themselves on such small fields using other crops. And if they had enough property to improve things, the British landlords took the excess in rent. So the Irish grew potatoes, and when the crop failed, they starved.
It didn't help that Ireland was among the most overpopulated countries in Europe. I read somewhere that there were over 300 people per arable acre *even in the countryside*. I wish I'd noted the source -- but if we divide the number of acres of land devoted to agriculture in the late twentieth century by the 1845 population, we still get about eight people per arable acre. Edwards, p. 179, notes that, in County Mayo in 1841, there were 475 people per square mile, and only 36% of the land was arable, meaning that in that county, there were 1300 people per square mile of arable land! If British pressure forced the Irish into smallholdings, it was overpopulation which made them microscopic.
And the Irish were true peasants -- among the last in western Europe. Where English tenants by now were growing food for market, the Irish were growing for subsistence, paying their rent with labor and eating every morsel they could scrape from the soil. It wasn't even a money economy -- "by the 1840s, [the potato] had become the sole diet for three million..." (Fry/Fry, p. 228). And "over two-thirds of the Irish people were dependent on agriculture for a living in 1841" (Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely, p. 232). When the crop failed, they starved. No other outcome was possible. It was a Malthusian result, pure and simple.
It is sad to note that, by the 1840s, the antifungal effects of bluestone (copper sulfate) had been discovered -- but were not widely known (Coogan, p. 54). It was not until 1882 that Bordeaux Mixture became commercially available; see the notes on "Mary Anne McGuinan."
The failure of 1845 did not bring utter destruction because the British government of Sir Robert Peel sprang into action to relieve the distress. By 1846, however, Peel's government had fallen, and his successors let the Irish starve (Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely, p. 234). It may have been "laissez faire" (though we note that, while the government didn't send food, it did pass coercive acts to repress riots; as usual "laissez faire" really meant "help the rich and stick the poor"); it may have been deliberate genocide -- whatever it was, it resulted in permanent alienation of the Irish.
Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely, pp 238-239, remind us that there was much blame to go around: "THe historian... will have an uneasy conscience about labelling particular classes or individuals as villains of the piece. The Irish landlords held the ultimate responsibility, but on the whole they were as much involved in disaster as their tenantry. The ministers of the crown who had to accept responsibility once the disaster occurred were callous, parsimonious, and self-righteous. Yet these are the very qualities which Charles Dickens, for instance, found so distasteful in men of their class, and they were exhibited as much to the English as to the Irish poor."
It will tell you something about the landlords of the time that Ireland was exporting food all through the blight -- Daniel O'Connell pointed out to the English Parliament that exports of many agricultural commodities from Ireland to Britain actually *increased* in 1845 (Kee, p. 247). Ireland at this time had, in effect, two economies, the Landlord class (not all of them Protestant, though a lot were) and the Tenants (all Catholic). The landlords had not interest in feeding the tenants; that, after all, didn't bring in any cash. "[H]ad all food been kept in the country, and home-grown grain and provisions been on sale, had private enterprise succeeded in functioning and supplies of cheap food been freely available, the Irish people would have been little better off. They were penniless; even if food had been abundant, they could not have bought it" (Woodham-Smith, p. 121).
Little wonder that it came to be called "The Great Hunger."
Woodham-Smith, pp. 404-405, notes that there were future failures: A bad round of blight in 1852, a worse famine in 1879. "When Irish people refer to 'the famine,' however, they mean the years of concentrated disaster in which blight first appeared, and in rapid succession the partial failure of 1845 was followed by the total failure of 1846 and the second total failure of 1848. The history of what then occurred is deeply engraved in the memory of the Irish race" (Woodham-Smith, p. 405).
"The famine ravaged Ireland from 1845 to 1848. That is a minuscule part of the 8,000 or so years of Ireland's history which are treated in this book. Yet it was probably the most cataclysmic event in that long period, and its effects are still with the Irish in Ireland and with people of Irish descent in many parts of the world" (Fry/Fry, p. 227).
The famine, and a cholera epidemic in 1849, was devastating. Fry/fry, p. 233, estimate the population of Ireland in 1845 as eight and a half million, and think it was down to six and a quarter million in 1850, due to starvation and emigration. Some sources make the casualties even higher. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.7
- Coogan: Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
- Edwards: Ruth Dudley Edwards, An Atlas of Irish History, second edition, 1981 (I use the 1991 Routledge edition)
- Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland, 1988 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Kee: Robert Kee, The Most Distressful Country, being volume I of The Green Flag (covering the period prior to 1848), Penguin, 1972
- Moody/Martin/Keogh/Kiely: T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and Dermot Keough, with Patrick Kiely, The Course of Irish History, fifth edition, 2011 (page references are to the 2012 paperback edition)
- Woodham-Smith: Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger, 1962 (I use the 1964 Signet edition)
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