Those who have read this blog over the years will know that I have written about the Dave Langford/Dermot Carey heritage potato collection many times.
Their 225+ varieties of potato, including many rare, old varieties of Irish interest which, for many years, they have displayed and spoken about at events countrywide, have made for a wonderful educational resource, a living history and an important part of our food heritage.
This past weekend I learned of an incredibly severe blow to the collection, a too-harsh lesson in the fragility of preserving old and rare varieties and of not better supporting the people who do that important work for us. While all is not entirely lost, there is much that is, and a challenge has been set for those who really believe that such things are worth preserving.
For the past six years, mid-March has been writ large in my calendar. Not, as you might imagine, because of St. Patrick’s Day in all of its greenery but rather, because it is at or around this time of year that the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co. Leitrim, hosts its annual Potato Day.
It’s an event presided over by Hans Wieland, and a time for people to stock up on seeds for the coming season, to get advice from expert growers, and to hear talks on subjects of interest to the gardener of potatoes, be it on the importance of soil (the subject of an excellent presentation given this year by Trevor Sargent) or on GM or blight resistant spuds, or even a spin through the latest in spud developments from around the world (which was my contribution to this year’s event).
And ever-present, every year, has been a diverse display of potatoes – the rare, old and unusual spud collection that has been amassed, maintained and nurtured over a great many years by Dave Langford, and ably assisted in that task for the past 8 or 9 years by master vegetable grower Dermot Carey.
Samples from their collection of 225+ varieties are a sight that will be familiar to anyone who has attended potato events in this country over the past 7 or 8 years. It never fails to generate interest among the attendees, who reminisce about spuds past, discuss spuds present and may even enquire about spuds future. And often, when someone would express a particular interest in a particular spud, Dave might pass them a precious seed or two. It was just such an encounter between Dave and Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes which ultimately lead to the commercial revival of the Lumper potato (whatever your opinions about that may be).
And yet, with the maintenance of the collection having always been done on a voluntary basis by Dave and Dermot – growing it year on year and storing tubers over winter – the position of this precious resource has been precarious, more than we in the know might have cared to admit. Despite awards in 2010 from Euro-toques and again in 2014 from the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, which acknowledged the importance of the work done by Dave and Dermot in preserving so many heritage varieties of potato, and despite the wish expressed in giving those awards that a permanent home might be found for a collection of such significance, it is Dave’s back garden that has remained the most permanent home that the collection has ever had.
Other locations have, for various reasons, been more transient, and though there was great optimism expressed last year when it appeared that the collection might find a new permanent home at Richard Corrigan’s Virginia Lodge in Cavan, I understand that didn’t, in the end, pan out. The collection did, however, make a return to Lissadell estate in Sligo last year – which reopened to the fee paying public after many years of legal wranglings over rights of way – with about 160 varieties planted there.
And so, to this year’s Potato Day, where I arrived to find a Dave and a Dermot but, shockingly, nary a heritage spud between them. Dave has been unwell, having suffered a heart attack a few months ago, and the seeds which he had stored in a shed at home were attacked by rats, who shredded the lot (apart, Dave notes, from a couple of Lumpers, so make of that what you will).
Though Dave still managed to be his relentlessly positive, enthusiastic self, the experience can have been nothing short of devastating. The loss included several varieties bred by Dave himself – and anyone who has ever tried their hand at breeding potatoes will know how many years that takes, and what a gut wrenching loss that would be. To add insult to injury, when Dave and Dermot went to check for tubers at the planting sites in Lissadell, they were not to be found. More rats at work perhaps, these of a two-legged variety.
As he related the tale of woe, I listened to Dave – sad and disbelieving.
Just like that, it seemed, there was the collection, a life’s work, gone.
Or perhaps not quite.
When I got home, I contacted Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House, who had, two years ago, instigated the growing of potatoes from the collection as part of the Dublin Urban Farm project. Yes, he said, they have around 120 varieties at the new home for the Dublin Urban Farm at Belvedere College. That represents perhaps 50% of the collection that was. All may not be entirely lost, then, but remains in an even more fragile state than ever.