Irish Coordinator Jason Horner tells the story of the origins, and his journey with saving seed from, the Land Leaguer potato…

The Land Leaguer potato, sometimes called Hibernia, is a revered variety in County Clare where I have been living for the last 25 years. My introduction to it was early on in my time here through a neighbour of mine who used to plough for me, Paddy McMahon from Spancilhill. Now in his 80s he could remember his father growing it, so it goes back a long way. He gave me six tubers and I set about trying it.

It has an unusual colour with a light purple skin and yellow flesh. An early variety sports a purple and yellow flower. As fits with local tastes, it is quite a floury potato with high dry matter content and very tasty to those with a discerning taste for dry spuds.

I grew my six tubers out and built up a decent amount of seed over the following years. I took on the responsibility to make sure it didn’t disappear altogether. I always planted a 100ft row, ate very few and made sure to spread them around as best I could. In later years, I would bag them up and give them to the Irish Seed Savers Association to hand out at their annual seed swap where they were highly sought after.

Paddy McMahon from Spancilhill ploughing back in 2006

I had figured that it would be very easy to lose a lesser-known variety as tubers don’t really keep for more than a year. This knowledge motivated me in the annual growing out and saving of seed. The variety had no commercial value as I saw it and so was unlikely to be maintained on any of the commercial seed potato growers’ lists.

Initially, I had problems with warts on the tubers but over years with careful selection these disappeared. The variety also had a susceptibility to blight and I got around this in the end by growing them indoors and making sure they were finished before the blight came in.

Another neighbour started growing some but wasn’t great at saving seed. He liked eating them too much. I would often gave him seed and dug them for him here from time to time. The tunnel crop was always early…

About five years ago Keith Walsh, a fellow market gardener in Ennis Farmer’s Market, started to grow this variety for sale. It was a very savvy move on his part, and he built up a big clientele for the Leaguers. He grew them outside and they did well for him. A few years later I was retiring from the market, and so I stopped growing them. I felt that Keith could take my place in keeping the variety going. I had always presumed that he too was saving his own seed but it turned out he was sourcing his seed from Donegal. However, this year he told me he could no longer get seed there so the threat of their demise is still real.

I have offered to grow seed for him from time to time to keep the vitality up. I have heard it said that potato seed can get “stale” when being grown in the same soil for a number of seasons. It is good practice to grow it out on different land every few years to keep the seed vital. I planted 8 tubers this year for the first time in a while. It will be good to have seed again.

This story is an attempt to highlight the precariousness of having just one variety of potato seed. Other common vegetables, such as Garlic and Jerusalem Artichokes, are also equally at risk of being lost in a very short space of time if we are not careful.

You may say why bother keeping a variety that has little commercial value, but this is to miss the point. It could be that the variety has value in future breeding programmes for some of the traits that it displays. But more than this, are the stories associated with it, the infamous taste and the memories that people hold of this variety that they maybe grew alongside a parent in their youth. These memories are of so much more of value than its commercial value, maybe even more than its value as a food crop. They are part of our cultural heritage, some would say they are irreplaceable and worth so much more than just money, and something we should try to hold on to.