The Potato Pickers

Thinking about getting a job abroad this summer? Irishman and writer Tom Galvin has an idea how you could earn some money in the Emerald Isle, if you don't mind getting your hands dirty, that is.

I'm not trying to frighten you guys or anything, but let's face it; Ireland is the only country that has granted unrestricted access to citizens of the ten new EU member states. And you're all planning on a long trip west: admit it! Well, there ain't no rainbows, crocks of gold or even valleys filled with Yankee IT companies over here anymore. They've all gone. Gone to Bangladesh or some place. Ireland has become - even for the Yanks prohibitively expensive. Please remember those words.

However, where there's muck there's money - as we like to say - and if you're prepared to slog a bit, there are still jobs available picking the great old Irish spud. I did it. We all did it. And if you plan on coming over here to work, you might just decide to do it. Feel up to it? Then read on.

As far as I was concerned, I was a young teenager, wide-eyed and innocent(ish) and forcibly removed from the city against my will. To the folk in County Wicklow, I was a bloody Jackeen - a city slicker moved up from the big smoke of Dublin. One of the local lads even examined my hands one day and scoffed at them. "Soft as shite," he said, showing me the welts on his, welts so large and ingrained that they were now even beyond the capabilities of a Black and Decker sander. But they were a source of pride for him because he'd earned them on the potato field. Along with the welts came stories of hardship. Bent over double in the scorching sun in summer, to weekends in winter spent on the side of a mountain, the north wind whistling between his legs and with fingernails cracked and split from frozen muck.

I couldn't care less about 'rites of passage tales' from this country savage. The potato was a new item to me. I'd only ever seen chips before. Come summer though, when school holidays were long and the pockets empty, there was only way to get a few quid out here, on the potato field. My parents encouraged me. The cheek of them. They were the ones at fault for dragging me out here in the first place.

The recruitment process takes place on the streets of the village at around seven o'clock in the morning, where the elder men gather around the supermarkets along with the youngsters like myself. Within a few minutes a tractor is heard in the distance and the older vets shuffle forward onto the edge of the kerb. When the tractor arrives pulling a battered trailer behind it, the driver, usually the farmer's son who has no real wish to be there either, leans out and bawls a number - "five!" The rush takes about ten seconds, and if you're slow you won't get on and you'll have to wait to be picked up by another farmer.

Now, a spud may just be a spud, but there were good fields and bad fields to work in, depending on the farmer who owned them rather than the topography of the field, if you get my meaning. Some farmers paid well and took longer breaks; others would start early, pay badly and finish when it was too dark to be able to distinguish the spuds from the stones.

Horse Keddy and Fast Eddy

That first morning, I was picked up in a battered old Volkswagen Golf by a guy who went by the name of "Horse" Keddy (get used to such names). He guaranteed a good rate, and on the back of that guarantee, myself and a couple of mates slid onto the worn leather seat in the back amongst all the essential bits and pieces for spud-picking: empty potato sacks, wire for tying the tops of the plants and several half-full packets of Major cigarettes. "Horse" cracked jokes as we skidded down country lanes towards an open field full of green potato stalks that stretched out to sea. There, several other men hung around near the ditch in worn slacks, smoking, spitting and waiting for the "spuddler" to be hitched onto the back of the tractor.

The spuddler, as it was called (though I'm sure it had a more technical namesake), was the machine that was lowered down onto the potato drills, digging up the soil and leaving the carnage of both potato and green stalk in its wake. When the first ten yards were dug up I was yanked out of the group by a tiny dwarf of a man with forearms like knotted rope. This, I discovered, was the foreman, the real boss of the potato field, who would rather be cracking whips than jokes.

"You," he said with a fifty-something-year-old rasp. "Start stalking".

I looked over to my country companions for assistance, but they were too nervous to say anything. The foreman then bends me over the way you'd wrench open an ironing board and shoves both my hands into the muck.

"Stalk! Stalk! Separate the stalk from the spud," he growls, picking up the green stalk and hurling it to one side. "And if I catch you throwin' a spud out, I'll kick your arse!"

Within the hour there was a dull pain across the base of my back that grew in proportion to the amount of drills dug by the spuddler. By eleven o'clock, I felt as if I'd been smacked across the spine with a spade. The foreman, who went by the name of "Fast" Eddy, constantly marched up and down the drills checking the stalks for spuds. When he found one, his boot connected with your very vulnerable arse. Although I thought he was a complete bollix, the word was that "Fast" Eddy was actually a nice guy around the town and only a bollix in the fields. An old bachelor who went through at least sixty fags a day, his smoking habit was a bonus for us, since not having the wit to stock up each morning he'd pull one of us out from the drill during the day and send us to the village for cigarettes. The walk would take twenty minutes or so and allowed you to straighten out your back.

Of course, there were a few tricks acquired along the way that bought you a quick breather. When you came across a large rock, for example, you'd chuck it onto the next drill, thus sabotaging the spuddler for a few minutes. The ploy each morning was to try and get the actual spud-picking number rather than the stalking. This way, you'd only be allocated a certain stretch to pick as well as a partner to work with. A good partner, always an older vet, would kill off an otherwise solitary and very monotonous day with stories of spuddler sabotage, "Fast" Eddy's affairs with the housewives and the names of the girls who were 'loose' around the town. It was also an unwritten rule that an older picker, having gained his stripes, was permitted a fag break every forty minutes or so. If you were his partner you could do likewise, which is why every bloke in the country starts smoking at about thirteen.

Twenty-five punts a week I got back then. Now you can expect about 350. But the scars that I gained as a kid, rubber-thick welts and ingrown fingernails were as nothing compared to the agonising disc problems I developed years later. Still, I felt a tie with my forefathers, sympathised with the Famine victims (see box) and was accepted into the local community. I also learned the valuable lesson that the spud actually came from South America. And all that sentimental nonsense about Irishness and potatoes is all arse to me. If you're into spuds, go and get a job in McDonalds cooking chips when you get here. You can earn some money and you won't get your hands dirty or your ass kicked. Best of luck then.


crock - an earthenware container (gliniany garnek)
prohibitively - sth so high that it discourages use (niewspółmiernie)
muck - dirt (brud, błoto)
(to) slog - work very hard (harować)
spud - (slang:) potato (ziemniak)
city slicker - sophisticated person from an urban area (cwaniaczek)
big smoke - large city (duże miasto)
(to) scoff - mock or treat with derision (drwić, kpić)
welt - hard skin on the hands caused by hard physical work (zgrubienie, obrzęk)
ingrained - sth that has become deeply and irremovably part of sth else (wżarty, zakorzeniony)
Black and Decker sander - make of machine that smoothes wood (szlifierka B&D)
bent over double - bent right over, almost in two (zgięty w pół, w pałąk)
rite of passage - ritual whereby a person moves from one phase of their life to another (rytuał przejścia)
country savage - unsophisticated rural person (wiejski prostak, dzikus, wieśniak)
chips - Br/IrishE: french fries (frytki)
quid - Irish/BrE: slang term for punts, pounds
cheek - impertinent boldness (bezczelność, tupet)
vet - veteran: sb who has a lot of experience at sth (weteran, kombatant)
kerb - edge of the pavement (krawężnik)
battered - damaged looking through constant use (zdezolowany, wysłużony)
(to) bawl - shout (wykrzyczeć, wywrzeszczeć)
rate - rate of pay, amount given for the job (stawka)
(to) crack a joke - tell a joke (opowiedzieć kawał)
drill - shallow trench in which seeds are grown (bruzda)
carnage - slaughter, effects of war, massacre (masakra, pobojowisko)
stalk - stem: thin green part that supports the plant (łodyga)
foreman - leader of a work crew
rasp - unpleasant sound like the one made by two rough surfaces (zgrzyt)
dull - not intense, not sharp (tępy)
vulnerable - susceptible or open to physical harm (bezradny, bezbronny)
bollix - Irish/BrEincompetent person
fag - Br/IrishE (slang:) cigarette (pet)
wit - intelligence (rezon, dowcip)
(to) stock up - fill a place with things (zaopatrzyć, zrobić zapasy)
quick breather - a short break (chwila wytchnienia)
ploy - gambit, ruse, an action calculated to gain an advantage (wybieg, sztuczka)
number - (slang:) job (posadka, robota)
stretch - area (odcinek)
loose - free and available (wolny)
stripe - sign of authority (ranga, awans)
fag break - cigarette break (przerwa na papierosa)
punt - Irish currency before the country adopted the Euro in 2001 (funt irlandzki)
scar - sign of a previous injury (blizna, szrama)
disc - lower vertebrae (krążek międzykręgowy, dysk)
tie - connection (więź)
forefathers - ancestors (przodkowie)

The Irish Famine 1846 - 1850

This is one of the most important events in Irish history. It began when the potato crop, which was the major source of income for most Irish farmers, became infected with 'blight' - a fungus that makes the vegetable go black with rot. The price of food rose rapidly as a consequence and farmers had neither the money to pay their rent to British landlords, nor could they afford anything to eat. Out of a population of 8 million over I million died from hunger or diseases such as cholera. Another million emigrated, mostly to the United States. Most Irish people blamed the British for not sending aid soon enough. After the Famine, Irish nationalists became even more convinced than they already were that Ireland must gain its independence from Britain if it wished to progress as a nation. Ireland finally gained its independence in 1922, though the six counties in the north of the island remained inside the UK.