“Over There (I - The Praties They Grow Small)”

Author: A. P. Graves?
Earliest date: 1895 ("In Old New England"); tune registered 1844
Keywords: hardtimes farming food poverty starvation
Found in: US(Ap,SE,So)

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

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, it 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 to Ruth Dudley Edwards, _An Atlas of Irish History_, second edition, 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. (According to Peter and Fiona Somerst Fry, _A History of Ireland_, p. 228, "by the 1840s, [the potato] had become the sole diet for three million....") When the crop failed, they starved. No other outcome was possible. It was a Malthusian result, pure and simple.

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. 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.

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 (see Robert Kee, _The Most Distressful Country_, being volume I of _The Green Flag_, 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. - RBW

Historical references

Cross references

References

  1. Hudson 90, pp. 216-217, "Over There" (1 short text, with one humorous and one straight verse)
  2. 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)
  3. Scott-BoA, pp. 148-149, "The Praties They Grow Small" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Botkin-NEFolklr, pp. 532-533, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Spaeth-ReadWeep, pp. 30-31, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. PGalvin, p. 44, "The Famine Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 24, "Over There" (1 text, 1 tune, with ordinary and parody verses)
  8. Silber-FSWB, p. 119, "The Praties" (1 text)
  9. DT, OVRTHERE* PRATSMALL*
  10. Roud #4455
  11. BI, SBoA148