It might not be very green outside yet, but it’s the time of year for feeling green on the inside—Kelly Green or one of the million shades of emerald that remind us of Ireland. With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, it’s that time of year when everyone can be a little bit Irish and celebrate the vibrant life of the underdog.
It’s hard being England’s second colony (Wales was the first) or a land attacked by blight and its people condemned to “The Starving Time.” Those who decided to leave for foreign lands like America had a proportionately equal survival rate for making the sea voyage as they did facing the famine in Ireland. In essence, the death rate equaled or rivaled the Bubonic Plague that had swept Europe (and Asia) 500 years earlier.
The rotting blight condition that attacked the potato crops in the mid 19th Century was in part due to intense monocroping of these starchy tubers, which had been imported from Central America. The Irish had little choice—few other foods could feed the large population on such small acreage. Interestingly, the potato blight has appeared more recently in crops grown in New England, so choose your seed potato stock with care!
Despite all this devastation, the Irish Diaspora somehow managed to hold onto its up-beat music, spunky sense of wit, and love of storytelling. Here’s a version of a traditional Irish story just for you, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
The Wee Man Under the Stone
Not that long ago, there was a farmer’s son who was working for a landed lord in the stables. Every morning, he’d take the horses out to pasture, passing along a hedge row once in the morning, and again in the evening as he brought the horses back in for the night. He was a freckle-faced lad, tall and lanky, but not the best placed for wits. If he had been, he’d have left the wee man under the stone.
Well, one day the lad was bringing in the horses for the evening, passing along the hedgerow, when he heard a terrible crying—moaning, wailing, sniveling, and all the rest. Surely, it was the most pathetic sound you can imagine. But the lad looked around and could see no-one at all.
The next evening, it happened again, and this time the lad let the horses go along and began to search through the hedges looking for what might be crying so. Was it a child, lost in the woods? Was it a lady in deep despair? Searching both high and near, he finally settled the doleful sound on a large, flat stone. But it baffled the lad that such a stone should cry, so he headed home after the horses.
On the third night, the crying and wailing was simply more than he could bear. This time, he found the strangely flat stone, wiggled his fingers around the edges, and lifted it up. Beneath it was what looked like a baby—only its face was certainly no baby at all. It was rumpled and wrinkled and withered up like an old potato, with a long nose, scraggly white hair, and two beady black eyes like those of a shrew staring up at him. The lad quickly replaced the stone and stepped back in shock.
The whimpering started right back up. “Oh please…” said the little squeaking voice, more ancient than the lad’s great grandmother. “Please let me out from under this stone.”
“Why should I?” the lad retorted, more than a little bit scared of the sight he’d seen under that stone.
“Set me free, and I will grant you a great gift!” There was a pause, followed by more sniveling. The lad thought a moment, then asked, “Like what?!”
“Whatever your heart desires most and I will always be there in times of need for you.” The squeaky voice prattled on, complimenting the lad for this and that, if only he would help this poor creature in need.
The lad thought about the little wee man under the stone, small like a baby but shriveled and old. He’d heard warning tales of the little people and their tricks. But then he thought about having whatever his heart desires most, and almost before he could help himself, he lifted off that great flat stone and let the wee man free.
The little creature leapt up, its beady black eyes shining, and danced a jig upon the grass. “Name your wish young man!” it squealed in delight, kicking its heels. “But remember this: never EVER curse me, or you’ll rue the day.” The lad felt a bit dizzy, watching the wee little man dancing about, scraggly hair flying. Finally, he said, “What I really hate is work. I wish I never had to work a day again!”
“Done!” said the wee little man, and off he flew faster than a rabbit. The lad thought he’d probably never see the wee little man from under the stone again…but he was wrong. Walking along, he found the horses grazing on a tuft of turf and headed them on back to the stable. The next morning, he rose to brush the horses, but their coats were already slick, shiny, and newly combed. He went to grease the saddle and tack, but all the work was finished for him already. Even the stalls had been mucked clean and laid with fresh new straw. Well, the lad thought this was mighty fine and enjoyed himself the rest of the day under the shade tree. The next morning, everything was the same. All of his chores had miraculously been done for him and there was no work for him to do.
Well, this didn’t please any of the other servants none. They saw this freckle-faced lad loafing about all day while they had to work, so they put a bad word in their master’s ear and soon the lad found that he was without a job. On down the road he went, wondering how such a misfortune could happen to him. Now he really had no work to do, but he didn’t have any home or any food either. “Curse that wee little man!” he cried out. But, of course, that was the wrong thing to do.
From out of the bushes came the wee little man, the size of a baby but all wrinkled and rumpled with those beady black eyes and scraggly white hair. It was grinning from big ear to big ear, cackling and jumping up and down. “Didn’t I tell you never to curse my help!?” he wailed. “Now sure’s you’ll be wishing you’d left me under the stone—tee hee!” And he pranced round the lad, kicking up his heels. And to his dying day, instead of all his work being done for him, the tall gangly youth had nothing but briars in his shoes, food gone missing in the pot, and all his day’s work undone by morning.
So, if you’re not in a traditional Irish spirit yet, here’s a recipe for quintessential comfort food from the Emerald Isle. This dish is a particular favorite for children.
3 waxy-fleshed potatoes, cut into small dice.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, chopped
A bunch of kale or half a Savoy cabbage, de-stemmed (or cored) and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and warm a baking dish large enough to hold all the ingredients. Boil potatoes (takes approximately 10 minutes). Once cooked, drain the potatoes and place them in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
Heat half the butter with the olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry the onions for 5 minutes, stirring to “keep them from catching.” Add the kale or cabbage and fry until it wilts. Remove pan from heat and add the contents to the potatoes in the mixing bowl. “Give them a good stir” and season with salt and pepper. Take the baking dish out of the oven and melt the rest of the butter in it. Place potato mixture into the pan and bake for approximately 20 minutes. The top of the Colcannon should be golden brown when cooked. Serve topped with butter or your favorite gravy.
A Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com