Joyce’s Ulysses and Potatoes

watercolour of potato by Eoin Mac Lochlainn

Not many people know this but the humble potato features in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes, and because of this, I’ve made a couple of ‘potato paintings’ for an exhibition which opens tonight at The Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin.  The show is entitled: ‘Olives, Oysters and Oranges’  and it concerns the semiotics of food in Ulysses.

So why potatoes?  Well, when Bloom sets off on his epic journey around Dublin on the 16th of June 1904, he checks first that he has his potato in his pocket.

“Potato I have”, he says.

Apparently, it holds some talismanic power for Bloom, as well as sentimental value (because it was given to him by his mother) but for me, it reminds me of the Great Hunger, the terrible famine which resulted from the failure of the potato harvest in Ireland in the 1840s.

watercolour of potato by Eoin Mac Lochlainn

I was in Louisburgh, Co. Mayo recently where the famine was particularly severe. In 1849, a rumour went around amongst the starving population that if people could walk to Delphi Lodge (about 20 kms away), they would be given food.

When they eventually got to Delphi Lodge, however, they were told that the gentry could not be disturbed while they were taking their lunch.

This story first came to light in a letter published in the Mayo Constitution of the 10th of April, 1849, signed by “a Ratepayer”.  It mentions a Colonel Hogrove, a member of the Board of Guardians (who administered Poor Relief in the area), and a Captain Primrose, the local Poor Law inspector. They had come to Louisburgh to interview those seeking relief.

watercolour of potato by Eoin Mac Lochlainn

But people came to the town from all around only to find that the two inspectors had headed south to Delphi, a hunting lodge then owned by the Marquess of Sligo. It seems that they had decided to enjoy ‘a spot of hunting’ first, and had given instructions for people to gather for inspection at Delphi instead.

In the end, the people were sent away empty-handed and most of them died on the journey back to Louisburgh. Several corpses were found by the side of the road with bits of grass in their mouths, such was their terrible hunger.

There is a monument to their memory at Doolough Pass. Every year since 1988 there has been a walk along this route in memory of those who died and also to highlight the starvation of the world’s poor to this day.

So, whatever about your oysters, your gorgonzola or your burnt kidneys… when Bloomsday comes around, it seems to me that maybe… yes, yes, the whole world has gone mad.

The James Joyce Centre


  1. Eoin , I thought your watercolours radical last night at the opening , both literally and metaphorically – meditations, profoundly thrumming below the range of a double base ; lunar , in their fearful epigenetic memory of Famine; forbidding , and tempting, at the same time, as all easy monocultures are . Nocturnes of violet and green , you have taken watercolour into the realm of Rothko here: comhgairdeas leat …………………….


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