One potato, two potato…salad?

This time of year our thoughts turn to ‘hot day’ meals, My Mother’s Cookbooks provides plenty of options for summer meals but traditionally in this region it means potato salad…

Clon and Tom Murphy – brother immigrants from Ireland who settle in Miramichi NB – Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Family Heritage FB site.

The potato famine1 served to assure potatoes are associated with the Irish. Irish immigration to Canada began before the potato famine but the influence of the famine on immigration to North America, can’t be overstated.

Potatoes are by no means only eaten by the Irish. By 1840 England, Scotland, and France depended heavily on potatoes as a staple in their diet, but the situation in Ireland was different. Prior to 1845, Ireland experienced growth in population beyond the capacity of the country to produce sufficient food. Potatoes became the primary source of food for a large portion of the population, when the potato crop in Europe failed, the situation became dire.

Patrick Connors b. 1826 New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland and Theresa Kane Connors, b NB. C. 1906, Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Family Heritage FB site.

Atlantic Canada saw the first immigration of Irish beginning in the late 1700’s, by the 1830’s the booming timber industry attracted high numbers of Irish. There are many tales of young Irish lads being press ganged into service with the British navy, jumping ship in the first port of call. Reality is limited opportunities and food in Ireland, the promise of the booming timber industry, free or cheap passage in the empty holds of timber ships lured many a Irish lad, even whole families to immigrate. As a result of the early influx of Irish, the famine naturally brought others, by 1851 those of Irish heritage made up more than 30% of New Brunswick’s population.

Mary Catherine McNamee, born about 1825 in County Derry Ireland arrived in 1837, with family, a brother Francis and possibly others. In the 1851 census, Francis 34 years old, husband and father living in Carrolls Crossing, NB. He and Catherine 26 years old entered the country at the same time in 1837, land grant records show a William McNamee being granted land in Northumberland county in 1838. Later in 1852 Catherine would marry Maurice O’Donnell.

Home of Martin English and family. C1900 Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Family Heritage FB site.

Like many other Irish Catholic immigrants the McNamee’s settled where other Irish were already settled. Patrick O’Donnell would have favoured his son Maurice marrying a nice Irish Catholic girl. Patrick arrived in New Brunswick in 1820, married a protestant and lived in a largely protestant area but maintained his Roman Catholic tradition.

The Irish were generally not welcomed by the largely pre-loyalist, Loyalists and Scottish protestants settlers. Differences in religious affiliation, culture and circumstance served to create a period of disruption, one characterized by discrimination, harassment and conflict.

Miramichi Mill workers at Burchills Mill, c.1890 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Family FB site.

Irish settlements appeared across region, as Irish immigrants settled on available and largely less desirable land than earlier settlers. The transition was not an easy one, life in the timber camps was a distinct change from the largely farming life they had known in Ireland. But these families and communities grew, adapted and flourished, creating life in a new land for generations to come.

When exactly potatoes arrived in the region is not known, some credit the Scots2, others say the Irish served to bring them to Atlantic Canada. Regardless, potatoes arrived and became a staple in the diet of the region.

It seems the cool, damp climate of Atlantic Canada is just similar enough to the plant’s native climate in the Andes, for potatoes to do well. Potatoes would feed generations of New Brunswick families and become a major food crop, eventually becoming the significant industry of today in areas of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Because potatoes do well in the region, they were and are grown in household gardens. Catherine would have depended upon potatoes to feed her growing family. But it would be another woman of Irish ancestry, Esther Rebecca Brown O’Donnell, who would ultimately raise Catherine’s children. Sadly, Catherine’s life was brief, when she died in 1861, she left four young sons, William, James, Francis and Robert.

Catherine Hurley O’Donnell and her sons Frank and Phillip C. 1917 Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Family Heritage FB site.

By the mid 1800’s when Catherine and Esther were preparing meals for their families, potato salad was becoming increasingly popular. There are as many versions of potato salad as their are families, some made with mashed potatoes, others use diced; some contain peas or other vegetable; some salads are made with a vinaigrette dressing, others with creamy dressing. Potato salad made most in our house was made with homemade salad dressing, and tossed with mashed potato and other ingredients.

Miramichi descendants of Irish Settlers. C1930 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage FB site.

My Mother’s Cookbooks Homemade Potato Salad

Dressing Ingredients:
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp flour
1\4 cup + 2 Tbsp white vinegar
2 Tbsp water
2 eggs beaten
1/2 Tbsp butter
Dressing Method:
1) In a small bowl mix sugar, mustard, salt, flour and set aside;
2) Combine vinegar, water, beaten eggs and butter in a saucepan;
3) Bring to a boil over medium heat;
4) Slow add flour mixture, stir constantly to avoid lumps
5) Cook until it thickens.

Potato salad Ingredients:
2 pounds potatoes, peeled, boiled, mashed and allowed to cool;
4 hard boiled eggs, 3 diced, 1 sliced;
1/2 cup finely diced mild onion;
2 tsp of celery seed;
1 tsp salt;
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Potato salad Assembly:
1) Place cooled potatoes in a large bowl;
2) Add diced egg, onion, celery seed and seasoning to the bowl;
3) Mix to combine, transfer to a serving dish;
4) Garnish with sliced egg and paprika.

Gill Family residence, Miramichi, NB C.1910 Courtesy of the Our Miramichi Family Heritage FB site.

Explanation and Resources:
1. Potato famine – also known at the Great Hunger began about 1845, and lasted until about 1850, with infection of potato blight in potato crops across Europe. The blight caused the potatoes and plants to die and rot.
2. Prince Edward Island where potatoes have been grown since prior to 1805 attribute the introduction to Scots, who grew the first PEI potatoes. By 1805 potatoes were already becoming an important crop accounting for more than 15% of crops grown in PEI.
3. The Harvest of Prince Edward Island the Island potato. http://www.virtualmuseum.caedu/;jsessionid=943DF0CAA87B997576E475F2A022C7AA?method=preview&lang=EN&id=16533
4. Irish portal Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
5. New Brunswick Potatoes –


5 thoughts on “One potato, two potato…salad?

  1. An interesting History. Saint John was a major port for receiving the Irish during and after the potato famine. That is why there are so many Irish Catholic people in and around the city today.

    Thank you, Beth

    Keith L.

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I enjoy the history you are covering, particularly of the McNamee because of my roots. The potato salad was a regular summer dish for our family. Although I don’t have the ingredients memorized and have to look at the directions every time I make it your mothers sound similar. I love the mustardy tasting sauce that is added. It makes the salad so much better than salads purchased at a store. Keep it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The sauce sounds the same as the sauce my Mother would make for Salmon … We called it Homemade Mayonnaise …I always enjoy your stories & recipe’s …I grew up in Millerton .. Scotish & Irish ancestry ..I forward the stories to my Daughter & Granddaughter

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting and informative. Sounds exactly like my Mother’s potato salad, a summer picnic staple! Thank you for sharing this, I very much enjoyed it,

    Liked by 1 person

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